When Atlanta and Tampa Bay squared off in an NFC South game on Nov. 26, Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-20 victory over the Buccaneers.
The day after that game, Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter summed up what went wrong.
“We didn’t handle Julio. We didn’t handle him at all,” Koetter said. “He had seven plays over 20 yards. It’s a combination of a lot of different stuff. We played 14 different coverages yesterday. We played 14 different coverages, and none of them worked. We had everything from the cornerback falling down to a linebacker running out of zone to not getting pressure on the quarterback to double moves to them high-lowing us in a two-deep coverage and throwing over the corner’s head — every way you can beat those different coverages, they all happened.”
In becoming the first player in NFL history with three games of at least 250 receiving yards (no other player has more than one), Jones set a Tampa Bay record for the most receiving yards for an opposing player, breaking the former mark by 54 yards.
So what will the Buccaneers do on Monday night, when Jones and the Falcons come to Tampa for a rematch three weeks after the former Foley High School and Alabama standout torched the Bucs’ secondary?
“We’re going to put 10 guys on him, and then just leave one guy over the center,” Koetter told reporters on Thursday about his plans for covering Jones. “You think Atlanta would do anything if we did that?
“That’s about what it would take. I’ve seen Julio have a couple other games like that when I was there. When Julio gets that hot — Julio is good all the time — but when he gets that hot, it’s tough to stop him.”
Koetter worked with Jones as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator from 2012 through 2014.
“He was a great offensive coordinator here,” Jones said, “but I doubt, I highly doubt, that he’s going to put 10 guys on me.”
Atlanta wide receiver Mohamed Sanu is all for Koetter’s plan.
“If they have 10 on Julio, that means they have one to cover the other 10,” Sanu said. “That might leave me open.”
Steve Sarkisian, the Falcons’ current offensive coordinator, said he wouldn’t be surprised by anything an opposing defense tried against Jones.
“When we go into every week, we really anticipate something new, if not numerous things new,” Sarkisian said. “When you have a player like Julio, we’re always going to see different things that aren’t on tape, and it’s our job to adjust to those things as they come.
“It won’t be new to us to see something new — I don’t know if that sounded right coming out — but it’s our job to adjust. The key is to find ways to keep him not just involved in the offense, but a focal point, and to make sure that when he is that focal point and people are doing their things to try and take him away, that provides other opportunities for the other guys on our team to go make their plays.”
Jones has caught 73 passes for 1,161 yards and three touchdowns this season. After leading the NFC in receiving yards for each of the previous three seasons, Jones is 30 yards behind Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen for the most in the conference in 2017.
Jones said the Falcons would adjust to whatever scheme the Tampa Bay defense used this time around, and if that meant he had to take a backseat to his teammates to get the job done that wouldn’t be a problem.
“We’re not going to force any balls and things like that,” Jones said. “If they’re going to try and take me away, we have a lot of guys on the team that can make plays.”
Jones has more receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns against Tampa Bay than against any other team in his NFL career. In five career games in Tampa, Jones has never had fewer than 93 receiving yards.
A foot injury prevented Jones from playing against the Bucs in 2013, but in seven games since, he’s caught 61 passes for 965 yards and seven touchdowns. Jones had at least 111 receiving yards in all but two of the games, with the lows coming in at 66 and 93 yards.
And Tampa Bay enters Monday night’s game with the worst passing defense in the NFL. The Buccaneers have yielded an average of 276.1 passing yards per game in 2017.
The Falcons and Buccaneers kick off at 7:30 p.m. CST Monday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. ESPN will televise the game.
At 4-9, Tampa Bay has been eliminated from the playoff picture, but the Bucs are going to have something to say about who wins the NFC South.
The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are tied for the division lead at 10-4, with the Falcons entering Monday night’s game with an 8-5 record. After playing Atlanta, the Buccaneers play Carolina on Christmas Eve and the Saints on New Year’s Eve to complete their regular-season schedule.
The Falcons need a victory on Monday night to keep pace with the NFC South leaders, setting up showdowns with the Saints on Christmas Eve and the Panthers on New Year’s Eve.
A loss to Tampa Bay not only would kill the Falcons’ chances of winning the division outright, it also would leave Atlanta as one of four 8-6 teams chasing one of the four remaining playoff berths in a conference with five teams that already have at least 10 victories in 2017.
The Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings have secured two of the NFC’s six postseason positions. The Los Angeles Rams join the Panthers and Saints as 10-win teams, and the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks have 8-6 records.