The Vikings enter Sunday’s season opener against the Falcons with a rare track record for limiting All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, who said this week he plans to play at U.S. Bank Stadium amid contract negotiations.
Jones, the NFL’s top receiver in yards (1,677) and targets (170) last season, has averaged only 54 yards in three full games and has yet to score a touchdown against the Vikings. The latest, in 2017, saw cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadow Jones and hold him to catching two of six targets for 24 yards in a Vikings win.
Rhodes, who credited how players carry out Mike Zimmer’s game plans for the success, could shadow Jones again on Sunday.
“I expect a hard day — the whole defense does,” Rhodes said Friday. “I’m going to get a few targets. They’re going to run the ball. It’s going to be a hard day of work for all of us. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
New Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the former Buccaneers head coach, adds more unfamiliarity to a season opener that leaves all NFL coaches digging for clues on what to expect. The top of the Vikings’ list, without question, is Jones.
“We’ll have to really pay special attention to him,” Zimmer said.
Varied coverage schemes and corralling quarterback Matt Ryan have helped the Vikings interrupt the Falcons’ dynamic connection.
“He’s had a couple of scrambles,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said of Ryan, “so we’ve got to do a good job with our rush plan.”
Cook’s early workload to be watched closely
Zimmer called the Vikings’ situation with running back Dalvin Cook a “Catch-22” because he is expected to have a heavy workload but the team also wants to be mindful of his injury history as Cook enters just his 16th game in his third NFL season.
Cook, who had just two preseason carries for 88 yards and one touchdown, will take an unquestioned leading role, but coordinator Kevin Stefanski said coaches don’t want to overwork him, with third-round rookie Alexander Mattison also available in the backfield.
“That’s certainly something that I’ll work with [running backs coach] Kennedy Polamalu to have a plan,” Stefanski said. “Not just for Dalvin, it’s really all of our players. We want to be cognizant of their usage.”
Diggs questionable, Hughes is ruled out
Receiver Stefon Diggs was listed questionable to play Sunday because of the hamstring injury that held him out of Wednesday’s practice and limited him Thursday and Friday. However, Diggs was seen running routes during two practices this week without much of a hitch in his step.
Cornerback Mike Hughes (knee) has been ruled out; he was limited in practice all week. Tight end Tyler Conklin injured his ribs during Friday’s practice and is listed questionable, but Conklin told the Star Tribune he expects to play against the Falcons.
Two Vikings starters who missed the preseason — right tackle Brian O’Neill (elbow) and nose tackle Linval Joseph (shoulder) — will play, after they were full participants in practices this week.
• Hughes, who has yet to fully practice while recovering from a multi-ligament knee injury, fielded punts during the start of Friday’s practice alongside running back Ameer Abdullah and receivers Chad Beebe and Olabisi Johnson.
• The Falcons will be without right tackle Matt Gono (back), meaning first-round rookie Kaleb McGary could be making his first NFL start on Sunday.
• Zimmer was asked if he watched the Packers’ 10-3 win against the Bears in the opening game of the NFL season on Thursday night: “I saw a little bit of it. Wish they both would have lost.”