EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When the Minnesota Vikings drafted Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes -- who had excelled in press coverage in college -- the natural assumption was they were going to give the big, physical receivers in their division a taste of their own medicine. They'd be able to put Rhodes opposite the 6-foot-2 Chris Cook, after all, and defensive backs coach Joe Woods said before this season the Vikings were looking forward to playing more press coverage after drafting Rhodes.
For whatever reason, though, they hadn't done much of it this season before Sunday. When he'd been asked to play off receivers or execute zone assignments instead of jamming wideouts, Rhodes had looked like a rookie. It might not be a coincidence, though, that he had possibly his best game of the season in a tie with the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, when the Vikings put Rhodes in man coverage and let him do his thing.
He broke up four passes on Sunday, returning from a leg injury before trying to tackle Packers running back Eddie Lacy and leaving with a concussion. The Vikings, as a whole, used more man coverage against the Packers, as they brought extra pressure in an attempt to rattle starting quarterback Scott Tolzien (and later replacement Matt Flynn).
"We wanted to be able to bring more pressure, and that required us being able to play more man and make those quarterbacks have to be accurate passers. It was effective for the most part," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We had some PIs (pass interference calls) because we were playing some man that kind of inhibits what you do, but it was the right strategy."
Minnesota rushed five or more defenders on 21 of the Packers' 94 offensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The only times the Vikings have done it more this season were against the New York Giants (24.6 percent) and the Cleveland Browns (36 percent). In both of those cases, the Vikings were trying to pressure quarterbacks who were either new (Brian Hoyer) or prone to turnovers (Eli Manning). But they've also had to help out a defensive line that hasn't gotten to the quarterback as consistently this season as it has in years past.
The Vikings had two sacks on Sunday; one came from Audie Cole on a blitz, and defensive end Brian Robison got the other. But defensive end Jared Allen was shut out in both games against the Packers for the first time in his career, and he only got one quarterback hit on Sunday.
Whether it's been Cole, Chad Greenway or Erin Henderson, the Vikings have found some success firing linebackers through the middle of opposing offensive lines this year, and they might be tempted to keep it up during the last few games of the season. That strategy usually requires man coverage that can free up defenders to rush the passer, and blitzes can be especially effective if cornerbacks can jam receivers to throw off their timing with the quarterback. The Vikings have been reluctant to do it with Rhodes before now, but if the rookie can return from a concussion in time for Sunday's game with the Chicago Bears, he could get a chance to do more of it.