Julio Jones gets flexible against Cary Williams. (Getty Images)The Atlanta Falcons' response to a 48-21 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers that ended their 2010 season was to add some serious firepower to their offense by trading their first-round picks in 2011 and 2012, a second-round pick in 2011, and fourth-round picks in 2011 and 2012 for the right to move up to the sixth overall pick and select Alabama receiver Julio Jones. The idea was that the physical, productive Jones would provide the final piece in a Falcons offense that already featured quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White.
Jones started off slowly, scoring in just one of his first nine NFL games -- and that was a two-touchdown game against the Indianapolis Colts' alleged defense. Toward the end of the season, however, Jones got hot -- he caught 20 passes for 393 yards and six touchdowns in his last four regular-season games, and looked good in the Falcons' 24-2 embarrassment of a loss to the New York Giants in the 2011 playoffs.
Losing two seasons to the eventual Super Bowl champions is small consolation, however, and the Falcons expected much more in the 2012 season. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was tasked with making the passing offense a bit more high-flying and fast-paced, and helping Ryan out of the box.
With the traditional "It's just preseason" warning in full effect, it would appear that the Falcons' first-team offense is a different breed of cat now. In three drives against the Baltimore Ravens' first-team defense, Ryan went with frequent uses of the no-huddle offense, which provided mixed results for the Falcons in 2011. This time, the Ravens seemed unusually unprepared for the fast pace, leaving Ryan to complete a 13-yard pass to White, followed by two passes to Jones, which gained 26 and then 19 yards. With two more passes to Jones on the drive, including a 7-yard touchdown in which the second-year receiver went around the body of Ravens defensive back Cary Williams for the score.
The resulting loss indicated little; Atlanta's first teams on both sides dominated Baltimore's.
Not only was the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones dynamic in space, he was also a yards-after-catch nightmare -- he further proved the validity of the Falcons' faith in him with a dominant performance against one of the NFL's best defenses, finishing with six catches for 109 yards and one score in just the first quarter.
"It felt great," Jones said after the game. "We've been working during OTAs plus the offseason; this is kind of my first offseason and OTAs. But just being able to go out there and connect like that was a really good feeling."
Perhaps Jones' slow start in 2011 was due in part to the lockout-abbreviated preseason process, but there doesn't seem to be much stopping him now. And if Jones takes that next step, the Falcons -- who also looked very solid on the other side of the ball under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan -- might finally be in the running for more than one-and-done status in the postseason. That's far in the future, though. For now, there's an offense in Atlanta that's living up to expectations in short bursts.