Analysis Notebook: Week 14
When your name starts getting mentioned alongside Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman you’re playing some pretty good ball. You’d have to be pretty far out on a limb to put the name of Xavier Rhodes‘ in that conversation at this punt in his career… unless you limited your subject matter to the past month (four games) of play. Rhodes has been improving steadily this year but his last month of action has been genuinely elite, and against some pretty tough opposition in either quarterback or receiver terms.
For the season he is PFF’s 15th-ranked cornerback and ninth when just looking at coverage grades. That’s certainly not bad, and a marked improvement on 2013’s 47th spot, but the last month has been something else entirely.
In the past four games only Revis has a better PFF grade overall, and a better coverage grade. He tops every other corner by a reasonable distance (+11.0 for Rhodes in coverage to +7.4 to Chris Harris Jr as the third best mark). The PFF grade as you all know by now is a play-by-play account of his performance, judging him by what happened on the play, not what the result of it was. If he gets torched deep but the ball was overthrown, he would still be downgraded. If he breaks up a pass but the play is nullified by an unrelated penalty, he will still be credited in grading terms.
Some people have a hard time with the PFF grading, however, so let’s look at his coverage numbers, which on this occasion match perfectly.
He has only allowed 54 yards over that time span. Four games, 54 receiving yards. That’s pretty good. He has given up just seven catches, and no touchdowns over those games, and the passer rating of quarterbacks targeting Rhodes over the past four Vikings games has been just 22.2, a figure bettered by only Richard Sherman league-wide.
Counting interceptions and pass break-ups, Rhodes has actually directly caused more incompleted targets (8) than he has allowed to be completed.
We are talking about a corner that for the last month has been every bit as good as the best in the game.
He isn’t alone in displaying an impressive development for the Vikings under new head coach Mike Zimmer – a man who transformed the fortunes of several Cincinnati Bengals players during his tenure there as defensive coordinator.
Josh Robinson has gone from a player with a target on his back at corner to playing pretty well this season. He isn’t matching Rhodes, but he is holding up his end of the coverage, and even when he is beaten he is usually in a pretty good position. Sharrif Floyd has been one of the league’s better defensive tackles this season in the new scheme after barely flashing in the old one. Only a knee injury is keeping him from really threatening the game’s best at the position.
But let’s focus on what Zimmer’s influence and coaching has transformed Rhodes into. He was always a physical talent. His draft position wasn’t illogical – he’s a 6-foot-1, 210-pound cornerback who ran a sub 4.4 forty time. As much as Richard Sherman has moved the needle when it comes to ideal cornerback traits teams look for, if you asked most NFL people to draw up what the perfect cornerback would look like physically, they’d draw you a picture that closely resembles Rhodes.
Translating that physical talent to close coverage and making plays at the NFL level was his issue before now. You can’t get by at corner simply by being physically talented. More than perhaps any other position, cornerback takes a mastery of fundamentals and technical skills to play at a really high level. If you’re physically dominant you can be fundamentally sloppy and still make huge plays as a receiver, pass-rusher, running back, but as a corner, one false step blows a play wide open and you’re toast.
Take a look at this play against Green Bay’s unstoppable duo of Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson. The Packers’ duo have combined for a passer rating of 134.6 this season when throwing at defenders not named Xavier Rhodes. Over two games,Rhodes limited them to six targets, from which they managed two catches for 18 yards. He again broke up as many passes (2) as he allowed to be caught.
Let’s walk through one of those targets from their second meeting of the season play because it’s a fantastic display of textbook man-coverage technique against one of the league’s best, and a combination that is particularly lethal running this route.
Rhodes and Nelson are isolated to the left of the offensive formation. He is lined up directly over the receiver and is showing no leverage one way or the other. This is a clear read of man coverage for Rodgers, and when they see that they usually combine for a reception, whether it comes on a hitch, back shoulder throw or a simple streak down the sideline.
Nelson releases hard to the outside and Rhodes is able to match him perfectly, not overextending himself to try to jam Nelson at the line, but trusting his speed to be able to live with him down the sideline if he goes deep. Crucially he never allows Nelson to get level with him or get to the point where he needs to abandon his technique just to keep up.
He reads Nelson’s body language quickly and may even be waiting for the first sign that he is about to break off his route and adjust to the ball. At the point of the break Rhodes has adjusted in lock-step with the receiver and looks back to the ball at the same moment, giving himself a good opportunity to not just play the man, but play the ball as well – a vital step in becoming an elite, not just an OK corner.
From here he displays textbook technique, reaching with his downfield arm to break the pass up while maintaining contact with his up field arm. This will get some people complaining and lo0king for a flag, though notably not really Nelson at the time, but it is exactly what a defensive back is taught to do. You extend with the left arm and leave the right on the receiver because if you miss and the ball gets through, you still need to make the tackle. If he doesn’t maintain contact, instead diving past him to the inside, and then misses, then Nelson has a huge run after the catch play.
The other thing to note is that elite man coverage necessitates getting a little grabby. This infuriates some, but every great corner does it – the only difference is how obvious they are with it and whether they can master where the line is that officials won’t call. This might be a little too physical for some, but others will see it as picture-perfect technique, and given the officials didn’t have a problem with it, neither do I.
But it’s not just that play that Rhodes has looked like Revis, as his numbers suggest, it’s happened a lot over the last few games. Take this play from this week against Eric Decker and the Jets.
More man coverage, and again Rhodes tracks his man well down field. This time there is no break off of the route and he has a deep pass to defend. He turns to locate the ball, and makes a fantastic adjustment on a well thrown pass that should have allowed the receiver a reception to the space he had maintained towards the sideline. Rhodes knows instantly he doesn’t have a play on the ball and needs to turn back towards the receiver and work on preventing the catch once it hits him. He extends well and rips the ball out as Decker goes to ground.
This play was so pretty it deserves another angle too:
This is now four weeks of play that looks like the above. That’s not quite enough to crown him one of the game’s best or anything, but it is now a significant run of games in which his play has been genuinely elite. With three games left of the season (plus the outside chance of at least one more if the Vikings perform a minor miracle and make the playoffs), we could see Rhodes put up a run of seven games of this kind of play heading into the 2015 season. If he does that, then the offseason discussion does become just how good can he be in the next season, and does his name belong with the very best in the game?
The past four weeks have seen Xavier Rhodes play every bit as well as Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman. What makes those guys the very best is that they can do it over a full season, and for year after year.
Rhodes has reached that level, over four games, now the question becomes can he sustain it?
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam