The Vikings haven’t played the Steelers since 2013, but the two men most responsible for stopping Antonio Brown on Sunday know the Steelers star very well.
There’s Mike Zimmer. The coach who spent six seasons in the AFC North, four defending Brown twice a year as the Bengals defensive coordinator. Seven matchups. Seven times Brown failed to eclipse 100 receiving yards against Zimmer’s defenses from 2010-2013.
But Pittsburgh has the edge in preparing for Sunday’s Vikings-Steelers matchup, claims Zimmer.
“I haven’t played them in a long time,” Zimmer said. “They probably have a bigger edge. They play Cincinnati, see their defense twice a year. They probably have an edge that way. A lot of their guys, I know their personnel. That’s about it.”
He knows Brown, the all-world shallow, middle and deep threat who caught all 11 targets for 182 receiving yards last week in the Steelers’ win in Cleveland.
“He’s pretty much the same guy,” Zimmer said.
Then there’s the Vikings top cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Both Brown and Rhodes attended Miami Norland High School, just a 20-minute drive north of downtown Miami. They each return home in the offseason, allowing the two Pro Bowlers to connect and practice.
Last year, Rhodes took part in a star-studded practice session with Brown, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry on a North Miami practice field.
“Every offseason we tend to find time to workout, hang out,” Rhodes said. “We try to find a field and work out together, but we have our own things we need to do. He’s a busy man. I’m a busy man.”
Rhodes said a game featuring at least two Miami-born NFL stars makes him “proud,” but overall he downplayed their matchup.
There’s no downplaying Rhodes’ importance in the Vikings’ plan for defending Brown. Zimmer has had Rhodes shadow an opponent’s top receiver in the past and Brown would certainly qualify. However, Brown does a lot of damage out of the slot, where Rhodes seldom travels and where the Vikings rotated 39-year-old veteran Terence Newman and second-year corner Mackensie Alexander in Week 1.
Rhodes defended Brown some when he was a rookie in 2013. The Vikings won the London game against the Steelers despite Brown’s 12 catches for 88 yards.
“He’s amazing,” Zimmer said of Brown. “Gets open, finds ways to get open. Tough. Gets the ball in space. He’s tough to tackle. He’s a big play waiting to happen.”