Actions, not words, will dictate the mood Sunday between two NFL stars at their zenith. And since the better half of Falcons receiver Julio Jones’ damage against defenses happens on first down, you won’t wait long to see fireworks between Jones and Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
“Arguably the best receiver in the game,” safety Harrison Smith said. “And arguably the best cornerback in the league, too.”
Just don’t expect any suspension-worthy takedowns or chain snatching. Rhodes has been known to match the energy level of his opponent. He’s loudly tussled with Odell Beckham Jr. on Monday Night Football. And he’s quietly dispatched Jones, holding him to five catches for 56 yards in a 2015 win in Atlanta.
Now comes Round 2 with Jones, the relatively quiet NFL giant.
“[Rhodes] has his alter ego, where if I’ve got to go against Dez Bryant or Odell Beckham, I got to act like this,” defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “And when I’m going against Julio and Calvin [Johnson] and those guys, they’re mild-mannered. He knows I don’t have to really try to match this guy talking noise.”
Their play should get the rest of us talking, anyway.
Rhodes, the Vikings’ highest-paid player still playing, is riding high coming off a game-sealing interception in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Jones just had a ridiculous day with 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns in the Falcons’ win against the Buccaneers.
So Rhodes didn’t need to be told. Defending the NFL’s best has become routine for him. He knows to expect plenty of one-on-one assignments with Jones in Sunday’s matchup, which carries heavy weight in the NFC playoff race.
It’s an approach Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was initially reluctant to deploy. Zimmer came to Minnesota a seasoned defensive coach with a preference of having cornerbacks stick to sides. He has since adapted, getting the most out of Rhodes’ freakishly long arms capable of constricting the most difficult to cover targets from Jones to Mike Evans to Antonio Brown.
“I’ve been doing that all year so far,” Rhodes said. “That’s just my job. That’s what I’ve been told I have to do each and every week. I mean, at first it was a challenge. I was nervous, jittery my first time doing it. Now it’s just part of my job.”
The process is four seasons in the making.
Rhodes, the team’s right cornerback, needed to grow into the secondary’s ace. His ability to align left, right and at slot cornerback gives the Vikings a chess piece critical at dictating their own matchups.
“It takes a pretty talented guy to do that,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
Near the end of his first season as head coach, Zimmer, with the Vikings already eliminated from playoff contention, called Rhodes in the week before a December 2014 game against the Lions. He told Rhodes he needed to shadow future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson.
“Yeah, so you know how it felt after that,” Rhodes said.
Exhausting, but perhaps exhilarating. Johnson was held to four catches for 53 yards, just 3 yards over the goal Rhodes set to hold Johnson below.
That was the beginning of a cornerstone in the Vikings defense, which has grown into one of the league’s best. The stingy secondary, spearheaded by Rhodes, is an underrated reason Minnesota has taken down potent offenses from New Orleans to Los Angeles with another top test up next.
“I have to do it to help my team win and do whatever my coaches ask me to do,” Rhodes said.
The Falcons are confident in their star and attack immediately. Jones takes his biggest bite out of defenses on first downs — when he averages nearly 17 yards per catch for more than half of his 1,039 yards this season.
And the Vikings are growing exceedingly confident in theirs, putting Rhodes on an opponent’s top threat for just about every game this season.
“[Rhodes is] a very confident guy,” Jones told Atlanta reporters on Thursday. “You know, hopefully, I’ll get man-to-man [coverage].”
Jones, and onlookers, shouldn’t be disappointed.