There are some matchups that seem relatively obvious when viewed from a distance and this week’s selection is one of those as the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers meet in an NFC North showdown at U.S. Bank Stadium. There is little questioning that Aaron Rodgers is one of best quarterbacks in the NFL, if not the best, and has a propensity for spreading the ball around. With the Vikings shorthanded in the secondary without No. 1 cornerback Xavier Rhodes, the play-by-play battles between Green Bay wide receivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams and Vikings cornerbacks Trae Waynes, Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn are this week’s Key Matchups.
Much in the same way Brett Favre built a reputation of developing receivers and getting them paid, Rodgers has been no exception.
All three of his top receivers were second-round draft picks taken in three-year increments that got passed over when the top college receivers of their draft class were selected – Nelson in 2008, Cobb in 2011 and Adams in 2014. All three of them were selected after Favre was gone. The onus was on Rodgers to help develop them into star-quality players.
Rodgers has done that.
Both Nelson and Cobb have earned big-money second contracts and, if he continues to develop, Adams will likely follow them sometime next year.
In the last three seasons that Nelson has played in all 16 games, his numbers have been more than impressive, totaling 251 catches for 4,096 yards and 36 touchdowns – gaudy numbers indeed. What makes it more impressive is that his reception and yardage numbers grew in each of those three seasons.
But, coming off a lost season in 2015 in which he tore an ACL in a non-contact practice injury, there is some skepticism if he can approach the 98 catches for 1,519 yards and 13 TDs he scored in 2014. In the opener against Jacksonville, he caught six passes and scored a touchdown, but gained just 32 yards (a 5.3-yard average) with a long reception of eight yards.
Cobb has been on a similar career track. In three seasons as a full-time starter, Cobb has caught 250 passes for 3,070 yards and 26 touchdowns – numbers often associated with a No. 1 receiver, not a No. 2 guy. But, without Nelson on the outside as the designated deep threat, Cobb’s numbers suffered – dropping from 91-1,287-12 in 2014 to 79-829-6 last season. He can play in the slot or on the outside and, if too much safety attention is paid to Nelson, Cobb can be just as deadly a threat.
Adams has taken the career path of many young receivers, starting with modest numbers, only to explode in his third season. As a rookie in 2014, in 16 games, he caught 38 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns. In 13 games in 2015, he caught 50 passes for 483 yards and one TD – not the kind of numbers that draw a lot of attention. But those who know the cycle of wide receivers in the NFL realize the first two years are often a precursor to bigger and better things in their third season.
Adams posted the best numbers of the Big Three Green Bay receivers in the season opener. He caught just three passes but gained 50 yards, including an acrobatic 29-yard touchdown.
Any of them are capable of making the big play that can continue a drive or deliver the dagger in the heart of an opponent. With the Vikings without Rhodes, who was sidelined with a knee injury prior to the start of the regular-season opener, whatever plan the Vikings had with their cornerbacks was decided for them.
Waynes was on the field for all 67 defensive plays in Week 1 and Newman was on the field for all but two plays. Considering that the original plan was expected to have Waynes and Newman split time in the opener, the Rhodes injury scuttled that. Munnerlyn, the team’s slot corner, was on the field for 38 plays (57 percent of the snaps) because the Titans were putting out personnel that required Munnerlyn to replace linebacker Chad Greenway.
Each of the three Vikings cornerbacks are going to be locked up with the three Packers receivers. They will likely be mixed and matched, with Cobb and Adams each spending time in the slot, which will likely draw Munnerlyn one on one.
Neither Nelson nor Cobb were able to get deep consistently for big gains against Jacksonville. Aside from one 32-yard catch and run by Cobb, the two combined for 11 receptions for just 57 yards.
It is expected that the Vikings are going to be dialing up pressure on Rodgers to keep him from being to extend plays, but it was clear in Week 1 that the Titans were targeting Waynes, who finished the game with a team-high 10 tackles. It is safe to assume that Rodgers – a far superior quarterback to young Marcus Mariota – will test Waynes early and often Sunday night.
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The Vikings were able to shut down Rodgers and his receivers in the division-clinching win at Lambeau Field last season. Cobb and Adams combined to catch 10 passes for just 91 yards. With Nelson back, it will be a daunting challenge to meet those kinds of low numbers.
The key to winning and losing Sunday night is going to be the extent to which the Vikings can contain Rodgers and keep him from having the time to throw to his Big Three receivers. Much of that challenge will fall on the Big Three Vikings cornerbacks, which is why this will likely be the game-determining matchup.