- Matt Winkeljohn
Thursday was about the typical and atypical for Julio Jones, as on the day when reporters may interfere with him without being flagged he was quizzed ahead of the Falcons’ Sunday rematch with the Panthers.
The five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver’s role in the teams’ first date some eight weeks back counted as decidedly atypical, a gray afternoon in Charlotte that he might like to forget.
Open for a touchdown in the first half, he couldn’t catch up to Matt Ryan’s overthrow. When wider open – much wider – in the middle of the fourth quarter, Jones dropped the ball. After a 20-17 loss to the Panthers, he said, “I just missed it. ... no excuses.”
That game stands, perhaps arguably, as the low-water mark of the season. The Falcons’ first NFC South game was the team’s fourth loss in a five-game stretch, and the Falcons fell to 4-5.
He hasn’t forgotten, yet he’s not dwelling.
“Every game is always about taking advantage of your (opportunities). We had some missed opps in that game, and we don’t want those to occur this Sunday,” Jones said. “Division opponent, they’re definitely going to play hard. We’re going to play hard, but it’s not about them.
“We’ve just got to focus on us and bring our best.”
It’s become almost standard for Jones to miss practice -- as he did Wednesday with ankle and thumb sprains, or be limited, as he was Thursday -- and still play as one of the NFL’s best on game days.
“As far as practice, I get those mental reps. I don’t have to physically be out there. ... ” he said. “It’s just a mindset and a mentality. I’ve been dealing with injuries my whole life, so it takes a different type of guy to go out there and play injured and know something’s wrong. I’m good. I’ll be ready to go.”
Jones has brought some of his best work to dances with the Panthers, catching 12 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown in a win last season at the Georgia Dome, and snaring nine balls for 178 yards and a score in a home win in 2015.
Against Carolina, Jones’ target rate (10.1 per game), yards per catch (18.6) and yards per game (106.1) are all better than his NFL career averages (9.7/15.5/95.5).
He likes playing the Panthers -- especially at home, where the Falcons are 4-1 against Carolina with him vs. 2-3 in Charlotte – yet he fully expects the visitors to bring their best.
Against Carolina, Jones’ receptions per game (5.7) and catch rate (56.4 percent) are both below his NFL career averages (6.2/63.6 percent).
The Panthers surely are not spending as much time studying the overthrow and the drop in the Oct. 5 game as they are his six receptions for 118 yards.
“They’re a really good team at disguising and holding coverages until the snap, so we really can’t get a bead on what they’re going to do to me throughout the game, but that’s in Matt’s hands to make those decisions,” Jones said.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian sees the same.
“Their safeties (Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams) really do a nice job of holding their landmarks and then getting to where they need to get to, and that is tied in really well with their linebacking corps,” Sarkisian explained. “
“They’ve got a veteran group of (linebackers -- Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson) who understand when to slide, how to slide in the front, when to hold pressures, when to show pressures, when to fake pressure then pop back out. ... Their disguise is about as good as we’ve seen.”
In most numerical ways, 2017 has been a typical season for No. 11.
He ranks third in the NFL with 1,364 receiving yards. His average of 16.4 yards per reception is third-highest in his career and above his career average of 15.5. He’s the seventh-most targeted player in the league (9.1 per game), although below his career average of 9.6. Jones also ranked 10th in receptions, with 83.
Yet there are some atypical numbers as well.
Jones’ 60.6 percent catch rate is his second lowest, ahead only of his rookie season (56.8) and well below rates of the preceding four seasons (64.3, 67.0, 63.8, 69.5)
That first Carolina game had something to do with this.
In catching just half his 12 targets that day, the dropped pass was one of Jones’ seven for the season. That leads the Falcons, who are tied with 49ers to lead the NFL with 28 dropped passes.
“Whoa, that’s a lot,” he said Thursday. “One thing we talk about around here is ... catch the ball. That’s our job; we are receivers. We don’t need to discuss something that we already know. We just have to do a better job of it. You have those games, you have those years.
“That’s just how the cookie crumbles sometimes. It’s not a lack of focus or anything like that. It’s just missed opps.”
Jones is used to missing practice and not missing a beat in games. He missed all of the offseason and preseason after surgery to remove a foot bunion. His practice time was limited several weeks into the season, and has been reduced multiple weeks recently, much like last year when a turf toe raged.
That explains nothing, said Jones, who practically scoffs at the suggestion that he’d be better still if he were able to practice more.
“You’ve got to be able to block it out and focus and put the team first (in games),” he explained. “It’s really easy for me to go into a game if I was nicked up or banged up and don’t let it hinder me throughout the game.”
Mohamed Sanu’s not arguing.
The Falcons’ other starting wide receiver said, “He’s different. He’s very different. I’ve never been around an athlete like him. He’s the most explosive person I’ve been around for his size, and to watch what he does at his size and speed and athleticism is remarkable.”
Count Sarkisian’s vote the same way.
Julio Jones is atypical, and the coordinator will not call plays any differently based on how much he practices.
“No, we really aren’t (affected),” he said. “There’s not something I wouldn’t call and feel good about him running on Sunday. All of us would love to have Julio out every day going full speed, but in this situation I don’t know if there’s anybody better suited to do what he needs to do to prepare himself to play.”