Packers pray for way to handle Julio Jones

Ryan Wood
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Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) carries the football as Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) defends during the first quarter in 2014 at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - They’re trained to have short memories. Call it selective amnesia. Touchdown? Interception? Doesn’t matter.

An NFL defensive back lives snap to snap.

Exceptions are rare, but Green Bay Packers defensive back Micah Hyde has one. He can’t forget Dec. 8, 2014. On Monday Night Football, the Packers cruised to a 31-7 halftime lead against the Atlanta Falcons. They were keeping Julio Jones in check.

“Then,” Hyde said, “he just snapped.”

Yards piled up quickly. A 79-yard catch here. A 22-yard touchdown there. These were not dinks and dunks. Jones camped in the Packers' secondary, finishing with 259 yards on 11 catches. He averaged an absurd 23.5 yards per catch.

Hyde stood in front of his locker Wednesday, reliving the horror. He remembers players and coaches poring through the stat sheet the next day. They couldn’t believe just how quickly Jones took over the game.

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Midway through the second quarter, Jones had three catches for 45 yards. He finished as one of 27 receivers in NFL history to catch 250 yards in a game. It was unlike anything a Packers secondary ever has seen, the most yards allowed to a receiver in franchise history.

“He didn’t even play the last six or seven minutes of the game, too,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. “So he’s that kind of player. He can dominate a game so many ways, and he’s done it so many times.”

Two years later, a depleted secondary will travel to Atlanta for a rematch. The Packers could’ve gone two lifetimes without seeing Jones again, and it would’ve been too soon.

Their goal Sunday is simpler said than done. Keep Jones under 200 yards, or likely lose. In 2014, the Packers had an offense explosive enough to match Jones blow for blow, and still come out on top. This 2016 version of the Packers offense is something different.

If it’s possible, keeping Jones in check certainly won’t be easy. As NFL receivers go, Jones is Godzilla. This amphibious, fire-breathing playmaker can line up all over the field, and he’s always dangerous.

In seven games, Jones leads the league with 830 yards on 40 catches. Among players with more than 20 catches, he’s the only one to average more than 20 yards per reception. Only one receiver with more than 20 catches is within two yards of Jones’ average.

Ryan called Jones one of the best players in today’s game. Clearly, Hyde said, Jones is the NFL’s best receiver.

Just one way to stop him.

“The week of (the game),” Hyde said, “every night before you go to bed, you’ve got to pray. Game day, you’ve got to wake up, you’ve got to pray. He’s just one of those guys that can get it done in all aspects of the game.

“Honestly, there’s nothing he can’t do. There’s guys that come along every now and then, you’ve got your Calvin Johnson-type guys, and he’s one of them. He’s the best in the game right now.”

Green Bay Packers defenders Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) and Sam Shields (37) give up a touchdown to Julio Jones (11) against the Atlanta Falcons.

The Packers could use prayer even if they had a healthy secondary. They do not.

Sam Shields is on injured reserve. Damarious Randall had surgery to repair a groin injury last weekend. A groin injury is expected to sideline fellow second-year cornerback Quinten Rollins. So Sunday, the Packers will lean on a cast of backups against the league’s top receiver.

Earlier this month, they managed to hold New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham to five catches for 56 yards. Beckham is no slouch. A two-time Pro Bowler, he exploded for 222 yards against the Baltimore Ravens.

Beckham also isn’t Jones.

The Falcons receiver is four inches taller. More than 20 pounds heavier. A few ticks of the stopwatch faster. Last season, Beckham was second-team All-Pro. Jones was first team.

“He’s a very unique player,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He’s got the size, but he can change direction and cut and make breaks when you’re playing man-to-man, like a smaller slot player. So what makes him so challenging, he’s got the aggressive hands of a big guy — and the speed — but he’s also got the change of direction like a smaller player. He’s an ultra-competitor.”

The Packers probably will lean on the same approach they used against Beckham. Expect a lot of two-shell looks, with both safeties deep. If they can pressure Ryan, they’ll have a chance.

If not? Well, the Packers can always pray.

“He is definitely a handful,” Quinn said.

Quinn, the Falcons second-year head coach, said he’s avoided the temptation to watch film of the Falcons trip to Lambeau Field in 2014. It might not do much good anyway. With a new coach, the Falcons have a new offense.

The Packers have a new secondary, too. Gone is Tramon Williams and Davon House. In their place, Jones primarily will face LaDarius Gunter, undrafted a year ago.

“As far as the game in 2014,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “there’s really no carryover because of their offensive scheme, and frankly what we’re doing.”

He better hope there’s no carryover. Or else it’ll be a long Sunday afternoon.

Ready or not, here Julio Jones comes. and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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