When players start building a reputation, more eyes start focusing on them. That can be said about the Minnesota Vikings secondary, which is coming off two of the most dominating shut-down performances against opposing wide receivers that the Vikings have put together in years.
Can they make it three in a row?
That’s what makes the head-to-head assignments between Vikings cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Trae Waynes and Captain Munnerlyn going up against Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V this week’s key matchup.
The Vikings have due credit to give to all three levels of the defense for what the team has accomplished to date this season, but, by and large, there were no real big surprises at most of the positions.
With all things equal without further injury, the Vikings knew they had a dominant defensive tackle in Linval Joseph, a dominant defensive end in Everson Griffen and quality depth all along the line. They knew they had two of the better young linebackers in the league in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks. They knew they had an All-Pro safety in Harrison Smith.
They also knew they had talent and an investment in the cornerback spot. They used not one, but two first-round picks on cornerbacks (Rhodes and Waynes) and spent the first two years of the Mike Zimmer era adding veteran cornerback Zimmer was convinced would thrive in his system (Munnerlyn and Newman).
They knew they had the component parts in place, but how would the four of them function as a unit to propel the Vikings from a very good team to an elite team?
Rhodes missed the first two games of the season with a knee injury that struck during warmups prior to the regular season opener. Just as the Vikings have dealt with offensive adversity, losing their top cornerback nixed the original plan for the secondary.
In his absence, the key component of the cornerback Fab Four – Waynes – needed to step up. As a rookie, Waynes was used sparingly. He was full-time and prime-time the first two games. He over-performed expectations, while Newman and Munnerlyn did full-time duty.
In the two games since Rhodes has been back, he has been largely been assigned to the top receiver of an opponent. If you look at the stat sheet, it doesn’t look that impressive, yet it was.
Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers was Rhodes’ assignment in Week 3. Rhodes didn’t have a tackle. He didn’t need one. He blanketed Benjamin and Cam Newton only targeted him once and that pass was incomplete.
What the Vikings did last week against the Giants was more impressive. New York came into U.S. Bank Stadium with three legitimate receiving threats in Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz.
It wasn’t simply going to be Rhodes who needed to do his job. It was the combination of Newman, Waynes and Munnerlyn to take care of their job as well. The Vikings mixed and matched the three outside guys and Munnerlyn was replaced by Chad Greenway for only two plays in the defensive formations.
Eli Manning was willing to throw on every down and the Vikings responded defensively. In the process, Beckham had a career-low 23 yards receiving and made headlines for all the wrong reason.
The Texans will be just the opposite. Houston wants to run, which might have the base defense on the field more often than it has been since the Tennessee game (although the Texans also like to use three and four receivers).
Only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott has more rushing attempts (94) than Houston’s Lamar Miller (93). Since the days of Arian Foster being a young up-and-comer, Houston has run the ball like few others. Miller has never been a bell cow running back. In Miami, he was a featured back, but only averaged about 13 carries a game.
In Houston, that’s different. In four games, he has 93 carries (weekly totals of 28, 25, 21, 19 in that span) and the expectation is that he will be carrying a heavy load against the Vikings. As a result, there could be one less cornerback on the field Sunday for many plays – most likely Munnerlyn taking the biggest hit.
More times than not, the Vikings corners will be singled up on Hopkins and Fuller. Hopkins is an elite receiver who has been the passing centerpiece of the Texans’ offense since he arrived. He ran out Andre Johnson, no small feat for a legacy player like him. Hopkins is a playmaker who thrived despite a carousel of quarterbacks, each less talented than the one before.
By Hopkins standards, he isn’t having the type of start he has reached historically. He has 17 catches for 227 yards through four games. But, he is coming off his last game – vs. Tennessee – where he caught just one pass for four yards. He is angry, much like Beckham was angry last week. He wants the ball and Brock Osweiler will have to be convinced to make good on giving Hopkins the chance to shine.
Fuller has been the most dominant wide receiver in the rookie class of 2016. Houston flip-flopped picks with Washington in front of the Vikings to make sure they landed Fuller. They invested more than the rest to acquire a receiver they clearly coveted.
So far, so good.
Through four games, Fuller leads the team in receptions (19), yards (323) and average per catch (17.0 yards). Teams are now game-planning for Fuller.
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If Rhodes is assigned Hopkins, the combo platter of Newman and Waynes will be assigned Fuller. They may mix things up occasionally with Braxton Miller in the slot, but that will be the standard face-off when the ball is snapped.
The Vikings are playing dominant defensive football and, it can be argued, the two games in which they’ve had all four of their primary cornerbacks together are the ones in which they have thrived most.
Given how often the Vikings defense will be forced to stop the run – Houston doesn’t give up on the run often, even when they got their doors blown off by New England – the threat of the big play over the top will be what the Houston offense is hanging its hat on, making that chess game this week’s key matchup.