Of all the offensive talent that will be on the field Sunday when the Minnesota Vikings meet the Chicago Bears, there is one that will likely stand out much more than others. It won’t involve the obvious players – Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Stephon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery or Martellus Bennett.
No, this week’s key matchup will involve two of the smallest players on the field – both of whom may have the biggest impact on how well Chicago’s offense can perform against the Vikings defense – when Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn squares off with Chicago wide receiver Eddie Royal.
Munnerlyn has been having a big season with the Vikings, back full time in his most effective position in the slot. He has spent much of his career going up against players who are bigger than him and he developed something of Napoleon Complex.
Fortunately for Munnerlyn, he and Royal will be seeing more eye to eye – with Munnerlyn checking in at a generous 5-foot-9, 195 pounds and Royal checking in at 5-10, 185. In an era of big receivers, this matchup of mighty mites will be important to both teams and Munnerlyn is fired up about winning his one-on-one battle.
“That’s the guy that I’ll be on and I’m excited for the opportunity to go out there and compete,” Munnerlyn said. “I don’t think he’s that much bigger than me, so we’ll have a pretty good competition going on. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
This is Royal’s first season with the Bears after spending his first seven seasons with Denver and San Diego. Royal may be a relative stranger to the Vikings defense, but he’s no stranger to Munnerlyn.
They’ve crossed paths before and have had their battles, especially on third downs when routes are designed to spring him quickly. After taking on players to which he’s giving away six inches and 20-30 pounds, he’s excited about the prospect of going against a player who he doesn’t have to stand on his tiptoes in order to get in his face.
“I’ve played against him before and he’s a tough player who likes to go out there and compete,” Munnerlyn said. “The guy is my size. It seems like I always want to go out there and play the bigger guys just to go out there and prove to people I can do it. With the smaller guys, I have to bring my ‘A’ game. They’re shiftier and they get in and out of cuts a whole lot easier than some of those big guys. I definitely have to have my eyes on my keys, and when he’s my guy in coverage I have to cover him up.”
That won’t be an easy task. Royal has quickly become a safety-valve target for Cutler. In his last four games, Royal has been targeted seven or more times in three of those games and has caught at least five passes in all of those games. He isn’t a deep downfield threat. His job is to sustain drives and set up deep shots down field for players like Jeffery or Bennett. He is a mucker – a guy who does the dirty work, takes on slot corners one on one and moves the chains to sustain drives.
If Munnerlyn can shut down Royal, he will take away one of the quiet keys to success for Chicago’s offense – a role that is still developing for him and one that has only been increasing in recent weeks.
Munnerlyn is up for the challenge because he feels he is playing some of the best football of his professional career and is counting down the hours until he gets his chance to shine again and help the Vikings improve to 5-2 and make a statement that they are a playoff team to be reckoned with.
“Football is fun again,” Munnerlyn said. “When you’re going out there competing, making plays and you’re winning games – that’s the key – when you’re winning games everybody is happy. I’m having fun again. I’m competing and I feel like I’m playing at a high level.”
There will be a lot more spotlight matchups that will pit the offensive stars of both teams – the defensive front sevens up against Peterson and Forte, the comparative battle between Bridgewater and Cutler and the battle between Jeffery and Xavier Rhodes to name a few. But when all is said and done the biggest battle may well be who wins the third-down competition between Royal and Munnerlyn.