In the first matchup this season between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints, the Vikings only had Xavier Rhodes shadowing Michael Thomas for part of the game. Marshon Lattimore, the Saints’ outstanding rookie corner, was playing his first regular season game as one of eight new starters for New Orleans on defense.
The two teams have morphed in a number of ways throughout the season, but of all the changes both clubs have made between the Vikings’ Week 1 win and their NFC divisional playoff matchup this weekend, the way each team uses its top cover corner could be one of the more significant moves this weekend.
The Vikings asked Rhodes to follow one receiver across the field in each of their next three games after the Saints win, and did it a total of 10 times this season, according to Pro Football Focus (only Arizona’s Patrick Peterson did it more often). And as the Saints grew more comfortable with Lattimore, they asked him to spend more time assigned to one receiver. Starting with former New Orleans receiver Brandin Cooks in Week 2, Lattimore shadowed a receiver six times in the regular season, including in each of the Saints’ last four regular-season games. Rhodes only allowed two touchdown passes while he was shadowing receivers this season, while Lattimore finished the regular season limiting Mike Evans to two catches for 25 yards on five targets.
New Orleans lines Thomas up on the left side of its formation 48 percent of the time, according to PFF, meaning Rhodes will see plenty of Thomas even if he stays at right cornerback. The Vikings haven’t been shy about asking Rhodes to follow receivers, even putting him in the slot on five percent of his snaps this year. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if they deem Thomas — who caught eight passes for 131 yards last week and had 54 catches for 700 yards in the second half of the regular season — worthy of Rhodes’ complete attention, especially given the timing he’s shown with quarterback Drew Brees on back-shoulder routes in recent weeks.
The Saints’ decision with Lattimore could be more fascinating, given the Vikings’ ability to move both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen all over the field. Both receivers played at least 20 percent of their snaps in three different spots this season; Thielen, who lined up in the slot 52 percent of the time this season, could be harder for Lattimore to follow than Diggs, who was only in the slot 24 percent of the time.
Whatever each team decides to do, the matchups involving Rhodes and Lattimore are worth watching this weekend. The Vikings are trying to curtail an offense that’s learned how to employ its weapons around Drew Brees since Week 1; the Saints are hoping they won’t suffer from the broken coverages that could help Case Keenum burn them downfield the way Sam Bradford did in September. In a rematch where much has changed, the strategy involving shutdown corners makes for an interesting subplot.