One of the players for the Minnesota Vikings that has quietly been improving his game to the point that he has become one of the elite players at his position has been cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The Vikings have made a point to ask Rhodes to clamp down on a receiver to take him away from an opposing offense. On Monday night, Rhodes likely will be asked to limit Vikings killer Alshon Jeffery, who has owned the Vikings recently at Soldier Field, making their one-on-one confrontation this week’s matchup to watch.
Typically Mike Zimmer’s defensive philosophy has been to line up cornerbacks in the same spot and have them take on whichever receiver lines up their way. However, as Zimmer has become more comfortable with Rhodes’ ability and consistency, he has asked Rhodes to take on a greater role and often chase receivers wherever they have lined up with very good results.
When the Vikings met up with the New York Giants, Rhodes was asked to shadow Odell Beckham Jr. at times and the results were suffocating. Beckham was targeted nine times, but caught just three passes for a career-low 23 yards, which led to his much publicized frustration that things just weren’t going his way this season.
The following week, Rhodes was asked to do the same with Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins and the results were very similar. While Hopkins ended the game with decent numbers – five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown – he didn’t have a catch until the third quarter and four of his five receptions came at garbage time when the Vikings already had the game won and were playing in a prevent defensive shell.
“I think he’s done a good job of what we’ve asked him to do through the course of the season thus far. We’re excited of where he’s at and hopefully he’ll continue to just keep getting better as the season progresses,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said of Rhodes. “It looks like he feels comfortable in what we’re asking him to do from a technique and fundamental part of it. He’s been very productive for us thus far. So, we’re excited moving forward with him and we just look for him to keep progressing.”
The challenge with Jeffery will be a daunting one because, while he has struggled this season to post the kind of numbers people expect from him, the loss of supporting talent has allowed teams to smother him.
When Jeffery came into the league, he was overshadowed by incumbent stars Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, both of whom could be counted on from anywhere from 70 to 100 receptions per season. But it didn’t take long for Jeffery to take over. In 2013, Jeffery had his coming-out party, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns. He followed that up in 2014 with 85 catches for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. With Marshall gone last year, Jeffery struggled with injuries and caught 54 passes for 807 yards and four TDs in just nine games, showing that even without Marshall or highly-touted rookie Kevin White, Jeffery commanded respect from defensive coaches.
This year has been a different story. Nobody has been targeted more than Jeffery (55), but he has been limited to 32 catches for 520 yards through seven games, and most shocking is that he has been kept out of the end zone all season and is still searching for his first touchdown of 2016.
The Bears have a new offensive coordinator, but the Vikings are seeing some familiar things in Chicago’s offense.
“A lot of similar concepts. There’s definitely some familiarity from last year to this year in what they’re doing. But, I think systematically I don’t think it’s been a whole lot of change,” Edwards said. “They’ve got tough matchups on offense. I mean all of their receivers are good receivers down the field. Jeffrey has been a good receiver for them.”
Although Jeffery isn’t putting up the kind of scoring numbers he has in years past, he has the Vikings’ full attention because he has had some of the greatest games of his career against Minnesota.
In his last five games against the Vikings, he has scored five touchdowns and has three games with 10 or more receptions. In his last two games against the Vikings at Soldier Field, he has owned them, catching 11 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown in one of them and 10 passes for 116 yards and a TD in the other. Even when he has had some struggles, seeing the Vikings on the schedule has been good news for him – including a career-best 12 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns in a 2013 game at the Metrodome before Zimmer arrived.
The Vikings have felt confident in lining up Rhodes specifically to shut down a team’s go-to receiver. While Jeffery’s numbers wouldn’t automatically mean that it would be a must option for the Vikings to have Rhodes shadow Jeffery, it appears as though that is what is going to happen because Jeffery has been a Vikings killer his entire career.
There are going to be a lot of key matchups Monday night, but, if the Bears are going to beat the Vikings, it’s likely going to have to include a heavy dose of Jeffery.