When Randy Moss was about to be inducted last month into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, former NFL defensive back Corey Chavous was asked about what made the former Vikings receiver so great. It wasn’t just athletic ability, Chavous said. Moss used plenty of tricks.
Chavous, who played with and against Moss, mentioned one skill in particular. Moss, he said, was adept at not tipping his hand when he saw a pass coming his way.
“He would never put up his hands right away to catch the football, so you might not know the ball was coming,” Chavous said.
Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who grew up idolizing Moss, picked up that up from Moss and some other notable Minnesota receivers.
“You look at all the great receivers,” Thielen said. “You look at Cris Carter, I watched him forever, and Randy and Jake Reed, those guys — that’s what they do. They let the defender just chase them, and if they’re face-guarding them, they go late hands.”
Moss, Carter and Reed all had four or more 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Vikings; Thielen had his first last year. In Sunday’s 29-29 tie at Green Bay, Thielen used that lesson when he scored the touchdown that helped send Sunday’s game to overtime.
With the Vikings trailing 29-21, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a pass to the right end-zone pylon. Cornerback Jaire Alexander was covering Thielen but had his back turned to the ball. Safety Kentrell Brice also was closing in on the play. Thielen saw the pass coming and waited to extend his hands before snagging it ball for a 22-yard TD reception with 31 seconds left in regulation.
Cousins then threw a 2-point conversion to Stefon Diggs to tie the score 29-29.
“I saw the ball,” Thielen said. “I knew it was going to get over the defender’s head. I didn’t see the safety, but I knew he was probably going to be closing in on me. But for me, it was just make sure that I have really late hands, so the defender can’t come across and put his hands up and knock it down. And I knew that if it could just sneak over his head, it was going to be a catch.”
Thielen said learning when to show his hands when a ball is in the air has become second nature.
“(Wide receivers coach Darrell) Hazell does a good job of talking about it a lot,” Thielen said. “We do drills in practice. (Stefon) Diggs and I and the other receivers in the room talk about it.”
Thielen runs drills in which he practices putting his hands up at the last possible moment.
At times, however, late hands can backfire.
“Sometimes it gets you in trouble,” he said. “There are times when I try to have late hands and (the ball) hits the defender in the back of the head (and) if I had gone up and got the ball, or gone back to the ball, maybe I get a (pass-interference call) or catch the ball.
“I had a play (in the Sept. 9 opener against San Francisco) where I probably could have gone back to the ball, and I was trying to do late hands.”
There haven’t been many errors for Thielen, who looks bound for another 1,000-yard season. Through two games, he is tied for fourth in the NFL with 18 catches, and tied for sixth with 233 receiving yards.
As for the key touchdown reception against the Packers, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called it a crafty play.
“It’s hard, especially if you’re running with your back turned to the quarterback, which a lot of times you are,” Zimmer said. “But that’s something a lot of the good receivers do, and it was a great play.”