The Vikings’ situation at nickel cornerback is evolving.
Whatever strategy Mike Zimmer employs Sunday in Pittsburgh, he’ll need all four (or maybe five?) of his cornerbacks ready against Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, who leads the league with 182 receiving yards after just one game.
“They like to move him around to get him the ball,” said cornerback Tramaine Brock. “He’s a part of the offense you’ve got to stop.”
That was the case in Cleveland, except the Browns didn’t exactly stop Brown. A shallow, middle and deep threat, the All-Pro caught all 11 of his targets — not including a 15-yard grab wiped out by penalty — as he worked a different Browns defender on nearly every catch. From all over the formation, inside or outside, Brown was often a wide-open target for Ben Roethlisberger.
“He’s amazing,” Zimmer said of Brown. “Gets open, finds ways to get open. Tough. Gets the ball in space. He’s tough to tackle. He’s a big play waiting to happen.”
The Vikings played a four-cornerback rotation against the Saints. Against Brown, they hold a pretty solid trump card in cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who shouldn’t surprise you if he flips sides of the field to follow Brown.
That’s if Brown lines up outside. From the inside, where Rhodes doesn’t often travel, is where Brown did most of his damage in Cleveland. Nearly 100 of his yards, 99 to be exact, came from routes starting inside the Steelers’ formation.
That’s where the Vikings could have either Terence Newman, the 39-year-old stalwart, or second-year corner Mackensie Alexander holding down the coverage. The Vikings started Alexander, a 2016 second-round pick, as the slot corner throughout the preseason, but Zimmer eventually turned back to Newman for the start of the season. Newman led the way and Alexander rotated into the game against the Saints.
“It’s a lot less running if you ask me,” Newman said of playing nickel corner. “I’m no spring chicken. I can still run, but it’s a lot less running. I love that part of it.”
Nickel corner is also a more nuanced position to learn, according to Brock, who said he told Vikings coaches this week he’s ready to play Sunday, but only as an outside cornerback.
The Vikings acquired Brock, the 29-year-old veteran, from Seattle for depth and potentially another option inside. The trade only happened two weeks ago, so Brock said he wouldn’t yet be comfortable with playing nickel while still learning the calls and checks he’d need to know at the position.
“I’m not going to say it’s confusing, but it’s more complicated than [outside] corner,” Brock said. “As far as the verbiage and different stuff like that. The communication with the safeties and linebackers, it’s just different. It’s going to take time.”
At least in Week 1, the Steelers liked to closely stack Brown — a slippery 5-foot-10, 186-pound technician — next to another Steelers receiver. The strategy allows for unpredictable releases between the two receivers, sometimes using the other receiver to “pick” a defender, or get in his way, to give Brown even more room off the line of scrimmage.
Even when Pittsburgh leaves Brown alone, his footwork, body control and suddenness make for a defensive back’s nightmare.
“He does a great job with his releases,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Whether a guy is pressed or whether a guy is off, he’s shown the ability to create space in the opening 5 yards.”
Brown is used both as the inside and outside receiver of those stacked Steelers formations. So Rhodes should still see plenty of his fellow Miami-born buddy. Brown and Rhodes reconnect every offseason for workout sessions when both Miami Norland High School graduates travel home.
“We’re just going to be happy going against each other and proud of each other making it this far,” Rhodes said. “We’re going to be proud of being able to line up against each other.”
Well, that’s when the Steelers don’t try to get Brown away from Rhodes’ long reach.