Luke Inman contributed to this story.
After a week of practice that saw starting corner Trae Waynes limited due to injury and then absent for personal reasons, Mike Hughes knew there was a 50/50 chance he’d start against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night.
What he couldn’t have anticipated was that he’d be targeted 17 times by Dak Prescott, the most times any cornerback has been targeted since Philadelphia’s Jalen Mills in Week 3 of 2017 against Eli Manning and the Giants.
It was a long night for Hughes, who played a career-high 65 snaps, most of them against star wideout Amari Cooper. The former first-round pick was charged with allowing 11 receptions, 154 yards, nine first downs and one touchdown, per Pro Football Focus. The sting of that stat line was eased a bit, though, by Minnesota’s 28-24 win.
“Those guys get paid too,” Hughes said of Dallas’s receivers after the victory, “so like I said, you’ve got to tip your hats off to them. Our job is just to go out there and compete, play within the scheme and just try to have fun. They made some great catches, and we’ve just got to live with them. Next play.”
Dallas’s receivers deserved the credit. Cooper gained 45 yards on three tiptoe sideline catches, each one seemingly more absurd than the last. “He caught some that may have been outside the white a couple times,” head coach Mike Zimmer said, referring to the paint on the sideline.
Cooper might have also gotten away with a pushoff on Hughes before his highlight-reel touchdown catch.
On Cooper’s first catch along the sideline, Hughes seemed to lose track of the ball and the receiver as Cooper made a remarkable falling-away grab.
But Hughes can be forgiven for not stopping a handful of passes that were thrown out of bounds and reeled in by one of the game’s best receivers. The rest of the yardage against him, however, was more concerning. Take Cooper’s second catch of the game, where Hughes fell down on Cooper’s curl route, giving up 14 yards. “Anytime you come off of a big knee surgery, there probably is going to be a little slow coming along, getting back comfortable, moving around, getting in and out of cuts,” said safety Anthony Harris.
Cooper also converted another 15-yard curl on the Cowboys’ second drive.
Hughes also struggled against in-cutting slants and posts, which Zimmer pointed out on Monday.
“There were times he wasn’t tight enough,” said Zimmer. “There’s some times technique-wise that he could have been better. He opened up a little bit too much and let the receiver run, but he was in position most of the night.”
Hughes gave up two of those in-breaking catches to Cooper on Dallas’s penultimate drive, which stalled 11 yards from a go-ahead touchdown.
Cooper’s final catch (below) set the Cowboys up with a 2nd and 2 in the red zone, at which point Jason Garrett abandoned the pass for two plays and gave the Vikings defense a gift. (On Dallas’s fourth-down failure on this drive, Harris doubled Cooper to assist Hughes.)
Earlier in the game, Hughes allowed this 25-yard post to Michael Gallup on 3rd and 6, which he compounded by missing the tackle. This play started Prescott’s ridiculous stretch of long third-down conversions, which became a theme for the night as Dallas converted 9 of 15.
It wasn’t all terrible for Hughes, who did have a part in six incompletions after all.
Here, he has a great contest on Gallup in the fourth quarter. Hughes’ timing on contested plays continues to be impressive. He doesn’t have a penalty charged to him yet this year, though two were called and declined.
In the first half, he played a tight press on Cooper, causing him to fall for an incompletion on a 2nd and 5.
How about some tackling? Hughes made this terrific open-field solo tackle on Ezekiel Elliott, who was shut down all evening.
Speaking of physicality, Hughes broke up this pass to Randall Cobb by leading with the shoulder and jarring the ball loose without drawing a flag.
There’s good and bad in the highlight below. The good? Excellent press coverage on Cooper. The bad? A gimme interception that bounced off Hughes’ hands. “I’ve got to get back in the lab, work on my hands, man,” he said. “Should have at least four picks by now.”
As the cliche goes, performances are rarely as good as they seem or as bad as they seem, which applies upon a rewatch of Hughes’ outing. There was plenty to pick apart from the cornerback’s game but also some encouraging displays of physicality and coverage. He’s also not much more than a year removed from tearing his ACL. With Trae Waynes’ return seemingly around the corner, Hughes should find himself back in a rotational role.
The head coach was also more positive after watching the film, voicing his support for Hughes on Monday.
“Honestly, the guy (Cooper) made a bunch of great catches and they made some really good throws,” Zimmer said. “So when I looked at the pass defense things, there was a couple things that weren’t very good, but for the most part, we were in the right place. They made the plays and we didn’t.”