The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks will meet in the Super Bowl on Sunday. The other 30 teams in the NFL have already begun working toward building a team capable of qualifying for next year's Super Bowl. It's only natural, then, to take a close look at how the Patriots and Seahawks got the job done this year.
The Patriots and Seahawks are different teams and took different paths to reach the pinnacle of the sport. But there are some commonalities. Both are well-coached teams. Both have playmakers at quarterback. Both have physical running backs.
Another commonality between the two teams is that both have superstars at one of the League's most important positions – cornerback. New England rolls out Darrelle Revis and Seattle boasts Richard Sherman. Together, Revis and Sherman have made eight Pro Bowls, earned seven First-Team All-Pro honors and collected 47 interceptions.
Having a superstar cornerback in the mix on defense is not the be-all, end-all to fielding a good team. But it's a valuable component. Finding a superstar cornerback is also much easier said than done.
While it's too early to put him in the Revis-Sherman class, Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes has people within the organization optimistic about his future. The Florida State product had some ups and downs as a rookie in 2013, but in 2014 Rhodes took a significant step forward. Even though it was almost like a second rookie season for Rhodes as he learned a new defense, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer sees promise.
"He's got a chance to be a really good football player and he's going to progress more with the mental aspect of the game," Zimmer explained after the Vikings regular season finale. "Right now he's relying a lot on his physical ability and once he figures it out…and there are a lot of other things that we can do with him that allow us to continue to be good defensively and it just depends on how fast he progresses into where he's going."
The progression accelerated in 2014. Rhodes finished the season with a team-high 18 pass breakups and he even grabbed his first career interception. On top of defending the pass well, Rhodes has also proven to be sound against the run, adding 3.0 tackles for loss to his season-long statistics.
"When the ball comes over there he's going to hit, the back comes over, he's going to hit him," Zimmer said. "He's not going to get out of the way and that's all part about, we don't have cover corners, we have corners that have to tackle too."
Aside from Zimmer, another coach who has played a key role in Rhodes' development is defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. Zimmer credited Gray several times during the season for his work with Rhodes.
"He's a long guy with long arms, great technique right now," Gray commented. "If you put the first play of OTAs to now, you see a much improved player and when you improve, your confidence grows and that's where he is in this state. Keep making the plays you're supposed to make, don't try to do too much, and I think he's going to be really good.
"You're only going to keep getting better and when you master all the techniques, now you can study the game, you can learn what the receivers are trying to do. That's going to be his improvement from year one of playing in this system to year two because he won't have to worry about his techniques. We've got to keep staying on him, but that's when he's going to take that jump."