FLOWERY BRANCH — Julio Jones is having another monster season for the Atlanta Falcons.
Strangely, though, he hasn’t scored a touchdown in more than a month.
Mired in a five-game losing streak, the Falcons are certainly hoping for that disturbing trend to change when they face the unbeaten Carolina Panthers.
“I was really surprised,” coach Dan Quinn said Thursday. “He’s a huge part of what we do. We’re going to try to use him in the very best ways, and keep attacking every shot we get. We expect him to be the focus of all the stuff that we want” to do.
Jones shrugged off his scoring drought, saying he doesn’t pay attention to individual statistics. Sure, he can’t remember the last time he scored a touchdown — it was Nov. 1 against Tampa Bay, on an 8-yard pass in the closing seconds that sent the game to overtime — but that’s just the way he’s wired.
“If you ask me the last catch I had over 10 yards, I really don’t know,” he said. “I just try to do my job.”
By every other standard, Jones is having one of the best receiving seasons in the history of the NFL. He leads the league with 102 catches and 1,338 yards, putting him on pace for the second-most receptions (136, which would trail only Marvin’s Harrison record of 143 set in 2002) and the third-most yards (1,784, topped only by Calvin Johnson’s 1,964 in 2012 and Jerry Rice’s 1,848 in 1995).
Of course, that just makes it all the more puzzling he hasn’t grabbed a touchdown pass in the last four games. In fact, after putting up four TDs in Atlanta’s first three games, Jones has just two in the last nine contests.
The Falcons (6-6) have ruined a 5-0 start, plummeted out of a playoff spot and face the daunting task of trying to turn things around with two games still remaining against the Panthers (12-0), including Sunday’s contest in Carolina.
A few more big plays from Jones would certainly help the cause.
“We would definitely love for him to score a lot more. It’s definitely something we’re trying to do,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “But it gets harder and harder each week. Especially as the year has gone on. The tighter you get in the red zone, the more double coverage he sees, the more people are taking him out. But there’s really not a play we have that we’re not looking toward him first.”
If Jones is stewing over his lack of end zone opportunities, he doesn’t let it show.
“I don’t get frustrated at all,” he said. “A lot of people are looking at me, looking at my facial expressions, seeing if I’m giving effort down the field. I’m going to do it on every play. I’m going to give that effort. I’m going to try my best. If we keep doing what we’re doing, if I keep working hard, I’ll eventually score again.”
Atlanta’s offensive woes have only made it tougher for Jones to break off big plays. Plagued by turnovers and ill-timed penalties, the Falcons have averaged less than 17 points while losing six of seven games.
Simply put, defenses know if they can shut down Jones — or at least limit his opportunities to go deep — there aren’t too many other players they have to worry about. Certainly not among the wideouts, where Jones has accounted for 56 percent of all receptions. Running back Devonta Freeman is the team’s second-leading receiver with 58, followed by tight end Jacob Tamme at 47. The next actual receiver on the list is Roddy White with a mere 30 catches.
“It’s very rare that (Jones) doesn’t have a couple of guys on him,” Shanahan said. “The more we can make plays at other spots, the other four eligible (receivers), the more you can put more pressure on the defense running the ball, other guys making plays, then those opportunities come back.”
The lack of an effective running game, especially in the red zone, has really cut into Jones’ scoring chances. Since Atlanta isn’t likely to pound the ball into the end zone, defenses can stack their coverages toward No. 11.
“There’s still ways we can move him around and try to get it to him, and that’s what we do, but when they take him away, we’ve got to go other places,” Shanahan said. “Until we score at those other places, you’re going to continue to see those coverages.”