With Rhodes in coverage, Vikings ready for Buccaneers

Published 10:16 pm Thursday, September 21, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — When Xavier Rhodes was in his final season at Florida State in 2012, the scout team quarterback that fall was a redshirt with a big arm and bigger aspirations.

Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy the following year while leading the Seminoles to the national championship.

After one more season, he was off to the NFL as the first pick in the draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The success was hardly a surprise, born out of an innate self-assurance.

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“He always wanted to race. He thought he was the fastest person on the team, knowing he was the slowest. He was competing in everything, thought he had the best hands, thought he could cover anyone,” said Rhodes, who’ll be defending Winston on Sunday with the Minnesota Vikings. “I’m like, ‘Bro, you’re just an all-around athlete, huh? Running a 4.8, huh?’”

No, speed is not part of Winston’s elite skillset. His official 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine in 2015 was 4.97 seconds .

Just about everything else is. With the Vikings uncertain this week about quarterback Sam Bradford’s status, having started Case Keenum at Pittsburgh because of an injury to Bradford’s left knee, the Buccaneers are clearly Winston’s team.

“Jameis is Jameis,” Rhodes said. “He’s confident in everything he does.”

Winston will face an accomplished defense in Minnesota, with the Pro Bowl cornerback Rhodes one of the standouts.

“His size and speed combination is amazing. But at the end of the day, just like at Florida State, we’re going to go out there and compete,” Winston said.

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, a freshman in Winston’s final season with the Seminoles in 2014, recalled a certain read-option play where Winston would hand him the ball and then try to hustle in front to block for him.

“He’s just a guy who built up confidence. He carries himself like a leader, which he is,” Cook said.

Here are some other topics pertinent to the game on Sunday:

Sooners, seven years later

Bradford was the first pick by the Rams in the 2010 draft out of Oklahoma. Sooners defensive tackle Gerald McCoy went to the Bucs two spots later.

Now well-established as one of the league’s premier interior defenders, with five Pro Bowl selections, McCoy has waited nearly five years for a crack at a sack or two of Bradford, his fellow Oklahoma City native.

Tampa Bay and St. Louis squared off in 2010 and 2012, splitting those matchups, but Bradford was injured and absent against the Bucs in 2013 and 2014 with St. Louis and 2015 with Philadelphia. Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis and Mark Sanchez started those games, respectively. So if Keenum is again asked to play, well, that’s not going to change much of the defense’s approach.

“Look, they’re going to put one football down, and they’re going to say, ‘Hut,’” McCoy said.

“They might not go on that ‘hut.’ They may go on the second ‘hut,’ but once they hike that ball, the ball’s going to the quarterback. Whoever’s holding it, it’s my job to get to him. I don’t really care.”

Tampa Bay equals takeaway

The Buccaneers forced four first-half turnovers and built a 26-0 lead at the break over the Bears last week.

Since the start of last season, their first with former Atlanta coach Mike Smith as defensive coordinator, the Bucs have 33 takeaways. That’s third in the NFL in that span behind Baltimore (38) and Kansas City (35).

“They are some savages, man,” wide receiver Mike Evans said. “I love our defense.”

Cornerback Robert McClain returned one of two interceptions of former Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon for a touchdown in the opening 29-7 win against Chicago , the league-leading fifth pickoff that the Bucs have scored on since Smith’s arrival. Denver and Kansas City have four apiece.

“It’s a mindset, first and foremost,” Smith said. “We talk about having a toolbox in terms of what we want to do with our coverages and how we are attacking the ball and how we are leveraging the football. We talk about, ‘Hey, that ball is ours. They’ve got it. We’ve got to take it away.”

Defense not dominant

The Vikings tied for seventh in the NFL last season with 27 forced turnovers, just two fewer than the Buccaneers, but they’ve gone two games without one this season.

They’re also in the bottom third of the league so far in points and yards allowed. The biggest disappointment, however, has been penalties.

The defense has accounted for 10 of 21 infractions committed by the Vikings, with pass interference calls on Rhodes (22 yards) and Trae Waynes (49 yards) each extending a touchdown drive by the Steelers last week in a 26-9 defeat .

“Those things, they’re correctable,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’ve got to be more disciplined with our hands. We’ve got to be in a better position.”

Filling in

The Bucs again will play without running back Doug Martin, who must sit two more games to fulfill a suspension for violating NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Martin had his first of 11 career 100-yard games on Oct. 25, 2012, at Minnesota. In his absence, Jacquizz Rodgers carried the ball 19 times for 67 yards and one touchdown against the Bears.

Triple digits

Over the past six weeks of NFL regular-season games, dating to Dec. 11, 2016, Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Tampa Bay’s DeSean Jackson are tied for most 100-yard receiving games with three each. Jackson was with Washington last season. He’s the new speedy complement to the strength and size of leading receiver Mike Evans.

“I have to just be ready for it,” Rhodes said. “If I’m on DeSean, I have to do a lot of hamstring workouts. If I’m on Mike Evans, I have to get in the weight room.”