It’s been a little bit of a struggle so far for Xavier Rhodes, as we might have expected, but things are now starting to come together for the rookie first round pick out of Florida State. There was never any question about the physical tools, it was always a matter of Rhodes learning the proper techniques and developing his game.
Those lessons now seem to be sinking in after Rhodes’ strong performance vs. Green Bay, a performance that earned him a spot on the Pro Football Focus Team of the Week.
PFF graded Rhodes out at +4.2, their second-highest cornerback grade on the week behind Corey Graham of Baltimore. Rhodes showed up most strongly in one-on-one press coverage against Packers receiver James Jones, breaking up several passes intended for Jones, including a would-be touchdown.
The pass breakup in the end zone was Rhodes’ best play of the day. He was somewhat beaten by Jones on the pattern but was able to reach in and yank the ball loose, preventing the score. It was a great example of Rhodes’ raw physical ability, the way he was able to adjust and make the play.
Rhodes ultimately gave up 40 yards on six catches, including a TD to Jarret Boykin. He also suffered a concussion in the game, putting his status in doubt for this weekend against Chicago.
The injury casts a somewhat dark cloud over what was otherwise a fine week of work for Rhodes, but that’s just how it’s been all year for Xavier. The injury bug first bit him in training camp with a hamstring, and since then he’s suffered several more dings including a sprained ankle and a shoulder injury. Despite his physical issues, Rhodes has answered the bell for all 11 games, though he hasn’t always been able to finish on the field.
I think the hamstring issue in training camp may have been part of the reason the Vikings elected to bring Rhodes off the bench initially, playing him only in nickel until injuries forced them to play him in the base defense as well. It may also have altered plans to use Rhodes as a press coverage corner.
Rhodes showed great potential as a press-man corner in college, and I believe the Vikings drafted him with that in mind. This Sunday’s game was the first time coaches really allowed him to show those skills, and he responded to the challenge by playing some of his best ball.
Not that Rhodes doesn’t still have things he needs to work on. His tackling is still an issue, though he did have a nice open-field stop against James Jones in the Packer game. He also has a tendency to put his hands on receivers too much beyond the five-yard limit, opening himself up to interference calls.
But Rhodes is definitely willing to work, and we’ve seen steady progress from him this season in his tackling and coverage. I’m glad the Vikings are now showing enough confidence in him to let him play more press coverage, because not only will that allow Rhodes to make more plays, it will also free up linebackers and safeties to blitz more often.
The aggressiveness of the defensive game plan did help the Vikings against the Packers, as we saw with some of the up-the-gut pressure Audie Cole was able to generate. That approach depends on having good corners who can handle men like James Jones one-on-one. The Vikings have now seemingly found one corner who can play that way. They will need to find more if they want this defense to take another step.