LARRY FITZGERALD VS. VIKINGS CORNERBACKS
There are few wide receivers in the league capable of striking the fear into opponents that Larry Fitzgerald can. After spending years in the shadows of great receivers like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison, Fitzgerald moved into the spotlight as the greatest wide receiver in the league last year, punctuated by a monster postseason. As the Vikings look to win their fifth road game of the season, his battle with the Vikings cornerbacks will be this week's key matchup.
There is little questioning Fitzgerald's ability to change games. Even the best wide receivers in the league are capable of being shut down when constantly double-teamed – which most teams do with Fitzgerald – but he has been able to put up a track record of consistency that few players in the history of the league could match.
Over his last three full seasons, his reception totals have been 103-100-96, his yardage totals have been 1,409-1,409-1,431 and his touchdown totals have been 10-10-12. In those three seasons (he missed all or part of four games in 2006), he has scored at least one touchdown in 28 of the 47 games he has played, has five or more receptions in 36 of those games and topped 100 yards 18 times – with five more games of 93-99 yards. But perhaps at no time in his career was Fitzgerald's dominance more on display than during the Cardinals' Super Bowl run last year. In four games against some of the league's top defenses – Atlanta, Carolina, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – Fitzgerald caught an amazing 30 passes for 546 yards (topping 100 yards in each game) and scored seven touchdowns. If there was any question of his dominance, he answered any and all of his critics and ended the debate.
On a team that has given much more of a commitment to running the ball this season, through 11 games Fitzgerald is third in the NFL with 75 receptions, 12th in yardage with 826 yards and tied for the league lead in touchdown receptions with nine. He has never caught fewer than four passes in any game and has six or more catches in eight games. While he has just two 100-yard games this season (low by his standards), he has 70 or more yards in eight of 11 games and has scored at least one touchdown in seven games. If there is a deadlier wide receiver in the league right now, it's hard to find.
The problem with defending Fitzgerald is picking your poison. The Cardinals have two stellar wide receivers living in Fitzgerald's shadow – Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Teams that opt to double-cover Fitzgerald leave the other two in single coverage and quarterback Kurt Warner is adept at finding the open receiver and making defenses pay for it.
The primary objective of cornerbacks Antoine Winfield (if he returns this week), Cedric Griffin, Karl Paymah and Benny Sapp will be containing Fitzgerald. Although he hasn't caught a touchdown in his two games against the Vikings, he has caught 16 passes for 225 yards. The Vikings defenders have no delusions of shutting him down, but keeping him from making the huge plays he has become famous for is the primary objective.
"You know he's going to catch passes," Paymah said. "He always does. But the key for us is going to be keeping him in front of us, taking short passes and not letting him get behind us for big plays. With a player as talented as he is, you try to just minimize what he does, because you know he's going to get his chances."
In last year's 35-14 rout of the Cardinals by the Vikings at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Vikings sent a message to the rest of the league that they were a team to be reckoned with and, in the process, limited Fitzgerald to five catches for 54 yards. If they can do that again Sunday night, their odds of improving to 11-1 go up exponentially, making this the matchup to watch this week.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: Fitzgerald vs. the corners
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