EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Standout size and huge hands led the Minnesota Vikings to rave about their second-year tight end Kyle Rudolph and mention how he could be thrown the ball even when he’s seemingly covered.
Early this season, they seemed right as all 6-foot-6, 256 pounds of Rudolph was among the league leaders in receiving touchdowns and a key threat in the red zone. Lately, however — perhaps not coincidentally as the Vikings’ passing game has faltered — covering Rudolph has led to stopping him.
Rudolph, who’s second on the team with 27 catches for 242 yards and five touchdowns, has just two receptions the past three games and has been held without a catch in two of those games. His blocking has improved to the point where he is credited with helping running back Adrian Peterson have three straight 100-yard games, but Minnesota knows it needs to get its big tight end catching the ball.
“We believe in order for our offense to be effective in the passing game, we need to have him involved more so than we have of late,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “Not just in the red zone. We always try to target him in the red zone, and people are doing everything they can to take him away. We need to find a way to uncover him in regular downs in a series as well.”
The Vikings (5-4) face a crucial stretch with four straight NFC North games beginning this week at home against the Detroit Lions (4-4) and could be without leading receiver Percy Harvin, who has more than double Rudolph’s reception total.
Rudolph says he hasn’t seen different coverages or approaches from opposing defense since his strong start this season but added he needs to do more to make himself available to quarterback Christian Ponder.
“I have to do a better job of providing a target for Christian, whether it’s crossing routes or intermediate quick routes,” Rudolph said. “The biggest thing is getting separation at the top. Throughout the course of the game a person can watch and see, ‘Oh, you’re open there.’ But it’s always about the timing of the separation, and we need to get back on that same page of having the separation at the right time.”
Minnesota has made a concerted effort to evaluate its struggling passing offense this week and has looked at changing routes to get receivers open. With tight end John Carlson returning from a concussion, the Vikings and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have their preferred pass-catching options for two-tight end offensive sets.
“We had high hopes,” Musgrave said of using Rudolph and Carlson together. “I think we can still realize those. I think it’s going to come to fruition,so we’ll get that started this week if we can get him back out there, which we expect to.”
And Rudolph says he’s still comfortable catching the ball, even when he’s covered.
“One hundred percent comfortable,” Rudolph said. “That’s why a tight end is your best friend. We’re big, and we have a large catch radius, so it doesn’t have to be a perfect throw. That’s the part where you’ve just got to have trust in us that, ‘Even if I don’t make a perfect throw, he’s going to get it. He’s not going to let anything happen where a DB might get his hands on it.'”
Vikings switch defensive ends on practice squad: Minnesota signed third-year defensive end George Johnson to the practice squad on Friday, waiving defensive end Ernest Owusu to make room.
Owusu, who’s been on and off the practice squad six times in the past six weeks, lasted two days on the practice squad this time around.
Johnson, 24, was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Nov. 1 after appearing in five games as a backup this season and making five assisted tackles. He was undrafted out of Rutgers in 2011 and played in four games last year before finishing the season on injured reserve.