Mike Zimmer was happy with the way his Minnesota Vikings played against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night. They held Aaron Rodgers, arguably the best quarterback in the NFL the last five years, to less than 300 yards passing and only one touchdown, while also being able to intercept him once.
A big part of their success was the play of third-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“I thought he did well,” Zimmer said of his cornerback. “I thought he probably played one of his better games. I thought we covered all of their receivers well. We didn’t give them a lot of room to create separation. I thought we pressed them good, but I thought Xavier played well.”
Not allowing the receivers to create separation is something that Vikings coaches had been preaching all week leading up to the game against their division rivals. Rodgers is known for his ability to extend plays with his legs, allowing his receivers to get open.
The Vikings knew this going into the game so the coaches wanted to make sure their defensive backs stayed plastered to the receivers. Rhodes said that is what allowed him to be in position to make the interception in the end zone, being in the right place at the right time and listening to his coaches.
But after he picked the ball off, Rhodes tried to run it out of the back of the end zone, which could have been disastrous since he was surrounded by Packers players and probably wouldn’t have gotten very far. His own teammate, linebacker Anthony Barr, tackled him in the end zone to stop him from bringing it out.
In the heat of the moment Rhodes likely just wanted to have the chance to score a touchdown, but looking back he is happy that Barr stopped him.
“Oh yeah, he was pretty smart for doing that,” Rhodes said. “He was pretty smart and then I was still trying to run and he pushed me down too. He was like, ‘Get on the ground, get on the ground.’ I thought about it: ‘Oh, you did good on that one, you did good on that one because I was dang sure trying to take it out.’”
Interceptions are usually big, game-changing plays for a defense because it gets them off the field and puts the ball back in the hands of their offense. They are usually big momentum killers for opposing offense, too, and even though the interception was a great play by Rhodes it was not his best of the night.
He was one of the players involved in breaking up the Packers’ last-second Hail Mary attempt that secured the Vikings’ victory, but even before that he made a clutch tackle, which then forced the Packers to rush the final play.
The Packers were at the Vikings 39-yard line, striving for the end zone with 15 seconds remaining in the game. The Vikings defense held the Packers to a third down with 3 yards remaining to the first-down marker. If they were able to pick up the first down and get out of bounds the Packers could have drawn up a better play design and would have been closer to the end zone.
Rhodes was the only defender on the right side of the field, lined up on wide receiver James Jones. Tight end Richard Rodgers and wide receiver Randall Cobb were left relatively unguarded because the Vikings had a lot of their players dropped back deep to prevent a shot at the end zone, which would have tied the game with an extra point.
The Packers threw a screen to Richard Rodgers, who was lined up off the line of scrimmage and had both Jones and Cobb in front of him as blockers. It was a great play call because all the Packers needed to do was block Rhodes and they would have gotten a first down and a lot of extra yards after that. But Rhodes was able to get past the block of Jones and wrap up the tight end in bounds and short of the first down.
“Yeah, I expected it to come,” Rhodes said of the quick pass to the tight end. “I expected the guy to get out of bounds to stop the clock and try to get a Hail Mary down the field. I expected something to go outside and someone to make a quick out route and catch the ball and try to get out. So I just went with my gut feeling and just went with it.”
Trusting his gut paid off big-time in that situation for the cornerback and the defense as a whole, and it really shows how far along he has come from the beginning of the year.
This offseason, many people believed that Rhodes would be able to take the next step in his development and become one of the top-tier cornerbacks in the NFL. At 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, he has the size and strength to match up against almost any receiver.
However, that physical nature got the best of him early in the season as he was called for a lot of defensive holding penalties and it seemed to set him back. But he worked hard throughout the season with both Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and the results have been speaking for themselves lately.
“Really technique, just doing things the right way,” Zimmer said of his cornerback’s improvement. “He’s not grabbing. He uses an open hand now as opposed to grabbing jersey. Doesn’t get his other hand involved as much when guys make cuts opposite his body position, a lot of things like that.”
The Vikings secured a home playoff game Sunday and will host the Seattle Seahawks, a team that embarrassed the Vikings earlier in the season. Russell Wilson has a lot of the same abilities as Aaron Rodgers does, so another big performance from Rhodes sure wouldn’t hurt if they hope to continue their playoff run.