And yet, for most of the game, the Green Bay Packers had no answer for Julio Jones.
“We didn’t get the challenge done tonight,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “Obviously, Julio had a big night. He was a focus for us all week as far as the way we game-planned, but he won that contest.”
Fortunately for the Packers, the scoreboard displayed a different result. By posting a 43-37 victory, they kept pace for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff chase and made Jones’ Lambeau Field-record 259 receiving yards more of a footnote than the game’s telling story.
“We were concerned about the win. We’re not going to get too involved with stats and those types of things because certain circumstances dictate what other teams can do,” said linebacker Julius Peppers. “So it was a game where they pretty much had to pass the ball and they passed the ball well.”
Another big halftime lead at home for the Packers – this time 31-7 – put the Falcons in catch-up mode. They wasted little time. On the first play of the third quarter, Jones used a double move to beat Tramon Williams to get free and then cut past safety Morgan Burnett for a 79-yard gain. The Falcons scored four plays later on a fourth-and-5 pass to Eric Weems to start a half in which they outscored the Packers 30-12.
To that point, Jones had 179 receiving yards on six catches. And late into the fourth quarter, on his 17th target of the game from Ryan, the next-closest Falcons receiver in targets was Roddy White with just three.
Despite the obvious offensive plan for the Falcons, the Packers never chose to double Jones or really roll a safety to his side.
“We were playing the defense,” said safety Micah Hyde, “and I think that we had some good calls going out there, we just didn’t execute. It was tough as a defense not getting off the field, but it had nothing to do with the calls, the players out there weren’t executing.”
Coming off a 189-yard, 10-catch effort last week against the Arizona Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson, Jones found himself battling cornerbacks Sam Shields, Williams and Davon House on the outside. Rotating defenders on Jones was the plan for the Packers, given Shields uncertainty for the game coming off a concussion last week against New England.
“I don’t think we’ve given up 200-plus yards to every receiver that we play,” said Hyde. “I think that Julio is a really good player but I think also us on the back end, we messed up quite a bit, just with the fundamentals, dropping into our zone coverage and passing off the receivers and stuff like that. We’ll definitely improve there.”
The Packers replaced Shields, their normal starter, with House late in the game to match-up on Jones. House registered two pass break-ups along the sideline against Jones.
“To tell you the truth, me going into the game, I really don’t know why,” said House of replacing Shields. “I guess I wouldn’t say surprised but I wasn’t expecting my name to be called unless someone went down. But my name was called and I felt I went in there and did my job on one of the best receivers in the game. They threw my way maybe three of four times and I don’t think they caught any.”
House did give up a 1-yard touchdown, however, to White on a crossing route that cut the Packers’ lead to 40-30 at the 6:15 mark of the fourth quarter. Two plays before that, Jones injured his hip on a 9-yard reception that sent him to the sideline for the Falcons’ final 11 offensive plays and a failed two-point conversion attempt after White’s touchdown.
Jones’ output was the exception for a Packers defense this season that has limited the opponents’ wide receivers to pedestrian numbers. Only the Chicago Bears’ Brandon Marshall and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jordan Matthews had gone for more than 100 yards against the Packers, and as detailed in Packer Report’s World’s Best Preview, No. 1-caliber wide receivers had averaged just 5.3 catches and 61.9 yards receiving per game, good for an 11.7-yard average. On Monday night, Jones had eight receptions of at least 18 yards, many of them coming against the Packers’ zone coverages.
“He found some spots to get open. It was some good preparation,” said Williams. “They got going with him, found a niche for him and he had a big day.”
So did Ryan, who threw four touchdowns in the second half alone. He finished with 375 passing yards, with 263 coming over the final two quarters.
“Obviously the big plays, you’ve got to take a look at that,” said McCarthy. “They hit us on a couple double moves. Our boundary communication was poor. Obviously the three timeouts that we had to burn, our substitution patterns were poor in the second half. We had a substitution here on special teams, but we won the game and that’s what good teams do. We talk about it all the time, you have to find ways to win and we’ve been doing a good job of it at home.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com