After Sharpening Thielen's Game, Xavier Rhodes Will Try to Lock Him Down

Photo Credit: Marc Lebryk (USA Today Sports)

Xavier Rhodes ended his Minnesota career as an oft-pilloried scapegoat for their defensive woes. The “Rhodes Closed” credo that the corner made prominent in his prime was meme’d against him (Rhodes Open?) as he declined gradually throughout the 2018-19 seasons.

Released with three years remaining on a five-year extension with the Vikings, Rhodes found a new home with the Indianapolis Colts, hopeful that he could sustain his career in a system that’s less dependent upon press man coverage, where Rhodes made his name in Minnesota. Now distanced from the coverage breakdowns, sideline boil-overs and injury issues of 2019, the Vikings have an easier time reflecting positively on their best overall corner of the 2010s.

“I love Xavier. He’s a great kid, a good competitor,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “We had a lot of good times together. We worked really close for a number of years.”

After the 2014 season, Rhodes went up to Zimmer and thanked him for all the time Zimmer invested to turn him into one of the league’s rising stars — he was second in the NFL in pass breakups that season with 15. It was the beginning of a four-year stretch where he would only allow one receiver to gain over 80 yards against him and allowed a mere 55% completion percentage on passes thrown his way.

Along the way he helped sharpen Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who blossomed into a feared wide receiver duo at the same time Rhodes was in his prime. The 2013 season where Rhodes was a highly-touted first-round pick, Thielen was an NFL wannabe that parlayed a rookie tryout into a spot on the practice squad where he got his first experiences against Rhodes.

“Shoot, I can go back to Day 1 in the Vikings organization at rookie camp [in 2013], going against him every single day,” Thielen said. “Pretty much from there on, looking at my practice squad year, going against him every day, and then moving forward in training camp and things like that. Honestly, he’s probably been a big part of who I am today because he’s challenged me, he’s pushed me, he’s made things very difficult on me. That’s what helps you become a better football player when you have a challenge like that, you’re constantly having to perform your best and having to get better, so I give him honestly a lot of credit for helping me become the player I am today.”

It’s tough to quantify Rhodes’ impact as a Viking since his greatest trait was preventing throws to his side of the field. But his 73 career passes defended is second to only Antoine Winfield‘s 74 in the 21 years since the stat was tracked. Rhodes also reserved a vintage performance for the 2019 playoffs, when he contributed to a monumental defensive effort as the Vikings upset the New Orleans Saints.

“I have the utmost respect for Xavier,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He’s done it for a long time and we always asked a lot of him. When we beat the Saints I think he was the very first person to hug me in the playoff game, which says something about him as a teammate and a person, so it’ll be strange seeing him in blue and white, but I have nothing but good things to say about him as a player and a person.”

Rhodes had a more difficult time staying on the field in 2018-19. Repeated tweaks to his foot, ankle and knee slowed him physically — many times knocking him out of games — and rendered him unable to play the physical press that allowed Rhodes to lock down elite receivers like Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins. He also stopped shadowing receivers in 2019 while playing more off coverage, which enabled pass catchers to rack up yards. Rhodes ended last season permitting a 131.1 passer rating against with 10 penalties committed and five touchdowns allowed. His release in March cleared over $8 million of cap space, ending a seven-year run in Minnesota.

With the Colts, Rhodes will be asked to play more zone. In his debut Rhodes played 43 of 50 snaps as the Colts fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20. The 30-year-old wasn’t challenged much but encountered some issues when targeted. He allowed a first down catch to Keelan Cole on a 3rd and 4, interfered with DJ Chark for a 30-yard penalty in the third quarter and was charged with allowing Cole’s go-ahead touchdown catch in the fourth quarter after biting too hard on play-action. It’s possible Rhodes should’ve received help on Cole’s crossing route.

“You could tell in Week 1 even though we didn’t play our best game as a team that Xavier, there were a handful of plays where physically he made his presence known, and that’s really important in our defensive scheme,” said Colts head coach Frank Reich. “We just feel like he’s a good one-on-one cover guy. He’s long, he’s experienced, he’s savvy, he understands what offenses are trying to do. We had a few miscues last week, but we’ll get those cleaned up. We expect Xavier to be a strong player for us.”

Rhodes didn’t shadow any receivers in Week 1, though he may know more about Thielen’s tendencies than any corner in football. Indianapolis also has second-year corner Rock Ya-Sin to play on the boundary with Kenny Moore II in the slot.

“You never know in each game,” Zimmer said. “Maybe because he knows Adam pretty well and he’s gone against him in practice a lot, maybe he will [shadow]. But I don’t think that will be the case.”

Said Rhodes about his former team: “It’s all love. There for seven years. It was a brotherhood when I was there. It’s a brotherhood to this day, but I’m going to be able to tackle them this time.”

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