EAGAN, Minn. — Adam Thielen has already set a career high with 93 receptions, and has two more catches through 11 games in 2018 than he had during a full season in 2017 when he was a Second-Team All-Pro selection.
Now the Vikings wide receiver is closing in on the century mark, as he is just seven catches away from 100. Thielen, who averages a hair over eight catches per game this season, could conceivably get there on Sunday against the Patriots.
Whenever Thielen reaches that feat, he’ll be the first Vikings player to do so since Randy Moss had 111 receptions in the 2003 season. Thielen’s childhood idol set his own career high in catches that season.
But if Thielen wants to get there on Sunday, he’ll face one of his toughest tests of the season whenever he is matched up against Stephon Gilmore.
The Patriots cornerback was a Pro Bowler in 2016 and is tied for the team lead with a pair of interceptions this season.
Gilmore faced Minnesota when he was with Buffalo in the 2014 season, but Thielen was a special teams standout back then who didn’t have any catches.
Thielen on Thursday delved into what makes Gilmore such a shutdown player.
“First time watching him on film, obviously preparing for him … but I’ve seen games of him when he was in Buffalo and then obviously when we were able to watch the Patriots,” Thielen said. “I think he’s just a really good football player because he’s smart, he’s fast, he’s got all the tools you need – he’s a big corner, he’s a fast corner, and he’s smart. What else can you ask for in a corner?
“It’s going to be a tough task, and we’re going to try to give it our best shot,” Thielen added.
Thielen has teamed with fellow wide receiver Stefon Diggs to be one of league’s top duos in 2018, as the pair has 172 combined catches for 1,928 yards and 14 total touchdowns.
But Diggs did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a knee injury, and it remains to be seen if he plays Sunday.
If Thielen ends up getting Gilmore on a consistent basis Sunday, it could be a matchup of two of the best players at their position going at it in New England.
“A guy that’s really physical. A guy that’s really physical and fast,” Vikings Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo said of Gilmore. “He locks down [the] number one [receiver] and does a great job of that.
“Gets up in your face, he’s not afraid to press, he can run with you, so we’re going to have to mix up some things to give him some different looks,” DeFilippo added.
Hello, old friend
For years, the Vikings employed one of the league’s best kick returners in Cordarrelle Patterson, a dynamic threat who had five kickoff returns for touchdowns during his four-year stint in Purple.
But Minnesota will now have to hope Patterson doesn’t produce a game-breaking play against them in his first game against the team that drafted him in 2013.
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer knows all too well about the threat that looms on the opposing sideline.
“We know what type of player he is. We know what type of attitude and effort and enthusiasm and energy he brings to the locker room, that he brings to the football team,” Priefer said. “I always told him that if he every left here and I ever had to coach against him, I was not going to be happy that week.
“But I think our guys are excited for the challenge. Anytime you coach against an opponent and you coach against an opponent that is that good, and he is the best in the business at what he does as a kickoff returner, your juices get flowing, your competitiveness juices get flowing a little bit,” Priefer added. “In that regard, we are excited. We are excited about the challenge and opportunity. I think we have a good plan, we just have to go out and execute and tackle better than we did a week ago and then we go from there.”
Patterson ranks second in the NFL with a kickoff return average of 30.9 yards and is one of three players across the league with a kickoff return for a score this season.
But the Patriots have also featured him on offense as well, as he has 13 catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns this season.
In recent weeks, New England has lined him up at running back. Patterson has 37 attempts for 156 yards and a score on the ground so far in 2018.
Patterson had 31 carries for 333 yards and four scores in his time with the Vikings.
“They’re doing really good with him,” said Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer. “Everybody knew Cordarrelle was an outstanding athlete, strong runner, great when he had the ball in his hands.
“We probably could have done a better job when we had him, after watching them,” Zimmer added.
Competitiveness helping Hill progress
Holton Hill has been thrown into the fire at times this season, as injuries to Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mike Hughes have forced the rookie to play roughly 20 percent of Minnesota’s defensive snaps in 2018.
The undrafted free agent out of Texas has played in all 11 games and has one start. He might be in line to make his second start Sunday against New England because of a hamstring injury to Xavier Rhodes, but Zimmer said Wednesday there is a “good chance” Rhodes will be in action.
But whether Hill has subbed in for a teammate for just a few plays or an entire game, he’s brought a mindset that no stage is too big for him.
“My confidence has always been a thing for me,” Hill said. “You can’t go out on the field and have any confidence if you don’t believe in yourself. It starts there.
“I believe in myself and ability,” Hill later added, “as far as getting an opportunity and making the best of it.”
Hill recorded his lone interception of the season in Week 7 on the road against the Jets. But he noted that as his role has grown, he’s still focused on mastering a defense that is much more complex than the one he ran in college.
“This is all new to me. I’m coming from a totally different system and learning a new one,” Hill said. “It was tough at first, but the more you take reps, the more you’re in the film room, the more you pay attention to certain things, the easier things get.”
Zimmer said he has liked what he’s seen from the 21-year-old in his first season in the league.
“He’s still learning obviously like most young guys are,” Zimmer said. “He’s got a lot of really good competitiveness.
“Obviously, he’s a really good athlete, and I think that the more, and more, and more he continues to learn about the game of football, because most of these guys when they come in as rookies, they don’t understand football,” Zimmer added. “A lot of them understand their position or they might understand the secondary, but they don’t understand football. So when you’re trying to take young guys and you’re trying to teach them about what offenses are trying to do, how they’re trying to attack you, how the defense is trying to combat that – all those things that really make a difference.”
For the Vikings: Diggs (knee), David Morgan (knee), Rhodes (hamstring) and Chad Beebe (hamstring) did not participate. Ben Gedeon (concussion), Mackensie Alexander (knee) and Thielen (calf) were limited. Mike Remmers (low back), Tom Compton (knee) and Eric Kendricks (chest) were full participants.
For the Patriots: Dwayne Allen (knee) did not participate. Tom Brady (knee), Rob Gronkowski (ankle/back) and Nate Ebner (knee) were limited. Julian Edelman (foot) was a full participant.