The days of the Vikings’ cornerbacks allowing easy, uncontested receptions in front of them and simply being instructed to “rally to the ball” might be over. For years, the Vikings have struggled with their pass defense, lowlighted by their handful of last-minute losses when opposing quarterbacks would shred through the secondary in the final minute of a game to find the winning points.
Big-bodied cornerback Xavier Rhodes wants nothing to do with discussions about last year. That’s hardly a surprise.
The defense is different this year. The scheme is different. The coaches are different. And Rhodes’ play has been far better.
The 2013 first-round pick struggled with his immersion into the NFL last year as his head was swimming with information while getting acclimated. Now everything is more comfortable and it shows in his play.
“Gradually it went on. Each week I gained more confidence because each week is a different scheme,” Rhodes said. “And then it’s practice going throughout the week, you’re a little shaky about it and then going throughout the day, then you gain confidence in it.”
That’s essentially a summary of Rhodes’ career to date, too. Last year, he started six of 13 games played, but, again, that was last year and Rhodes doesn’t want to talk about it.
He still doesn’t have an interception, but he has burgeoning confidence.
“The only thing I’ve got to say about me individually is that I’m confident in the game more,” he said. “Instead of worrying about where I need to be, I know where I need to be. There’s a difference between the two. That’s the only thing I can say about me. Other than that, I can’t really preach about that because obviously the team is not winning, so we need to go out there and find a way to get the team to win.”
Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn joined the Vikings this offseason as one of their biggest free-agent signings, but he, too, has struggled some with the new defense and concepts under first-year head coach Mike Zimmer. In fact, the ever-confident Munnerlyn said Rhodes is outplaying him now.
“He started off a little shaky, started off a little slow, but he’s picked his game up tremendously,” Munnerlyn said. “I’ve got to pick mine up to his level. He’s making me look bad.”
In the second game this season, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appeared to target Rhodes more and more as the game progressed. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound, second-year cornerback struggled.
The worst of it may have been in the second quarter on a play that Rhodes doesn’t even show up in the play-by-play. Brady cocked to fire a pass for his favorite receiver in the game, Julian Edelman, and Rhodes missed both the ball and Edelman, resulting in a 44-yard pass play, the longest of the game for the Patriots offense. After converting that third down, the Patriots went the remaining 21 yards for a touchdown and a 17-7 lead on their way to the 30-7 win.
Later in the game, Rhodes was called for pass interference, and then defensive holding.
Eventually, however, Rhodes got more comfortable with the concepts he was being taught. With that came confidence, but that didn’t come until he made a change in his outlook.
“When I stopped second-guessing myself, when I knew this is where I need to be and I’m right and I’m not worrying about other things,” he said.
Munnerlyn talked to Rhodes during and after that game, trying to get his confidence up. Now that’s starting show.
Although he still doesn’t have an interception, Rhodes is tied for 13th in the NFL with six passes defensed. It’s just another indicator that he’s in the right position now.
“The key is the interception, but that’s one thing I don’t rush. Eventually they’re going to come,” he said. “The interceptions are going to come. That’s just not something that you go out there and go, ‘I’m going to get an interception.’ You’re putting a weight on your shoulders by doing that and it’s not going to really come. I just go out there and if it’s there and I can get it, I’ll get it, but if I can’t I’ll just make a play on the ball.”
The more time Rhodes has spent with other players and his new coaches, the better he has become. Last year, the Vikings talked about his ability to be a cornerback that could get physical with bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage. But in the Cover-2 scheme run primarily under then-coach Leslie Frazier, Rhodes wasn’t asked to do that much.
He wasn’t a glove fit for a zone scheme, but that’s what he was asked to do. Now that he’s getting used to the new techniques he has been learning since spring and summer practices, his talents are starting to show in this fall.
“I think the biggest growth is familiarity of what we’re trying to get accomplished schematically and the fundamentals and technique of the corner position,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “I think they become more consistent as we’ve moved down the road and that’s the biggest thing. … It’s just trying to keep working on consistency about what it is that we’re trying to get done from week-to-week and from day-to-day as opposed to so much about schematics.”
Rhodes said he has always been a physical cornerback. It’s just that now he’s in a defense that plays to his strengths.
As a team, the Vikings are up to the sixth-ranked pass defense in the league, despite quarterbacks having a 94.2 passer rating against them. But, despite Rhodes’ tough start, quarterbacks have only a 71.0 rating against him on the season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has been thrown at 33 times and given up 17 receptions. Even with that 44-yard play against the Patriots, he has given up only 206 yards to his receivers, which is 10th-best among cornerbacks that have played at least 75 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.
“They’ve got a tough job when you’re out there one-one-one with good receivers all the time,” Zimmer said. “It’s not an easy job because those guys are terrific athletes and we ask them to do an awful lot. So far they’ve been good at what they’ve been doing. You can’t be good three-fourths of the time and then one-fourth you give up a first down or a catch here and there. … The mindset has to be we don’t let our guy catch the ball.”
More and more, Rhodes has been fitting that mindset as his confidence improves, along with his level of play.
“It’s still a lot I need to work on,” he said. “I can be a great player, but I have to go out there and believe and trust and work to be a great player. It’s not just going to come tomorrow or today. It’s going to take time and I have to be patient.”
It doesn’t look like it’s too far away if his ascending play continues.
Sunday slant: Rhodes finding his stride
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