Julio Jones has only been in the league four years, but his career took off two weeks ago when the Atlanta Falcons' receiver caught 10 passes against the Arizona Cardinals for a career-high 189 yards.
But Jones topped that Monday night in Green Bay with 11 catches for an NFL season-high 259 yards.
The 6-3, 220-pound receiver did hurt his hip and missed the final series in the Falcons' 43-37 loss, and on Tuesday his coach, Mike Smith, could only say that he "hoped" Jones would play against the Steelers on Sunday in Atlanta.
No doubt Jones will do everything he can to play, since the 5-8 Falcons are tied for first place in the anemic NFC South.
But Jones must also be licking his lips to play against the Steelers, who've become one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.
After allowing A.J. Green to catch 11 passes for 224 yards last Sunday in Cincinnati, the Steelers now rank 23rd in pass defense.
"That’s something that continues to be a thorn in our side," Mike Tomlin said. "It’s something that we acknowledge that we have a lot of work ahead of us this week if we want to minimize guys like Julio Jones and what he is capable of doing to us."
The 23rd ranking only takes into account total passing yards per game. The specifics are worse:
* 24th in interceptions (8).
* 28th in touchdown passes allowed (28).
* 28th in yards allowed per completion (12.7).
* 29th in yards allowed per pass attempt (8.0).
* 29th in defensive passer rating (100.3).
Individually, the Steelers' cornerbacks are slumping, and they're not getting much help from the safeties. Ike Taylor has allowed 13 receptions for 244 yards and three touchdowns in two games (7-122-2 avg.) back from a broken forearm. And William Gay has allowed 15 catches for 340 yards and four touchdowns (4-85-1 avg.) in his last four games.
Taylor left last Sunday's game with shoulder and knee injuries, but even if healthy he may not return to the starting lineup in Atlanta.
"That’s to be determined," Tomlin said. "We just need to first of all get a handle on where he is from a heath standpoint and then make decisions accordingly."
If Taylor doesn't start, Tomlin would likely start Brice McCain, who started the final five games of Taylor's eight-game absence.
It might also help if Jones can't play, although veteran Roddy White, who has struggled with injuries this season, is averaging 7 catches for 75 yards in the Falcons' last six games.
"They have a nice group of viable receivers to supplement the guys that I mentioned," Tomlin said. "Whether it’s Devin Hester, Eric Weems or Harry Douglas, all are accomplished veteran guys and are capable of delivering and delivering big for them, particularly in situational football."
BEATING BAD TEAMS?
At 8-5, the Steelers are a half-game out of first place in the AFC North, and are also the top wild-card candidate with three games to play.
Of the three 8-5 wild-card contenders in the AFC, the Steelers have the best conference record at 7-3.
Yet, the storyline this season in most media continues to be the team's losses to Tampa Bay, the New York Jets, and New Orleans, teams that are 2-11, 2-11 and 5-8, respectively.
The Steelers are 3-3 against losing teams this season.
So, Tomlin was asked if he will "address the team" about those struggles before playing the 5-8 Falcons.
"No," he said. "I really think the significant element of the storyline is that we’re faced with another road game versus a division leader and it’s significant for both teams. Both teams I imagine will prepare with that in mind and play with an edge with that in mind. That’s the storyline for us. We have a great deal of respect for these guys and the position that they’re in and of what they’re fighting for. I’m sure they see it with great clarity like we see the position we’re in with great clarity."
Counting Monday night's 43-37 loss at Green Bay, the Falcons are 3-2 in their last five games. In that stretch, they beat Tampa Bay, Carolina and Arizona, and also lost on the final snap to Cleveland.
"In those games, they have produced turnovers," Tomlin said. "I think that is a significant change in their fortune of late. They are producing turnovers in bunches, two-to-three a game over the course of that five-game stretch. They are plus-five on the season in turnover ratio. They take care of the football and as of late they have gotten the football. I think that is a recipe for winning. It has been for them as of late."
That was important for the team because McLendon, as a nose tackle, anchored a run defense that allowed 86 yards on the ground to the Bengals.
Tomlin believes the return of Gilbert can be important.
"If he is to play at right tackle, he is going to have a big task in slowing down Kroy Biermann, who is a dynamic player," Tomlin said.
"We talked briefly after the game about the contributions of the big three: Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, but like we also talked about, we got consistent contributions from others. When called upon they delivered plays. I think that was one of the most critical ingredients of the balance that allows us to be successful on offense, whether it’s Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller, Lance Moore or others when called upon. They delivered significant plays, ones that were able to extend or sustain drives, plays that allowed us to win some situational football, because those three guys get a lot of attention in situational football, whether it is third-down, red zone or what have you."