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Bleacher Report – Vikings

A Gameplan to Stop Kelvin Benjamin

By Arif Hasan

kelvin-benjamin-spectacular-catch

Every week, we highlight an upcoming opponent—and specifically a player—that the Vikings will need to find a way to stop. Matthew Coller evaluated Kelvin Benjamin and concluded that Benjamin’s size, skills and versatility will make him a key component of the Panthers’ offensive gameplan.

He’s grabbed 21 targets over the last two games, and hauled in 13 of them for 199 yards—slightly over 36 percent of his team’s receiving yards. Add to that three touchdowns (currently league-leading) and you have a recipe for an impact player; especially one that could produce against the Denver Broncos.

How exactly should the Vikings deal with Benjamin? In some ways, he’s a similar weapon to Jordy Nelson—he’s a big body who doesn’t win with athleticism (at least until Jordy recovers more fully from injury), but has the appropriate technical skill to make up for it.

In other ways, he’s completely different. Nelson and Benjamin may both be big receivers, but Benjamin is big. Nelson is 6’2 and 5/8”, and weighed 217 pounds at the NFL combine. Benjamin is 6’5” and weighed 240 pounds at the NFL combine. He’s listed at 243 pounds with Carolina now, and may have added weight to supplement this already significant advantage.

Those two and a half inches, along with the 20 pounds represents a big problem. When Trae Waynes was bodied by Andre Johnson, it provided a small preview of what can happen when a 186-pound cornerback goes up against a receiver that outweighs him by 41 pounds.

But when Waynes may have to line up against one that outweighs him by 57 pounds, he could be overwhelmed.

How can the Vikings deal with Benjamin?

If Xavier Rhodes is healthy, their best bet is to shadow Benjamin with Rhodes. Mike Zimmer doesn’t like to have his cornerbacks shadow, but has been forced to by circumstance to use Rhodes that way against receivers like Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson.

Though Rhodes’ 2015 was not his best campaign, his breakout 2014 season included an incredible stretch of games—one of which had him match up against a rookie Kelvin Benjamin, a former teammate at Florida State. In that game, Benjamin was held to zero receptions on six targets when covered by Rhodes and grabbed five receptions of seven targets when covered by anyone else.

One of Rhodes’ most impressive plays on the day is below, where he’s lined up against Benjamin at the bottom of the screen:

kelvin-benjamin-xavier-rhodes-pd

This one isn’t too bad, either.

kelvin-benjamin-xavier-rhodes-pd-2

But some of the issues Benjamin had that day had nothing to do with Rhodes. He demonstrated a surprisingly small catch radius for someone with his physical frame—he’s not only 6’5” but he has 35” arms. That’s the same arm length as Alex Boone and T.J. Clemmings, players who have been lauded for their long arms for offensive linemen.

kelvin-benjamin-small-catch-radius

kelvin-benjamin-small-catch-radius-2

That’s not to say Rhodes played poorly on that second play—pushing Benjamin to the sideline is a big part of what made the throwing window small for Cam Newton—but Benjamin had difficulty pulling in a ball that better receivers typically have reeled in.

He’s improved on this part of his game since then, and has become a much more consistent and reliable target as a result.

kelvin-benjamin-improved-catch-radius

He’s also shown a consistent ability to retain catches through contact, and even the hitting abilities of players like Harrison Smith—who has dislodged caught passes from Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall—might not be enough to prevent Benjamin from making an impact.

kelvin-benjamin-catch-through-contact

Schematically, if Rhodes is back, there’s nothing more to do than line him up against Benjamin when he’s on the outside. There’s some risk that throwing in a cornerback who’s “cold” without a lot of practice or in-game play this year could be run off the field early on, but Rhodes, who weighs 30 pounds more than Waynes does, is much less likely to be pushed around.

He’s got height (6’2”), length (34” arms) and explosive capability to challenge Benjamin at the catch point. He’s a physical player, and though Benjamin is playing better against press coverage than he ever has before—using technical finesse moves, not just raw power—Rhodes should be able to disrupt the timing between he and Newton.

kelvin-benjamin-fights-press

Rhodes is a good deal more powerful than Jimmie Ward, and likely more technically skilled in press coverage. He won’t shut down Benjamin in the way he did last time, but he should get some good shots in and contain him.

Unfortunately, the Panthers have been lining up Benjamin everywhere. While it’s feasible for Rhodes to follow Benjamin to the left or the right, the Vikings will have issues if they ask Rhodes to play in the slot and deal with the two-way go.

Captain Munnerlyn isn’t a solution, either. He’s starting off his year well and building off of his excellent 2015, but even though he’s been fine against larger receivers, he likely won’t be able to do much against someone so mismatched as Benjamin. How should the Vikings deal with Benjamin in the slot?

Treat him like a tight end.

The Patriots in 2013 did an excellent job against Jimmy Graham when Graham was with the Saints in part by treating him like a receiver and assigning Aqib Talib to him throughout the game. Talib’s superior coverage skills overcame the physical matchup between the two and Graham was left without any receiving yards for the first time since he was a rookie in 2010.

The opposite might be the best solution here. Benjamin may have more advanced receiver skills than a tight end, with a more sophisticated route tree and better route-running, but that doesn’t mean the problem can’t be attacked as if the physical matchup can turn from a weakness to a strength.

Typically, this would mean lining up Harrison Smith over Benjamin whenever Benjamin decides to line up in the slot. That’s a fine matchup for the Vikings; Smith has improved dramatically in man coverage since arriving as a rookie, and it’s arguably a strength of his when before it was a clear weakness.

Smith is physical, has a good backpedal, and reads receivers well all while contesting the catch point.

The problem is that it takes Harrison away from the ball—the same problem that lining him up deep did when gameplanning against Jordy Nelson and the Packers. Smith is excellent in the box and the best blitzing defensive back in the NFL.

Given that any macro-level gameplan against the Panthers will revolve around keeping run discipline close to the box and blitzing Cam Newton on passing downs, limiting their defensive flexibility could hurt them over the course of the game.

Not only that, Smith doesn’t have the length to compete with Benjamin for true jump balls. He’s tall for a safety, and is nearly 6’2”, but a ball two-and-a-half feet above his head may be the exclusive real estate of Kelvin Benjamin. So, what to do on downs where the Vikings want to utilize Smith’s other abilities or downs where they think length may be important?

Why not Anthony Barr?

If you were to design a matchup player to play against Benjamin, you could not design a better player in Madden. Barr is also 6’5” and over 250 pounds. Not only that, he runs faster than Benjamin, plays with more agility and fluidity, has 33” arms, and jumps higher.

He’s not as polished a coverage player as Smith or Rhodes, so he could find himself at a loss if Benjamin consistently puts forth sophisticated route-running techniques, but for now Benjamin is an improved technician—not an elite one.

Not only that, Barr doesn’t need to play Benjamin in true man coverage, following him up the field as the play progresses. He could simply follow Benjamin around the field if he lines up in the slot and play a matchup zone; a coverage where he plays as if he’s a man coverage defender until the opposing receiver leaves his zone. The matchup zone can be productive:

anthony-barr-matchup-zone

The handoff to Harrison Smith or Andrew Sendejo would have to be pretty smooth, but it’s a coverage concept the Vikings have run for a long time under Mike Zimmer. Barr’s only role could be to jam Benjamin four yards into the route before releasing to spy Cam Newton.

Obviously, this exacerbates the negatives of having Harrison Smith be Benjamin’s slot defender—it pulls Barr out of the box where he’s been incredibly effective and it creates the secondary problem that he may be the best player to contain Newton if the MVP breaks the pocket.

Like the Smith plan, it would be one that’s probably best executed in rotation with other coverage plans. It also provides the perhaps unorthodox benefit of allowing Barr to blitz off a wide edge without tipping off the offense that he’s a likely rusher. It may, paradoxically, make him a better pass-rusher.

If the Vikings don’t have Rhodes healthy, they’ll likely stick to the left-right cornerback system they’ve been employing, and their response will be more schematic than it will be matchup-oriented. The Vikings should feel comfortable playing multiple coverage principles on passing downs that have one of two safeties deep with one rolled over Benjamin so that the cornerback can play trail coverage. Both Newman and Waynes have the kind of recovery speed that can make windows smaller than they appear.

Though Ted Ginn remains a deep threat that could threaten on the other side of the field no matter what, both Newman and Waynes are capable of keeping up with him in man coverage despite Newman’s obvious aging and Ginn’s incredible speed. That means even in situations where they want to drop another safety into the box and play Cover 1 or Cover 3, they should trust cornerbacks to handle Ginn will they consistently keep someone on top of Benjamin to challenge him physically.

Not only that, they should place an even higher priority on pressure. Threatening double-A gap blitz looks encourages Newton to check down and that in its own way can help contain the offense. Not only that, different types of pressure designs can flush quarterbacks in particular directions and influence the throw. The Vikings should keep that in mind when calling their pressure packages and attempt to move Newton’s eyes away from Benjamin.

Not only that, the leverage by which they line up will influence the kinds of routes that Benjamin runs. Though an imposing receiver, he’s still prone to being pushed to the sideline as a result of the alignment of the cornerback, and limiting that space forces Benjamin to catch at awkward body angles, something he still struggles with from time to time.

Without Rhodes, the Vikings would be in a much tougher spot, but they do have options.

Regardless, challenging Benjamin throughout the game will be a persistent problem that the Vikings will have to solve. This provides a small blueprint to one approach they may take, and it could be a good one.

The post A Gameplan to Stop Kelvin Benjamin appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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