If Jacksonville's Corners Can Slow the Colts, So Can the Vikings

Photo credit: Douglas DeFelice (USA TODAY Sports)

If only we could all be as confident as Cameron Dantzler, whose shaky rookie debut was headlined by a 45-yard touchdown grab in coverage against Marquez Valdes-Scantling. “We’re gonna bounce back, without a doubt,” he said after the Minnesota Vikings Week 1 loss. “We’ll put this game behind us, getting ready for Indianapolis.”

The cornerbacks were not successful by any stretch of the imagination on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. But the calendar rolls on, and there are 15 more games to play. So what can we expect from these corners next week?

The matchup against the Packers and the upcoming game against the Indianapolis Colts have a few things in common. Both teams have an established star wide receiver and a stable of unproven, yet promising youngsters. Both teams have veteran quarterbacks who have seen their fair share of Zimmer defenses. But unlike Green Bay, Indianapolis experienced a debacle of their own in Jacksonville.

Part of the Colts’ struggle to put away a Jaguars team that many thought were tanking comes down to the wide receivers. T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, rookie Michael Pittman, Jr. and Zach Pascal were a core that plenty were high on, but they found themselves limited by Tre Herndon, rookie C.J. Henderson, and the rest of the untested Jaguars secondary.

Herndon is an undrafted cornerback out of Vanderbilt who made the Jaguars in 2018 as a rookie and started for most of 2019. In that year, he earned a 54.1 coverage grade from PFF. So he makes a reasonable proxy to examine what happens when an unreliable cornerback plays the Colts. On Sunday, he mostly matched up against Hilton and Pascal.

Herndon was targeted six times, allowing three catches for 27 yards and a touchdown. Eight of those yards and the touchdown came on a Nyheim Hines screen for which several Jaguars were responsible. Against Pascal and Hilton specifically, he allowed one of two targets for 12 yards.

The Jaguars also featured a cornerback in his first NFL start, albeit a first-round talent instead of a third-round talent. Henderson took the left side, and the other half of the Hilton-Pascal rotation. Against those two, he allowed three of seven targets to be caught for a total of 31 yards. Most came on a 20-yard Hilton deep out. Henderson also held Pittman Jr. to a paltry 10 yards on the day in his coverage.

The most pessimistic evaluation of the Vikings’ corners would compare them to Herndon and Henderson, an unproven rookie and a third-year undrafted player who has been unable to produce starting-quality play. Even if Dantzler’s rib injury sidelines him for this game, an unproven Jeff Gladney would take over, and putting him in the same category as Henderson, Herndon and Dantzler is unlikely to overestimate him.

There is concern in the slot, however. Mike Hughes had struggles of his own inside. D.J. Hayden, a former first-round pick who outplayed Hughes in 2019 by a solid margin, struggled mightily against mostly Campbell.

A huge portion of the Colts’ production in Week 1 came from running back passes. Marlon Mack, Hines and Jonathan Taylor combined for a perfect 17/17 for 142 yards, including the aforementioned Hines touchdown. A similar gameplan, one Philip Rivers has always favored, would put the game in the hands of Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, not the cornerbacks. As a matchup, that’s much more favorable to the Vikings.

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