20 years ago, the Minnesota Vikings featured arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver duo at the time: Randy Moss and Cris Carter. During the 1998 regular season, the rookie and the veteran combined for 147 catches, 2,324 receiving yards, and 29 touchdown catches, and played an enormous role on the league’s number one scoring offense — one that would reach the NFC title game but fall short of a Super Bowl berth.
Fast forward to today and both Moss and Carter are long gone and in the Hall of Fame. However, Minnesota is once more the home to one of the NFL’s most productive pair of wide receivers: Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. So far during the regular season, the two have combined for 172 catches, 1,928 receiving yards, and 14 touchdown catches. Just like Moss and Carter did, they play a big role in their team’s success.
And just like they did versus the two all-time greats, opposing defenses have a hard time stopping Thielen and Diggs this season. On Sunday, the New England Patriots are the next to try and do that, and head coach Bill Belichick knows just how difficult of a challenge this will be for his defense. “They’re a tough matchup,” Belichick said earlier this week about the two wideouts. “They complement each other well.”
But how do the problems the Vikings’ prolific duo causes actually look like? During a press conference call on Tuesday, Belichick listed all the ways in which they put pressure on defenses. Spoiler alert: there are a lot. “They make a lot of big plays,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “They make a lot of big plays down the field, which is a problem but then they make a lot of intermediate and catch-and-run plays.”
“Especially Diggs, he’s very good with the ball in his hands,” Belichick continued. “[Diggs and Thielen] are usually on the field at the same time. A lot of times they’re on the field with a third receiver, but if there are only two receivers on the field it’s usually those two, and they create a lot of problems for you.” New England’s head coach seems especially impressed with Thielen, who leads Minnesota in every major receiving category.
The 28-year old has caught 93 passes so far this season for 1,138 yards and eight touchdowns. Safe to say that the Patriots’ defense will have its hands full against him. “He does everything well,” Belichick said about Thielen. “He’s got good size. He can get to a lot of balls with his length. He has very good hands. He’s quick for a taller player. His length and the radius that he can catch the ball in is good.”
“He has the hands to extend and catch it, but for a taller guy he’s quick and he’s able to create separation,” Belichick continued. “He’s a tough matchup for a smaller corner in terms of size and he’s a tough matchup for a bigger corner in terms of the quickness that he has. He’s also a good runner after the catch so he can take a shorter pass and turn it into a sizeable gain with his size and running ability after the catch.”
“Even if you have the right size matchup, his quickness and his technique and route running are very good,” Belichick said. “It’s unusual to see guys 6’2.5”, 6’3” in there that can do that as well as he can and also go outside. He’s made plenty of plays on the perimeter, too. He challenges you with vertical routes and then, as you said, when you get him inside he’s got the ability to go inside or outside or across. You just have a lot of space to defend.”
The NFL’s best head coach was still not done. “He plays inside, he plays outside, they move him around,” Belichick pointed out. “He’s got good size and he can cover up defenders with his big frame and create mismatches in the running game, too.” Safe to say that Thielen, just like Diggs, poses a major problem for a Patriots defense that has had its fair share of ups and downs so far this season.
However, the cornerback play has been a bright spot with Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty serving as the top duo at the position. On Sunday, New England will likely use one of them on Thielen — likely Gilmore considering his height and physicality in press-man coverage — with the other trying to slow down Diggs (who might be slowed down to begin with considering that he is dealing with a hamstring injury). But no matter how the Patriots opt to play them, the team will need to bring its A-game against the two talented pass catchers.
“It’s a tough matchup,” Belichick said. The Patriots, of course, are no strangers to tough matchups this season. They have played the Kansas City Chiefs. They have played the Houston Texans. They have played the Chicago Bears — and they have been successful against all three of which. In order to defeat a Vikings team that is also currently in the playoff picture, finding ways to slow down Thielen and Diggs is imperative.