EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was in college and still thinking about making it to the NFL, he knew there would be a strong challenge every week from opposing receivers.
Now that Rhodes, a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft out of Florida State, has had nearly two pro seasons of head-to-head competition, Rhodes has formed an opinion that Detroit's Calvin Johnson is the best of the best.
Johnson's "Megatron" nickname implies performance beyond human expectations, and his highlights have provided evidence as such. He missed the first meeting this season but is expected to play Sunday when Minnesota (6-7) visits the Lions (9-4) for a game that has been flex-scheduled to 3:25 p.m. (CT) on Fox.
"He is a great route-runner, he's able to go up and catch the ball, he's able to go up over guys and catch the ball, so you've got to do a good job of locating it," Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said. "They're moving him around within the formations and the different personnel groupings that they have. He's definitely someone that will keep you up during the week, just the different ways that they go about getting him the football."
Rhodes has gained familiarity with the four-time Pro Bowler who has been named All-Pro in each of the past three seasons.
"He attacks the ball when it's in the air," Rhodes said. "He's physical, he knows when to use his arm ability and his strength."
Consistently solid play by Rhodes this season has earned him some mentions in the conversation about the 2015 Pro Bowl (fans can vote for him here, voting ends Dec. 15). He is leading the team with 17 passes defensed, has 41 tackles and one interception this season, but focuses more on perfecting techniques than tabulating stats.
The third pass breakup delivered by Rhodes last week in Minnesota's 30-24 overtime victory over the New York Jets occurred with a dramatic diving extension to knock Geno Smith's pass away from Jeremy Kerley with 28 seconds left in regulation and force a game-tying 44-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
Detroit has supplemented Johnson's threat in the passing game with the addition of Golden Tate from Seattle through free agency. Tate leads the Lions with 84 catches on 121 targets for 1,186 yards this season, and Johnson has 57 receptions on 99 targets for 882 yards, despite missing three games because of injury.
"Tate is having a heck of a year for them this year," Edwards said. "So, from that aspect of it, our work is cut out for us. We're going to have to do a good job of pressuring the quarterback and being able to keep leverage on the routes down the field."
Johnson (6-foot-5, 236 pounds) and Tate (5-10, 195) contrast in body types and how they get their results, but have put up impressive numbers. Johnson has four games with 100 or more receiving yards, and Tate has five this season.
"Calvin's caught it in traffic, being able to jump and get guys," Edwards said. "People have doubled him, people have tripled him, and he's still been able to go up and get it. Tate, he fights for the ball, especially in the third downs. He does a great job in the route running, breaking in and out of routes. He does a good job of creating separation underneath. They've got two very competitive receivers that will pose a good challenge for us this weekend."
Rhodes and Vikings defenders helped limit Tate to seven catches for 44 yards on 12 targets in the teams' first meeting.
"I like every challenge each and every week," Rhodes said. "I'm going to play my game no matter who lines up each and every week."
IN THE RUNNING GAME: Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner said Thursday that he liked the way that Matt Asiata protected the ball and got the yardage that was available against the Jets. Asiata rushed 19 times for 54 yards, in helping Minnesota gain 114 yards on 28 rushes against a team that entered the game allowing 85.2 rushing yards per game. Turner said Asiata has built a "comfort level" with coaches since they began working with him in the fall.
"I think we know he's going to protect the ball, he does a great job with that," Turner said. "He did a great job to me in getting yards where there really wasn't a whole lot and protecting the ball when there was a free guy in the hole and I'm not saying the other guys won't do that, but in this circumstance, he was the right guy to have in there."
Turner and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said this week they will look for ways to increase opportunities for recent waiver claim Ben Tate III, who joined Minnesota Nov. 19, and Joe Banyard, who had his first carries of his career this season. Tate has eight carries for 30 yards, and Banyard has eight for 43 yards on the year.
"Ben has shown us that he's got good run ability, he's learning the offense, he's making fewer mistakes, he's getting better at protection," Turner said. "I don't think those are reasons he hasn't had more opportunities. I think we played the game the way we should have played it the other day against the Jets. I think we played the game we should have. We had 18 plays backed up inside our own 15. We had a number of short yardage, different situations where I think we had the right guy in the game.
"We do want Joe, and Coach said it the other day, we want to get Joe an opportunity to carry the ball, we'd like Ben to get an opportunity to carry the ball but the most important thing I want to do is we want to try to win the game," Turner added. "We want to make sure we help our offensive line, we had three backups in the game during the second half. I want to make sure we don't put them in a negative position with a real good pass-rush team against the Jets, obviously this team is better. How it plays out, we'll see how the game goes and we'd like to get those guys a couple more opportunities if it presents itself."
Detroit ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (62.8), and Turner said the Lions defensive front "is playing as well as anybody in the NFL right now, has been all year, really."
"This will be a real test for our guys," he added.
PARTICIPATION: For the Vikings: Robert Blanton (ankle/knee), Charlie Johnson (ankle), Sharrif Floyd (knee) and Anthony Barr (knee) did not participate Thursday. Jerome Felton (neck) and Everson Griffen (lower back) were limited. Harrison Smith (shoulder) and Jabari Price (hamstring) fully participated.
For the Lions: LB Josh Bynes (illness), DT Nick Fairley (knee) and DT Ndamukong Suh (illness) did not participate. RB Reggie Bush (ankle), LaAdrian Waddle (head), Darius Slay (shoulder) and Tahir Whitehead (shoulder) were limited. WR Calvin Johnson (ankle) fully participated.