Marcus McCauley is entering just his second game as a professional football player. There was no questioning his talent his first three years at Fresno State. His final season, as a player and as part of a team, was an unmitigated disaster – which led in large part to him falling from a first-round talent down to the Vikings in the third round. That being said, thanks to a bizarre and some would say borderline insane offense run by Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the battle between McCauley and Lions' the big wide receivers is this week's Matchup to Watch.
Martz is known as a Dr. Frankenstein of offensive scheming. It has been said that his playbook is more than 300 pages, which includes as many as six variations off the same formation and a multitude of check-offs and instant decision-making required of the quarterback, the offensive line and the receivers. Most of the passes in this system are quick-hitting timing routes that require precision and often little more than a two- or three-step drop before the ball is released. That is where McCauley comes into play.
The Lions know the Vikings can stymie the run. In two games last year, starting running back Kevin Jones had 19 carries against the Vikings run defense and gained just five yards. But, in the Martz offense, the mantra is "No Run Game? No Problem." The Lions base offense often employs three receivers and many times four wide receivers. The protection for the QB is minimal so holding the ball very long isn't an option.
The Lions have two of the best young receivers in the league in Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. It is expected that Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield will be locked on them when the Lions only have two receivers in the game, but when McCauley enters the game, Winfield slides inside and leaves the rookie to handle the bigger receivers on the outside. In reality, many of the defensive backs will face different receivers throughout the afternoon. But McCauley, as the Vikings' third cornerback, will take on Williams and Johnson multiple times throughout the game. The problem with both of them is their size and speed.
The big loser in this scenario is likely going to be Ben Leber. With so many three- and four-receiver sets, it will be almost impossible for the Vikings to play three linebackers on a regular basis. The standard defensive alignment most teams are going to use against the Lions is a 4-2-5 that will have just two linebackers – in the case of the Vikings E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway – on the field at any given time.
With weapons like Williams and Johnson, it would be natural to think that they're getting the most attention – which they are. But McCauley will likely be left on an island with them at times and it will be up to him to make sure that QB Jon Kitna doesn't get comfortable going after him.
If anything is going to be a barometer on this game, it will be the battle between McCauley and the receivers he faces. If he fails more often than not, the Lions will likely win, but if McCauley can withstand the challenge from the offense, the advantage goes to Minnesota – making this the Matchup to Watch Sunday.