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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Krammer: Vikings working to refocus Xavier Rhodes, recapture disruptive play

By Andrew Krammer

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Palms to the sky, Mike McCarthy left both feet as he lurched his body in disbelief, turning to the line judge for a flag that never came.

Just about a year ago, cornerback Xavier Rhodes was the disruptive hand that deflected two of Aaron Rodgers’ 29 throws in the Vikings’ closest of the last nine losses to Green Bay, a 24-21 defeat at TCF Bank Stadium.

Rhodes’ second deflection thwarted an attempt to Jordy Nelson on 3rd and 1, leaving McCarthy in shock that the corner’s physical play didn’t result in a penalty.

“That was a hard-battling game,” Rhodes remembered Wednesday. “I felt like it was intense.”

As the Vikings (7-2) host the Packers on Sunday for the second and final time at their temporary outdoor home, their No. 2-ranked scoring defense is much improved in the second season under coach Mike Zimmer. They’re collectively playing with a sure-tackling discipline and a hard-hitting attitude that reflects their head coach.

Rodgers is trying to pull his Packers (6-3) out of a three-game losing streak against a Vikings’ secondary that has only surrendered 11 passing touchdowns in nine games, the fifth-fewest in the league. With Zimmer’s reputation as a defensive guru, many expected the Vikings to make a leap in 2015.

Unexpectedly, Rhodes has been the weak link in coverage when he was supposed to be the team’s most impactful corner following his strong surge in the second half of last season.

In a secondary starting the NFL’s oldest cornerback in Terence Newman, 37, and last year’s maligned (and now much improved) slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, Rhodes has been target No. 1.

Quarterbacks have thrown at Rhodes a team-high 60 times, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s been beat for five touchdowns, the most allowed by a single Vikings defender this season. Varied reasons have led to scores on Rhodes, as three have come while he’s playing off the line (off coverage), one was a jump ball at the goal line to Calvin Johnson and he was bested on a double move by Keenan Allen for a 34-yard score in Week 3. Some plays, like Alshon Jeffery’s leaping grab on a 21-yard score in Chicago, would’ve bested the most polished cornerbacks.

But Rhodes’ position coach, Jerry Gray, sees offenses attacking his weaknesses, which he says come on out-breaking routes and against bigger targets, like Raiders tight end Clive Walford, who caught a 10-yard touchdown on an out route Sunday, and Johnson, who scored twice on Rhodes in two games this season, both coming at the side of the end zone.

Rhodes, the 25th-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, has just four pass deflections and no interceptions to 11 penalties (two declined) so far in his third season.

“I think he’s developing at a rate where I’d like it to be faster,” Gray said. “To where they run out routes…and he’s learning how to sit on tight ends and stuff like that. That’s what you want him to do.

“It’s a process, that’s the thing he has to understand. He got thrown in the fire last year, made a lot of good plays, and now you have to work harder, because guess what, they know you can make plays. So, they’re not going to take you for granted, they’re going to work against you. So that’s the thing he needs to understand as a pro, you have to consistently work on your game, because they’re going to work on your game, too.”

You’ll hear “focus” and likewise words from coaches, and Rhodes, on where he needs to step up. Zimmer, who is a disciplinarian for technique just as much as knowledge of the game, stresses education in route concepts, receiver alignments and tendencies with all of his defensive backs.

When asked what Rhodes needs to improve on, Zimmer’s one-word answer could spill into both on and off the field: “Concentration.”

“[Zimmer] has always told me to focus, be focused,” Rhodes said. “Just reminding me to remain focused, not just out there playing.”

Rhodes is at his best when using his body to overpower opponents, specifically his 79-inch wingspan to press and reroute receivers. Like his teammates, Rhodes excels in limiting yards after the catch as a sound tackler.

But the mental aspect is heightened at positions like cornerback, where you can give up a game-changing play with the tug of a jersey. Seven penalties in the first four games may have thrown him off as Gray came out of the team’s Week 5 bye with boxing gloves as a teaching tool to prevent him from grabbing during practices.

Gray also notices offenses tweaking their formations and alignments on Rhodes’ side of the field, perhaps a counter to Rhodes’ standout play from the end of last season. While Zimmer used his biggest corner, Rhodes, to shadow the Lions’ top target in Johnson this season, he’s otherwise kept him on the right side of the field, which means Rhodes is at the mercy of whatever offenses put on that side.

The Vikings want Rhodes to press and be physical with receivers, that’s his strength. But that doesn’t mean offenses are going to put receivers in position to be jammed by him. This season, opponents have mixed up their formations in an effort to neutralize Rhodes’ press, Gray said: “Sometimes they’ll put a tight end out there, sometime they’ll put a running back out there, it’s little things like that they’ll do.”

Opponents this season have also rarely thrown short, in-breaking routes on Rhodes, whose long arms have stifled many slants in his young career. They’ve focused on going to the outside more, while also mixing up alignments that can force him off the line of scrimmage.

Though Gray doesn’t think Rhodes is playing more off coverage this season, Rhodes said he feels like that’s the case as he is still learning how to succeed against receivers without putting his hands on them.

“It’s the alignments of the receivers and stuff like that make me play a little off [coverage],” Rhodes said. “Certain little things that I have to play off, so I’m playing a lot more off than I did last year.

“It’s something where I’m not at my best.”

Three of the five touchdowns allowed by Rhodes have come while he’s playing ‘off technique,’ or backed off the line, including a broken play in Week 2 that led to a 10-yard touchdown to Johnson, who made a tiptoe grab at the edge of the end zone with Rhodes trailing.

“Press is a whole lot easier than playing off,” fellow cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “Because you can press a guy and knock off the timing with the quarterback. The NFL is all about timing routes…If you play off, it’s difficult. You’re giving him a lot of separation. It’s kind of easier for a receiver to run routes on you.”

Rhodes’ setback in his third season is all the more perplexing when knowing he’s made plays from the off technique before, including one of his two pass deflections against Green Bay in last year’s loss at TCF Bank Stadium.

Just like he’s seen this year, the Packers aligned Nelson behind the line of scrimmage, and Rhodes played seven yards off the ball across from him. At the snap, Rhodes took a few short steps back, and darted forward when he saw Nelson break on an out route. With great timing, Rhodes batted the pass with his left hand as one of his 18 deflections of the 2014 season.

More than halfway through this year’s campaign, Rhodes is looking for his fifth deflection and first interception of 2015.

“You want to see him make plays he made last year,” Gray said. “You want to see him start making them this year.”

The post Krammer: Vikings working to refocus Xavier Rhodes, recapture disruptive play appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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