Vikings take next step with shutdown corner

Xavier Rhodes’ career took another positive step in his ascending career, showing the versatility and maturity to follow Calvin Johnson and effectively limit him. The numbers and the reaction inside.

Not wanting to give away his game plan last week, Mike Zimmer on Thursday talked about being hesitant to move a young player out his comfort zone.

On Friday, he went a step further, answering a question about the possibility of having Xavier Rhodes shadow Calvin Johnson from one side of the formation to another with three simple words: “I doubt it.”

In fact, Zimmer knew all week that Rhodes would be following the Detroit Lions preeminent receiving threat for much of Sunday’s game. Zimmer admitted as much after the game when he said he told Rhodes on Monday he wanted him to follow Johnson.

Turns out, the first-time move for second-year cornerback was a good one. Johnson was limited to four catches for 53 yards on six targets. All three of those categories were lows for the imposing Johnson since his return from injury six weeks ago.

But the decision didn’t come with a bit of history lesson from Zimmer last week on why there were some risks with the move.

“A lot of it depends on the corner,” Zimmer said. “It’s weird, I’ve done it forever and some corners just don’t feel comfortable on the other side when they’re coming out of breaks, instead of the right to the left and vice versa, and then some guys it doesn’t matter and usually have no problem going one side to the other. It’s more about the comfort level of the players than the matchups.

“You always like guys to be comfortable at what they’re doing and be multi-position. Deion (Sanders) could play either side, but didn’t like playing in the slot. Pacman (Adam Jones) loved the right side, hated the left.”

From the start of Sunday’s game, Rhodes was largely assigned to handle Johnson, whether he lined up on the left side of the offensive formation, where Rhodes had been camped since the start of the season, or not. It wasn’t solely Rhodes’ responsibility to cover Johnson on Sunday, but it was clear the strategy was a departure from the Vikings’ year-long philosophy of leaving Rhodes as the outside cornerback on the right side of the defense.

The timing seemed natural. Rhodes has been playing the best ball of his young career over the last month-plus. He has had two consecutive games with three passes defensed and has been in tight coverage nearly every time his receiver was targeted.

And, unlike the Chicago Bears, who were able to create mismatches no matter what because they had two tall receivers – Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall – to ensure one of them would be lined up against sub-6-foot cornerbacks Josh Robinson or Captain Munnerlyn, the Lions’ only accomplished receiver eclipsing 6 feet tall is Johnson.

The combination of Johnson and Golden Tate combined for 11 catches for 91 yards. It was easily their lowest combined receiving yards in the 11 games they have played together this year.

Johnson was targeted five times with Rhodes on him, catching three passes. The first two were incompletions and the third was a 4-yard catch. By then, the Vikings had 14-0 lead.

But in the second half, Johnson caught an 18-yard pass with Rhodes surrendering plenty of cushion presnap. Later in that drive, Johnson had an 8-yard catch for a third-down conversion that led to a field goal that drew the Lions within one point.

But the most damaging might have been Johnson’s 23-yard reception that was aided by another Vikings defender. On second-and-10, Johnson was able to break free of Rhodes when linebacker Gerald Hodges ran into the cornerback while Johnson was running a crossing route that resulted in a 23-yard completion, the longest of the day for QB Matthew Stafford.

Rhodes battled what appeared to be a recurring wrist injury during the game and still did as good a job on Calvin Johnson as anyone has this year, especially considering Johnson finally appeared to be hitting his post-injury stride. In the two games previous to Sunday, Johnson had been targeted a combined and incredible 25 times for 19 catches, 304 yards and three touchdowns.

The Lions tried to get him involved against the Vikings defense, but Rhodes largely answered the challenge, one that Zimmer presented to him last Monday, even if Zimmer tried to hide it as long as he could last week.

“I don’t like to do it with young guys too much because it just screws them up, especially when they’re playing good,” Zimmer said on Thursday of having them shadow a star receiver. “(Rhodes is) a young guy and we want to just keep him going in the right position.”

But after Sunday’s game, there was no denying Zimmer’s intent all week … or Rhodes’ effectiveness.

“I thought Xavier battled well. Obviously you have times we were helping him, but there were times we weren’t, too,” Zimmer said after the game. “I think it’s good to be able to have a guy that feels comfortable. I called him on I guess it was Monday and said, ‘I need you to go with this guy this week.’”

Rhodes went with him and proved pivotal in taking another step in his rapidly ascending career, becoming not only a big, physical cornerback, but a versatile, effective one, too.

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