There are certain offensive players that force a team to change how it approaches handling him, up to and including going away from their standard procedure. When the Minnesota Vikings have faced an elite, big receiver, they have provided special attention to him, making this week’s chase-down battle between Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones this week’s key matchup.
Only one wide receiver in the NFL has been targeted more often (134 times) and no one has more receptions (89) or more yards (1,189) than Jones. He has been targeted 10 or more times in nine games and his weekly target numbers have been 11, 15, 20, 6, 10, 10, 17, 13, 17 and 15. He not only has been targeted often, he has consistently been producing huge yardage days.
Jones is averaging 119 yards a game and is on a current pace to catch 142 passes for 1,900 yards. He has topped 90 yards in eight of 10 games and posted days with 135 or more yards six times. While Jones’ numbers are monstrous, they’re even more pronounced because no other wide receiver has stepped up to provide complementary help.
The other five wide receivers on the roster – Roddy White, Leonard Hankerson, Nick Williams, James Hardy and Eric Weems – have combined to be targeted 111 times and have caught 65 passes. No other team in the league has such a wide disparity from its go-to receiver to the rest of the wide receiver supporting cast.
As a result, the Vikings are likely going to employ a strategy they have broken out three times this season – putting Rhodes on a star receiver and have him chase that player around the field from left to right, with the exception being when that receiver is in the slot. To date, it can be argued as to whether that has been a successful approach.
In both games against the Lions, the Vikings had Rhodes shadow Calvin Johnson and he prevented huge numbers from happening, but it didn’t seem to stop the receptions or the touchdown opportunities. In their first meeting, Megatron was targeted 17 times, catching 10 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. It was actually the only time in Johnson’s career that he was held under 100 yards when catching double-digit passes. In their second meeting, Johnson was targeted seven times, catching five passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Johnson got his, but he wasn’t able to blow the top off the defense and make the back-breaking plays that tilt momentum.
The only other time the Vikings employed such a strategy was against San Diego, where it was clear wide receiver Keenan Allen was the primary receiving threat and Rhodes would be running with him one-on-one. Not only did it not discourage Philip Rivers to go elsewhere, Allen was targeted more in that Sept. 27 game against the Vikings than he was in any other game he played all season.
Allen was targeted 18 times, catching 12 passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. If the object was to take Allen away, clearly it didn’t work. The three times the Vikings have tried to put Rhodes on an island with a go-to receiver, the results have been 27 catches for 302 yards and four touchdowns. Those aren’t the kind of numbers that beg a team to continue to employ that deviation from the normal M.O. of the Vikings defense.
The most successful approach Mike Zimmer has had when putting Rhodes on an island was against Jones last season. In that game, Rhodes was assigned to shadow Jones and he was targeted eight times, catching six passes for 82 yards and no touchdowns. The Vikings would be happy if they can replicate that kind of performance.
When the Vikings have tried this approach during the 2015 season, the numbers would tell you that it hasn’t worked. But it would appear they’re going to try it again Sunday, making the game-long battle between Rhodes and Jones this week’s key matchup.