FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – More than the shorn locks that gave him a new offseason look, Julio Jones’ performance in the Falcons’ first preseason game last Thursday against Baltimore certainly created a buzz.
In one quarter, the 6-foot-3 Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown – totals that have not gone unnoticed. In his Monday Morning Quarterback column this week, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote “5,000 yards would be very realistic” for quarterback Matt Ryan to reach in passing yards this year. Of course, Jones would be a big part of that. In addition, local sports talk radio ate it up, with commentators noting that that effort was more of what fans expected to see last season.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, a four-time Pro-Bowler who led the NFL in targets in 2011, said he has told the coaching staff he doesn’t want to be thrown to as much this season. That should create more opportunity for Jones, whom White said he knows the fans appreciate.
“They should get excited,” White said. “He’s going to be important to us. We’re going to need him throughout the whole season, through all 16 games, so we got to just continue — he’s got to continue to be who he is, be big, be explosive, make big plays down the field and we’ll be fine.”
For its part, the Falcons coaching staff is doing its best to keep things in perspective on the former Alabama star for whom the Falcons gave up so many draft picks to move up from No. 27 to No. 6 last year.
“It was a great start last week and, again, we want to reiterate it, it was just a start,” head coach Mike Smith said. “That was one quarter of football for our football team… But we’re very pleased with the start that Julio had in the game last week in the game against the Ravens.”
So far in his brief NFL career, Jones has not shown any diva-like qualities associated with wide receivers. Falcons wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie offered a reason why as to why Jones needs to remain humble.
“Well, Julio’s only got 59 catches for his career,” Robiskie said, though the number is actually 54. “He can’t be a diva yet. You gotta do something before you can be a diva. Maybe when he has that one year that he catches 100 balls and 15 touchdowns, then I’ll have a bigger headache on my hands. For right now, with his little 59 catches and not even 1,000 yards, he can’t be a diva yet.”
Jones had a solid rookie season but why last Thursday’s game gives reason for optimism is that it was his first appearance in new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s system. Fans got a tantalizing taste. Yet, in a way, preseason football mirrors the Bizarro World – instead of game-planning to neutralize an opponent’s strength, teams do the opposite, purposely putting a player in a stressful situation to see how he copes.
Robiskie said that with all of the man-to-man coverage that the Ravens employed against the Falcons’ first team last week, that dynamic could have been at work by Baltimore’s defense.
“I think we all do that,” said Robiskie, who has coached in the NFL since 1982. “We all get to the point where we may put a guy in a predicament, put him in a situation in the preseason that you wouldn’t put him in the regular season. This time of year from a defensive standpoint, most teams and organizations and certainly most defensive coordinators might say, ‘Hey, I want to see if you can cover and I want to see if you can play somebody man-to-man…’
“And, hey, any time you’re going to experiment with it, you better do it in the preseason. I think that certainly was the case with Baltimore.”
Regardless, if Jones keeps showing that he can play the way he did against the Ravens against one-on-one coverage, opponents will have some hard choices to make. That was the whole point in drafting him. However, it didn’t work out the way it was intended last year – even though he had a productive season with 54 receptions for 959 yards and eight touchdowns. Scapegoats varied from the lockout (no time to learn the offense), offseason foot surgery, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s reluctance to throw deep, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau’s inability to get his unit to pass protect and left tackle Sam Baker and right guard Garrett Reynolds’ struggles.
The Falcons don’t have any of those to blame this time around – except for Baker and Reynolds, both of whom lost their starting spots for varying reasons last season but, for now, find themselves back in the jobs.
“I certainly hope as he keeps going and puts that pressure on people, obviously, he’ll draw a little more attention to him and it’ll give us more opportunities to run the ball, of course, with Michael Turner and to do things with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez and try to keep all them guys going,” Robiskie said. “Of course, I think that’s why we brought Julio here. That’s why we drafted him…
“In our mind, he can do one of two things: Somebody can put him on the backside by his self and he could create havoc for people and at the same time people will say, ‘We can’t leave that guy one-on-one. Let’s double him.’ So if it’s two guys on him, then Roddy’s somewhere else. That’s what Julio was brought here for. He was brought here to win those one-on-one battles and to try to help them to our advantage. I think this game (against Baltimore), obviously, it showed. Hopefully, it carries over into the regular season.”
Said Jones of last week’s showing: “We’ve been working during OTA’s, plus the offseason; this is kind of my first offseason and OTA’s. But just being able to go out there and connect like that was a really good feeling.”
On Thursday, Falcons fans will get their first chance to see Jones line up in the same game as former University of Georgia star A.J. Green. The Falcons reportedly tried to get Green when they moved up in the draft and picked Jones, but the Bengals demanded too high of a price. Green also had an excellent rookie season, though not much more productive than Jones’: 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns on 65 catches in 15 games while Jones played in 13.
The two receivers, as they both played in the Southeastern Conference and were drafted so closely together, are likely to be compared for the rest of their careers. Smith was asked about that, but mostly side-stepped it, saying, “We feel very good about what Julio has added to our offensive football team.”
Robiskie said Jones’ biggest challenge this season will be to focus on a weekly basis. He used the analogy of college, with Jones getting up for Alabama-LSU but perhaps not Alabama-Troy.
“He’s got to understand, basically for him, every Sunday is Alabama vs. LSU. There is no Troy,” Robiskie said. “… He’s got to stay focused with the understanding that that defensive coordinator is going to have something for me.