Physicality a welcome change for Rhodes

Mike Zimmer’s defense seems to be playing toward Xavier Rhodes’ strength and the cornerback agrees, but there is still more refining of his skills in store.

When the Minnesota Vikings drafted big, physical cornerback Xavier Rhodes last year, they were running primarily a Tampa-2 zone defense but talking about playing more man defense.

That never really materialized last year, as injuries and ineffectiveness in the defensive backfield helped sink the secondary to the 31st-ranked pass defense.

Rhodes is trying not to dwell on last year and that’s an understandable tactic considering the negative thoughts that would accompany the reflection. This year, however, brought a new coaching staff and a dramatically different defensive philosophy.

The physical corner will be allowed to get physical again.

“It’s a physical defense and I’m a physical player. I feel like it fits pretty good,” Rhodes said.

“Last year was last year. I’m not worrying about last year. I’m worrying about this year and this year I’m pressing more.”

In this case, “pressing” means Rhodes is playing closer to the line of the scrimmage, trying to knock a receiver off his route before he ever really gets started.

Ironically, his head coach, Mike Zimmer, a defensive-minded man that likes to be aggressive and disguise with his play-calls, believes Rhodes’ weakness last year is what he was asked to do most.

“He has been better off, when he is playing off. That was one of his weaknesses early on,” Zimmer said. “He has done that a lot better. He understands the coverages much better, he understands all the calls, the alignments of where he is supposed to be. The press technique, we still have some work to do. He has great recovery speed, but he has improved in about every area.”

He has also been coached up in many areas. From the outset of the Vikings’ offseason program, it seemed no player was getting more coaching than Rhodes. In the first veteran minicamp, Zimmer and position coach Jerry Gray were starting with the footwork, hand placement, and line of vision with the defensive backs.

These days, those technical points are expected to be rote as the ramp-up to the regular season increases, and the coaching points have become more boisterous. Often enough, Rhodes is the target, but Zimmer knows he has to be careful about calling out the quiet cornerback too often or too harshly.

“I have changed a little bit how I have approached trying to teach him. I am a little bit softer, I guess, the way I handle it and just see how that goes and he seems to be doing good that way,” Zimmer said. “It’s about every player you try to figure out what buttons to push.”

The old athlete adage is that when they stopping you, that’s when you should be worried, and Zimmer acknowledges that Rhodes “has a lot of ability.”

A year of experience under his belt is also helpful for the 2013 first-round draft pick, even if the system is different.

“Now you just know what to expect. Last year, you just come into the league, you’re just coming from college. You didn’t know who you were going against, where you were anxious to go against certain players. But now you know them and you know what to expect when you go against them now,” he said.

“You have to study in this game. You can’t go off of natural ability. You have to know your opponent before you go out there on that field.”

Rhodes has said repeatedly he doesn’t feel like Zimmer is on him more than others, but it’s clear defensive backs are Zimmer’s concentration. On Tuesday, Zimmer even worked closely with three of the top cornerbacks, Rhodes included, individually on their press technique while the rest of the defense worked nearby.

Last Saturday night, Rhodes had what will probably stand as the defensive play of training camp. It was a diving interception that showed his recovery speed and athleticism.

Asked about that play, Zimmer didn’t have all praise for Rhodes.

“It was a great interception. It was poor, poor position on the receiver, but he made a great play,” Zimmer said. “We have to get him to be in the right position and then make the play easy and then he does not have to make great plays.”

When Rhodes was asked for his reaction to Zimmer’s comments, he smiled. “As long as I made the play,” Rhodes said, “that’s all that matters.”

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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