Xavier Rhodes of the Minnesota Vikings has graduated to that lofty status only elite NFL cornerbacks can claim: When he’s doing his best work, he goes unnoticed.
Opposing quarterbacks usually prefer to do their business elsewhere when throwing the ball downfield against the Vikings, which can create uneventful games for Rhodes. It’s also one of the reasons why the Vikings’ game in Pittsburgh against the Steelers on Sunday is so intriguing.
Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown also holds elite status, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s goal has long been to get the ball to Brown as much as possible. A cat-and-mouse game awaits, as both sides try to maximize their strengths.
When asked earlier in the week if the plan was for him to shadow Brown, Rhodes said he had not yet received his marching orders. True or not, it does the Vikings no good to make their plan public.
It’s likely that Brown will see Rhodes lined up against him in most situations, but the Steelers are sure to look for ways to get matchups that are more to their liking.
Adding to the drama is the fact that Rhodes and Brown are childhood friends from Miami. For Rhodes, any added incentive he might have in facing Brown has to do with the challenge of facing one of the best receivers in the game.
“We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same school,” Rhodes said. “It’s going to be more of a brotherly type thing. We’re proud of each other for making it this far. To be able to line up against each other, and to each considered to be one of the best at his position, it’s a blessing.
“The guy’s phenomenal,” Rhodes added. “He’s good in space; he finds ways to get open.”
When he does, Roethlisberger usually gets him the ball. Roethlisberger had 24 completions in the Steelers’ win over the Cleveland Browns in Week 1; 11 of them went to Brown. Brown had at least 106 catches in each of the last four seasons and holds the NFL record for most receptions in his first six seasons in the league (526).
Rhodes, who has been slowed in practice this week by a hip injury, has excellent size for a cornerback at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, and he possesses the man-to-man coverage skills needed to play in coach Mike Zimmer’s style of defense. The 5-10, 181-pound Brown possesses exceptional speed and quickness.
Rhodes made his first Pro Bowl last season. The Vikings used the offseason to make sure he sticks around for a while, signing him to a five-year extension for $70 million, with $41 million guaranteed.
Brown, meanwhile, has been selected to the Pro Bowl four times, including each of the last three seasons. He and Rhodes figure to see each other in Orlando again in 2018 (barring a trip to the Super Bowl), and they will continue to see each other in Miami.
“Every offseason we find time to work out,” Rhodes said. “He’s a busy man and I’m a busy man, but we try to find a field and train.”
Clearly, there will be no secrets between them when Rhodes and Brown line up on Sunday. Rhodes’ challenge involved trying to contain more than one man. After facing the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees in the Vikings’ season opener, his job doesn’t get any easier in Week 2 with Roethlisberger standing tall in the pocket.
“We’re going to face a great quarterback each and every week,” Rhodes said, “so we have to be on tight coverage every week.”
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