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Xavier Rhodes Prepping for 3rd Career Matchup Against Julio Jones

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Xavier Rhodes knows he'll have a tough task lined up across from him on Sunday.  

The Vikings (9-2) will make their second stop in a game of three consecutive home games at Atlanta to face the Falcons (7-4). Atlanta is led in receiving this season by Julio Jones, who already has 66 catches for 1,039 yards through the air.

Rhodes called Jones one of the best in the league and wasn't surprised by his most recent performance, a 253-yard, two-touchdown outing against Tampa Bay.

"You expect that out of a guy like him. I mean, it's the norm for him. It's the norm for us to expect him to put up those types of numbers," Rhodes said. "Last year … he put up 300 yards in one game (against Carolina). Yeah, normal."

Heading into the matchup, Rhodes said it's important to keep his head down and avoid being mentally rattled by the four-time Pro Bowler in his seventh NFL season.

"You don't believe in the hype, don't be afraid of the name," Rhodes said. "I know he's one of the best receivers in the league; I just have to go play with the mindset of having confidence against him."

It won't be the first time Rhodes and Jones have met in a game.

Rhodes first played against Jones when the Vikings defeated the Falcons in 2014. Rhodes allowed Jones two catches for 27 yards off of four targets, and he successfully broke up a 50-yard bomb by Matt Ryan that almost certainly would have led to a touchdown if Jones had made the catch. The following season, Rhodes shadowed Jones throughout much of the game at the Georgia Dome. Jones, who didn't make his first catch until the second quarter, recorded just two catches for 18 yards against Rhodes and was limited to 56 total receiving yards on the day.

That 2015 game was one of the breakthrough performances that has helped establish Rhodes' reputation in the league.

This past offseason, Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray recalled asking Rhodes to cover Jones.

"A couple of years ago he went against Julio, who's a really good football player, he got a chance to go against an elite receiver for the whole game," Gray told Vikings.com's Mike Wobshall. "He did a really good job.

"So we took that, and I said, 'OK, Xavier, here's the thing – can you go for 16 weeks and do that? You may get beat on some routes, but can you be consistent for 16 weeks?' " Gray added. "And that's a consistent player, a Pro Bowl player. Because that's what we're looking for."

Rhodes has demonstrated that consistency more and more over the past two seasons, earning his first career Pro Bowl nod following his 2016 performance.

Now in preparation for reuniting with Jones for the first time in just over two years, Rhodes said that he's anticipating plenty of passes his direction from Ryan.

"You can tell their bond and chemistry is [strong]. He believes in Julio and puts the ball in places only Julio can get it," Rhodes said. "That's anywhere, honestly. He could throw it in the ground, and Julio could find a way to end up catching it. It's going to be a touch matchup."

While 1-on-1 matchups used to intimidate Rhodes, he now looks forward to the test.

"I've been doing it all year so far," Rhodes said. "That's my job … and what I've been told I have to do each and every week. At first, it was a challenge. I was nervous, jittery my first times doing it. Now it's just become my job. I'll do whatever to help my team win."

The Vikings this season have already contained a number of offensive threats. Wide receivers like Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Jamison Crowder have all been held to under 100 yards receiving against Minnesota. Against Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, the Vikings allowed their first 100-yard receiver when Marvin Jones recorded 109.

Rhodes said he trusts himself and Minnesota's defense to do what it needs to do against this Jones.

"[Not only] the coaches believe in me, but the players," Rhodes said. "They come and encourage me, 'You got this. You do good in practice, so you can do good in a game, too.' That lets me know they believe and trust in me. I go in there with confidence, believing in myself, but my teammates and coaches have confidence, too."

But that doesn't mean Sunday will be easy, and Rhodes knows he'll have his hands full.

"Julio is Julio," Rhodes said. "Big, fast, physical, can get the ball once it's in the air. I don't think he has a weakness. He's focused, doesn't talk much on the field, so it's hard to get in his head. It's Julio."

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