Friday Night Lights
What: Atlanta Falcons preseason scrimmage, along with a fan fest, interactive inflatable games, autograph session, fireworks
When: Gates open at 6 p.m.; 6:45 p.m. Friday.
Where: Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park Stadium, Gainesville
How much: Free
More info: atlantafalcons.com
FLOWERY BRANCH – The pressure is there for the Atlanta Falcons this season. The reigning NFC South division champions are one of the favorites to win this year’s Super Bowl and the team will likely be watched and judged by the entire nation.
Wide receiver Julio Jones doesn’t care.
Jones, the sixth overall pick by the Falcons in the 2011 Draft, is coming off his first career 1,000-yard season, and helps make up of one of the best receiving tandems in the league. He is considered one of the best young talents in the NFL, electrifying fans with his flashy catches and blazing speed down the sideline.
Now entering his third season, Jones said he isn’t worried about the outside pressures cast upon himself or the Falcons and that he and his teammates are only worried about getting better in camp, including during Friday’s team scrimmage at Gainesville’s City Park Stadium.
“There is no pressure on me at all,” Jones said. “I am going to continue to do what I’ve been doing. As long as I come out here and get the work in, everything else comes easy for me.
“No pressure at all. Why would I feel pressure? It starts here at this organization. We know we have to start off from scratch. We have to come out here and put in the work and effort to get to where we want to.”
If Jones and the Falcons put in the work, they believe they can reach their ultimate goal of winning the franchise’s first NFL championship in February. After all, the Falcons came 10 yards away from scoring a game-winning touchdown over the San Francisco 49ers in last year’s NFC Championship Game.
Having come so close last season, Jones and the Falcons have returned this season with the goal of winning a championship. Head coach Mike Smith has been able to notice a sense of determination in Jones, who finished with 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
“Julio has had, in my mind, two really good seasons,” Smith said. “And we anticipate that there will be a maturation process where he will continue to grow. When you’re at the level that he is at, who knows how high the ceiling is. It is his third year, he and Matt (Ryan) have been together and we have a lot of weapons.”
Jones is one of the Falcons’ key weapons, but he isn’t the only one. If anything, Jones is only a piece of the dynamic offensive attack in 2013.
The attack starts with sixth-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who signed a five-year extension with the team last week and led the NFL in completion percentage last season. It continues with four-time Pro Bowler Roddy White, who holds a franchise-record six straight 1,000-yard seasons; tight end Tony Gonzalez, the NFL’s all-time receiving leader among tight ends; and running back Steven Jackson, the NFL’s active career-rushing leader.
“We have a lot of weapons and a lot of it is going to depend on how people try to defend us,” Smith said. “It is going to change week to week. I think that is a fun thing, not only for Julio, but for our offense.”
At practice, the Falcons’ talent is on display. Multiple times through the Falcons’ first five practices, Jones has made a catch that has brought the crowd to its feet. The best part for Jones and the Falcons offense: He is making those plays against some of the best defenders on the team, including safety Thomas DeCoud.
“We have to have our A game in practice,” DeCoud said. “It is pretty much game speed when we are out here flying around, especially with Julio and Roddy running up and down, crossing the field. So, it gives us an edge when we come to the regular season.”
To prepare for his third season with Atlanta, Jones said he has made adjustments to his diet, including cutting out beef and pork in hopes to trim fat and gain muscle weight. He told media on Tuesday that he feels good and that “I run around great. I don’t get tired.”
The hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He is one of the hardest working guys on our football team,” Smith said.
Off the field, Jones has received endorsement deals that have put him in the public spotlight, something he says has allowed him to “show the fans what I’m like off the field.” None of that matters when it comes to football, though.
“When I put the helmet on, it is time to go to work,” Jones said. “I really don’t care who is front of me, I just try to go out there and work.”
The Falcons are off today and will return to practice Thursday. Friday’s scrimmage in Gainesville is set to begin at 6:45 p.m. The gates open at 6 p.m. For more information, visit atlantafalcons.com.