Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes has contained Julio Jones, one of the NFL’s top receivers, twice before. Can he do it a third time?
In 54 games since the start of the 2014 season, the Atlanta Falcons star has averaged 107 yards receiving against teams other than the Vikings. With Rhodes covering him during games against Minnesota in 2014 and ’15, Jones averaged 69 yards.
The two meet again Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Rhodes will be ready.
“It’s the same regimen, same thing,” Rhodes said. “Go into the game, don’t believe in the hype, don’t be afraid of the name, just believe in the game. I know he’s one of the best receivers in the league, and I’ve just got to go out and play with the mind-set of having confidence going against him.”
Rhodes regularly shadows an opponent’s top receiver. He made the Pro Bowl for the first time last season, and he’s playing well enough to do it again this year.
Sunday’s game will be perhaps his biggest test of the season. Jones, named all-pro in each of the past two years, caught 12 passes for 253 yards from Matt Ryan in Atlanta’s 34-20 victory last weekend over Tampa Bay. He is second in the NFL with 1,039 receiving yards on 66 receptions.
“He’s one of the best,” Rhodes said. “You expect that out of a guy like him. It’s the norm for him. It’s the norm for us to know him putting up those type of numbers. Last year, I think he put up 300 yards in one game.”
Yep. Jones had 12 catches for 300 yards in an Oct. 2, 2016 game against Carolina, the sixth-best performance in NFL history.
Since the start of the 2014 season, Jones has had 26 100-yard receiving games.
In a 41-28 loss at Minnesota on Sept. 28, 2014, Jones had just six catches for 82 yards. Rhodes didn’t shadow Jones in that game, a tactic Vikings coach Mike Zimmer began employing regularly later that season in a game against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, but he was on him plenty that day.
Rhodes was assigned to cover Jones in a Nov. 29, 2015 game at Atlanta, and he held him to five catches for 56 yards in the Vikings’ 20-10 victory.
Jones had 136 receptions that season, tied for the second-most in NFL history, and 1,871 yards, the second-most in league history. In his other 15 games that season, Jones averaged 8.7 receptions and 121 yards.
“He’s been excellent as far as lining up on a guy and pretty much shutting him down,” Vikings cornerback Terence Newman said of Rhodes. “This week, I don’t think it’s going to be any different. That’s his job, and he’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever seen.”
Rhodes has muted a handful of the best receivers in the NFL this season: New Orleans’ Michael Thomas (five catches for 45 yards), Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (five for 62) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (seven for 67).
Rhodes, a five-year veteran, said at first he was “nervous” and “jittery” when assigned to cover team’s best receivers in his second season. Those days are long gone.
“Now it’s just part of my job,” he said. “I have to go out there and do it to help my team win. …. You have to embrace it. … I go out there with the confidence not only in myself, but I feel like my teammates and coaches have confidence, too.”
Confidence, yes. But Rhodes also has plenty of respect for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Jones.
“(He’s) big, fast, physical,” Rhodes said. “I don’t believe he has any weakness at all. He’s focused. Doesn’t talk much on the field. So it’s hard to get in his head. Yeah, he’s just Julio.”