Covering Minnesota's Eric Decker: An Attempt at the Impossible?

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Covering Minnesota's Eric Decker: An Attempt at the Impossible?
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

If I was coaching against the Minnesota Golden Gophers this fall, my scouting report would be all of three words long.

No color-coded booklet.

No bullet points.

No Xs and Os.

Just three words.

STOP ERIC DECKER.

So easy to write, yet (apparently) so impossible to accomplish.

It really doesn't seem like rocket science.  

"See that No. 7 in the gold/white/maroon jersey?  Don't let him catch the ball."

Sure thing, Coach.

On Saturday against California, the Gophers' top target caught eight passes for 119 yards.  That's more receiving yards than the rest of the team had.  Combined.  

Oh, and Decker had two touchdown catches—including one fade where the star was so wide open he had time to sign autographs on his way to the end zone if he wanted to. 

And that was the second touchdown.  Don't you think after the first one that the Cal cornerbacks should have been a tad more focused on keeping tabs on Mr. Decker?

How does Minnesota's best player get so wide open?  (Has every defensive coordinator missed the memo on which Gopher is really, really, really important to slow down?)

According to Decker's coach, Tim Brewster, the answer is pride.

"He may be the most prideful, tough young man that I've ever been around in coaching," Brewster said.  "It's really important to him to compete and to play well, and that's why [he manages to work himself free] every game."

Of course, having Decker's roommate, Adam Weber, throwing the passes doesn't hurt, either.

"They've got a real chemistry about each other," said Brewster of his quarterback-wide receiver combination.  "They just understand each other so well."  

One example, Brewster said, was a certain play against California where Decker wanted to do something different and was able to get Weber's attention with a signal.  When thrower and catcher are constantly on the same page, good things will happen.

Even with a great tandem, however, the Gophers' coaching staff constantly has to scheme new ways to ensure that their star wideout is able to get his hands on the football.  On Saturday, that meant letting Decker take a handoff and do the throwing for once.

The result? Touchdown Gophers.  Not that anyone was surprised.  

Expect the Minnesota coaching staff to continue to explore creative options for getting Decker involved.

"One of the things that we did in the National Football League when I coached was script plays for our playmakers," Brewster explained to me.  "So each and every week, we have a script of plays in which Eric Decker's going to touch the ball, and by formation, motion, and shift, we try to create opportunities for him.

"We spend a good deal of time each week figuring out exactly how we want to incorporate Eric into the game plan.  Obviously he's a big part of it every week."

There's the understatement of the year.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, whose Wildcats get the unenviable task of trying to contain Decker this weekend, is among the impressed.

"Decker's again one of the best in the conference, if not the country," said Fitzgerald.   "They're doing a good job of getting the ball to their weapons."

So is there any way to guard the unguardable?  To stop the unstoppable?

Borrowing from The Sound of Music, "how do you solve a problem like Eric Decker?"

It's going to take more than a great cornerback.  Decker's eyes must light up every time he sees single coverage.

It's going to take more than a hard hit.  Did you see the blow Decker took on his first touchdown catch?  Some players might not have gotten back up.  Decker got back up and kept catching passes.

If an opponent wants to stop Eric Decker, they're going to have to double or triple-team him.

And you know what? I would.

The Gophers' senior star has 27 catches so far this season.  He's averaging 138 receiving yards a game.

No one else on the roster has more than 10 catches—or even 100 yards total.

Memo to Big Ten coaches: start your defensive scheme with two cornerbacks covering Eric Decker. Every single snap.

So what if it sounds crazy?  Get the Gophers out of their comfort zone.  

Make them prove they can run the ball.  Make them prove they're not one-dimensional.  Put simply, make someone else beat you.

If fellow wideouts Troy Stoudermire or Brandon Green explode for a ten-catch game, more power to them.

The alternative is Weber and Decker playing pitch and catch for sixty easy minutes each weekend.  Why not try to take away the man with the most catches in Minnesota history?

Remember these numbers, because they'll only get bigger.  Eric Decker has 415 receiving yards so far in 2009.  The rest of the Minnesota team: only 285.  Eric Decker already has 27 catches, almost half of the team's total.  Eric Decker has caught as many touchdowns as the rest of the Gophers players put together.

I'm ready to see what Minnesota's Plan B is when an opposing coaching staff finally decides to put as many players on Decker as it takes.

Who knows if we ever will, though?  Coaches love being conventional.  Face it: there's less criticism that way.

And hey, the nationally-ranked Bears managed to escape Minneapolis with a win despite Decker's big day.  So maybe teams will choose that blueprint instead.  

But I don't recommend it.  When you hand the other team's star nine catches and 135 yards a game, winning won't be easy.  Ever.

"It's going to be a great challenge for our defense," Northwestern's Fitzgerald said of Saturday's looming showdown with the Gophers.  

You're probably right, Fitz.

Especially if you single-cover Eric Decker.

 

This article is also featured on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football. 

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