Rhodes becoming more reliable, CB workhorse

He may not be considered a starter (yet), but Xavier Rhodes has played more (and perhaps better) than any other Vikings defensive back as he approaches a rookie record. His stats show he is improving, too.

Xavier Rhodes remains soft-spoken but is gaining more confidence with each week.

He should. He is becoming more of a factor in defending the pass and has a chance to break a long-standing rookie record. He is currently second in passes defensed among Vikings rookies, trailing safety Orlando Thomas' record (19) from 1995 by three.

"I'm more comfortable. You step on the field, you have to be comfortable as a corner," Rhodes said.

"The more reps you get, you get more feeling of the game and more feeling of the routes of the receivers."

He is getting both more reps in game situations and more production out of those reps. Against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, he posted his first game playing every defensive snap. For the season, he has played anywhere from about 40 percent of the snaps to, more recently, playing nearly all of them.

"He's starting to make more plays now. He's playing with more confidence. You're seeing some things you'd like to see long-term," said head coach Leslie Frazier, a former cornerback. "Early on, he had his struggles, like you'd expect with a lot of rookie players, but it seems like he's beginning to hit his stride, which is great for us, and that coincides, I think, with our defense starting to play a little bit better, as well. That corner position, and the nickel position, they are critical in our game, and it'll show up this week with this team that we're playing. They're throwing the ball all over the field, so we're going to need Xavier to play at a high level. … I think he is beginning to come around."

Last week, Frazier said Josh Robinson would likely get his starting spot back when he returns from a fractured sternum, but that won't happen for at least another game. Even so, the Vikings might as well consider Rhodes a starter.

For the season, he has played in 70 percent of the snaps, which is more than cornerbacks Chris Cook (61 percent), Robinson (66 percent) and Marcus Sherels (41 percent). If fact, Rhodes has played more than any other Vikings defensive back.

With experience comes an understanding of the NFL game and improvement.

Despite his increased playing time in recent weeks without Robinson, Rhodes hasn't had a penalty in the last three weeks after four penalties in Week 6-10 – three defensive pass interference calls and one unnecessary roughness.

"I stopped being so aggressive at the line. In college, they let you be aggressive. Now in the NFL, past five yards you have to let them go so I've been working on that a lot," said Rhodes, who had a stout challenge Sunday against Chicago's Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

"Them guys are big. Every big receiver is physical. They use their strength and that's their size. … They used their explosiveness and their physicality and used it against me and when I used mine it was a battle."

Rhodes' coverage responsibility was targeted 12 times, a season high for him, according to Pro Football Focus, and he allowed seven receptions for 98 yards. While the official stats credited Rhodes with only one pass defensed, Pro Football Focus had him with three.

Meanwhile, Chris Cook, starting opposite Rhodes, allowed three catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns to Alshon Jeffery, according to PFF, before Cook was ejected.

This week will be another big challenge for Rhodes, Cook and company. While the Baltimore Ravens running game is struggling, they have one of the NFL's most explosive receivers in Torrey Smith, who already has 54 catches for 952 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 17.6 yards per catch.

"Of course I'm worried about Torrey Smith. That's a great receiver, a very fast receiver. He can blow the top off on the defense," Rhodes said. "Not only him, Jacoby Jones is fast, too. They're both great receivers. You can't let them get on top of you and make a big play."

Rhodes continues to work on his technique and is learning to study film better. He said he studies himself first, then the opposing receivers.

"I just evaluate myself because at the same time the receiver is looking at me," he said. "I look at what I did wrong first. I look at myself first and then I look at the opponent."

Although Rhodes is closing in on Thomas' rookie record for passes defensed, he, like all of the other cornerbacks on the roster, is still without an interception.

"He's getting his hands on a lot of balls now, being in real good position to make plays, playing with more confidence," Frazier said. "He's tackling better. Just (want to) continue to see that, that consistency in his play, that he's not going to be a guy that this week he plays fairly well, the next week he's down.

"And the next step is, some of those balls he's knocking down, they can turn into interceptions. I was watching one of the balls he got his hands on on Sunday. I said, ‘Man, a year from now, that's going to be an interception. He'll have enough confidence, not to go up with one hand, but to go up with two, and he'll catch that ball.' But this is where he is in his development. Hopefully he'll just keep growing."

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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