On third down, Vikings' defense had Falcons right where they wanted them
ATLANTA — The Vikings entered Sunday's game ranked No. 1 in the NFL in third-down defense, so it wasn't a surprise that they were once again solid. But after surrendering just one conversion in 10 Atlanta tries and limiting wide receiver Julio Jones to two catches, Minnesota qualified as downright superb.
The Falcons (7-5) were smoking hot before the Vikings (10-2) showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, converting 65.9 percent of their third downs in a three-game winning streak in which they averaged 31.7 points.
Against the Vikings, Atlanta converted its first third down of the game, a 16-yard pass from 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan to reserve tight end Levine Toilolo on third-and-6 from the Atlanta 37-yard line.
And that was the end of that.
Atlanta whiffed on its final nine third-down conversion attempts one week after converting 11 of 14 in a 34-20 victory over Tampa Bay. The Vikings entered the game allowing a league-low 28.5 percent conversion rate; Sunday's work dropped that to 27.2.
"I didn't think we would (hold them to) 1 of 10, but we always put a big emphasis on third down," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "It is always a big part of the game."
After that first — and only — conversion in the first quarter, the closest the Falcons came was on third-and-3 from the Minnesota 29 on the first drive of the third quarter. Ryan threw over the middle to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who plucked a low ball for what was ruled 11 yards. The Vikings challenged that catch, and upon replay the ball was ruled to have touched the turf.
"I definitely saw it hit the ground, but then again I needed to be in tighter coverage," cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. "We knew it was going to be a defensive game. We had to be in tight coverage. We knew they have great receivers. They have guys that are physical like Julio (Jones).
"Sanu is good in routes in and out of his breaks. We knew we had to be tight in coverage, and Matty Ice (Ryan) is pretty accurate with his throws. We knew we had to come with our 'A' game this week."
The Vikings rushed Ryan all day, and he played completed 16 of 29 passes for 173 relatively harmless yards. Atlanta added 102 rushing yards on 22 carries, but couldn't solve the third-down puzzle.
"I thought we had too many third-and-7's," Ryan said. "I think one point of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn't do a good job of that."
Slowing Jones was critical to the Vikings' overall success. A week earlier against the Bucs, he caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns to become the first wide receiver in NFL history with three games of 250 or more receiving yards.
Sunday, he had two catches for 24 yards, including a 13-yard tunnel screen on one of the rare occasions when Rhodes was not covering him.
"I think we obviously have the best corner in the league in Xavier Rhodes," safety Harrison Smith said. "When you are on the same page and doing what the coach is coaching, we communicated and played well."
Atlanta had just one play longer than 18 yards, a 20-yard completion to wide receiver Marvin Hall in the second quarter.
"We played good as a whole unit. When we needed a stop, we stopped them," Rhodes said.
Especially on third down.
"Honestly, we try to win every down. You win every down, you forget about the plays they're successful on and just keep battling," said middle linebacker Eric Kendricks. "I feel like on every series offensively and defensively we went out and battled. We never gave up and just kept chipping away and chipping away. We knew that was the type of game it was going to be, and we stuck with it."