Whenever Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald comes home to his native Minnesota, he is hailed as one of the most talented pure athletes the state has produced.
Unfortunately for Minnesota Vikings fans, Fitzgerald has always come to town along with the enemy camp of the Cardinals. In his 13th NFL season, there is no questioning that Fitzgerald will make his last stop at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But, even at age 33, Fitzgerald is still playing at a dominating level. His 68 receptions are second in the NFL – only one behind league leader Antonio Brown of the Steelers.
However, Fitzgerald hasn’t had a wealth of success against the Vikings and he knows that Mike Zimmer is going to look to shut him down, and making his first trip to U.S. Bank Stadium won’t make his job any easier.
“They’re a top-three defense in the National Football League and the crowd noise and everything they do defensively, we’re going to have our hands full,” Fitzgerald said. “With the excellent personnel he has defensively, he’s one of the best play-callers in the game. He’s got a wealth of knowledge and does a great job breaking down his opponents and trying to neutralize what they do well. You couple that with an unbelievable amount of talent, we’ve got to be ready.”
Last year was the first time Mike Zimmer had to go up against the Cardinals as Minnesota’s head coach, and the Vikings limited Fitzgerald to five catches for 41 yards.
But Zimmer made a concerted effort to take Fitzgerald away from Arizona’s offense and he has a healthy respect for what Fitzgerald brings to the field, especially in terms of making the clutch catch – receptions that either pick up first downs of score touchdowns.
“He’s a great competitor,” Zimmer said. “He’s tough. He’s got great physicality. I’m amazed the number of times he goes in there and blocks and gets racked up and hit, all his stamina is great to be able to continue to play. He’s smart running routes. He’s nifty. He’s got great hands. I think he understands coverages. Obviously he must be a really smart guy. He knows when he’s getting doubled, when it’s zones, the subtle leans of which way to take DBs. He does all that good.”
For anyone on the outside, it’s easy to assess Fitzgerald’s career and his credentials for the Hall of Fame. Sunday will be his 196th career game – out of a potential 206. Since his rookie year, he has never caught fewer than 71 passes in a full season. He has five seasons with more than 1,400 receiving yards. When it appeared his career might be winding down at the end of the 2014 season, he responded with a career-high 109 receptions in 2015 with 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s on pace to catch 120 passes this year and surpass his yardage and touchdown numbers from last year.
But, like someone in the eye of the hurricane, he doesn’t pay much attention to his body of work over his career, other than being asked to respond when he surpasses another legend on the all-time receiving list.
“I don’t ever look at in the midst of it,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m in my 13th year. I’m well aware of that, but I never look at what I’ve accomplished. I’m still working to get better and chasing that elusive championship. There’s a lot for me still to work on and get better at. Whenever I watch myself, I see things that I can still improve on.”
What makes Fitzgerald unique is that, as great a receiver as he is, he is just as impressive as a blocker doing the dirty work. He lines up on the outside, but does his most damage as a giant slot receiver, because he can dominate smaller defenders to create throwing lanes for his quarterbacks.
For players like Vikings slot corner Captain Munnerlyn, the combination of skills that Fitzgerald brings to the field is a daunting combination.
“I pride myself as being a physical guy,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s just he’s so big. He’s a big guy who can go get the ball out of the air. He’s one of the best at body control. When the ball’s in the air, I feel like he’s one of the best at going and getting it. He runs great routes and has great hands. He is physical, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, his body control is off the charts.”
For a Vikings team that, like the Cardinals, doesn’t have the record it wanted or expected, Sunday’s game has a must-win feel to it for both teams.
Fitzgerald is going to bring his consummate talent to the table, but he is aware that the Vikings are capable of dominating games defensively, so it should be a case of strength of strength for two teams that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations and can’t take many more losses to achieve that goal.
“When you watch the Vikings, the defense comes to play and they make their plays week in and week out,” Fitzgerald said. “I haven’t really watched much of their offense. All I’ve seen is the defense. But they’ve got a great team and they’re going to be hungry.”