Defending Julio Jones? You're going to need help

Julio Jones agrees the clock is ticking for Atlanta Falcons

The topic is defending Julio Jones, but for perspective, let’s begin with flashbacks from some rather credible voices.

So, Deion Sanders, who was it? Which receiver was on the other side of your most challenging game as an NFL cornerback?

“Probably Jerry,” Sanders told USA TODAY Sports, evoking a Hall of Fame matchup against Jerry Rice. “I missed a pick. Went right through my hands. He was lucky to get a hundred.”

Your turn, Darrell Green. Whodunit?

The former Washington star laughed when asked if he could imagine what the poorCarolina Panthers cornerbacks felt like after Jones torched them for 300 yards on 12 receptions last Sunday.

No, he can’t imagine 300. But he can relate to a bad day – so rare for him – at the office.

“I had one game when I could not stop Michael Irvin, no matter what I did,” Green said. “I should have stayed in bed that day. I just didn’t have it.”

The game is so different now. When Green and Sanders played during the 1980s and 1990s, they likely would have been assigned to cover the type of dominant receiver that Jones now embodies with the Atlanta Falcons. But the days of such pure shutdown corners are over.

To effectively contain a threat like Jones these days, it takes a village.

“You’ve got to double Julio on every play,” said Sanders, mindful that Jones’ biggest plays last week occurred when red-hot quarterback Matt Ryan beat blitzes and often found his strapping receiver matched in single coverage against Bene’ Benwikere and rookie James Bradberry.

“It’s like, ‘I’ll let you run the ball, but you are not going to beat me with one man. Beat me with the run and your whole offensive line.’ They beat them with one guy. Julio should’ve had 400. They overthrew him, and on the long ones he caught, they underthrew him. He had to come back to get them. If they’d hit him in stride, he’d have had 400.”

With Ryan and Jones coming off a signature performance — they were the first quarterback and receiver to produce 500 passing yards and 300 receiving yards in the same game — it sets up a compelling, irresistible force vs. immovable object matchup for Sunday at Denver.

The undefeated Broncos (4-0) have the NFL’s best defense, which includes a relentless pass rush backed up by an airtight secondary that features all-pro cornerback Aqib Talib.

They even have a moniker that reflects the challenge for opponents. Denver’s D is what they call “The No Fly Zone.”

Now comes the NFL’s hottest offense. The Falcons (3-1) have scored a league-high 152 points and topped 35 points in each of the past three games. Running an up-tempo scheme that allows him extensive freedom to adjust at the line of scrimmage, Ryan leads the NFL in passing yards (1,473) and completion rate (72.1%) and is tied the league lead with 11 TDs.

Sure, the top-ranked offense has balance with a stout running game. But the fast, powerful and versatile Jones – whose previous career high came with an 11-catch, 259-yard game at Green Bay in 2014 – is the ultimate back-breaker.

“They will have to mix it up against him,” Green said. “Use some inside-out coverage. Run people underneath. Have safety support. That’s the new world order in the NFL. It’s how the game is played.”

It should be a fascinating cat-and-mouse game. Wade Phillips, one of the league’s most creative defensive coordinators, surely has a disruptive chip with Super Bowl MVP Von Miller leading a rush that has an NFL-high 17 sacks. Yet so much will also hinge on flexibility and adjustments, supported by the versatile secondary.

“Wade always surprises us with some stuff, and some little kinks in our defense,” Talib told reporters after Wednesday’s practice. “From what we did today, I think we have a good plan so far.”

“There were a lot of broken coverages and guys left wide open,” Broncos safety T.J. Ward summed up from his film review. “They still did a good job fighting them, but it wasn’t the game I thought it was after watching it.”

One thing seems certain: It will take a team effort against Jones. Sanders knows.

“He’s so physical,” he said. “You’ve got to at least combo that dude. He’s a problem.”

And this week, he’s clearly Denver’s problem to deal with.

Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell

PHOTOS | Julio Jones


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