The spotlight fixated on one matchup, but Captain Munnerlyn found himself in the crosshairs.
Trailing 24-10, the Giants' last real hope came at the Vikings' 41-yard line in the middle of the fourth quarter. Eli Manning's longest completion to a receiver had traveled only 10 yards at that point. And because of the two-deep safety call, one respecting Odell Beckham Jr. and his fellow deep threats, Munnerlyn knew he wouldn't have much help in the middle to cover Sterling Shepard.
That's where Manning wanted to throw on first down.
"I had to learn the hard way playing against Aaron Rodgers," Munnerlyn recalled. "I was playing 2-man [coverage, Randall] Cobb comes off and he's bending. I'm in his hip pocket a little bit and Aaron Rodgers throws it out front. He makes the catch and I'm like man, what can I do? We say you got to get even."
Manning would turn away from Munnerlyn and sail a hurried deep pass over the head of Beckham, a whimpering ninth and final target of an otherwise emotional meeting with Xavier Rhodes and the Vikings' second-ranked scoring defense.
Rhodes, Munnerlyn and company won the nationally-televised night with tight coverage, a varied approach by head coach and defensive play caller Mike Zimmer and a front that prevented Manning from trying many deep throws. The Giants' game leader in receptions was a running back. Their leader in receiving yards was another running back.
Praise has rightfully been heaped onto Rhodes, who had a deflection and interception while successfully shadowing and toying with Beckham for nearly all of his 45 snaps. Though Beckham was just one of three receiving threats, including Shepard and Victor Cruz, whom the Vikings held to a combined 12 receptions for 103 yards and an interception on 25 targets.
Let's start at the Vikings' 41-yard line in the fourth quarter.
The Giants lined up three receivers for all but two snaps of the game. On this first down, the play called for a traditional two deep safeties and man-to-man coverage from the cornerbacks. The Vikings deployed a mixture of man and zone coverages throughout, but used this look on the back end regularly with different defenders as a deep "safety." The weak spot, as Munnerlyn (24) points out, can be the middle of the two safeties.
"It seemed like every time we showed 2-high [coverage], seemed like their first read was looking at the nickel," Munnerlyn said. "See if he's in position to make the play. I knew with Shepard running that deep, I knew I had to get in the window. Because I really don't, there's no middle field help. The safety is on the outside. I really had to carry my guy and be more hip to hip than trailing. If I trail, he can catch it."
Munnerlyn turns toward Shepard and follows him stride for stride down the field, forcing Manning off his first read to Shepard and eventually toward the right sideline on a hurried pass over the helmet of Beckham (13) covered on the outside by Terence Newman (23).
"As you can see, I'm even with him," Munnerlyn said. And he didn't throw the ball my way. He's looking right my way, too."
On one of the game's first third downs, the Vikings deploy an inverted two-deep coverage with Rhodes (29) dropping back and safety Harrison Smith breaking off to cover Beckham underneath. Defenders disguise their intentions as Munnerlyn,Smith (22) and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks crowd the line of scrimmage before the snap.
"I'm trying to show Eli like we're blitzing from my side," Munnerlyn said. "The safety showing in the middle of the field like we're in an all-out blitz and leaving everybody hanging, but we're really not. We're just showing some different looks. We're actually playing a form of 2-man with the safety being underneath and the corner in the half."
The Vikings appear to double Beckham with Rhodes and Smith, but Rhodes is actually pressed up to the line before the snap to hide the fact he's in charge of the area 15 yards and more behind him. The corners begin to shift, Rhodes back and Newman up, just before the snap, at which point Smith turns around and darts toward Beckham. The coverage was nothing special, Munnerlyn said, though it allows two of their biggest defensive backs to blanket the Giants' top target. Manning dumped the pass off to tight end Will Tye for three yards.
"We were just showing different looks," Munnerlyn said. "If we was playing Tennessee, we ran that coverage against them. It's just the coverage we run. Try to show quarterbacks, try to confuse them and force them into a bad play."
The Vikings' defensive tells aren't easy for quarterbacks to spot because they play into expectations. A snap after Rhodes rammed Beckham out of bounds and was pulled off by defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, the Vikings defense faced a third-and-11 in the second quarter. They paid no extra attention to Beckham aside from having Newman shadow him in lieu of Rhodes. And their pre-snap deception continued away from the line of scrimmage as Munnerlyn tracked the motioning receiver across the formation, even though that wasn't his assignment.
"Trying to show Eli a different look like we're playing man-to-man coverage," Munnerlyn said. "Nine times out of 10, when they motion a guy over they're trying to see if the nickel is running with him. If the nickel is running with him, they think it's a man call."
Before the snap, Munnerlyn (24) begins creeping backward toward his back half of the field. Though Manning has two vertical routes on the outsides and an apparent single-high safety in Andrew Sendejo (34), he checks down to Shepard, lined up across from Munnerlyn, on the crossing route on third-and-11.
Pressure from the zone blitz may have contributed to the quick throw as Anthony Barr (55) and Smith (22) rush off left tackle. Shepard is tackled a yard short of the first down marker by Newman (23), who has coverage responsibility of any receivers entering his shallow side of the field.
"Most teams do crossing routes to beat man coverage," Munnerlyn said. "It's tough to run over and get lined back up and have a guy go underneath you, it's tough to cover.The hardest route in the NFL, to me, is the over route, especially playing in the nickel position. So I'm thinking Eli's thinking we're in man-to-man coverage until I dropped back. He's thinking this guy is going to be scot-free, but we're playing like a cover 2 and Terence come up and bam, we get off the field on third down."