Some wide receivers can burn defenses with speed. Others can make nearly impossible catches because they possess great hands. And of course there are the tall receivers who can out-leap defensive backs and grab jump balls.
But if there’s one receiver in the NFL today that exemplifies the old “SportsCenter” cliche that “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him,” it’s Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. He can go down the field, make circus grabs and, at 6 feet 3 inches, it’s hard to find defenders to match up against him.
Which begs the question for the Washington Redskins: How do you stop Fitzgerald in Sunday’s game?
“Obviously, that’s still out there, because he’s still going out here and making plays,” Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson said. “You just got to make sure you stay on top of your game when you’re checking him.”
Wilson’s right about one thing: A fool-proof solution hasn’t been discovered yet.
In seven full pro seasons, Fitzgerald has gone beyond the 1,000-yard mark five times, including during 2008 when he gained 1,431 yards and caught 12 touchdowns. He had three catches for 62 yards in Arizona’s Week 1 win over the Carolina Panthers.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett used a safety and cornerback to bracket Hakeem Nicks, the New York Giants’ top receiver, in the Redskins’ victory on Sunday. That’s an option again this week, but even double coverage isn’t guaranteed to stop Fitzgerald because of how he attacks the ball in traffic.
“He doesn’t panic,” Haslett said. “He can go up and get the deep ball. Balls are thrown in a tight window and he goes and gets [them]. He’s fast and he runs great routes. It’s fun to watch him on film. I don’t want to play against him, but he’s fun to watch on film.”
Wilson’s idea to keep Fitzgerald from hurting the Redskins involves just not letting him catch the ball. But that’s easier said than done.
“This guy knows how to play the ball and knows how to snatch it up out of the air,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
Some defensive backs are put in the unenviable position of trying to defend Fitzgerald on their own. That’s a play-to-play situation, but game-planning to limit Fitzgerald’s impact is a team effort that centers on Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb.
“The best way to stop a great receiver and a great quarterback is the pass rush,” Redskins safety Oshiomogho Atogwe said. “So I’m going to tell [Brian] Orakpo and [Ryan] Kerrigan and Barry [Cofield] ‘Get after them,’ because if the quarterback can’t get the ball off, [Fitzgerald] can’t make any catches.”
Even with Anquan Boldin gone (traded to the Ravens), the Cardinals have receivers like Andre Roberts and Early Doucet and tight end Todd Heap to keep opponents honest.
And the Cardinals — knowing Fitzgerald’s reputation precedes him — move him around a lot, forcing defenses to adjust.
“He’s one of those guys where no matter where he is on the field, it’s good to know where he’s at because he’s their main target, he’s their big-play guy and he’s a phenomenal football player,” Atogwe said. “It’s going to be wise for us and prudent for us to know where he is and take action.”
Kolb presents his own challenges for the Redskins, given that they know the quarterback from his time with the Philadelphia Eagles and only a little bit of what he does in the Cardinals’ system. But Kolb isn’t a Michael Vick-like threat where he’ll beat a team with his legs, so his main target — Fitzgerald — is the focus.
The issue is, even teams that throw blanket coverage or a shutdown corner on Fitzgerald don’t always experience success.
“He’s very explosive at the point of attack, so even when he’s covered, there’s still a very good chance that he’s going to make that play,” Atogwe said. “And we’ve just got to really be on top of our technique and be in the best position possible and doing the things we’ve been coached to limit that.”