EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Balanced lighting inside Ford Field prevented Vikings and Lions players from casting harsh shadows when the teams met last December.
Calvin Johnson, however, had one — named Xavier Rhodes — for much of the game.
The Vikings opted to assign Rhodes, who at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds is a big, physical cornerback, against the 6-5, 237-pound receiver.
Johnson, a five-time Pro Bowler, was targeted by Matthew Stafford six times and finished with four catches for 53 yards, which isn't shabby, but also isn't what earned him the nickname "Megatron."
It was the third-lowest number of targets in 13 games played by Johnson in 2014, and the collective effort limited Johnson to 29.8 yards below his per-game average on the season.
(RELATED: Click **here*** *for Mike Wobschall's breakdown of how the Lions have deployed Johnson and Golden Tate recently.)
The Vikings might opt to have Rhodes follow Johnson across the field wherever he lines up, or they might opt to leave him at right cornerback in Sunday's matchup.
"We did a little bit last year, which I thought was good for us," defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said, "but I thought we did some great moves in the offseason of bringing in Terence (Newman) and drafting Trae (Waynes), so that kind of helped us."
Even before the addition of Newman, a 2003 first-round pick, and Waynes, the 11th overall selection this year, the Vikings pass defense tightened from allowing 287.4 passing yards per game (31st in 2013) to 223.3 (7th last season). That progress in Head Coach Mike Zimmer's first season occurred in a division that yielded five of the top 10 NFC leaders in receiving yardage last season, including Johnson (1,077 on 71 catches) and Tate (1,331 yards on 99 catches).
"Oh man, that's a duo. I mean that's a good duo, and they have a quarterback who can really throw them the rock," Rhodes said. "Calvin is one of the best receivers out there in the NFL. He's one of the receivers you can't list in your top three. You have to list him in his own category.
"He's his own player," Rhodes continued. "He's a different type of player. I'm not saying he can't be covered, but at the same time, he's a great player."
As for Tate, Rhodes said, "Great route runner. He's explosive out of his cuts. He's a guy that's hungry, that's not afraid to block, not afraid to crack. He gets the reverses and everything."
Gray said Rhodes has learned more about the individual differences each receiver presents while remembering to do what he's supposed to in the Vikings system.
"Just going against Calvin Johnson, he's going to be different than going against Golden Tate, so you've got to learn to study that," Gray said. "When you study during the week, you go out on the football field, take what you've studied and apply it. Pros understand there's a difference between receivers in the game, but I've still got to play my technique week-in and week-out."
Rhodes prepares for stark contrasts in different receivers, like the unique challenges that Johnson and Tate present, through keen film study to identify the attributes. What he's learned has prompted him to put himself under the microscope too.
"Each receiver brings something different to help their team in a different way," Rhodes said. "It helped me out to study and realize what I could bring to the table that week because, the same with me watching film on them, they're watching film on me, so I have to change up my technique like they change up theirs a little bit."
Rhodes set a Vikings record with 23 pass breakups as a rookie and followed with 18 more and his first career interception last season. He blossomed under the direction of Gray, a former first-round pick and four-time Pro Bowler during his playing days, and Zimmer. Gray said Rhodes has transitioned from "learning how to start, how to be an every down player" to taking "another step of understanding."
"About midseason he started understanding, 'This is what's required of me,' " Gray said. "This year, we kind of talked a little about, 'What's going to be your next step? What are you trying to get done? You're a starter in the league, when is going to be the next step of being the best corner in the league? You've got to work to do that. You've got to compete, but the biggest thing is you've got to learn to work, and there's a lot of good football players out there, but how do you set yourself apart?' "
Word seemed to circulate to opponents that it was tough to complete passes against Rhodes. The film and stat sheets supported the case. According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes had 560 coverage snaps and allowed opponents to gain 526 yards, a rate of .94 yards per coverage snap that was ninth-best in the NFL. His name was mentioned in chatter about last year's Pro Bowl, but the Vikings did not have a player selected.
Instead of tallying successes while watching film, Rhodes has honed in on plays that were completed by opponents to see what he can continue to improve. At the same time, however, he's remaining confident in himself and the system.
"You have to have confidence at that position because you have to learn to pick yourself up because a receiver is going to catch a ball on you," Rhodes said. "Not one corner can say to this day a ball was never caught on them. It's all about how you bounce back after that catch. That's one thing I learned: build your confidence and don't dwell on that play. Have a short memory."
Tons of snaps against Vikings receivers have helped with that this offseason. Minnesota acquired Mike Wallace via a trade with Miami during free agency, setting the stage for plenty of battles between Rhodes and Wallace during offseason workouts, training camp and in practices going forward. They even got a head start when Rhodes and Wallace met up with Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in Miami for passing drills on their own time during a break from Winter Park.
"He's a guy that's very elusive," Rhodes said of Wallace during training camp. "You don't think he's running, but he's running at top speed. He's great at doing that and at catching the ball too."
Wallace said he "always" has fun in matchups against Rhodes because of the talent and trash talk they're able to do as teammates.
"It's going to be a tough battle, but I'm going to win the battle," Wallace vowed of practice sessions.
Bridgewater already has shown an ability to read coverages and find open receivers in games, but he isn't shy to take chances against Rhodes in practices. Sometimes Rhodes wins, sometimes Wallace makes the catch. Either way, both think they've better prepared themselves for challenges they'll encounter in games.
It remains to be seen how often Rhodes is tested this fall, but he'll be prepared.
"I expect quarterbacks to come after me every play, every day," Rhodes said. "Even last year, when they didn't, I expected that every game because you never know. You never want to be complacent. You never just want to sit there and say, 'The ball isn't coming to me this game. I'm going to sit here and chill.' I never went into a game like that and never will.
"I will always go into a game thinking the ball is going to come my way and they're going to try me," Rhodes continued. "You never know."