Julio Jones is so good and so vital to the Falcons that, with Atlanta leading by touchdowns in the third quarter against the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Buccaneers, his presence on the field triggered an internal alarm of sorts.
Jones is like a classic car that should only be driven around at certain times, a soufflé that should only be served at certain temperatures, an indulgence to be dusted off only at times of absolute necessity. Otherwise, his talent is best preserved in bulletproof glass; something to simply be appreciated at a safe distance.
For much of the game, Jones had more total yards than the entire Tampa Bay offense (he ended with 253 receiving yards, while Tampa Bay had 283 receiving yards as a team) and just as many scores. He caught a pair of touchdown passes, one of which came on a bobbled deep ball from wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in the wildcat formation. The other, occurring five minutes later, showcased a double move so deadly that it left Buccaneers defensive back Ryan Smith on his backside. Jones dove over the pylon, outstretched like a wrestler flying off a turnbuckle.
Around him is an imperfect combination of parts. The Falcons have been hot and cold this season, and they allowed Tampa Bay to make the game closer than the team would have liked on Sunday.
But consider for a moment what Jones accomplished on Sunday: His 253 yards was the most allowed by the Buccaneers in franchise history. On a larger scale, the banner afternoon pushed his career total through 90 games above that of Hall of Fame wideout Lance Alworth. No receiver has had more yards through 90 games in NFL history.
As Atlanta continues to chisel their way back into the NFC playoff picture, Jones’s performance Sunday begs an important question: Of the teams set to matchup with the Falcons in January, which have the defensive depth to counter his heightened level of play? Jones can rip through single coverage better than any receiver still in playoff contention aside from Antonio Brown. As the Sanu touchdown showed, his tracking ability is second to none. When the ball is in the air, Jones’ hand-eye coordination and upper body strength are an advantage over any defender.
Coming into this game, the fantasy-obscured football world would consider this a down season. Jones had just one touchdown and his yards per game (78.6) were the third-worst of his career. Those who know better understood that this massive counterweight game was only a few days away, just like his 12-catch, 300-yard performance against the Panthers last year or the three-game stretch to end 2015 where he logged 445 yards and two touchdowns.
Now winners of three straight, the Falcons come into a pivotal stretch against the Vikings and Saints at home—games that will almost certainly decide their playoff life. Three weeks ago, the defensive coordinators remaining on their schedule may have bought into the theory that, without Kyle Shanahan, this offense cannot operate at full strength.
With Jones playing this well, they now know that as long as he’s on the field, they must be afraid. Very afraid.