Julio Jones – Photo by: Getty Images
Coaches and players love saying how there are no down weeks in the NFL. No matter how pitiful a team’s record, no matter how horrendous their stats, every roster is filled with professional-level football players.
Well if every week is a challenge, some are definitely more difficult than others. That’s because guys like Julio Jones exist. The Atlanta Falcons all-everything wide receiver comes to town Thursday night trying to terrorize a Tampa Bay secondary still recovering from Sunday’s 513-yard carpet-bombing courtesy of Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders.
“Julio Jones is going to play,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said with a laugh Tuesday, referring to a minor knee issue the receiver suffered during Sunday’s win over Green Bay. “Is he going to play his normal snaps? I don’t know that, but we’re going to see Julio Jones and we’re looking forward to competing against him. He is obviously one of the top three receivers in the league, there’s no doubt about that. Maybe number one. I think he’s probably one of the toughest guys to defend and we’re going to see him, it’s just a matter of how many snaps we’re going to see him. I hope he plays every one of them.”
Photo by: Getty Images
That’s a bold wish coming from a team sporting the league’s 10th worst passing defense that’s two days removed from allowing an opponent to set a new franchise record through the air. But Smith and the Bucs secondary already got that full dose of Jones and No. 2 receiver Mohamed Sanu once this season and the results exceeded expectations. Tampa Bay limited the duo to nine receptions on 16 targets for 146 yards, though it did account for both Falcons touchdowns during that 31-24 Week 1 victory in Atlanta.
Even better was the job done containing Jones, specifically. His four catches and one touchdown on eight targets for 66 yards is his least productive outing against Tampa Bay since Week 17 in 2012 when he caught three of six targets for 56 yards and no scores.
That secondary performance looks even better next to Jones’ career numbers against Tampa Bay. In nine meetings he’s averaged 6.7 receptions for 110.6 yards. Jones’ 995 total receiving yards and seven touchdowns in those games represents the most against a single opponent.
Oddly enough, that 66-yard total in Week 1 is far from Jones’ statistical low point this year. He caught one pass for 16 yards Week 3 in New Orleans, two for 29 yards Week 5 in Denver and three for 29 yards Sunday against Green Bay. Yet Jones’ 859 receiving yards trails only Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (869), and the Falcons still boast the NFL’s second-ranked passing attack.
When asked about Atlanta’s continued proficiency airing it out, Smith credited Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his ability to get the ball in the right player’s hands at the right time.
“Matt’s doing a very good job and, again, I think Coach [Kyle] Shanahan does a great job with the scheme, in terms of what they’re trying to get accomplished,” Smith said, referencing the Falcons’ second-year offensive coordinator. Sanu had a big game last week, was the most targeted player. You’ve got to try to pick your poison when you play a team that has got the weapons that they have. [Running back] Devonta Freeman, out of the backfield as a receiver, is going to be a mismatch as well. So, it’s going to be a challenge for us and I know our guys are looking forward to it.”
While Sanu trails Jones in receiving yards by over 500 (859-342), he only has 11 fewer receptions (43-32). With Green Bay focusing in on stopping Jones last week, Sanu stepped up to catch nine passes for 84 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Ryan also got balls to lesser-used options Taylor Gabriel (three receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown) and Austin Hooper (five for 41) when Packers defenders surrounded Jones.
Employed against a more arrogant, selfish wideout, that strategy could end up causing a disruptive rift in an opponent’s huddle. But that’s not Jones. Even though he’s practically peerless, Jones isn’t a me-first receiver that requires a certain number of targets to remain content.
“If they’re going to double me like Green Bay did, try to take me away, guys step up and make plays,” Jones said to the Atlanta media Tuesday. “Or if you want to play one-high to me, I’ll go out there and just do my job and kind of pour it on.
“Like I said since day one, I have all the belief in the world that those guys are going to make those plays, and they have. You saw it last week. Sanu did a great job, Gabriel did a great job for us. If Aldrick [Robinson] gets in, he’ll do the same thing; if Justin Hardy gets in he’s going to do the same thing. We’ve got a lot of ballers in our room and we’re going to step up to that challenge. It’s no added pressure. We’re going to go out there and make plays and have fun.”
Tasked with the lion’s share of keeping Jones and Co. from running free all over Raymond James Stadium like Raiders receivers did last weekend will be cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves III on the outside and Jude Adjei-Barimah at nickelback. The defensive backs are probably still catching their breath after Sunday. Grimes and Hargreaves were on the field for 93 snaps against Oakland and Adjei-Barimah played 63.
According to Smith and head coach Dirk Koetter, playing too many reps wasn’t a reason for the secondary’s poor play Sunday and more rotation among corners shouldn’t be expected.
Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
“When you play 93 plays, it’s a long day,” Smith said. “There’s certain positons that you do want to have a rotation. On the defensive line, there’s a rotation; at the wide receiver, there’s a rotation. Right now, and maybe if you have bigger rosters, you’re going to have an opportunity to potentially rotate guys. But yes, the wide receivers are rotating. They’re in a rotation and the DBs are not. And that’s something that I think is not a trend and it’s not being done in the NFL. If you look at play time, you’re going to see five or six DBs, depending on what defensive personnel groups that you’re playing.”
The bigger issue is the 90-plus plays Tampa Bay was tasked with defending, Smith said. “When you play 93 plays, you’re going to get worn down and we’ve got to do a better job of getting off the field, especially in the second half. In the first half, they were one of six on third down. In the second half, we were not very good.”
Smith was also asked about cornerback Alterraun Verner and why he’s falling out of favor again. The coach’s response touched on why he doesn’t like rotating cornerbacks in general.
“I think when you’re playing out there at the corner position and the defensive back positon, there’s a lot of nuances in the game that are going on,” Smith said. “They say that there’s no contact out there. You guys watch. There’s a lot of contact, a lot of hand fighting, and you get in a groove. It’s a one-on-one battle when you’re out there, especially the type of defense that we’re playing with our defensive backs. You want them to have a good feel for what they’re trying to defend because it is a one-on-one battle. You don’t want a guy that’s coming off the bench fresh, so to speak, [who’s not] had the opportunity to get out there and know what the guy’s doing this week: How he’s escaping, what his game plan is. Different receivers have different escape techniques.”
I’ve noticed our guys aren’t really playing any bump and run coverage. A staple that got Lovie canned. I know our safety’s suck, but we need to start doing something at the line to get these receivers off of their routes. Our Db’s are just too small to keep letting receivers run free and get in space. The smoked us week one, the receivers that is, so let’s hope we picked up some things. It’s going to help not having Coleman and Tammey for them this week.
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We need D line to play their asses off like week one and get pressure on Ryan or we are going to get torched. Winston needs a good game too with no turnovers for us to have a shot here. Short week advantage goes to home team. Both teams have injuries. I just hope we can have a good game and get back to .500. Perhaps I should just hope we don’t get blown out. Lol. Trying to stay positive but every year it just gets harder and harder…..who will run ball? Barber and Smith don’t look very impressive. James been around a while. Slow but pretty powerful. Hope we can run it. Way Winston playing lately I just don’t think he can do anything unless play action is working.
Smitty has to do something to switch up the coverages. It turns into 7 on 7 against good offenses with the way our CB’s play off coverage. VH3 & Grimes aren’t big dudes, but at least try to jam the WR off his route. Our safeties are crap in coverage, but they’re getting beat playing zone anyway. Might as well try to get pressure on the QB with everything you got. Kwon & Lavonte have to have a monster game. Ayers, Spence need at least a sack a piece.
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