Stopping Michael Thomas might be impossible.
The New Orleans Saints All-Pro receiver set an NFL record with 149 receptions during the regular season, good for a league-leading 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns.
Throw after throw from quarterback Drew Brees — Thomas was targeted 185 times — establishes one certainty for the Vikings defense during Sunday’s NFC wild-card game in New Orleans: Thomas will get the ball.
Vikings coaches and defenders have tried to find a way to defend Thomas this week at TCO Performance Center, where Vikings veteran Adam Thielen admitted he has stolen tips from Thomas with the appreciation of another high-caliber receiver.
“It’s always fun to see how defenses defend him,” Thielen said, “and he’s still able to do what he does.”
Among the “all kinds of problems” Mike Zimmer said he had game planning this week are the absences of two of his slot cornerbacks: Mackensie Alexander (knee) and Mike Hughes (neck) were ruled out Friday because of injuries.
Even when healthy, the Vikings’ uncharacteristically porous pass defense surrendered 53 completions of at least 20 yards, the most in Zimmer’s six seasons. There’s been improvement, according to Zimmer, since devoting the Week 12 bye to correcting coverage issues. But cornerback Xavier Rhodes is no longer the All-Pro pick who shadowed Thomas during two 2017 matchups.
Rhodes had been part of the Vikings’ cornerback rotation with Hughes and will now return to a full-time role against the Saints.
“It’s been a long season for us as DBs, especially me,” Rhodes said. “We’re just going to continue to play our ball and have the mind-set of getting better and continuing to build the confidence, not only with me but with the secondary so we can play free, play hard and play fast and not think too much. Coaches have been on us, but they can only do and say so much. When we get between those lines, it’s up to us.”
Rhodes said he’s focused on the “physical” mind-set required to match Thomas.
“One of his great assets is strength at the line of scrimmage,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said on a conference call with Twin Cities reporters. “We’ve added pieces, and Jared Cook is now opposite Mike and [running back] Alvin [Kamara] is back healthy. You’ve got other places to go with the football if the coverage is doubled that way or leaned toward Mike, and I’m sure that’ll happen in this game.”
The nuances in Thomas’ game, allowing the 6-3 receiver to glide past defensive backs, intrigue Thielen.
“The way he does things in the slot and the outside,” Thielen said. “Some of his releases, some of the things he does at the top of the route. His body control, things like that. He does so many things well.”
The Saints counter extra attention on Thomas by moving him inside of formations and off the line of scrimmage, where he’s harder to press, according to Payton. Only seven NFL receivers caught more passes than Thomas (52) from the slot, where the Vikings are now vulnerable.
Jayron Kearse, a fourth-year safety who declined an interview request Friday, could be the next slot defender up.
“We’ll find a way,” Zimmer said.
The Superdome marks a crossroads, where a loss may be the final game for a Vikings secondary with four expiring contracts in cornerback Trae Waynes, Alexander and safeties Anthony Harris and Kearse. Another question for the front office is Rhodes, the 29-year-old former Pro Bowler coming off two uneven seasons. He has three years left under contract, but no guaranteed money and a $12.9 million cap hit next year. The Vikings could approach Rhodes’ representatives about a restructured deal or cut him.
“I ain’t thinking about that,” Rhodes said. “I’m just playing ball. Whatever happens — happens, whether they want me here or they don’t. If they do, I’m here.”