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Holton Hill can be missing piece for Vikings defense

As the Vikings head toward the second half of the season, Holton Hill could be an unlikely contributor that can make Mike Zimmer's defense even better.
Holton Hill

As the Minnesota Vikings reached the midway point of the season, there are a lot of things that are going their way. Entering Sunday's action, the Vikings ranked first in total offense and third in points, making the early season woes on the offensive side of the ball a thing of the past.

Defensively, the Vikings have been solid ranking eighth in points allowed but 21st in yards allowed. A big part of that problem has been the play of their starting corners Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes.

As we previously mentioned, both Waynes and Rhodes are not playing up to their lofty standards in 2019. Although Mackensie Alexander has been a stud in the slot and Mike Hughes has been impressive in his limited playing time, neither are equipped for a full-time role on the outside, calling for an improvement in the play of their two veterans.

But as the Vikings head toward the second half of the season, there could be an unlikely contributor that can make Mike Zimmer's defense even better.

Holton Hill has been an afterthought in the minds of Viking fans this season as he was slapped with a pair of four-game suspensions stemming from a January incident that occurred at Roc Thomas' apartment. With marijuana present, Thomas was cut last summer and Hill was on the bubble as he didn't even play in the Vikings' first two preseason games.

While the Vikings had depth issues during the early weeks of the season when Alexander suffered a dislocated elbow and Hughes needing more time to recover from a multi-ligament knee injury suffered in October of 2018, Hill's return can pay big dividends for a secondary that has struggled in the first half.

Hill's playing time wasn't front and center during his rookie season, but he impressed when he took the field. The Texas product registered a team-high 12.7 coverage snaps per reception last season according to Pro Football Focus and ranked 24th among qualifying cornerbacks by allowing 0.9 yards per coverage snaps.

Quarterbacks also tried to pick on Hill during his rookie season but didn't see much success. In 203 coverage snaps, Hill was targeted 31 times but only allowed 16 catches for a catch rate of 51.6%. While he made just one interception, he also didn't allow a touchdown leaving opposing quarterbacks with a 67.0 passer rating.

Those numbers should have Zimmer salivating compared to the performance of his current starting corners, specifically Xavier Rhodes. When opposing quarterbacks have targeted the former All-Pro, the ball has usually been caught with Rhodes allowing 34 receptions on 40 targets (an 85% catch rate).

The numbers also become more condemning when it's noted that Rhodes has registered a reception on every eight coverage snaps, ranking 98th in the NFL. Rhodes has also allowed three touchdowns and 1.17 yards per coverage snap to go with seven penalties, which tied for second-most in the NFL along with Kansas City's Breshaud Breeland and Los Angeles' LaMarcus Joyner.

So what has been Rhodes' biggest problem? Faster receivers.

Throughout the year, Rhodes has done a good job of covering some of the older, slower receivers he has run into, holding Julio Jones to six catches on 11 targets with 31 yards and a garbage-time touchdown and Alshon Jeffrey to 10 catches, 76 yards and a touchdown (which was allowed by Waynes).

The issue has come when Rhodes has been asked to cover younger, faster receivers. Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Darius Slayton, and Marvin Jones have posted a combined line of 28 catches, 338 yards and three touchdowns. While not all of that damage has come against Rhodes, all three of the touchdowns have been under his coverage, which is cause for concern.

By adding Hill to the mix, the Vikings add a cornerback that produced a 4.49 second 40 yard dash time at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine (via MockDraftable). With the Vikings likely to see Adams again and running into Tyreek Hill this week, Zimmer and his staff may look to throw Hill right into the fire and see if his progression has continued from his solid rookie season.

Although Hill came to Minnesota as an undrafted rookie, talent has never been the issue with the Texas product. Now that he has his back to the wall with the NFL's substance abuse policy, he can be a key contributor for this defense if he keeps his head on straight. With both suspensions behind him, Zimmer likely can't wait to see what he has in his new toy.

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