Rhodes facing new challenge this week

After a strong performance in his assigned matchup with Calvin Johnson, Xavier Rhodes and the Vikings’ defensive backs will have a different challenge with Mike Wallace and the Dolphins’ receivers.

There are certain moments – good or bad – that define a professional career. For quarterbacks, it can be game-winning drives in the final minutes that define a legacy. For defensive ends, it can be creating turnovers or consistently providing the critical sack that ends a game.

For cornerbacks in a pass-happy game, those moments are far less definable. Xavier Rhodes may have had that first career-defining moment last Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Asked to shadow Calvin Johnson wherever he went on the field rather than staying on the right side against whatever receiver lined up out there, Rhodes knew this was going to be a game in which he sent a message to the rest of the league that he can take away a top receiver at any time – Revis Island-style.

The Lions won the game, but it wasn’t because of Megatron. Rhodes held him in check the entire game and limited Johnson to just four catches for 53 yards – the biggest of those (a 23-yarder) when Johnson left his coverage area across the middle and made a play.

Other than that, Rhodes was lights-out and kept Johnson from doing much of anything. He was facing the most daunting experience of his pro career and he passed with flying colors.

“It was a great challenge for me,” Rhodes said. “I just played my game. I felt comfortable. He made a few plays here and there. That’s Calvin Johnson. He makes plays. I did my job and just did what the coaches asked me to do.”

When Rhodes was drafted in 2013, there were questions how he would fit with a Tampa-2 defense that covers zones of the field rather than chasing players to where they line up. In the Mike Zimmer-led defense, that has changed. While he wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a fun experience being able to test himself both physically and mentally, Rhodes felt comfortable in what he doing and proved to a lot of people that he has the talent and ability to be a shutdown corner who can play either side of the field in order to take away an offense’s most daunting weapon.

“It was a challenge,” Rhodes said. “I’m always on the right side, so that was a challenge for me playing on the left side and also playing against Calvin. It’s up to the coaches whether they want me to shadow for the rest of the season.”

This week, Rhodes will face a much different challenge in Mike Wallace. A splashy free-agent signing two years ago, Wallace is the primary big play threat for the Dolphins. He isn’t a physical “in your face” receiver like Megatron. His forte is to burn defenses deep with a second gear in the open field and his calling card is hauling in the 50-yard bomb that can change the complexion of a game.

The preparation for Wallace will be markedly different than what Rhodes faced in preparing for Johnson and what he brings to a game. He knows that one mistake against a speedster like Wallace can get a cornerback on a highlight film – as the guy chasing the receiver into the end zone.

“With Wallace, you just have to stay in front of him the whole time,” Rhodes said. “You can’t let him get on top of you. He’s got speed that can blow the top off the defense (with) speed and (the ability) to get away from you. You just have to stay on top of him and keep him close to you.”

It’s unclear whether Rhodes will be asked to replicate his performance of last Sunday and be asked to shadow Wallace wherever he lines up. While it isn’t likely going to be an every-week type of situation, if Rhodes does know the plan, he isn’t saying. And, from the sounds of things, he hadn’t been told prior to Wednesday afternoon’s practice.

“That I really don’t know,” Rhodes said when asked of the plan for him vs. Wallace. “The coaches have said nothing to me about that. We’re going to see, but I don’t know a thing about that yet.”

What he does know is that he will be playing his first career game in front of friends, family and acquaintances from his high school and college days. A native of Miami, Rhodes’ phone has been blowing up over the last few weeks with ticket requests – asked how many, he simply said “too many” – from those who want to see him make his return to Florida.

It’s something Rhodes has been looking forward to since April when the 2014 schedule was released. He knew the Vikings were heading to his hometown, but didn’t know when. As the schedule was released, the first team he looked for was Miami and was happy to see that it was coming the Sunday before Christmas. But, since then, the reality of NFL life has forced him to push that out of his mind because there have been more pressing matters occupying his time.

“In the beginning of the year before the season started, I looked at the schedule,” Rhodes said. “But as the season begun I literally took it game by game. Sometimes I forget who we have next because I’m so worried about the game we have that week. The season is long, so you concentrate on the team you’re playing against that week. But now I’m excited about going against this team and going back home.”

Life inside the fish bowl doesn’t allow for much reflection on the successes and failures of the team because the focus is relentless in keeping the blinders on and focusing on the team at hand that weekend. For those with the benefit of a wider view, one of the things that has become clear is that Rhodes is climbing his way into being an elite NFL cornerback.

As such, with the Pro Bowl looming on the horizon, Rhodes has become one of the hot names discussed as a young player ready to make the leap to the next level of respect and identified as one of those players who has Pro Bowl-type skills. He would be honored if he was selected but prefaced that by saying he has absolutely no control over that other than to make the kind of statements he did last week against Megatron.

“That’s definitely out of my hands,” Rhodes said. “That’s up to the players, the coaches and the fans. If they vote for me, I’ll be going. I’d love to go to the Pro Bowl, but it’s not up to me.”

Because the Vikings haven’t received as much national attention or acclaim because they haven’t been above .500 since Week 1 and aren’t exactly a talker for the national NFL commentators, those in the business are taking notice of his increased level of play. It may not happen this year, but if Rhodes continues to play at his current level, his call to the Pro Bowl will come often because he’s playing about as well as any corner in the league right now.

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