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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Against a banged-up Falcons offense, Vikings’ hands still full with Julio Jones

By Andrew Krammer

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — If it’s possible, the Atlanta Falcons might lean even more on stud receiver Julio Jones against the Vikings on Sunday.

The Falcons will be without top rusher Devonta Freeman, who is also the second-most targeted receiver by quarterback Matt Ryan, as well as receiver Leonard Hankerson, who has been the Falcons’ No. 2 target next to Jones in front of an injury-plagued Roddy White.

Jones, 26, is the NFL’s leading receiver and has a reasonable shot at Calvin Johnson’s single-season record of 1,964 yards as Jones is currently on pace for a 1,902-yard season. He’s also on pace for a career high in targets (214), as the Falcons and first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have become creative with how they’re getting the ball to their top playmaker.

“They’ve got [Jones] everywhere – Z, X, slot, you name it, they’ve got him everywhere,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “You have to really be sharp with all of your coverages and things like that. Sometimes they’ll have running backs outside of him and they’ll have tight ends outside. They run wide receiver screens to him, just about everything you can imagine they do. We’re going to have be extremely sharp in the coverages. It makes it difficult when they can run the ball like they do, as well.”

One break the Vikings will get is the absence of Freeman, whose 764 rushing yards ranks the sixth-most in the league. Falcons rookie Tevin Coleman will start in his place. Without Hankerson complementing Jones, Atlanta could also lean more on White and an unheralded group including Eric Weems and Nick Williams.

Even as the Vikings prepared for a full-strength Falcons offense this week, priority No. 1 has always been Jones.

“He’s got all the physical attributes,” safety Harrison Smith said of Jones. “Obviously he’s a smart player, works hard. He goes up and gets the ball. He deserves those targets and he makes plays.”

Last year, the Vikings defeated the Falcons 41-28 at TCF Bank Stadium in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s first start. For Jones’ high standard, it was a pedestrian day as he was held out of the end zone with six catches for 82 yards.

In that September 2014 win, Zimmer did not use his biggest cornerback, Xavier Rhodes (6-foot-1), to shadow Jones (6-foot-3) as he’s done with Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5) in all three matchups. The Vikings kept Rhodes on his side of the field, only matching up with Jones when he came to the right side.

Zimmer doesn’t often have a cornerback follow a receiver across formations like he’s done with Rhodes on Johnson. At the end of last season, when Rhodes was playing very well, Zimmer had him track Johnson, Mike Wallace (in Miami) and Alshon Jeffery in three straight games to end the season.

Rhodes has largely stayed on his side of the field this season, save for shadowing Johnson twice and a bit against the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas, who got away from Rhodes when lining up in the slot. The Falcons have used Jones in the slot about 30 percent of his routes, according to Pro Football Focus, meaning he can get away from Rhodes regardless of what the Vikings do, as Rhodes hasn’t played in the slot to this point.

With 6-foot rookie Trae Waynes still coming along, Zimmer could look to keep Jones away from 5-foot-10 Terence Newman or 5-foot-9 Captain Munnerlyn. While size does play into Zimmer’s decision of using his top corner to follow a big-time receiver, it’s not the only factor.

“Just feeling, really,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes it’s different routes they run. Sometimes it’s the size, the speed, where they line up. There’s a lot of different variables.”

The post Against a banged-up Falcons offense, Vikings’ hands still full with Julio Jones appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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