EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The long arms of Xavier Rhodes have made it difficult for opponents to throw the ball against the Vikings cornerback in his first three seasons.
This offseason, his hands have been more involved, and they look like they're ready to make it tougher for an opponent to get the ball back.
Rhodes has made a handful of interceptions, including two in the end zone and a near third, since the Vikings first practice of training camp. He was at it again Sunday, in the team's first practice at Winter Park in nearly two months, covering substantial ground and tracking the ball deep down the field.
"It's just attacking the ball once it's in the air, instead of trying to knock it down," Rhodes said. "Not misjudging it or anything like that."
Rhodes has been around the ball since his debut season of 2013 when he set a Vikings rookie record with 23 passes defended, a single-season total that ranks second all-time in team history. He added 18 in 2014 and 13 more in 2015.
Rhodes nabbed his first interception against Chicago in 2014, and delivered a key pick at Green Bay this past season to help the Vikings claim the 2015 NFC North title.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer challenged his team to create more turnovers this season and said Rhodes is "better than he was" at finishing plays with INTs instead of PBUs. Zimmer cited Rhodes working after practice to catch passes from a JUGS machine as "a conscious effort" by Rhodes.
"That's helping a lot with locating the ball, looking the ball down, once it's coming out of the JUGS and getting my hands up fast enough," Rhodes said. "The reaction has been helping a lot, so when it's that time, and the ball is coming fast, I can react to it much faster than before."
There's also a comfort zone that Rhodes is reaching in his third season in this defense.
"He has caught the ball better this year," Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said. "We've seen him make some plays that he hasn't made in the past, but I think his familiarity with what's going on schematically and what's going on at his position, technique and fundamental-wise, he's able to really turn it loose and go play a little bit more rather than having to think so much to react.
"I think his reaction time has been better," Edwards added. "(There are) still things that we've got to get improved on, but where he's at right now, it's good to see that he has retained a lot of that information."
Safety Harrison Smith, who has 12 interceptions in his first four seasons, said Rhodes has impressed teammates.
"I think that was something we saw in the night practice (at training camp)," Smith said. "He's always been great at going up and knocking balls down and things like that. Just the more balls we can get our hands on and turnover, it's going to help our team win."
Smith said the Vikings "didn't play as well as we wanted to" against the Bengals, "but we got some good tape to correct and try and get better this upcoming week."
After two solid days of practices against Cincinnati and a solid camp, Smith felt the Vikings didn't carry things over into game action as well as they could have.
"You get a lot more reps in training camp, and we've obviously have gotten a lot better since we've been here," Smith said. "I think we just need to transfer that to the field, because no matter what you do in practice, if you don't do it in a game, if you're somebody different, then you're not going to be playing the right techniques, you're not going to be playing the right calls, so you just have to transfer what we're doing on the practice field to the game field and be the same person."
Veteran Brian Robison, who is preparing for his 10th pro season, sounds confident that the Vikings will fix a few items with the remainder of the preseason.
"We'll be fine. A lot of stuff that they got on us the other day was just quick passes," Robison said. "I think we've been doing some things great in training camp to give ourselves a better opportunity to get after the passer, which is playing the run much better. I think we'll be fine on that. We've just got to make sure that all 11 guys are doing their job, and if we do that, we've shown we can be pretty good."
Up to Adrian?
Zimmer was asked during a session with beat writers if he has considered whether or not Adrian Peterson will play at all during the preseason.
"I haven't talked to him about it lately," Zimmer said.
Asked why the coach would play the running back, he said it depends if Peterson wants to play at all in the preseason, not because the coach needs to see more from the three-time rushing champ and seven-time Pro Bowler.
"If he wants to. I see him on highlight films every week," Zimmer said. "I'm going to sit down and talk to him about it, but if he wants to play, if he goes in there, he's probably not going to get one pass and then out, so he's going to play."
Right tackle rotation
Andre Smith was back with the first team at right tackle on Monday after the Vikings opted to go with T.J. Clemmings at the post in Sunday's practice. Smith started against Cincinnati, but Zimmer has continued to evaluate the offensive line.
He said, "We'll just keep working them and figure it out."
Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner also was asked about the competition Monday and said, "Both guys are working over there, and I think we're getting good production."
"It's a long process. I think it's very good competition right now," Turner added. "We don't have to make a decision right now, so that's good. You just get a chance to see them playing games and play against good players.
"I think with Andre, you have a more experienced player, a guy who has seen a lot of things," Turner added. "He adjusts – or should adjust – quicker to different things the defense give you, With T.J., you still have a very young player, who thinks every day it's something new can come up. He's working hard, and he adjusts to it well, but there is still a lot for him to learn."
Play of the day
During an 11-on-11 team drill Monday afternoon, Moritz Böhringer came up with a big play in the third-team rotation.
Joel Stave stepped back in the pocket and targeted Böhringer over the middle in a crowd. The ball initially went off the receiver's hands before being tipped by Kentrell Brothers and slipping out of Marken Michel's grasp. Even cornerback Mackensie Alexander got a hand on it before Böhringer jumped up and snagged the catch.
The play seemed to run in slow motion by onlookers, and the rookie received a series of strong reactions from teammates on the sidelines.
"I wouldn't compare it to last year, because of what you said; it's a preseason game, and to me, it's a lot different. It's a chance for us to go on the road, have to deal with the crowd noise, have to deal with the environment and play against a very good defense. All this stuff we're doing – whether it's practicing with Cincinnati, playing them, going and playing Seattle – it's getting us ready for the regular season. So, that's what we're using it for." — Turner when asked if playing the Seahawks will provide a good benchmark