Film study: The maturation of Rhodes

Xavier Rhodes progressed nicely in his second season, showing better awareness in some situations but still having parts of his game that need improving. We take a look at both areas with the help of the film.

Xavier Rhodes was the second of three first-round draft picks for the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. He is a big cornerback that the Vikings felt could come in and match up well against the tall, physical wide receivers in the NFC North.

He didn’t earn an immediate starting role his rookie season. In fact, he only started six of the 13 games in which he appeared. There was some thought that Rhodes had a tough time adjusting to the Tampa-2 system that Leslie Frazier ran during his time in Minnesota, especially since his physical play fit better in press coverage.

Even though his skill set may not have favored the Tampa-2 system, he still performed well toward the end of the season and you could begin to see his potential as a cornerback. Unfortunately, though, Rhodes was forced to miss the final three games of the season due to an ankle injury.

In his second season in the NFL, the Tampa-2 was not longer in Minnesota and replacing it was new head coach Mike Zimmer’s more aggressive defensive system. He is known as one of the best defensive backs coaches in the NFL and from Day 1 he had taken it upon himself to coach up Rhodes.

During minicamps and training camp, Zimmer or defensive backs coach Jerry Gray would pull Rhodes aside after each play and teach him. They saw his potential and wanted to mold him into the type of player they knew he could be.

Rhodes quickly began to show that he could one day be one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He is able to match up against any wide receiver and, for the most part, limited his production. Toward the end of the season, Zimmer even trusted him to follow a receiver all across the field instead of playing sides.

Even though Rhodes played well, there are still some things he needs to improve. The first is interceptions. In his two years in the NFL, Rhodes has recorded one interception. That number will need to improve if he hopes to be considered an elite cornerback.

The second thing he needs to work on is his durability. In his rookie year he missed three games because of an ankle injury. And although he never missed a start in 2014, he did have to leave multiple games for a short while because he tweaked something.

Viking Update took a look at Rhodes’ tape from the 2014 season to see what kind of player he has become for the Vikings.

Play No. 1
This first play is Rhodes’ first and only interception of his professional career. There are only 15 seconds left in the first half and the Chicago Bears are trying to move the ball down the field so they can get into scoring position. The Bears are out of timeouts, so the Vikings understood that they would be trying to work the sidelines.

Rhodes (No. 29) originally lined up on Alshon Jeffery at the top of the screen. The Vikings were playing zone, so Rhodes understood that he had safety help over the middle. But while following Jeffery he also kept and eye on the middle of the field to make sure no tight ends or running backs were taking advantage of the open area there.

Once he saw that no players were going deep down the middle of the field he cut back to the sideline where Jeffery was. He was able to cut underneath the route and secure the football for an interception.

This interception was probably considered to be an easy one by most people who pay attention to the NFL because of the time left on the clock, the Bears’ lack of timeouts, and the distance they needed to travel. Rhodes knew that the Bears would have to go deep and to the sidelines, but he still had to make the play.

He showed he has the ability to pick the ball off in this play and that he is able to understand different game scenarios and take advantage of ones that play in his team’s favor.

Play No. 2
In this next play the Bears are driving and are inside the red zone. They run Matt Forte to the left and have everyone blocked pretty well and there looks to be a nice hole for him to run through right into the end zone. But Rhodes is able to get off his blocker and lay a big hit on Forte, stopping him short of the goal line.

This is not always the type of tackle that coaches like to see because it is not fundamentally sound. Coaches like it when their players wrap the opponents up. If a player just lowers their shoulder into an opponent, like Rhodes did on this play, there is a possibility that the opponent could just bounce off and keep running.

But there is also some good that can come from a big hit such as this one. First off, it can be a big momentum boost for the defense. A hit like that can get all the other players fired up and lead to other big plays following in the wake of the hit.

Another thing that can happen is that it could rattle the ball carrier. A hit like that could stay in the back of their minds and cause them to second-guess themselves when they run that way again.

Play No. 3
Rhodes struggled with off coverage from time to time, especially towards the beginning of the season, and this next play is a perfect example of that. It is the first week of the season and Rhodes in lined up against Brian Quick at the bottom of the screen.

Right from the snap Rhodes is playing off of Quick and giving him a lot of cushion to work with, probably too much. As Quick runs his route, Rhodes never closes the distance, so when Quick breaks his route off and comes back to the quarterback, Rhodes is about 4 yards behind him and out of position to make a play.

Not only that, but leaving that cushion gives Quick room to turn up field once he has the ball and gain extra yards after the catch. Rhodes may need to learn how to better play receivers when he is not pressing them. If he can improve that aspect of the game, it will help open up the playbook for Zimmer.

Play No. 4
Rhodes also struggled with his positioning on balls from time to time during the course of the 2014 season. In this play, there is a bunch formation at the bottom of the screen and Rhodes appears to be responsible for taking the guy who goes the deepest. He does a good job at identifying which receiver to take and following him, staying right on his hip the whole time.

The problem comes when the receiver stops, takes a step back towards the quarterback and jumps up for the ball. Rhodes had his hips fully turned toward the end zone and was not prepared to stop and jump up for the ball. So when the player stopped, all of Rhodes’ momentum was still heading toward the end zone.

As you can see, Rhodes tried to jump up and contest the pass but he was not able to get high enough because he had his momentum going away from the ball and was stuck behind the receiver. Because off all that, the receiver was able to make an easy play on the ball. This allowed Buffalo to set up on about the 1-yard line with about 20 seconds left to play in the game.

If Rhodes was able to have better positioning on this play, it is likely he would have been able to make a play on the ball and bat it down. The Bills then would have had 30 yards to go instead of one and it is likely the Vikings could have come away with a victory.

Play No. 5
On this next play, Rhodes is able to recognize that the Bills are trying to run a screen from the snap of the ball. Right away he makes a great break toward the receiver and is able to get his pad level lower than the blockers. That way he is able to get past the defender and make the stop for a loss.

This play demonstrates Rhodes’ awareness on the field and his understanding of how to get around blockers in the open field. If he did not recognize the play as soon as he did, there is no way he would have been able to get to the ball carrier in time. If he was a half second later to the ball, the blocker would have been in great position and likely been able to block Rhodes and free up the runner.

Rhodes being able to recognize the play was key, and that likely came from film study during the week. It is always important for a player to study film of the other team and then take what they saw and transfer it onto the field during the game. Rhodes showed that he was able to do that during this play and made a big stop for his team.

Rhodes made big strides as a defender during his second season in the NFL, but there are still several things he needs to work on if he wants to continue to improve. He needs to cut down on penalties, play better in off coverage, continue to help support the run game, come down with more interceptions and stay healthy.

If Rhodes is able to improve on those aspects of his game, he has the potential to become one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. And with the help of Zimmer that is a very real possibility.

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