ATLANTA - The battle between Adrian Peterson and Julio Jones never materialized.
Blame Xavier Rhodes.
The Vikings’ 6-1, 218-pound cornerback shadowed and shut down Atlanta’s 6-3, 220-pound receiver, rendering Jones a nonfactor in the Falcons’ fourth straight loss on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. While Peterson, the league’s leading rusher, ran for 158 yards, Jones, the league’s leading receiver, caught just five passes for 56 yards, his second-lowest output on the season.
With Rhodes in man coverage, Jones was targeted only three times and caught only two passes for 18 yards, all in the first half. Rhodes’ tight coverage on those three targets resulted in a pass defense and only 3 yards after one of the catches.
“This isn’t a surprise,” said Terence Newman, the Vikings’ other starting cornerback. “He did it with [Lions receiver] Calvin Johnson twice. Jones is a matchup nightmare, but physically, there is nobody who is built better for that job than Xavier. And he looks forward to it, too.”
Rhodes shadowed Jones on nearly every snap. There were two instances when linebacker Anthony Barr pressed Jones in the slot with safety help over the top. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn covered Jones once out of the slot, and Newman covered him once on third-and-5.
“We did change it up a little bit because you don’t want to give him the same look all the time,” Rhodes said. “Our philosophy was just tight coverage, be physical because he’s one of the best in the league.”
Jones’ longest catch was a 19-yarder early in the third quarter. It came against a zone coverage when safety Robert Blanton didn’t pick him up quickly enough after Rhodes passed him to the next zone.
Jones’ other catches were a 14-yarder against Munnerlyn and a 5-yarder against Newman. Four of Jones’ seven targets came during the few times Rhodes wasn’t covering him.
All in all, it was an impressive outing for the secondary, especially considering it began the day without its best safety, Harrison Smith, who was out because of a knee injury, and was down to two backups when Andrew Sendejo injured a knee early in the second quarter.
“We had to make some adjustments throughout the ballgame,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “They probably knew we were tilting [the safeties] for Julio. We had too many penalties in the back end [five called, four accepted], but we battled good.”
The Falcons didn’t attempt a pass to Jones for the first 18 minutes. Jones came into the game with 89 catches for 1,189 yards, but the Falcons, who were missing leading-rusher Devonta Freeman (concussion), started the game with three runs and a punt.
“We were really surprised they did that,” Rhodes said. “They were more of a passing team, and they just went to the run. We thought they’d come out and establish the pass.”
They never did. Blame Rhodes.