FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Julio Jones is ready to give the Atlanta Falcons another breakout game.
The NFL’s No. 6 overall draft pick will have another chance Sunday when the Falcons (7-5) visit Carolina (4-8), but Jones believes he’s barely tapped his potential in his rookie season.
Injuries to both hamstrings sidelined him in four of Atlanta’s past six games, and Jones is coming off arguably his toughest afternoon as a professional in last week’s 17-10 loss at Houston.
“Everything takes time,” Jones said Thursday. “Sometimes it comes easy. Sometimes it’s tough, but that’s why I go out every day in practice and just try to get better.”
Jones wants to prove that he’s the game-changer Atlanta traded up 21 spots to select in the draft, yet he’s still learning his position and trying to feel comfortable after missing so much time with ailing legs.
“I feel great right now,” he said. “The more snaps I take in games and the more reps I get in practice, the better I feel. I’m on schedule now.”
In a Nov. 6 victory at Indianapolis, Jones flashed his unique playmaking skills on a pair of impressive touchdown catches.
On the first, he muscled past a pair of defenders and dove to catch a 50-yard pass in the end zone. On the second, Jones caught a short pass from quarterback Matt Ryan on a slant route and easily ran past the coverage for an 80-yard score.
Last week at Houston, however, Jones looked raw. He was targeted 11 times, catching just four passes for 68 yards and had a 30-yarder from quarterback Matt Ryan go through his hands in the end zone on the game’s final play.
Had he caught the 30-yard pass, Atlanta could’ve forced overtime, but three-time Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White says it’s a blessing that Jones will play another road game this week. To succeed in the NFL, you must learn to overcome raucous opposing crowds.
“We looked up at the clock, and just for Matt to get the play to everybody took a little bit longer because of the noise,” White said. “We’re used to hearing things and not really passing the calls out, but when you can’t hear him you’ve got to (go) all the way down there and talk to him and get the signals and then line up and go play. But we won’t get caught in that type of atmosphere like that again.”
Atlanta coach Mike Smith blamed himself and his staff for not properly preparing Ryan and the offense to work off hand signals. For Jones, who’s still learning how to read coverages before the snap, the game was a tough learning experience.
Jones missed Atlanta’s 31-17 victory over the Panthers eight weeks ago with a strained left hamstring, so White has put in extra time to help the rookie understand the nuances of Carolina’s scheme.
“They do a good job of disguising coverages,” White said. “That’s one of their strengths, and they rotate really, really late, so we’ve got to get up there and call some plays and get those guys out of line and see if we can move the ball that way.”
One week after the Falcons played Indianapolis, Jones left the 26-23 home overtime loss to New Orleans with an strained right hamstring. He missed home wins over Minnesota and Tennessee before returning against Houston.
He acknowledged that it’s been tough to maintain fluid timing on his routes after missing so much practice time. Jones has caught 34 passes for 566 yards. He’s still looking for that elusive third touchdown reception.
“Just being back out there working Matt and all the other guys and physically taking those reps instead of just doing it mentally makes a big difference,” Jones said. “You can watch as much film as you want, but on Sundays, when it comes to game time, you’ve always got to make an adjustment. You’ve to be flexible and ready for anything.”