I could easily write an article about how the key for the Cowboys defense is to force the Falcons to play behind the sticks by stopping Devonta Freeman. I could also perhaps write about how the Cowboys offense could run the ball and control the clock, Ezekiel Elliott or not, if they can win battles in the middle of the field against defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett, plus ultra-athletic linebacker Deion Jones. There may also be an argument that if the Cowboys tackles, maybe without Tyron Smith, could win their matchups with edge rusher Vic Beasley Jr. that Dak Prescott and the Cowboys receivers could make huge plays down the field to swing the game.
Those would all be completely reasonable arguments, and the game could very well hinge on whether or not the Cowboys can win their individual matchups against those excellent players. At the end of the day, though, when you’re talking about the Falcons, there is one player that clearly stands out about the rest. One player who can turn the game on it’s head in an instant, who can beat you all by himself even if you execute your gameplan to perfection.
Of course that’s receiver Julio Jones, four-time Pro Bowler, First Team All-Pro the last two seasons, second most single-season receiving yards in NFL history in 2015 (1,871), and tied for the second most single-season receptions in NFL history that same year (136). You can argue whether or not he’s better than Antonio Brown, I personally believe he is, but there is no arguing that he is at least the second-best receiver in the league.
Even if he is number two behind Brown he is definitely the most physically imposing in the league with one of the rarest combinations of size, speed, agility, and leaping ability ever seen at the position in the history of the league. Listed at 6-3, 220, Jones can beat defenses in any way that you’d like. He can use his size to physically create separation on slants and crossing patterns. He can take a short pass and turn it into an explosive play with his run-after-the-catch ability. He can take the top off defenses vertically with sub-4.4 speed, and even if you have him covered perfectly he can simply out-jump the vast majority of defensive backs, even two or three at a time, on 50-50 balls.
Long story short, you can’t exactly stop him, at least not without compromising the entirety of your defense, you can only hope to contain him. There are plenty out there who will have you believe that Jones is not quite himself or is having a down year, and while that may be the case when you consider that he’s averaged over 1,600 yards a season over the last three years, he’s still on pace for just about 1,300 yards.
He does have only one touchdown so far but for whatever reason Jones has never been a huge touchdown producer; he’s only gotten to double-digits once in his career, in 2012, and that year he only put up 10. The fact that he has only one so far this year is definitely an outlier but it’s not completely out of the norm when you consider that he only has 20 touchdowns over the last three years.
At any rate, the Cowboys secondary will have their hands full on Sunday with what will be one of their biggest tests of the year. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were obviously a huge challenge, although most of that was because of the brilliance of the quarterback, and the Chiefs were imposing as well with all of their formations, misdirection, and of course Tyreek Hill down the field and Travis Kelce over the middle. But the secondary hasn’t seen someone like Jones who can simply take over and physically dominate a game individually.
To make matters worse the Cowboys will likely be getting a locked in and focused Jones after his unbelievable touchdown drop against the Panthers was replayed hundreds of times over the past week. For those of you that haven’t seen it, the Falcons were down 20-10 in the fourth quarter, had a 4th and 7 just inside Panthers territory, Matt Ryan laid a perfect ball right over Jones’ shoulder in the end zone that hit him right in the hands and no defenders within at least 15-20 yards, and Jones dropped it. That play could have pulled them to 20-17 and perhaps jump-started a comeback win, instead the play has become a symbol of the Falcons disappointing season so far, and you can be sure that he and the entire team have heard plenty of that type of talk since last Sunday’s loss. You better believe that they’ll be looking to find him early and often.
Needless to say, stopping Jones will be a huge task and it will have to be a group effort, because the Cowboys aren’t going to shadow him with one specific cornerback. At times it’ll be Jourdan Lewis or Anthony Brown on the outside, at others perhaps Orlando Scandrick or even Byron Jones out of the slot, and you can rest assured that there will often be a second set of eyes on Jones, whether it is a linebacker buzzing underneath or a safety over the top.
But if the “back 7” are able to keep Jones under wraps and avoid any 40-50 yard explosive, over-the-top type of plays, that could very well spell trouble for a Falcons offense that has struggled to consistently drive the ball so far this year.
It won’t be easy but it will almost certainly end up deciding the game. Let Jones run wild and the Cowboys defense will likely end up chasing their tails most of the day. Keep him under control and you’ll probably see Ryan and the Falcons offense get frustrated and slowly fall out of the game.