For the better part of a half decade, Minnesota Vikings fans have grown accustomed to continuity on Mike Zimmer’s defense. Everson Griffen rushing the passer, Anthony Barr roaming the middle of the field, Harrison Smith lurking in the back end and Xavier Rhodes terminating opponents’ top receiver.
It’s unsettling, therefore, to see potential cracks in one of those constants.
Rhodes, a shutdown corner throughout his Vikings tenure, is enduring one of the toughest statistical stretches of his career. Quarterbacks are suddenly challenging the 29-year-old rather than avoiding him, and they’re succeeding. Rhodes has allowed 317 receiving yards this season, per Pro Football Focus, to go with three touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 124.7. He’s also been flagged seven times, tied for the most of any defensive back in the league.
Per the Star Tribune, the flags are bothering Rhodes far more than the coverage woes.
“I feel like in coverage, I’ve been great in coverage all the games I’ve played, but it’s the penalties that have been killing me,” he said.
Zimmer has remained mostly supportive of Rhodes throughout the first half of the season, conceding only that the veteran can still improve his technique. The head coach has been known to use a basketball analogy to describe Rhodes’ style of play, and he went back to it Thursday night in defense of his cornerback.
“Hey, this guy has to play like a power forward,” Zimmer said. “That’s how he has to play. That’s his game. He’s not going to play like Mackensie [Alexander] or Mike Hughes or one of these little guys. He’s got to play as a power forward and if he gets some penalties he’s going to get some. We talk to him about getting his hands in the right place and don’t grab and those things like that. But his game is being a power forward and that’s what he has to do.”
Rhodes has always been penalty prone, so that aspect isn’t anything new. He’s averaged 10 penalties per season over the past five years and is on pace for 14 this season. Several of his seven flags have been especially damaging: His 12.5 penalty yards per game are the most of any NFL player. Those penalties were easier to swallow when Rhodes was locking down top wideouts, but that isn’t happening anymore — at least not with the same jaw-dropping regularity. Teams aren’t necessarily throwing at Rhodes more frequently than in past years, but they are challenging him far more effectively.
XAVIER RHODES COMPLETION PCT ALLOWED (PER PFF)
The former first-round pick gave up four receptions Thursday night against the Washington Redskins on four targets, not including a 19-yard pass interference penalty. As the chart shows, he’s allowed 34 receptions on 40 targets in 2019. Shockingly, the only corner in football to allow more receptions is Rhodes’ counterpart Trae Waynes with 35, though he’s been targeted 51 times. Those high totals can partially be explained away by trailing teams feeling obligated to pass the football, though Rhodes was targeted early in both the Vikings’ losses where he allowed a combined 14 catches on 15 targets overall.
But Zimmer has accepted some culpability for his defensive calls.
“I’m talking to him about being over the top on receivers because that’s what we’re trying to do,” Zimmer said Thursday. “And I always tell them, if they throw those balls [underneath] then I need to change the coverage.”
Rhodes has seemingly played more off coverage this season, ostensibly per Zimmer’s orders. The corner has had a tougher time in press coverage, where his ‘power forward’ skillset has usually manifested itself. Rhodes gave up a 35-yard touchdown to Darius Slayton in Week 5 out of press and appeared to receive a sideline tongue-lashing from Zimmer. He surrendered 3- and 2-yard touchdowns to Marvin Jones in Detroit where the smaller receiver gained enough separation at the goal line to make contested grabs. He allowed three double-digit gains by Davante Adams in Week 2. And three of his four receptions allowed against Washington came against press (Zimmer said Rhodes should’ve received safety help on the completion allowed where he played off).
Big 🍎 Touchdown
— All-American Bowl (@AABonNBC) October 6, 2019
Rhodes gave up two first-down grabs to rookie Terry McLaurin, who beat him running hitches on 2nd and 6 and 3rd and 1. Later, Rhodes lost to Kelvin Harmon on a slant and failed to make the tackle, letting Harmon run for a first down.
Terry McLaurin running routes like a vet 📈📈
— PFF (@PFF) October 25, 2019
Then there’s the penalty, where Rhodes contacted McLaurin before the ball reached the receiver — his third pass interference of the season to go with two defensive holds and one illegal contact.
Rhodes entered the concussion protocol late in the first half and did not return, leaving his final line fairly harmless. But for a short stretch of play in the first half, former teammate Case Keenum seemed unafraid to pick on Minnesota’s most well-respected corner.
So far this season, Rhodes is bending more and locking down less. His coverage snaps per reception ratio (8.0) is tied for worst in the NFL out of qualified corners, but his yards per coverage snap (1.17) is 58th out of 104, meaning Rhodes is preventing bigger plays at the expense of allowing catches. Those numbers don’t include penalty yardage, but Zimmer doesn’t believe drastic measures are required to change Rhodes’ style.
“Sometimes he’s going to have some [penalties],” Zimmer said Thursday. “The one last night, that one does not bother me. Honestly, we’re going to continue to work on his technique, work on the things he needs to do and change up with some of the things he has to do a little bit better, but I’m good with Xavier.”
As the Vikings head into back-to-back road games against successful passing offenses in Kansas City and Dallas, Rhodes will need to rediscover his moxie.