EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Just last season, Minnesota Vikings coaches gave Xavier Rhodes boxing gloves to wear during drills in practice.
The idea was having Rhodes better learn how to effectively play cornerback without risking penalties for grabbing at the receiver.
Opponents aren’t winning many rounds with Rhodes these days.
Rhodes picked off Carson Palmer twice, including a 100-yard touchdown return that was the longest in team history, and helped lead the Vikings to a 30-24 victory over Arizona on Sunday that stopped their four-game losing streak. The fourth-year player, drafted by the Vikings in the first round out of Florida State with the selection they received from Seattle in the trade for wide receiver Percy Harvin, is tied for fourth in the NFL with four interceptions.
“Those are huge splash plays that everybody notices, but he’s tackling, doing everything right,” free safety Harrison Smith said. “He’s playing lights out.”
The performance was prolific enough to trigger an NFL Network interview with Deion Sanders , the Pro Football Hall of Fame member and most famous of the many cornerbacks Florida State has produced. Sanders, who became well known for his flamboyance, teased Rhodes for not adding any flair to the end of his return.
Though he plays with plenty of fire, Rhodes isn’t much for show. He was too exhausted for a celebration by the time he reached the end zone for the first time since high school, so much so that he requested an oxygen mask on the sideline to help recover.
“My legs were dead,” Rhodes said, “and I was just tired.”
The receivers Rhodes has been covering lately have been worn out, too, from Kelvin Benjamin to Odell Beckham Jr. to DeAndre Hopkins. Palmer threw in his direction nine times, with three completions for a total of 19 yards.
“This week coach said to play our defense, be aggressive and go out there and tackle. Tight coverage, sack the quarterback, and this week we did all of that,” Rhodes said. “We accomplished all of our goals.”
Including, most importantly, victory. The defense didn’t escape blame for the losing streak, with one issue an overzealous attempt to produce the kind of momentum-changing plays that Rhodes had on Sunday. The problem is when players chase them, usually out of desperation to boost a struggling team, other issues often arise.
Rhodes and Smith, for example, each whiffed in overtime two weeks ago when they converged on Detroit wide receiver Golden Tate after a catch that he took into the end zone to win the game.
“We are all trying to make plays,” Rhodes said. “You just need to be disciplined.”
That’s just as important as aggression for a cornerback in this league, as Zimmer has long reminded his pupils. Zimmer, who coached Sanders for five seasons as the defensive backs coach in Dallas, has developed an affinity for Rhodes since taking the job three years ago.
“If we would just play a solid, fundamental football game and let the big plays come to us, they do,” Zimmer said, adding: “They’re not always going to come, but you just have to do your job first and then the rest will happen.”
Just like that interception late in the second quarter with the Vikings clinging to a 13-10 lead and the Cardinals at third-and-goal at the 9. Palmer argued that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn held the intended target, John Brown, before Rhodes swooped in from behind.
“I’m a competitive guy and he said he felt like his receiver was held on that play. I didn’t think so at all. I’m entitled to my space, and my space is on the field. He ran directly into me, so I jammed him up. I didn’t grab. I didn’t yank. I let him go. Ball’s in the air,” Munnerlyn said. “Xavier, I don’t know where he came from, but he made the play and took it 100 yards.”
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