The coaching of the finer points is paying off for Xavier Rhodes.
The second-year cornerback, one of three first-round draft picks for the Minnesota Vikings last year, is finding the balance between aggressiveness without getting penalties. And his play continues to improve, especially showing in the last three games.
Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Rhodes was targeted eight times and allowed only one reception for 5 yards.
“Basically I’m not doing anything differently,” Rhodes said. “The game of football is never going to change, you just need to critique and learn your position and do your job. That’s basically all and I just work at it every day.”
The defense changed dramatically this year and so did what the Vikings asked of Rhodes. He is put in more man coverage and asked to become more physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage. The coaching style has changed, too, as head coach Mike Zimmer stressed attention to detail for his defensive backs from the day the players stepped on the offseason practice field.
“He’s on me each and every day about the littlest things, the technique and where I need to be to stay on top. Not only him, Coach Gray, too,” Rhodes said, referring to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. “Both of them are on me pretty hard and just make sure I’m where I need to be.”
Rhodes said that’s the type of coaching he’s been getting all his life
“I love that and it lets me know that they care and they want nothing but (for) me to be better,” he said.
After Sunday’s game, there wasn’t much criticism of Rhodes’ game, besides one running play that Zimmer knew Rhodes could have done better.
“I don’t know if he’s the most improved player that we have, but he’s improved an awful lot throughout the course of this season,” Zimmer said. “I think his confidence level, his technique, the way he competes. There was one toss he needed to compete a little bit better in the running game, but I think he’s taken a lot of pride in getting up in people and covering them.”
The coaches message to Rhodes after the game, according to the cornerback: keep it up because progress is showing.
“I know I played good. They just tell me I know what I need to work on, correct, and they also tell me the good things I did and also the bad,” he said.
According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes has been targeted 64 times this season, allowing only 31 catches for 373 yards, one touchdown and grabbing an interception. Quarterbacks have had a 64.5 passer rating against him. He is tied for third in the NFL with 14 passes defensed.
Rhodes said he should have had an interception while covering 6-foot-5 rookie receiver, and former Florida State teammate, Kelvin Benjamin. Rhodes nearly had the interception but Benjamin was able to pop the ball loose before the act was completed.
“If you have the opportunity, you should take it,” Rhodes said. “I had an opportunity to make a play and the ball just came out at the very last minutes and I was kind of upset about that. Everything, every turnover, everything is a game-changer. That could have been a game-changer. We could have took off right there and you never know what could have happened.”
But it’s clear there is a progression in his game and a growing understanding of what he can get away with and what he can’t. In Week 2, he had three penalties – one for holding and two pass interference penalties. In Weeks 6 through 8, he had a combined four penalties on defense. But he hasn’t had a penalty on defense since then, a span of five weeks.
“I found that happy medium. Now I’m learning. I know how and when to let go and not be so aggressive at a certain point in the game,” he said. “I’m learning the rules and just working out and (not) trying to make so many penalties and being less aggressive. … I’ve been working on it the last couple week and it’s been working so far.”
Rhodes’ progression shows in stats, results
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