Deion Jones has his eyes back on the ball for Atlanta

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              FILE - In this Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, file photo, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones (45) runs back to the bench after he returned an interception for touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Atlanta. When healthy, Jones is a big-time playmaker the Falcons defense has sorely lacked. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik, File)
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Falcons coach Dan Quinn saves some of his highest compliments for defenders who never take their eyes off the ball.

Not surprisingly, Quinn raves often about third-year linebacker Deion Jones. The only problem is that Jones, a Pro Bowl alternate pick last season, missed 10 games with a broken foot, and the once-sleek defense fell apart without its signal-caller.

But now that Jones is back and healthy, Quinn likes his chances as Atlanta (5-9) prepares to visit Carolina (6-8).

“Our attempts on the football are higher over the last three weeks,” Quinn said. “Last week was higher than the week before, and that was higher than the week before, and the week before. For him being back in the lineup, that’s also a strong indicator of his awareness of the football.”

Jones isn’t accustomed to getting embarrassed in coverage. He knows his skills are as stout against the pass as they are against the run, so when David Johnson beat him on a 40-yard catch and run on the opening drive of last week’s win over Arizona, Jones was livid.

“It kind of throws you off a little bit, and then I have to reset and get back to my details and keep fighting,” Jones told The Associated Press. “There was still a lot of game to play.”

Indeed, on the Cardinals‘ next possession, Jones was shading Johnson in coverage when defensive end Vic Beasley tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage. Jones snatched the ball from the air and ran 41 yards for a tying touchdown.

That was his third score in eight career interceptions. He also had a pick in the end zone last year to save a narrow win over New Orleans.

“I’m always after the ball, man,” Jones said. . That’s what we preach, and I try to live that every down when I’m out there. If I see an opp, I take my swing at it.

What the Falcons missed most about Jones was his speed. At 6-foot-1, 222 pounds, he has the same size and quickness he had at his pro day at LSU, where he dazzled scouts by running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.

His pick-six against the Cardinals began the best day of the year for Atlanta’s defense. Though it came against an Arizona offense riddled with injuries and horrible statistics, the Falcons still got an interception from Brian Poole and a fumble recovery from Poole and Grady Jarrett.

But as they prepare to face a Carolina offense that has backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke replacing injured star Cam Newton, the Falcons need another shutdown performance to improve on a defense that ranks second-worst in third-down percentage and red-zone efficiency, fourth-worst in scoring and eighth-worst against the run.

The most important matchup could likely be Jones against Panthers multipurpose back Christian McCaffrey, who can be a nightmare to cover man-to-man.

“That’s strength on strength in that instance,” Quinn said. “We’ll rely on Debo quite a bit in that way.”

Even if Jones has a slipup similar to one he had against Arizona, Quinn likes his linebacker’s chances over the course of a full game.

“It doesn’t happen that often with him,” Quinn said. “People try him a lot, but he’s usually right there ready to respond.”

Notes: WR Julio Jones was held out of practice Wednesday with a sore hip. Quinn said Jones will play at Carolina. … Quinn officially ruled out RB Devonta Freeman, sidelined since Week 5 with a groin injury, for the last two games.