Veteran NFL coaches have always had something of a problem with putting too much weight on the shoulders of a rookie. Former Vikings coach Bud Grant never started a rookie until Sammy White burst on the season in the mid-1970s, and most coaches look simply to avoid it all costs.
However, with the salaries paid to top draft choices now, the need to get them into the lineup immediately has become a more pressing issue. Along with that, injuries factor in. To that end, the Vikings are going to be forced to use rookie Marcus McCauley a lot Sunday night. Even if Antoine Winfield suits up Sunday – and that is a big "if" at this point since he hasn't practiced all week – McCauley is going to spend much of his night locked on to Santana Moss of Washington, making this the Matchup to Watch this week.
Moss has been an enigma in the NFL. He has alternated monster seasons with injury-plagued campaigns and, just as he begins to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the top wide receivers in the league, he gets knocked down a peg due to injury. He has missed two games to injury and his production has been held in check – just 49 catches for 622 yards and one touchdown for a player who just two years ago had 84 catches for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns.
In 2005, Moss had 24 catches for 20 yards or more and 60 of his 84 receptions turned into first downs. This year, he has just seven catches of 20 yards or more and has the lowest average per reception (12.7 yards) of his career. But that isn't to say that he isn't still a dynamic player who can beat a team deep.
The most perplexing number of all as it pertains to Moss is the number one – that's how many touchdown receptions he has this season. For as explosive as Moss can be, his TD numbers are also at a career low. With the Redskins needing a boost from one of its playmakers, the matchup of Moss on McCauley would appear to be one that the Washington coaching staff will look to exploit.
In his defense, McCauley has held up extremely well in replacing Winfield. He has started four games in Winfield's place this season and, if he starts Sunday, it would be his fifth in the last eight games. He has shown flashes of why he was viewed as a late-first round prospect heading into his senior season at Fresno State in 2007 and has held up well. But that shouldn't matter to an old-school coach like Joe Gibbs, who can smell blood in the water when he sees players that he deems are either too young or too old. Whether they succeed or not, you can bet the Redskins are going to target McCauley often Sunday in hopes of catching him in a misstep or misread of the play design.
With as much as is at stake in Sunday's game, the Redskins will look for any advantage they can find and they will view the matchup of Moss on McCauley as a mismatch in their favor. To the extent McCauley can limit what Moss does to hurt the Vikings defense will go a long way to determining whose season is in full launch mode toward the playoffs and which team is treading water with little to no hope – making this the Matchup to Watch this week.