When Xavier Rhodes received a lucrative contract extension in late July, there was no doubt he earned it.
Having been asked to shadow top receivers for the majority of the previous three seasons, Rhodes passed nearly every test he faced, shutting down the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, DeAndre Hopkins and Calvin Johnson.
Sunday he faces another formidable test in Antonio Brown — perhaps the only time the two will meet while both in their prime, since the Vikings and Steelers only play once every four years.
As a rookie in 2013 when the Vikings and Steelers met, Rhodes took some reps against Brown, who went off for 12 catches and 88 yards in a Minnesota victory in London. Both players’ careers have skyrocketed since with Rhodes transforming into a Pro Bowl corner and Brown turning in four consecutive seasons of 1,200 yards or more. The two have also become friends after working out together in the offseason.
“To be able to line up against each other and be labeled one of the best at each position,” said Rhodes, “it’s a blessing.”
As friendly as they might be off the field, Rhodes will have his work cut out for him against his training buddy. Since the start of the 2013 season, Brown has seven or more catches in 38 of 64 regular season contests and can break a game open with his vertical route-running, as well as his ability to run after the catch.
His Week 1 performance showcased the best Brown has to offer as he caught 11 passes for 182 yards. Not counting toward his final stat total was a 41-yard pass interference call that Brown coaxed on a deep route, as well as a 15-yard reception that was called back due to a penalty away from the ball.
Brown did most of his work on short routes, making eight of his 11 catches within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. The Steelers love using his speed on crossing patterns to pick up first downs, much like the Vikings did with Stefon Diggs early in their game against the New Orleans Saints.
Pittsburgh battered Cleveland with Brown in the short passing game, then picked their spots to send Brown deep for game-breaking plays. He ran a post route for a 50-yard gain after hauling in a slightly-tipped ball in the middle of the field. He later found a soft spot in Cleveland’s coverage to pick up 19 yards. And with less than three minutes remaining, he ran the entire width of the field on a broken play to catch a 38-yard prayer from Ben Roethlisberger that sealed the Pittsburgh victory.
“He’s amazing,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “Finds ways to get open, tough, gets the ball in space. He’s tough to tackle. He’s a big play waiting to happen.”
Pittsburgh’s favorite formation for Brown — at least in the Cleveland game — was a two-man stack formation, in which Brown was usually positioned in front. This formation can create communication hassles for defenses and is great for completing short slants or other in-cutting routes.
It’s used for deep passes, too. Brown’s 50-yard catch and run came out of this formation (see below). He also made one catch from the back of the stack on a quick pass that resulted in a five-yard gain.
Because of Brown’s ability to blow the top of defenses, he is often given a lot of real estate underneath. For a Vikings defense that tends to allow shorter passes in order to prevent more explosive plays, it will be interesting to see how they approach Brown.
“He does a great job in his releases,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards. “Whether a guy’s pressed or whether a guy’s off, he’s shown the ability to create space in the opening five yards. He does a great job of that, which allows him to get further down the field.”
The onus, in all likelihood, will be on Rhodes to contain the uncontainable. Brown has 30 games with 100 or more receiving yards in his career.
According to Rhodes, his pal isn’t a big trash talker. He’ll go about his business a different way.
“He loves playing the game,” said Rhodes. “He’s always smiling.”