In search of a new contract this week, Julio Jones vaguely, and briefly, threatened a holdout from Sunday’s game. Vikings fans on social media were facetiously encouraging of that decision, hoping to eliminate the threat of one the decade’s most dominant receivers.
As it turned out, everybody got what they desired. Jones got his money — a lucrative three-year, $66 million contract — and Vikings fans barely saw Jones make nary a damaging play against the Minnesota defense. His touchdown with just over a minute remaining in a 28-12 loss undoubtedly pleased fantasy football followers but did little to rationalize his minimal impact. His stat line read three catches, 18 yards up to the midway point of the fourth quarter. He ended with six grabs, 31 yards and a meaningless 2-yard touchdown.
“Anytime you’ve got a dynamic player like that it’s always a team effort,” said safety Anthony Harris. “You can’t expect to put one guy on him. We had Rhodes on him and he did a good job battling with him all day. I think the combination of having tight coverage and having pressure up front goes hand in hand.”
The Vikings just have Jones’ number. Under head coach Mike Zimmer, Minnesota has allowed Jones an average of four catches for 45 yards in four meetings. Minnesota’s record in those games? 4-0, by an average victory margin of 11 points. During that same five-year stretch, spanning Zimmer’s tenure, Jones has averaged 104 receiving yards per game in 77 starts.
Xavier Rhodes deserves credit, having been given the job of Jones’ shadow in virtually all those games. Sunday afternoon was an immediate test for Rhodes to prove he still is a shutdown corner in his final season before turning 30. Rhodes regressed a bit — along with the rest of the Vikings defense — a season ago. Part of that was his health, as he battled nagging leg injuries, missing two games and small parts of many others. Rhodes had another brief exit on Sunday after seemingly dinging his knee during a tackle, but the veteran corner battled through the rest of the game as the Vikings built a lead as large as 28-0.
“Xavier’s a tough, competitive kid,” Zimmer said. “We’ve been working real hard on his technique and he still has work to do, just like we all do, but it’s nice to have another big, strong guy in there that can move on a guy. It’s not always Xavier all by himself, but it is sometimes.”
Rhodes wasn’t the only player deserving of praise as the Vikings held Ryan to his lowest passer rating since Week 1 last year. Ryan’s first of two interceptions (just his fourth multi-interception game since December of 2015) came on a target to Jones. Harris recognized Jones crossing the field, read Ryan’s eyes and dropped in coverage, right to the spot where Ryan’s loft wound up. Against one of the great contested catch receivers in the game, Harris high-pointed the football and wrestled it away from Jones for Minnesota’s first takeaway.
“We know how good an athlete he is,” Harris said. “That’s why we go out there and prepare each week to go out there and make plays like that. Then once you’re in that position it’s just about going up there and finishing.”
Jones’ longest reception was just 10 yards, and his yards per target ended below 3.0. His career average is 9.8.
The Vikings had some good fortune on Ryan’s biggest miss on the day, an end zone shot on the run that missed Jones by five yards when Rhodes was out of the game being treated. Slot corner Mackensie Alexander fell down trying to cut off Jones’ double move as Ryan threw a bomb from Minnesota’s 41-yard line. The contact with Alexander slowed Jones’ route just enough to coax the incompletion and set up 3rd and 19. A touchdown on the play would’ve cut a 14-0 deficit in half, but Atlanta was quickly forced to punt. The Falcons were unable to meaningfully exploit rookie Kris Boyd, who filled in when needed for Rhodes.
Even after Alexander left with an elbow injury, the Falcons weren’t able to scheme Jones open as Rhodes continued to shadow and Minnesota played the pass with a huge lead. Their pass rush kept Ryan flustered, registering four sacks on the day and myriad pressures as Ryan dropped back over 50 times.
It was a perfect marriage of pass rush and coverage, and it left the Falcons punchless once again against the Purple.
“When guys get to the quarterback, we make plays on the ball forcing Matt [Ryan] to make bad throws and making bad decisions,” said Rhodes. “I give thanks to the D-line and the front seven for making our jobs a lot easier today.”