Every week following the Access Vikings Gameday Preview podcast, we'll delve deeper into who Andrew Krammer pegged as the potential difference maker for the upcoming game.
There is a common theme among the Panthers’ three losses since the end of the 2014 season.
You read that correctly. Reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton has a 22-3 record since he was frozen at TCF Bank Stadium in a late November defeat by the Vikings nearly two years ago.
Much of the focus heading into Sunday’s game in Charlotte has revolved around how the Vikings can limit the Panthers’ NFL-leading rushing attack, which is why I initially pegged nose tackle Linval Joseph vs. center Ryan Kalil as my matchup to watch. Though let me make a correction.
With the benefit of additional time to look at the Panthers’ three losses in that span, the attention should turn to cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who could make his season debut Sunday after suffering a knee injury two weeks ago. Rhodes returned to practice Wednesday and Thursday on a limited basis.
In each of the Panthers’ three losses, they’ve been able to run the ball effectively with 7.8, 4.4 and 4.9 yards per carry against the Falcons, Broncos and Broncos, in chronological order.
Where those defenses clamped down on was Newton, who in each of those games couldn’t eclipse 60 percent completion or create a 100-yard receiver.
That was also the case at TCF Bank Stadium, where Newton fell 0 for 6 while targeting Rhodes, who deflected three of those passes. Then-rookie Panthers standout receiver Kelvin Benjamin was limited to just five catches, none against Rhodes, on 12 targets for a pedestrian 56 yards.
Through two games this season, Benjamin already has 199 yards and three scores. Enter Rhodes.
A stingy and opportunistic defense has vaulted the Vikings to a 2-0 record. The return of their top cornerback could further raise the level of play to match what could very well be their regular season’s most dynamic and challenging offense.
Much has changed since that November 2014 win, chiefly Newton.
“He’s taken his game to the next level,” said Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who played with Newton from 2011-2013. “When I was there, he was very athletic; he’s still athletic. He was making plays with his legs and beating people off natural talent. Now he’s making plays with his head, being a smarter player, reading defenses and throwing the ball in tight windows.”
The Vikings feel Rhodes has also made strides, a thought reinforced by strong summer practices that saw him intercepting passes almost every other day. The fourth-year cornerback has learned how to use his length while continuing to iron out kinks that lead to starts like last season, when he was the NFL’s most-penalized cornerback through the first four weeks.
By the end of last season, Rhodes settled into a similar groove that had him shutting down Aaron Rodgers, Newton and others toward the end of 2014. Take the Week 14 loss in Arizona for example.
Another MVP candidate that year, Carson Palmer, could only find room while looking away from Rhodes, who finished the night with three deflections. Rhodes’ improved ability to mirror receivers without contact was on full display, including this downfield defense of J.J. Nelson on an underthrown pass.
The play above is one example of his improvement in off coverage, though his length is still best served up close. Take this whip route by Michael Floyd as another example of his improved play. Rhodes gets his shoulders turned by Floyd’s juke inside, though he’s able to recover and deflect the timed Palmer pass.
They ended on a high note, but Vikings cornerbacks had an uneven outing against Rodgers last week. So it’s possible they revert to a previously-used tactic of having Rhodes track the opponent’s top receiver, in this case Benjamin, all over the field.
“This is the first time I’ve really seen him go after the football since I’ve been here,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of Rhodes this summer. “There have been some plays where he really tries to intercept it.”