The Falcons return from their bye week and can realistically start looking at the return of Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones.
The Falcons (3-4) can climb back to respectability with wins at Washington and at Cleveland in the next two weeks with a potential return for Jones against Dallas on Nov. 18.
Jones suffered a broken foot in the season opening loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 6. He was placed on injured reserved.
He’s missed six games and per the new rule that was adopted at the 2018 annual meeting, Jones must sit out eight games and not eight weeks of the season.
The NFL has had injured reserve with a designation to return since 2012. In 2017, the rule was expanded to include two players who could return. The Falcons have also designated running back Devonta Freeman (sports hernia/core) to return later this season.
A player can practice after six weeks, but that starts a 21-day clock before he can be activated. The Falcons sounded reluctant about starting Jones’ 21-day period immediately after the bye week.
“(There are) 21 days that you can use for a practice period,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “You don’t have to use all 21 (days). You can wait one week. ... Our bye week just happens to fall on the eighth week. For him it happens to be that this week doesn’t count for his activation.”
Jones, who led the Falcons in tackles last season with 138, would immediately boost a unit that is yielding 419.4 yards per game and allowing offenses to convert on 54 percent of their third downs.
“Right now, what I can tell you is that he’s meeting all of the markers that he’s set,” Quinn said. “The medical guidelines in terms of where he’s at. ... He’s making terrific progress ... but there is still a way to go.”
Jones responsibilities have been split between second-year linebacker Duke Riley, veteran De’Vondre Campbell and rookie Foye Oluokun.
Jones was named to the Pro Bowl following the 2017 season and has played in 32 games since joining the Falcons as a second-round draft pick in 2016. He has totaled 253 tackles, including 14 for loss, seven interceptions, 23 passes defensed and one forced fumble. His seven interceptions are the most by a linebacker in the NFL since 2016.
Quinn believes that the re-worked defense, which is also missing strong safety Keanu Neal (knee surgery) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles surgery), turned the corner a bit in the 23-20 win over the New York Giants before the bye.
“We are improving in the red zone and on third downs,” Quinn said. “Defensively, after some of the injuries that we had, we got bruised a little bit. Now, we’ve got ourselves back up off the mat and are making some improvements.”
Quinn pointed to the red zone stops and a goal-line stand against the Giants as progress. The Falcons also became the first defense to hold Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley to under 100 total yards this season.
“Those are the things I’ve been looking for,” Quinn said. “Some of them won’t show up on the stat sheet. Improving on our tackling. We can increase our ability to take the ball away. (The Giants game) was our first game in the minus from a turnover margin. We don’t want to have too many of those (games).”
Quinn is counting on the offense to continue producing.
“Third down has been something for our team offensively that’s been difficult to defend because so many people have been getting involved,” Quinn said. “There may have six different players (against the Giants) who converted on third downs with (Calvin) Ridley on two.”
Staying successful on third down will also help to keep the defense off the field. The Falcons have converted on 46 of 92 (50 percent) third-down situations.
“Often times on third down, you may defend one player or get to one person,” Quinn said. “But to have that many different weapons and (quarterback)Matt (Ryan) have the awareness to get to different people, I think that’s a big step in the right direction.”
While the players were away, the coaches went through an thorough self-scout.
“The focus more than any other week you are allowed to put the focus on yourself,” Quinn said. “Really shine a light on some things you are doing well. What are the two to three things, offensively and defensively and (special) teams wise that we really what to shore up.
“We want to make sure that whatever is a perceived weakness, we give it the time and attention that it needs.”
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