Of all the Vikings draft picks this off-season, Xavier Rhodes appears the most likely to be a starter week 1 against Detroit- and that 6'5", 236 pound wide-receiver known as Megatron- fresh after breaking Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yards record last year. It doesn't get much easier week 2 against Brandon Marshall either. Over the course of the year, he'll see a steady dose of very capable receivers, week in , week out- especially against NFC North opponents.
So, what can we expect of Rhodes? What will his impact be on the Vikings defense?
Following OTAs and mini-camp, Vikings Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams had a lot of praise for Rhodes:
"The one thing, I don’t know how much you watched today but he got his hands on some balls and he’s not giving up deep balls," Williams said after Wednesday’s practice. "That’s the big thing because a lot of guys like to sit on passes and you see them intercept balls and you say ‘wow’ and then a lot of balls are going over his head. And he’s not giving up that either. He’s tough down low and up top."
Everything you read and see about Rhodes suggests he thrives in press coverage. He likes being in close contact with a receiver, and has the ability to stay with him, make adjustments and contest the ball. But that sort of man coverage is not what the Vikings, and their Tampa-2 defense, typically ask a CB to do.
Most often, CBs in a Tampa-2 scheme are asked to play an outside zone coverage- which isn't Rhodes' strong suit. In fact, one draft profile Mike Mayock summarized, "Rhodes thrives in press coverage... just don't ask him to play in zone, because Rhodes shows tight movements when forced to pass receivers to a separate area. His game is somewhat scheme-dependent."
Hmmm. That certainly does not suggest Rhodes a good fit for the Vikings Tampa-2 defense. Did we draft the wrong guy? Alan Williams offers this take regarding Rhodes and the Viking's other CBs Chris Cook and Josh Robinson:
"Both guys are tall. They are long. They can go get the ball, unbelievable ball skills so to be able to have two guys outside and don’t forget about Josh, don’t forget about the other guys that can really run," Williams said. "They’re physical so you’re not limited to one type of defense. You can play a variety of things and when you can take the outside guys away it makes it easier for me to make the calls and mixing up the coverages."
That suggests the Viking's defensive coordinator is looking to adjust his scheme to fit his personnel, rather than the other way around. And he should. A couple reasons:
First, a good Tampa-2 scheme relies a lot on having a good middle-line backer with speed, range, instincts and coverage ability. I don't think that's Erin Henderson. I don't think that's Desmond Bishop. I hope that's Michael Mauti, but that's not something you can count on at this point. In any case, linebacker seems to be the weak link in the Viking's defense.
Another reason to look at alternatives to the Tampa-2 and the Tampa-2 nickel is the Green Bay Packers. They know how to beat that coverage. Every team they play in the NFC North plays a Tampa-2 scheme, so they're used to it. Aaron Rodgers has a what - 110- passer rating against the Vikings? That can't continue. Undoubtedly the Packers will attempt to run more this year, given the two RBs they drafted and Mike McCarthy vowing to have a better run game. A descent run game, together with play-action, can help soften the zone coverage in a Tampa-2 scheme by causing the LBs and/or safeties to bite.
So, what type of things could the Viking's do?
One option is Cover 1, which is essentially man coverage. While this scheme lessens the pass coverage responsibilities of the linebacker corps, is it really the best idea to put rookie Rhodes or Cook out on an island against Megatron and Marshall? Probably not at this point.
Another option is a Cover 7, which has a lot of variations. More aggressive than Tampa-2, the common aspect of a Cover 7 is single safety, with one corner having man coverage on the lesser of the #1 WRs, while the other plays off into a deep zone against the top receiver, with a SS lining-up off the DE and playing back into underneath zone coverage, doubling the top receiver.
The illustration here is a nickel-version of Cover 7, with a nickel-back replacing a LB against a 3 receiver, 1 TE and 1 RB set. In this case the Mike has RB responsibilities, while the Sam covers the TE. The Nickel covers the slot with help from the FS as needed.
One could imagine Xavier Rhodes manning-up against the X receiver in this illustration, with Cook and Harrison Smith teaming up on the Z-receiver, with Jamarca Sanford at FS and Josh Robinson as nickel-back on the W.
Middle-linebacker responsibilities shift more toward covering backs out of the backfield than playing center field, in passing situations.
This type of coverage is a good way to cover top tier receivers (the over/under coverage was originally designed for Randy Moss) and also against bunching receivers as well. In its base form it is just as effective against the run.
The main weakness is that it can create YAC lanes for receivers with poor tackling, whereas the Tampa-2 creates soft zones and seams that can be exploited- particularly over the middle where linebackers are not effective in coverage and between the corner and safety zones.So, while every scheme has its weaknesses - and this one does too - this one may be a better fit for the Viking's defensive personnel:
- it lets Rhodes focus on his strength of press/man coverage
- creates less demanding coverage responsibilities for the LBs
- gets Harrison Smith closer to the action
- gives Josh Robinson some help in the slot
But the big factor in having Cover 7 as an option for the Vikings defense is having a CB that can play press/man coverage reliably. If Xavier Rhodes can be that guy, he could open a lot of options for a more aggressive Viking defense.