Less than three hours until the NFL’s trade deadline on Tuesday, Detroit shipped Golden Tate off to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Vikings discovered they could delete the part of their game plan that centered of how to limit the yard-after-catch monster, the team’s leading receiver and the favorite target of Matthew Stafford.
“It’s difficult, but we just prepare,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “If a guy gets hurt during the game, you kind of have your secondary plans and things like that going on.”
Really, Tate’s departure should make Minnesota’s job easier scheming for its last-place division rival.
The Vikings remember how difficult it was to contain Tate on Nov. 6, 2016, when he caught the go-ahead touchdown pass down the sideline in overtime while Xavier Rhodes hurled his body at the receiver and Harrison Smith let Tate slip out of his grasp. Tate then tiptoed down the sideline and dove into the end zone.
Over the years, Tate has presented a difficult matchup for Minnesota’s defensive backs. Since entering the NFL in 2010, the former Notre Dame receiver is second in yards after catch with 3,749, according to ESPN Stats and Information data, trailing only Antonio Brown (3,755).
“I was surprised about that,” Rhodes said of Tate being traded. “That was the main guy on third downs. He was great yards after catch, one of the best ... And it was pretty surprising. I was pretty surprised by that. It was one those situations where, like, let me check my phone."
Tate caught 44 of 69 targets for 517 yards and three touchdowns during the first half of the season. While the Lions rely on Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. as deep, stretch-the-field threats, Stafford is moving on without his favorite short-yardage target. Finding ways to make up the yards the Lions generated after Tate caught the ball could be a challenge. TJ Jones is likely who will replace Tate in the slot, though he has only caught three passes this season.
The receiver matchups aren’t the only thing that will appear different for the Vikings when they host the Lions on Sunday. At no point since Zimmer took over in Minnesota have the Lions ranked higher than 28th in rushing, including a last-place run game in 2017. On Thanksgiving Day, the Vikings' run defense held Detroit to 53 yards on the ground and one rushing first down.
The Lions placed heavy emphasis during the draft on turning around the run by addressing their offensive line initially, drafting center-turned-guard Frank Ragnow 20th overall and selecting running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round. Much had been made about the Lions finally getting a 100-yard rushing performance when Johnson ended a 70-game drought that dated back to 2013 with a 101-yard effort against the New England Patriots on Sept. 23.
While Detroit’s run game has been inconsistent at best, Johnson’s presence has changed what the Vikings will have to prepare for.
“I think they’re more committed to running the football, number one,” Zimmer said. “He has been running the ball extremely effective. I’m not sure it’s changed the run game all that much. There is a lot of similar runs they’ve had in the past, but they’re much more effective at it.”
Sunday will mark Zimmer’s ninth time going against Stafford, who owns a 5-3 record against the Vikings in that time. Minnesota defenders know Stafford’s “dangerous” tendencies well, including his ability to improvise outside of the pocket, orchestrate a fourth-quarter comeback and deliver the ball wherever he wants downfield.
The Vikings open a four-week stretch of division opponents that includes a bye sandwiched in at Week 10. These games are critical when it comes to how the division will be decided and even beyond that in determining Minnesota's playoff chances. The first step in asserting a grasp on the NFC North begins with facing a quarterback Zimmer finds to be even more difficult to scheme against.
“I think one of the areas he’s gotten better at is the red zone,” Zimmer said of Stafford. “He had thrown a lot of turnovers in the red zone in the past. He’s taking good care of the football now. As far as arm strength and things like that where you notice with quarterbacks is typically their arm strength doesn’t change that much or athletic ability doesn’t change. There was a corner blitz the other day that he wasn’t looking at and he ended up throwing to sight to the X-receiver against Miami, and so those kind of things they tend to see more and react to it quicker.”