Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer has big plans to improve the Vikings pass defense in 2014. As Bengals Defensive Coordinator in 2013, Zimmer led a group that finished the season ranked fifth in interceptions (20), fourth in yards allowed (226.4/game) and second in passer rating allowed (74.2). Zimmer's track record proves he knows how to design a top-notch pass defense.
The question is: Does Zimmer have the players to execute it? Through eight Organized Team Activities (OTAs) this offseason, it's looking like the new coach does. And a big part of Zimmer's big plan will be a big cornerback – Xavier Rhodes.
The 6-1, 210-pound Rhodes is entering his second season in 2014 and is poised to make a big jump forward after a successful debut season in 2013. In fact, NFL.com recently named Rhodes to their list of 25 second-year players who will make a big leap in 2014.
"The film wasn't all pretty when we turned on the Game Rewind to dissect Rhodes' season, but there was an undeniable arc," NFL.com’s Greg Rosenthal writes. "Rhodes played his best late in the year. He was all over the field in Green Bay in Week 12, breaking up four passes. He did a commendable job against Chicago the following week slowing down Brandon Marshall. Rhodes forced a fumble the next week against Baltimore, and kept up with Torrey Smith on deep routes before suffering a high ankle sprain that ended his season."
Rosenthal looked back on Rhodes entire rookie season in their analysis of Rhodes. We watched Rhodes during Tuesday's OTA to add a few more notes. Here's what we saw:
View images from Vikings OTA No. 8, which took place on Tuesday...
-- The secondary worked on reading and covering combination routes by the offense, and Rhodes displayed sound understanding of the techniques being taught. He reacts well to the routes in front of him and is quick to close any distance between himself and a receiving catching the ball. Rhodes got his hands on a couple passes on Tuesday and also had an interception in Monday's practice.
-- Vikings DBs Coach Jerry Gray, a vocal teacher on the field, is never hesitant to levy criticism or praise toward his players, and Rhodes is no exception. There were a couple times when Gray was on Rhodes' case, but Rhodes never made the same mistake twice and he was consistently praised for something specific the play following a mistake. "That's how you know if a guy can be a pro," Gray said after practice of Rhodes. "Pros don't make the same mistakes twice in a row. He (Xavier) doesn't make the same mistake twice. And he's building something positive every day. Every day out here he's improved some facet of his game. He's building good day on top of good day, and that's what we want to see."
-- Rhodes' best moments on Tuesday came in the red zone during a 7-on-7 period. Granted, Rhodes is a physical cornerback and thrives in press coverage, but the Vikings comply with CBA-related rules prohibiting contact so this part of the offseason program doesn't fit Rhodes the best. Still, Rhodes was solid in the red zone, covering up Cordarrelle Patterson when he was the primary read on one snap and earning praise from Gray on another snap when he properly diagnosed and defended a combo route between tight end Kyle Rudolph and receiver Greg Jennings.
-- In a team period, Rhodes left his feet to making a leaping deflection of what looked to be a perfectly-placed pass from Matt Cassel to Kyle Rudolph. Not many defensive backs would've made the play Rhodes made, but then again not many defensive backs are as good as Rhodes.
Other practice notables-- Defensive end Everson Griffen looked particularly explosive on Tuesday, beating his blocker to the edge frequently to force the quarterback to slide around the pocket. Griffen appears to have improved his hand technique significantly since the end of last season.
-- Jennings made a great catch in the red zone along the left sideline despite perfect coverage from linebacker Gerald Hodges. After securing the catch and then being shoved toward the boundary, Jennings alertly shifted the ball to his right hand and stretched it over the goal line for a touchdown.
-- The catch of the day was made by Jarius Wright along the left sideline. The pass appeared to be flying out of his reach, but Wright dove to his right and reached for the ball, securing the catch just before hitting the ground and landing out of bounds.
-- Running Back Jerick McKinnon made an impressive one-handed catch on a screen pass during a team period. It's easy to see how comfortable he is handling the ball, whether catching it or carrying it. That comfort comes from his experience playing several different offensive positions in college, including quarterback.
-- The Vikings defense collected interceptions on consecutive plays during a team period, with Hodges tipping a pass that was intercepted by Harrison Smith and then Mistral Raymond tipping a pass that was picked off by Derek Cox.
Quote of the Day "Play with your eyes, then move your feet!" – Defensive Coordinator George Edwards
Edwards explained to me that the saying is a red zone teaching point that encourages defenders to anticipate a condensed field and more route combinations.