FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Julio Jones added to his decorated résumé on Sunday night, becoming the Atlanta Falcons‘ all-time leading receiver on a 54-yard touchdown catch that proved to be the difference against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It was a memorable TD, to be sure — but not nearly as good as the first of his career.
That happened on Nov. 6, 2011 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the same place where the Falcons will face the Indianapolis Colts next Sunday. Jones didn’t reach the end zone in his first five NFL games that year, then missed two games because of a hamstring injury before breaking through Week 9 against Indy.
What does the league’s highest-paid receiver remember about that touchdown: an acrobatic, 50-yard grab from quarterback Matt Ryan with three Colts defenders hovering?
“That was so long ago,” Jones said. “I know they tried to take my first touchdown away from me.”
Here’s how the play unfolded.
It was first-and-10 for the Falcons at midfield with three minutes to go in the first quarter. Ryan took a five-step drop out of shotgun with Jones aligned close to the right as the single receiver and getting a free release.
Jones: “I had a post. I was coming off the hamstring injury because, early on in my career, I didn’t know how to take care of myself. So I kept blowing my hamstrings out. I was just very excited to get back for that game and be able to run, to show people what I could do.”
Ryan: “I remember talking through the week that we were going to take a deep shot, regardless. If they had single-safety coverage, we were going to throw it up. We felt like we had an advantage of ball skills. So even if it wasn’t open, we felt like, regardless, [Julio] was going to go outplay them in that position.”
Falcons offensive coordinator (now tight ends coach) Mike Mularkey: “The personnel was 12 Jumbo, which put a lineman in [Joe Hawley] to help pass protect because it was a deep, long-developing throw. The formation was Doc-left-off, so both tackles had guys on the wings to help protect them. So, the play was Doc-Left-Deep-71-Bang-Z-Delta to tell them to bang [chip block] before they go out. … The 71 is seven-man protection.”
Falcons running back Michael Turner: “We knew we had to block those guys on the edges with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, two Hall of Fame-type players on the team, which is why we max-protected. Honestly, I was looking around for someone to block but couldn’t find nobody.”
Colts defensive end Robert Mathis: “They game-planned it well where they were able to neutralize our pass rush. They made sure we didn’t get to their quarterback with double-teams and chip blocks. I think we may have had only one sack against them, and I didn’t get a sack.”
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White: “I thought I was the first read on the play, but I think Matt already predetermined he was throwing that ball to [Julio] anyway. The only good player they had back there in the secondary was Antoine Bethea. They had a real fast dude, [Jerraud] Powers, but everybody else was just all right.”
The throw and catch
Ryan heaved the ball from his own 42; Jones caught it right at the goal line and rolled in.
Ryan: “We had the single-safety look, and I basically just threw it as far as I could. And [Julio] made an unbelievable adjustment on the ball.”
Jones: “Matt gave me an opportunity ball to make a play on it down the field. Just stayed with it throughout the whole play. The defensive guys kind of gave up on it. I stuck with it and completed the catch.”
Colts defensive back Jerraud Powers: “Kevin Thomas was guarding Julio, and I was trying to help from the backside when I saw he was running the post. On that play, it was Cover 3, I’m sure. I was reading Matt Ryan and tried to go help, and once he launched it and I saw Julio had a step on Thomas, I figured Julio would come down with it.”
Mularkey: “[Ryan] just took a shot with Julio. It was pretty well covered, but he threw it to a spot. Julio got to that spot and made an unbelievable catch. It was Matt’s read to trust the throw, trust everything that’s been taught with the read. And he let her go.”
Falcons color analyst Dave Archer: “As a former quarterback, whenever there’s a middle safety, throwing a post is kind of a no-no. You just don’t do that. But this guy [Jones] is a different bird — literally a different bird. When you’ve got a 6-3, 220-pound receiver who runs 4.3 that can make those kind of grabs, it doesn’t matter who’s down through the middle.”
White: “That was probably one of the best catches I’ve ever seen. Julio caught the ball in between three people off the ground. You know how hard that is to do?”
The catch initially was ruled incomplete as back judge Kirk Dornan thought the ball hit the ground, but Falcons coach Mike Smith threw the challenge flag. Referee Mike Carey reviewed it and overturned the call.
Jones: “I knew it was a touchdown, all the way.”
Ryan: “I remember [Julio] calling out because they didn’t initially rule it a touchdown. He was screaming out saying, ‘No, no, no. I caught that.'”
Referee Mike Carey: “He got control of the ball. It never touched the ground. Initially when he hits the ground, the ball flops. It was very difficult at first. Kirk Dornan is an excellent back judge. The movement makes it seems like the ball did, but it didn’t really hit the ground. He gained control.”
Turner: “Everybody always says they came up with the catch, right? We couldn’t see the replay because they don’t show that kind of stuff on the video board to help the opposing team. So, we just waited and waited.”
Carey: “Typically, there are nine to 40 camera angles — depending on if it’s a prime-time game. You want to talk to the replay operator to get the specific angle. In this particular play, we were looking at two different angles to see if the ball hit the ground. If you see the replay, it looks like I was standing there waiting for TV to come back [from commercial]. That’s an indication that it didn’t take particularly long to make the call.”
Falcons wide receivers Jones, White, Harry Douglas and Eric Weems celebrated with a choreographed dance.
Jones: “We did this dance called ‘beef it up’ at the time. The only thing I can remember is when we started doing it, Smitty [coach Mike Smith] was like, ‘Get the f— off the field.'”
Douglas: “We worked on the dance the week beforehand. When we used to play music at practice, we all used to dance together. I would have to say me and Weems were the best dancers. I don’t want to say [Julio] was the worst. [Julio] and Rod were more the calm ones, where me and Weems were more of the outgoing, rah-rah guys.”
Ryan: “Those guys were all doing it, but I wasn’t included in the dance.”
White: “Matt wasn’t included because he’s the worst dancer we’ve seen in our lifetime. He has two left feet, man. We call him ‘baby giraffe’ because he runs around and don’t even know where to go.”
Jones also had an 80-yard TD in the game on a slant play. He caught three passes for 131 yards — his single-game high as a rookie — and two scores, letting the NFL know he had arrived.
Powers: “I went against Julio in college, so I knew what type of player he was going to become. … Julio is probably the most complete receiver in the game: physical, fast, quick, ‘I’m the best’ mentality. He’s the only guy I saw that could match up with Patrick Peterson and be just as athletic, quick and fast.”
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Archer: “You kind of had an idea that he was a freak anyway. When you see a guy do something like that, as a quarterback you say, ‘Wow, I can throw this guy the ball anywhere now.’ You’ll talk about your confidence as a quarterback ramping up exponentially when you see a guy make that play.”
Ryan: “Yeah, Arch is 100 percent right. That’s one of the things we talked about as a team, was saying that this guy is different. He’s a guy that you just have to give chances during a game for him to go make a play on the ball. That was the beginning of my confidence level with him just going through the roof.”
Jones: “Was that me arriving? Hmm, nah. It was just a glimpse of what I could do and be in the league as far as taking small things to the house and making big plays down the field.”