Six days before Xavier Rhodes pushed around Giants Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr. on Monday night, he was at home enjoying a day away from the training facilities when his phone rang.
Rhodes, the Vikings' long-armed and disruptive cornerback, has grown accustomed to, if not comfortable with, the distinguished order he was about to receive from defensive backs coach Jerry Gray.
"Told me I'd be shadowing 13 [Beckham]," Rhodes said. "It's a challenge I couldn't turn down."
It was only the first step taken by an aggressive Vikings defense to render yet another of the NFL's top receivers powerless. In the third year of coach Mike Zimmer's tenure in Minnesota, his defensive playbook is growing and his star pupils in the secondary have supplied the physical, pass-swatting coverage he envisions.
Titans rookie Tajae Sharpe's 76 yards is the best a receiver has done against the Vikings through four games of an undefeated start. Holding Beckham to a career-worst three catches was primarily Rhodes, who didn't play until Week 3 because of a knee injury, in a game-long verbal and physical battle that prompted Beckham into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a few sideline outbursts.
"I think I just have to control what I can control. I can control myself," said Beckham, whom Giants President John Mara said Thursday "sometimes goes a little too far."
Rhodes is the most visible portion of a defensive blanket that lately has smothered many No. 1 receivers, including Beckham, Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, Chicago's Alshon Jeffery and Atlanta's Julio Jones, dating to Week 12 of last season.
Rhodes shadowed three of them (not Benjamin) and during those four Vikings victories, the top opposing receivers combined for only nine catches, 89 yards and a touchdown.
That's a mediocre game for one star, let alone as a collective effort against one defense.
Rhodes is not demanding to be named a "shutdown corner." He said he doesn't even ask coaches to follow an opponent's top receiver, as he could with Houston's DeAndre Hopkins on Sunday, but instead trusts a system featuring a potent mixture of talent and a head coach seen around the league as a defensive trendsetter.
"It's the unit," Rhodes said. "It's not just shutting down a receiver. Once you stop the run, you make them one-dimensional. You make them have to pass the ball, then you can rush the passer and can [force] quicker throws and predict that to happen, then you call the right plays."
You don't need to search long to find a Vikings defense without an increasingly polished talent such as the 6-1, 218-pound Rhodes to shadow a top receiver.
A year before hiring Zimmer in 2013, the Vikings gave up 37 passing touchdowns (flirting with the then-NFL record of 40). The defense gave up eight 100-yard games by receivers that season.
In the 37 games since, only nine such 100-yard days happened against the Vikings. For their defensive play-caller, variety is the key to confusing opposing offenses.
"There's a combination of things," Zimmer said. "Different looks, different disguises, different coverages. Sometimes you're trying to be physical with them at the line. Sometimes it's help over the top. We're fortunate to have smart guys, especially with the safeties."
Seamless communication, led by safety Harrison Smith in the secondary, allows the defense to mislead quarterbacks with pre-snap disguises and subtle coverages.
Future Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers have lauded Zimmer for establishing defensive concepts copied around the league. The Vikings' featured fronts, including crowding the line with seven defenders on third down, can overpower and confuse quarterbacks. Subtle weekly changes keep them off-balance.
"You see similarities in each week's game plan and you also see game plan tweaks each week for different opponents," Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "The thing that really jumps out is you see the corners being physical at the line."
Aggressive man-to-man, or man-within-zone, coverages were new to Rhodes, Smith and other Vikings defensive backs when Zimmer and his staff established their rule book 2½ years ago. Now it's the bread and butter that, along with a fierce pass rush and varied play calls, has turned a once-toothless defense into a group star receivers should fear.
"I remember the first time we went in the red zone [in 2014]," Zimmer said. "It was nothing like we look now as far as techniques and understanding how you [have] to play. It's not a knock on anybody else, but it's trying to get them to understand things. It was a lot of new stuff.
"It's way different now than it was then."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.