There's reason to dread the dreads

  • Article by: DAN WIEDERER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2011 - 7:07 AM

Standout Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald is known for his long locks and giving opposing defenses fits.

Without question, Vikings defensive coordinator Fred Pagac and defensive backs coach Joe Woods already have their comprehensive Larry Fitzgerald film package edited, a horror film of sorts for their secondary to watch on a loop this week.

In truth, the package need only feature two plays.

Want to see the danger in trying to handle Arizona's $120 million superstar with single coverage? Rewind to the fourth quarter of Arizona's Week 2 game at Washington and notice how helpless Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall appears with no safety help as Fitzgerald streaks past him to snatch a 73-yard Kevin Kolb touchdown pass.

OK. Makes sense then. The best way to limit Fitzgerald would be with frequent double coverage, right?

Only that doesn't always work either. Take a look at Fitzgerald's other touchdown grab this season, this one from Arizona's Week 3 loss in Seattle. That's when Kolb, under intense pressure and backpedaling wildly, threw an ill-advised lollipop into the end zone.

And that's where Fitzgerald, despite having both cornerback Brandon Browner and free safety Earl Thomas in perfect position in front of him, leapt and stole the 12-yard Hail Mary for a go-ahead touchdown.

"That was a busted play, to be totally honest with you," Fitzgerald said. "That's a play that probably 70 percent of the time in an incompletion or a turnover. But that's called clean living right there."

No wonder Vikings defensive backs are so on edge this week, with Fitzgerald's jersey number, seared into their minds.

Said safety Jamarca Sanford: "You better know where No. 11 is at all times. That's their big playmaker. And he knows how to go and get the ball when it comes his way."

The whole package

As the Vikings seek their first victory of 2011 on Sunday at Mall of America Field, the defense's ability to contain Fitzgerald will be the top priority, a straightforward task with a high degree of difficulty, especially considering cornerback Antoine Winfield missed Wednesday's practice with a neck strain.

Fitzgerald remains one of the most polished route runners in the NFL. He has 636 career catches, 8,565 yards and 67 touchdowns to prove it. On top of that, he's strong and agile and consistently frustrates opposing secondaries with his 6-3, 218-pound frame.

"He's going to get his catches," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. "What we have to do, which every team tries to do, is limit the explosion plays and not allow him to have plays over the top of your defense."

That leaves the Vikings with decisions to make, needing to develop a game plan that allows them to double-cover and bracket Fitzgerald often but in the most efficient manner possible.

That's been the blueprint for at least slowing Fitzgerald the past two seasons. In 2010, for example, without Anquan Boldin across the way to keep defenses honest and with a carousel of mediocre quarterbacks throwing him the ball, Fitzgerald had a pedestrian season -- by his standards anyway. He averaged 5.6 catches and 71 yards per game with a career-low six touchdowns.

All that double coverage, Fitzgerald admits, has presented challenges.

"It's just being patient and waiting for my opportunities," he said. "Understanding that you will get your shots. It might not always be when your number's called. You're not always going to get the ball. But when you do get your favorable looks, you need to take advantage."

On the rise

Now, with Kolb emerging as a consistent playmaker -- or at least a significant upgrade over Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Max Hall -- Fitzgerald's stock is again on the rise. Plus, the Cardinals have found creative ways to deal with all the attention opposing secondaries pay him.

Often that means sending Fitzgerald in motion to loosen coverage. Occasionally, it calls for quick-hit passes that allow Fitzgerald to get the ball before a second defender arrives.

Still, no matter how disciplined Vikings defensive backs are in blanketing Fitzgerald on Sunday, they understand the reality.

"Coach Frazier always tells us the game can be won on one or two plays," Sanford said. "You may be in on 60 other plays and it's that one play you make or miss that determines whether you win or lose."

Cornerback Cedric Griffin needs no reminders. In Week 3 at home, Griffin seemed to have Lions receiver Calvin Johnson locked down on the fourth play of overtime. Only Johnson showed a yogi's flexibility in adjusting to Matthew Stafford's bomb and his highlight reel 40-yard reception set up Detroit's game-winning field goal.

Last week, Griffin's fourth-quarter stumble on a hitch-and-go route by Dwayne Bowe resulted in a 52-yard insurance touchdown for the Chiefs.

Now, Griffin and the Vikings have Fitzgerald coming back to Minneapolis and itching for a win. Not just to snap the Cardinals' three-game slide.

"Hey, I've never won in Minnesota before," Fitzgerald said.

The Vikings would love to keep it that way.


    Noon Sunday vs. Arizona Mall of America Field • TV: Ch. 9

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