Julio Jones getting plenty of help in Falcons’ passing game
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Julio Jones is still Atlanta’s go-to receiver.
No doubt about that.
But Jones has been getting plenty of help in the Falcons’ passing game.
Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy have bulked up a receiving group that, beyond Jones, was a big question mark at the start of the season.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are frequent targets. Tight ends Jacob Tamme, Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo have chipped in as well.
“The fact that we get everybody involved is a very important part of our offense,” coach Dan Quinn said Tuesday. “We’re at our best when we keep attacking and different guys get the ball.”
This past Sunday may have been the best example yet.
Sanu caught five passes on a game-winning drive against the Green Bay Packers, including an 11-yard touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. Three others players also had receptions on the 75-yard possession. Jones was not among them, though he did draw double-coverage that left Sanu matched up with a linebacker on the scoring play.
“I have all the belief in the world that those guys are going to make those plays,” Jones said. “We’ve got a lot of ballers in our room.”
The Falcons (5-3) have done a good job turning to other players when Jones is drawing double- and even triple-coverage. When he’s left in man-to-man, quarterback Matt Ryan is quick to take advantage.
That is the conundrum facing the Buccaneers (3-4) when the NFC South rivals meet Thursday night in Tampa Bay.
“They’re throwing it around the yard,” said Mike Smith, Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator and former head coach of the Falcons. “You’ve got to try to pick your poison when you play a team that has got the weapons that they have.”
Jones leads Atlanta with 43 receptions for 859 yards and four touchdowns, but he’s far off his pace from a year ago when he led the NFL with 136 catches for 1,871 yards.
Seven other players have double-figure receptions, including Sanu (32 catches, 342 yards, three TDs), Freeman (26, 192, 2) and Tamme (22, 210, 3). In all, 10 players have at least one touchdown reception.
Tamme went down with a shoulder injury on the opening possession against the Packers, but Hooper, a third-round pick out of Stanford, stepped in to make five receptions for 41 yards. Coleman didn’t play at all last Sunday because of a hamstring problem, but Terron Ward filled his versatile role.
“It’s pretty cool to have a number of guys step up,” Hooper said. “Defenses can’t key on one person. Any given rep, anybody could get the ball.”
Midway through the season, Sanu is just one catch off his total for all of last season with the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s on pace to eclipse the career-best 56 receptions he had in 2014.
“We’ve got the greatest receiver in the NFL, but we’ve got other great guys in that room, too,” Sanu said.
Jones said he doesn’t mind sharing the load, especially when defenses are overloading their coverages to stop him.
In four games, he’s been held to a total of 10 catches for 140 yards. In the other four games, he piled up 33 receptions for 719 yards — including a 300-yard performance against Carolina, which paid a huge price by sticking with single coverage most of the way.
Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have done a splendid job taking advantage of what the defenses are giving.
“I feel like we feed off each other,” Gabriel said. “If it’s not Julio’s day, it can be Sanu’s day. If it’s not Sanu’s day, it can be my day.”
Notes: Jones (right knee) was limited in practice for the second day in a row after going out briefly in Sunday’s game. It seemed to be merely a precautionary step given the short week. “I’m good,” Jones said. “There’s no need to even talk about it. Nothing is going to hold me back.” ... Held out of practice were Tamme, Coleman and DE Dwight Freeney (quadriceps). Quinn said it’s too soon to determine if Coleman will be able to play against the Bucs. “He’s making progress,” the coach said. “His strength is back, but we’ve got to find out if he can explode on it.”
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