ATLANTA -- A week after Julio Jones demolished the Tampa Bay secondary in the third 250-yard performance of his career, the Atlanta Falcons receiver was rendered ineffective against the Minnesota Vikings, catching two passes for 24 yards and no touchdowns.
Not surprisingly, Jones’ frustrations stemmed from who was defending him. Xavier Rhodes has drawn the marquee matchup in most of the Vikings' 12 games, with Week 13 being no different. The cornerback said he’d treat his assignment on Jones the same as his matchups with the other receivers he’s shut down this season.
That approach paid off. Once again, Rhodes were closed (with a little detour work from others in the back seven) for yet another Vikings opponent.
“Like I said in all my interviews before, Julio can get his,” Rhodes said. “He’s going to get his catches, they’re going to try and feature him any possible way. We were just aware of it. I wasn’t on him all game. I was on him 90 percent of the game, but when I wasn’t, we still covered him.”
Jones is by far Matt Ryan’s most-targeted receiver, but the number of balls that went his way diminished significantly on Sunday.
Jones went from 15 targets against Tampa Bay to six against the Vikings and caught only 33 percent of his passes. Both of his receptions were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, including one that was right at the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Unlike the Bucs, whose coach, Dirk Koetter, said they tried 14 different coverages to stop Jones, the Vikings didn’t have to throw the kitchen sink at the Falcons star. They relied on occasional safety help in bracket coverage from Harrison Smith and others in the secondary.
“Xavier did a great job, but all of our guys in the backfield did a great job; Trae [Waynes] and the safeties. We very rarely will say, 'You got him,' and it was just the way we felt we had to play to win this football game,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “We know how great of a player he is, how talented he is, and it is important to try and take away some of the opponent’s strengths each week.”
Smith totaled five tackles on Sunday, while Andrew Sendejo notched a critical pass breakup midway through the third quarter. Rhodes was lined up 10 yards off Jones, who cut inside on a deep crossing route before finding himself in heavy traffic. Sendejo ran over and swatted the ball away as the two went up for the pass.
“He ran away from me,” Rhodes said. “I thought it was going to be one route and he broke it off. He was open and ‘Dejo helped me on that one. Stuff like that, you need your teammates when you’re guessing on one route and your teammates is backing you up.”
Rhodes was targeted eight times by the Falcons and allowed four catches for 52 yards, per Pro Football Focus. He's seen a recent uptick in the number of times the ball has been thrown in his direction after being targeted a total of 19 times in Weeks 5 through 11. In his past two games, Rhodes has been targeted 19 times.
Sunday was the third time Rhodes matched up with Jones, and the receiver hasn’t been able to top two catches in any of those meetings. In 2014, with Rhodes on him part of the time, Jones totaled two catches for 27 yards. A similar result panned out in 2015 when Jones was held to two catches for 18 yards as Rhodes shadowed him part of the game.
Including Jones, five of the league’s top wide receivers have struggled when shadowed by Rhodes. The cornerback held New Orleans' Michael Thomas to five catches for 45 yards, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown to five catches for 62 yards, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans to seven catches for 67 yards and the Rams’ Sammy Watkins to two catches for 24 yards.
The ability of Rhodes and the Vikings to stifle the Falcons' passing attack helped keep Atlanta out of the end zone. Ryan’s 173 passing yards was his lowest mark since 2013.
“We needed this one,” Rhodes said. “A statement game, it felt like, and we just need to continue doing what we’re doing.”