Matt Vensel is in his first year at the Star Tribune after covering the Ravens for the Baltimore Sun for six years. He is a Pittsburgh native and a Penn State grad. Follow him at @mattvensel.


Mark Craig has covered the NFL for 23 years, and the Vikings since 2003 for the Star Tribune. He is one of 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors. Follow him at @markcraignfl.


Master Tesfatsion is the Star Tribune’s digital Vikings writer. He is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State and worked for mlb.com before arriving in Minneapolis. Follow him at @masterstrib.


Xavier Rhodes focused on trusting instincts

Posted by: Master Tesfatsion Updated: July 29, 2014 - 12:36 PM

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer kept a close eye on the cornerbacks – as he’s done quite often during his short tenure – in their first opportunity to work on bump-and-run in pads on Sunday.

During an individual drill working on technique, Zimmer intervenes and walks up to Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. He spent the next minute informing Rhodes why he must target the one-handed jam off the line of scrimmage at the wide receiver’s chest, not the shoulder.

Rhodes nailed the technique on the final attempt before 1-on-1 battles.

“Look out, Rhodes is getting it,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray yelled as the unit jogged over to face the wide receivers.

But on the first play, Rhodes stumbled and slipped while trying to defend Greg Jennings, who completed the catch.

Rhodes has all the talent to become an All-Pro cornerback. But there’s barrier that the second-year corner will have to hurdle to reach his potential -- trusting his instincts.

“Second guessing yourself; you’re thinking you might not get there and make the tackle but thinking you can,” Rhodes said. “You’re just thinking too much.

“You have to think out there but you more have to react. You have to know what you’re getting yourself into, the route he’s doing. Everything goes hand-in-hand.”

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said Rhodes looks at him as a big brother constantly seeking advice. He said Rhodes has reached out about trusting his instincts, which Munnerlyn told Rhodes not to be afraid to take chances.

“When you’re a young guy, you think entirely too much instead of just letting it go and playing football,” Munnerlyn said. “When you’re a rookie in the NFL playing defensive back, all eyes are on you and every mistake that you do. They don’t notice when a running back steps to the wrong gap or a wide receiver drops a pass. It’s like, ‘Oh everybody does that.’ But when you get beat for a couple touchdowns or a player out there catching slants and you’re not making any plays, everybody knows that.”

Rhodes learned a Cover 2 defense during his rookie season but now has to adjust to Zimmer’s defense that mixes man with zone principles at cornerback. Munnerlyn said he went through a similar switch during his first two season with the Panthers after being scared to make plays during his rookie season.

“Instead of being so close to making the plays, it’s time to make the plays,” Munnerlyn said. “And that’s what I see in him. This year, I know he’s going to be ready.”

Safety Kurt Coleman called that revelation an “aha” moment. It occurs in different moments for players, while some remain timid in the secondary. Coleman said along with the different system Rhodes has to learn, the Vikings also have only had two practices with pads.

“I think once you understand the playbook and what coaches wants you to play within that, I think that’s when you allow yourself to really let your natural ability to play,” Coleman said. “…Give it a day or two, and I think he’ll feel a lot better about himself.”

Zimmer said Rhodes is still learning about the techniques at the position but possesses a number of advantages physically, with his long arms and speed, to become a good corner.

“I probably need to do a better job of coaching him in certain ways,” Zimmer said. “…Just talking to him, coaching him; what is his hot button, what motivates him more. I am not saying he is unmotivated, I’m just saying part of coaching is trying to figure out how you can take this player and make him better.”

Until then, Rhodes’ confidence still remains high. He said he doesn’t dwell on a bad rep he watches on tape. He’s taking notes, hoping to avoid that same mistake during the next practice.

“I know it’s going to be a long process, but I’m just working at it,” Rhodes said. “It’s still a learning process; just getting better each and every day.”  

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