Vikings looking to target Rudolph in red zone

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The oversized oven mitts in Kyle Rudolph’s locker offer the amusing, continuing reminder of what the second-year tight end has become known for during his time with the Minnesota Vikings.

Rudolph’s big, strong hands have gained notoriety in his short tenure in Minnesota. The large white gloves he wears for practice and games have been likened to the Hamburger Helper oven mitt made famous in commercials, which is how those oven mitts made it to Rudolph’s locker. After a report in a Twin Cities newspaper, General Mills, a local company, sent Rudolph a gift box filled with the two mitts and a few boxes of the easy-to-make meal.

Rudolph is using those hands — described by quarterback and good friend Christian Ponder as “freakish” —  and his size (6-foot-6, 258 pounds) to feast on opposing defenses. Rudolph has hauled in two big touchdown catches this season while blanketed by defenders, proving even when he is covered, he still has an edge on defenders.

“His height is definitely an advantage,” Ponder said. “His ability to jump, he’s got long arms, he’s basically going to catch anything that’s close to him. So, I trust in that fact. If we have a mismatch on somebody, I’m putting it up and let him get it.”

And the two are connecting often this season, finally showing results from the rapport they built as rookies entering the league during the 2011 lockout. Rudolph’s four touchdowns lead Minnesota (4-1) and are tied for the third-highest total in the league. Rudolph, the Vikings’ second-round draft pick last season, is second on the team with 19 catches and 169 yards entering Sunday’s game at Washington.

Rudolph’s lack of use in his rookie season was puzzling, especially in the red zone because he had demonstrated his rare ability to win one-on-one matchups whether defended by safeties, linebackers or cornerbacks. Last season, he had one of the few offensive highlights for Minnesota when he snatched a pass from around the back of Denver Broncos safety Quinton Carter using those big, white gloves for his second of three touchdowns in his rookie year.

“When you’re covered one-on-one, you’re open in this league because it’s so hard for a defensive guy to make a play on the ball when he’s running with his back to the ball,” Rudolph said. “It’s something you see all the time in this league with quarterbacks making back-shoulder throws and stuff. I wouldn’t want to be on the defensive side; that’s tough. It’s hard to defend.”

In Week 3 this season, Ponder lofted a pass deep into the end zone for Rudolph, who was covered by safety Donte Whitner. Rudolph had to adjust while the ball was in flight, turning his body and snaring the sinking pass one-handed while falling down. Last week, Rudolph went up and fought off two defenders who were pulling on his arms as he hauled in another touchdown catch from Ponder.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgave and coach Leslie Frazier said Rudolph’s ability to use his length and leaping ability is just as important as the strength and size of his hands. Musgrave agreed there are times that Rudolph can be considered open, even when he’s covered.

“There’s some receivers like that, too, where they get their separation vertically rather than horizontally at times because of their size and their length,” Musgrave said, adding: “Kyle’s a quarterback’s best friend.”

Of course, Ponder and Rudolph had hit it off immediately last season, while having to navigate through their first NFL offseason unable to go to the team’s facilities because of the lockout. A friendship grew off the field and its transpiring on the field this year.

“I feel like that’s something we’ve built the last two years,” Rudolph said. “He understands that the worst that’s going to happen is I’m going to knock it down. I’ll make sure he doesn’t get hung out to dry and somebody else catches it, and I’m going to do my best to go up and get it.”

There could be more opportunities this week for the pair against a Redskins defense that has surrendered touchdowns to opposing tight ends in four of its five games. Opposing tight ends have averaged seven catches for 73.6 yards against Washington this season. Last week, the Redskins gave up 13 catches, 123 yards and a touchdown to Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.

Armed with a trust and belief in each other, Ponder will continue to look for those familiar white mitts.

“I trust him that even if it is a bad ball and a defender’s going to make a play, he’s so big that he’s going to knock it down and not let them catch the ball,” Ponder said. “We’ve seen it last year, the preseason and this year, he creates mismatches no matter how much covered he is and who’s covering him. We’re going to keep utilizing him and keep giving him the ball.”

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