MINNEAPOLIS -- Of the Minnesota Vikings' three first-round picks, cornerback Xavier Rhodes was probably always going to be the hardest to evaluate in his first season. He came out of college with some experience in the various zone schemes the Vikings would ask him to play, but Rhodes' specialty in college was press coverage, where he had to do little other than jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage and stick with him after that. Though defensive backs coach Joe Woods spoke over the summer of the Vikings' ability to be more physical with receivers now that they had Rhodes, the Vikings played little press coverage before last Sunday's tie against the Green Bay Packers.
It might not be a coincidence, then, that Rhodes had his best game of the season at Lambeau Field. He was credited with four pass breakups, and in the Vikings' grading system, Rhodes made nine of the 11 plays he had an opportunity to make. The cornerback appeared to be in zone coverage when Jarrett Boykin caught a six-yard touchdown pass on a dig route in the fourth quarter, but before he left with a concussion, Rhodes largely stood up to a Packers offense that looked his way early and often.
"He's been putting the pieces together with each game," Woods said. "We're working on things he was struggling with early. But it just seemed in that Green Bay game, he put some things together and finally showcased what he can do."
Woods said he doesn't typically expect everything to click for a cornerback until his third year in the league. And because the position is so visible, that means a cornerback's first two years in the league can be filled with some ugly moments. For example, a miscommunication between Rhodes and second-year cornerback Josh Robinson was at the heart of Brandon LaFell's 79-yard touchdown in the Vikings' Week 5 loss to the Carolina Panthers, and just the week before the Green Bay game, Rhodes was burned for his longest completion of the season when he slipped after a double move from Seattle's Doug Baldwin and allowed a 44-yard reception.
Woods' defensive backs are typically the last players off the practice field each day, as Woods puts the young secondary through extra work with quarterback Josh Freeman, and the coach said Rhodes has been working on his fluency in zone coverage all season.
"The thing Xavier's really striving for is being a good overall corner," Woods said. "The things we ask him to do outside of playing press man are the things he's really been working hard at, so he can have success if we're playing three-deep (coverage), if we're playing two-deep, if we're playing our zone pressures. You can see him improving in each area. When he was at Florida State, he played a little bit of everything we do, but he wasn't exposed to it as much. There's a lot of adjustments that we ask our corners to make within zone coverages or within our zone pressures, and I think early on, just the adjustments within the coverage are what he struggled with during the game. You could see him in practice, where it seemed more natural to him, and that Green Bay game, it seemed like he was in the comfort zone."
Press coverage might always be what Rhodes does best -- at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he certainly has the size to do it, and anyone who saw him send Jerome Simpson staggering back in training camp can attest to how physical Rhodes can be at the line of scrimmage. But at least as long as he's with the Vikings in a Cover-2 scheme, he'll be asked to do other things, and he'll likely be judged on how much he can diversify his game.
"I kind of parallel a corner's learning curve similar to a quarterback," Woods said. "The conversation I always have with him is, 'Hey, this week we're playing a new opponent. There's things they're going to do that I can't get you ready for, because I don't know what's coming. But over the course of time and playing multiple games, you're going to see everything. And when that point comes, that's when you're going to feel comfortable."