EAGAN — There weren’t too many moments to write home about for the New York Giants offense on Sunday.
The Minnesota Vikings defense — as they so often do — harassed the rookie quarterback into a poor showing that resulted in just 10 points. But his one shining moment of Sunday afternoon’s contest was a 35-yard touchdown pass to receiver Darius Slayton.
Two years ago Vikings fans would have been shocked to see Slayton, a fifth-round pick from Auburn, create separation from cornerback Xavier Rhodes but recently opponents have been attacking the Pro Bowler and having success.
Head coach Mike Zimmer was shown on the TV broadcast ripping into the veteran defensive back.
“He got in bad position early, and then he did not do a good job of catching up to him before he started looking back,” Zimmer said on Monday.
In 2016 Rhodes gave up just a 47.0 rating on throws in his direction with opposing QBs completing 48.0% of passes with two touchdowns and five interceptions (per PFF). The numbers have increased each year since then, from a very solid 77.4 rating against in 2017 to around league average 88.4 last year to 115.4 through the first five games.
Overall Rhodes has allowed 22 completions on 27 times targeted for 236 yards. He ranked 72nd of 78 corners by PFF grades last season and sits 64th of 70 this year.
Rhodes has had issues with penalties for his entire career, committing 29 pass interferences from 2016-2018, but those flags were less concerning. In five games, he’s already been called for pass interference, illegal contact, defensive holding and a horse collar tackle.
Zimmer attributed some of the problems to technique.
“I just think we have to clean up some technique with some of our defensive backs, not just him.,” Zimmer said. “We’ve got some other guys that we need to clean up our technique. At times throughout the game, they might be perfect 60-70% of the time and then the other 30% they get sloppy. We have to clean that up.”
But Rhodes’ decline has not been overlooked by the Vikings’ head coach, who said at the owners’ meetings this offseason that Rhodes needed to improve his play and earn his contract. The former first-round pick also hasn’t been used as an “island” corner this year as he has in the past.
“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be like that every week,” Zimmer said. “That’s just how we decided to do it this particular week and that particular week.”
Some portion of the shortcomings could be caused by an accumulation of injuries. Last season Rhodes missed two games but repeatedly appeared to be hobbled throughout the year. He has limped off on several occasions this season.
There is another option. The Vikings may have drafted Mike Hughes in 2018 with the eventual plan to lose Trae Waynes to free agency but he might instead be in line to replace Rhodes at some point if the veteran’s play does not improve. On Sunday Hughes had three pass breakups and overall has given up nine catches on 15 targets for just 62 yards.
“Mike played really well,” Zimmer said. “His technique was really good. He had a couple bad plays in there. The one where they caught the ball just outside the end zone, that should have been his play, and he had one other play that wasn’t very good. The rest of the time he played very, very good. He played good in the running game. There was a couple times he could have fit better in the running game, but overall, I thought he played very well. He competed. He used good technique. He got his hands on some balls, so that was good to see.”
The Vikings can’t consider a change until Mackensie Alexander, their starting nickel corner, returns from an elbow injury. He went out Week 1 against Atlanta, then returned in Week 4 in Chicago but was not available in New York. It’s unclear what the prognosis is for Alexander but he established himself in the second half of 2018 as a capable starting nickel, so it would make sense if he took that job back when healthy.
Another option for the Vikings is rotating Rhodes and Hughes in attempt to keep the former as fresh as possible. Despite the poor numbers, there have still been times this season in which Rhodes has shown signs of being his old self. Certainly his contract doesn’t match up with a rotational corner but they may elect to adapt to the direction of the two corners.