Xavier Rhodes is a Bad Man

Xavier Rhodes is a Bad Man
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Jerick McKinnon finally broke free on the ground. The offensive line finally protected Sam Bradford. Cordarrelle Patterson finally flashed his first round talent.

Plenty went right for the Minnesota Vikings’ offense on Monday night, but it was defense that once again carried the team to victory. And no player was more critical to the win than Xavier Rhodes, who is quickly becoming Mike Zimmer’s ‘Weapon X’ in this bullying defense.

Following a shutdown performance in Week 3 — holding Kelvin Benjamin to zero catches — Rhodes one-upped his season debut by completely eliminating New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Monday night. He set the tone from the first whistle, using his physicality (and his jaw) to crack Beckham’s psyche.

The receiver lashed out, launching himself at Rhodes and focusing more on the matchup than his team’s success. The result? A three-catch, 23-yard outing that did little to help New York’s chances in Week 4. His second quarter unsportsmanlike penalty stalled an early Giants’ drive, and his route running error later in the game led to an easy Rhodes interception.

Rhodes bullied Beckham, but his dominant display was simply an extension of Zimmer’s defensive approach. All three levels of a defense work together, from a relentless pass rush to smothering coverage down the field. Their sustained success breeds confidence, which is evident on every sack, turnover, and tackle for loss.

That confidence has grown, allowing Zimmer’s defense to impose its will throughout this 4-0 stretch. With his size, Rhodes knew he could do just that against Beckham. It was his words that made the difference.

Mind Games

Beckham’s shown a propensity to lash out, and that’s something Rhodes identified early in his film study. “He tries to get to you by getting on you, fighting with you, trying to get you out of your game,” Rhodes said, per Ben Goessling. “He can do some of both [talking to you and shoving you].”

From the very first snap, Rhodes flipped the script on Beckham, using the receiver’s own tendencies to lure him into a mistake. He punched a little harder in run defense, talked a little more after the whistle, and taunted a little more at the line of scrimmage.

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When the smack talk broke through in the second quarter, Rhodes’s night was essentially finished. He’d cracked Beckham’s shell, taking the receiver’s focus off of football and onto a fabricated feud. Beckham’s lone highlight wasn’t a one-handed catch or touchdown dance; it was a taunting penalty that saw the receiver make unnecessary contact with an official.

The very next play, he engaged in extracurricular contact with Rhodes, forcing New York’s coaching staff to pull Beckham out of the game and calm him down.

One the other sideline, Zimmer must’ve been smiling. He’d deployed his ‘Weapon X,’ and Rhodes had succeeded in two regards — eliminating Beckham from the Giants’ gameplan and intimidating the receiver into inexcusable mistakes.

Turning Point

With the trash talk out of the way, Rhodes eased into a more familiar role — shutdown corner. On the night, he held Beckham to 23 receiving yards, contributing to a joint effort that saw the receiver catch just three of Eli Manning‘s eight targeted throws.

Despite missing the team’s first two games of the year, Rhodes is one of Minnesota’s top-ranked defenders. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the Vikings’ best defender on Monday night and has been one of the NFL’s stingiest corners in 2016.

When Rhodes has been targeted this season, he’s allowed a passer rating of 0.0, per Nathan Jahnke. Quarterbacks have targeted Rhodes 10 times, completing just three passes for 23 yards and an interception.

He’s become the cornerback — much like Harrison Smith‘s become the safety — that allows a defense to flex its muscles. Rhodes can survive on an island, giving defensive coordinators the option to move a safety into the box, blitz extra defenders, or disguise coverages. It’s a comfort for Zimmer to know his No. 1 corner can eliminate an opponent’s No. 1 receiver, all without safety help or a change in philosophy.

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When it finally came to playing football, Rhodes displayed all the qualities that made him one of Minnesota’s first round picks in 2013. He matched Beckham — arguably the NFL’s most athletic receiver — pound-for-pound, using his strength as a complement to the game’s earlier trash talk.

Rhodes played the ball beautifully in the above video, driving back to disrupt Beckham at the catch point. Beckham, who routinely hauls in such throws, couldn’t hang on with Rhodes clawing at the football. He lost control as Rhodes pulled him to the ground, and much of that could’ve been Beckham’s emotional instability at this point of the game.

Still, Rhodes dominated Beckham when it mattered, attacking the football in the air and giving the receiver little room to make a play. His physicality — and the effect of his gamesmanship — led to Rhodes’s third career interception later in the game. It also served as the turning point, tilting the matchup in favor of Rhodes and the Vikings.

Game Over

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Seething from the game’s earlier events and his lack of production, Beckham failed his quarterback at a critical juncture. Facing 3rd-and-7 down 14-3, the Giants needed to convert and keep the game within reach.

But the Vikings, boosted by a raucous crowd, a pass rush with its ears pinned back, and Rhodes at the top of his game, wouldn’t let that happen. Zimmer’s defense combined every dominant element on one play, forcing the Giants into a costly turnover.

“We play as one. We play as a unit, no matter what it is,” Rhodes said. “Those guys are going to apply pressure on the quarterback, and we’re going to be in tight coverage. We play as a unit.”

Manning called for the snap looking particularly confused, likely leading to a miscommunication with Beckham. Instead of running his route, though, Beckham initiated contact with Rhodes down the field. He didn’t turn his head for the ball, which Manning threw to the post. Rhodes, locked into his coverage, easily pulled down the interception and returned it 27 yards — eclipsing Beckham’s receiving total for the night.


A corner with Rhodes’s size and skill should play the game with a little ‘swag.’ Mike Zimmer’s defense is certainly at that point, and on Monday night, Rhodes joined the party. He didn’t just shut down Beckham as a football player; he got inside the receiver’s head and eliminated him from New York’s offense.

The culmination of the pass rush, Zimmer’s scheme, and Rhodes’s work against Beckham led the Vikings to another victory, moving the team to 4-0. In Rhodes, Zimmer has a cornerback he can deploy anywhere on the field against any team’s top receiver.

Thus far, he’s lived up to the billing. If he can stay healthy, Rhodes gives the Vikings a true weapon at cornerback, one that makes Zimmer’s defense even scarier moving forward.

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