News

Print
RSS

Xavier Rhodes: The X Factor

Posted Dec 13, 2016

When cornerback Xavier Rhodes felt the weight of the ball in his hands, only one word surged through his mind: RUN.

And run he did.

Topping out at 22.40 miles per hour, Rhodes took the ball from one end zone to the other for a Vikings touchdown.

The interception came at a crucial point, as the Cardinals crept toward a score of their own shortly before halftime on Nov. 20.

On third-and-goal from the Vikings 9-yard line, Carson Palmer had dropped back and fired a pass intended for wide receiver John Brown. Rhodes stepped in for the pick and didn’t break stride. At the Cardinals 45, he turned in from the sideline and stole a quick glance over his shoulder before taking it to the house.

The cornerback could feel Brown gaining ground behind him after the interception.

“I knew he was pretty fast, so that’s why I looked back and I cut it back inside,” said Rhodes, whose performance prompted a post-game phone call from fellow Florida State alum and Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders.

“A hundred – that’s a cornerback’s dream,” Sanders told Rhodes.

Will it help send Rhodes, who is tied for the most interceptions by an NFC corner this season, to his first Pro Bowl?

Rhodes leads the Vikings with four interceptions this season and has garnered mention and fan votes fort the 2017 Pro Bowl. Fan voting concludes Dec. 13, and players and coaches will vote this week. The teams will be announced Dec. 20 in a prime-time show on NFL Network. 

The 100-yard play was Rhodes’ first pick-6 since high school, and he later snagged a second takeaway for the only multiple-interception game of his four-year career.

With more than five minutes left on the third quarter clock, Palmer stepped forward at his own 31-yard line and launched a deep ball to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Rhodes, a stride ahead of Floyd and with help underneath, made the diving catch to once again give the ball back to Minnesota’s offense.

“He learned to catch all of a sudden,” quipped Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. “He couldn’t catch a cold the first three years, and he caught two picks.”

Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said a change in Rhodes’ mindset has helped him to do exactly that.

“Sometimes young guys come in, and they don’t understand the value of the turnover,” Gray explained. “You have to put yourself in a position first to get PBUs (pass breakups).

“Then this year, I try to get him to understand that if you’re close, you should be able to make interceptions, and not just think of a pass defensed,” Gray added. “So to me, it’s more of that mindset – ‘If I’m in position, I can go get the football,’ rather than thinking, ‘I’m going to knock the ball down.’ That’s the safest thing for young guys to do.”

When the Vikings drafted Rhodes in the first round of the 2013 draft, he played 13 games – starting six – and set a franchise rookie record with 23 pass breakups but did not record an interception. Under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, Rhodes snagged one pick apiece during the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Having played 11 games of his fourth NFL season, Rhodes is tied for second in the NFC with four interceptions, including the return for a touchdown against Arizona.

Securing turnovers for Minnesota’s defense is a confidence builder.

“The more he makes those plays, Xavier can go back and rely on, ‘OK, my technique put me in this position. I did what the defense told me to do, and then they threw the ball my way, and I got a chance to make a play,’ ” Gray said. “And that’s what you really want young guys to keep going through – that’s your process.”

As a coach, Gray works to keep his players focused on that process, and he’s seen Rhodes come a long way in the past two seasons.

“A lot of times, once you start making plays, you want to make more plays,” Gray said. “[And they can] forget about the position they’re in, forget about this and that. And I keep reminding them, ‘It’s your technique, it’s the defense, and the ball will come.’ Those are three things we always harp on.”

Rhodes has flourished in Zimmer’s defensive system, and it’s obvious to coaches and teammates alike.

Gray said he recognized Rhodes’ athletic ability immediately upon joining the team in 2014, but he also saw a young player “trying to find his way” in the pros. As a rookie, Rhodes often played in a zone defense for Leslie Frazier. When Zimmer took the reins in 2014, it allowed the second-year corner to play more man-to-man coverage, which better aligned with his collegiate experience.

Rather than attempting to anticipate receivers coming off the line of scrimmage, Rhodes now has more opportunities to press and match his target stride for stride.

“He’s grown over the course of three years,” Gray said. “We’ve seen him go from a guy who’s trying to read from off [coverage] to really getting back to what he’s really good at.”

Rhodes’ comrades have witnessed the same transformation.

While running back Jerick McKinnon said following the return touchdown that he was impressed by Rhodes’ speed, he wasn’t at all surprised that he made the picks.

“Xavier’s made plays all year on defense,” McKinnon said. “They tried him, he made a play.”

Added McKinnon with a laugh: “He put the burners on; I was happy to see that.”

Nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who often plays inside from Rhodes, said he’s proud of his teammate.

“The guy works hard. It’s his job to play [the opponent’s] best receiver each and every week, and he’s up for the challenge,” Munnerlyn said. “He works hard on and off the field. He’s a guy that wants to be great, and it’s definitely showing this year.”


Vote for Xavier Rhodes for the Pro Bowl by visiting vikings.com/ProBowl or by tweeting "#ProBowlVote Xavier Rhodes.”