Xavier Rhodes lined up across from Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, alone in man-to-man coverage.
The Chicago Bears had the ball first-and-10 at the Vikings 19-yard line in the first quarter on Sunday. Rhodes, the Vikings’ rookie first-round cornerback, hugged the line in press coverage.
As Marshall exploded off the line, Rhodes delivered a quick shove and ran stride for stride down the sideline. With no safety help behind him, Rhodes timed his jump perfectly and swatted away Josh McCown’s pass with his left hand in the end zone.
“That gives you a lot of confidence,” Rhodes said. “To make that receiver know that it’s going to be a battle, a 50-50 chance that you might get it, it’s a good feeling.”
The play of Rhodes the past month has left the Vikings feeling good about his future at a critical position. Elevated to starter because of an injury to Josh Robinson, Rhodes has displayed the kind of playmaking ability befitting the 25th overall pick.
Rhodes has four pass breakups in each of the past two games and 19 for the season, tying Orlando Thomas’ team rookie record set in 1995. Marcus Sherels is second on the team in pass breakups with eight.
Vikings coaches say Rhodes’ inexperience is still evident at times, but his improvement is impossible to ignore.
“He looks more comfortable out there in his own skin,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “I don’t know if the light switch has come on for him, but it’s tough playing corner in the NFL. You can’t overestimate experience and knowing what’s going to happen.”
A big step
Rhodes admittedly endured growing pains as he adjusted to the NFL and a more complicated defense. Specifically, he played primarily man coverage at Florida State so he had to learn new responsibilities in zone coverage.
Rather than play fast and instinctively, he looked tentative as he tried to process his assignments.
“I expected to go through some hardship at the beginning of my career,” he said. “I knew coming into the league that I had to be patient and learn from my mistakes.”
The Vikings remained patient, too, and resisted moving him into the starting lineup. Even as Robinson struggled early in the season, Rhodes played almost exclusively in nickel situations.
“He’s not an isolated case,” defensive backs coach Joe Woods said. “Every young guy I have coached, whether it’ a corner, safety or nickel, they’ve all gone through that process. It’s more based on what they’ve been exposed to coming out of college.”
The Vikings admired Rhodes’ size (6-1, 210 pounds) and willingness to challenge receivers at the line in press coverage in college. Rhodes insists he’s not “one-dimensional,” but his coaches have given him more freedom to play man coverage as his comfort level in the defense improved.
The results are obvious: Rhodes is making plays and looks self-assured when asked to cover elite receivers.
“We know he has the athletic ability,” Williams said. “We know he has all the tools, all the God-given ability. When you start making plays, it gives you a big boost of confidence.”
The next step in Rhodes’ development, coach Leslie Frazier said, is for him to turn pass breakups into interceptions.
“When I was watching one of the balls he got his hands on Sunday, I said, ‘Man, a year from now that’s going to be an interception,’ ” Frazier said. “He’ll have enough confidence not to go with one hand but to go up with two and he’ll catch that ball. But this is where he is in his development. Hopefully he’ll just keep growing.”
His growth chart includes facing some of the NFL’s best receivers. He’s already faced five of the league’s top 10 receivers this season, and Baltimore’s Torrey Smith, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson remain on the docket.
“That’s going to define you as a player, as a corner,” Rhodes said. “Going against those top guys and being able to play against them, that’s going to determine if you’re going to be a great player. Every week, it’s a hard challenge.”
Woods believes the true payoff will come next season after Rhodes can reflect on the ups and downs of his rookie season.
“When he sits back and looks at it, he can say, ‘Man, I went against Calvin [Johnson], I went against A.J. Green. You know what, I played them pretty good,’ ” Woods said. “That, more than anything I say, will help him in terms of [improving] next year.”