It’s a good sign for the Falcons that they were effective offensively in two games without star wide receiver Julio Jones. All indications are that Jones has been an encouraging presence for his teammates even as he sat out with a toe injury.
But the Falcons need Jones playing at his usual All-Pro level if they hope to make a deep postseason run. The Falcons (9-5) must win their final two games to be assured of a playoff berth. Their chances of first making the playoffs, and then winning postseason games, increase significantly with probably the NFL’s best wide receiver in uniform.
Jones planned to test the toe during Wednesday’s full-speed practice. If all goes well, the Falcons plan to increase his repetitions during the final practice of the week on Thursday in preparation for Saturday’s game at Carolina.
Before the practice, Jones said his benchmark is simple: “Just go out there and be me.” For Jones, that means playing with the usual superlative quickness for his size as well as exceptional top-end speed.
“He’s still limited,” Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said following Wednesday’s practice. “He’s not able to do everything. But definitely feel better with where he is at now than last week and the week before.”
Jones has said his lower body often is nicked up because he’s such a “fast-twitch” athlete but that he usually plays through it. He said he didn’t do it this time because the Falcons are thinking of the big picture.
Jones suffered the injury during a Dec. 4 game against the Chiefs and coach Dan Quinn held him out against the Rams and 49ers.
“It’s about being smart about postseason (with) the time it happened,” Jones said. “If it was earlier on, maybe probably push through and see what happens. But it’s critical right now. One game at a time, but you’ve also got to look at maybe the postseason and you don’t want to do anything to rush back and hurt myself and not be out there for my brothers.”
Jones said he felt some frustration about not being able to play. Quinn said Jones tested the injury before each of the two games he missed and was itching to be in uniform before Quinn decided he should sit.
Yet Jones said sitting out “wasn’t difficult at all” because he understood that rushing back could end up being counterproductive.
“You’ve got to be smart,”” Jones said. “You can’t do anything dumb to set yourself back and also hurt the team. We took precautionary (measures) to sit me out for those days to heal up like I need to heal up. I’m back.”
In spite of missing two games, Jones still leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,253) and receptions of 20 yards and more (29). Jones had seven catches for 113 yards against the while playing only 64 percent of the offensive snaps because he periodically took himself out of the game.
The Falcons only needed 286 total yards for a 42-14 victory over the Rams because their defense scored two touchdowns and a fumble recovery set up a three-yard TD drive. The Falcons piled up 550 yards and scored on seven of 10 drives against the 49ers (not including a kneel-down).
“It does show the strength and the depth of (your) roster when another player comes in and take ownership of the spot,” Quinn said. “But for sure, (missing Jones) is a factor. If we get ‘Ju’ back that’s a big plus for us.”
Before this season, Jones last missed a game because of injury in Week 15 of the 2014 season. Playing 15 games that year represented a return to good health for Jones after he missed 11 games in 2013 after aggravating his surgically-repaired right foot and having a second procedure.
Jones said he won’t return to the field this season until he’s confident he can play at his usual level.
“Nothing needs to hold me back, or I feel like I can’t do it,” Jones said. “If I can’t be me, or do me, ‘D.Q.’ is not going to let me go. He wants me to be 100 percent and moving around and doing the things I do.”
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