Packers mulling multiple options for handling Julio Jones
GREEN BAY - Last January, in the waning seconds of the first half of the NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers endured the two emotions most frequently associated with defending wide receiver Julio Jones, star player for the Atlanta Falcons.
On third and 1 from the Green Bay 5-yard line, the Falcons searched for another touchdown to extend their 17-0 lead. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw an indefensible back-shoulder pass to Jones near the right pylon, and the freakish wideout opened his hips, caught the ball and tapped both toes in bounds.
Immediately, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix galloped toward the referee and swung his arms to indicate the receiver had landed out of bounds. His teammate, cornerback LaDarius Gunter, simply walked toward the sideline with hands on hips. Gunter had been asked to cover Jones; he knew the touchdown was good.
Thus, resignation collided with wishful thinking, and Jones made nine catches for 180 yards and two scores.
“When I put (Gunter) in those hard situations, he never complained,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. “He just went and did it where some guys do complain and pout … He’s a great young man. It was hard for me to see him leave, but once a decision is made it’s made. And every decision that is made is made for the betterment of the Green Bay Packers.”
Gunter’s status notwithstanding — he was released Tuesday — the Packers were in position to revise their coverage strategy on Jones, who duels with Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown for the unofficial title of best receiver in the league. The spate of injuries that thrust Gunter to the top of the depth chart last season and rendered Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins more or less immobile finally has receded, and now Whitt has at his disposal four viable cornerbacks to deploy Sunday night.
The biggest question Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers face is whether to assign one cornerback to shadow Jones on every snap, which Gunter was tasked with doing twice in 2016, or to put their best lineup on the field and let the chips fall where they may.
“He plays with such intensity, such anger,” Whitt said of Jones. “He’s good, he can run the whole route tree, he can catch the ball away from his body, make the difficult catch. After he catches the ball, he has a great stiff-arm, he runs with power, he can run crossers, he can get vertical. There isn’t anything that the man can’t do.
“He gives defenses troubles because he’s a guy a lot like Jordy (Nelson) where the deeper he gets down the field, the faster he gets. He doesn’t top out after 40 yards. He’s consistently getting faster and faster, and so when you have some of these guys who might time out at 4.3, they can’t cover him vertically because they top out at 30 yards and he’s still getting faster.
“That’s why you see Jordy get by people who might time faster than him. He’s (more of a) 100-meter runner than a 40-yard runner. That’s how Jordy gets behind people, and that’s how Julio gets behind people. He’s just a special talent.”
Should the Packers decide to travel someone with Jones, who caught four passes for 66 yards against Chicago last week, the most likely choice would be veteran Davon House, a player with enough size (6-0½, 197 pounds) and speed (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds coming out of New Mexico State) to at least contend with Jones’ rare physical traits (6-2½, 220 pounds, 4.39 seconds).
The two men have tangled twice before. In 2014, during House’s first tenure in Green Bay, the Packers and Falcons engaged in a shootout with 80 combined points at Lambeau Field. Jones was spectacular with 11 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown, and the Packers turned to House to stop the bleeding late in the game.
A year later, House played 100 percent of snaps as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars and shadowed Jones throughout. Jones finished with nine catches for 118 yards and a score.
“I’ll be more comfortable this time around as well because I’ve faced the guy before twice,” House said. “So you know, just continue to stick to my game, take away the things he wants to do and play football. We’ve been doing it since the age of 6, so it shouldn’t be too hard, right?”
But House showed signs of rust during the season opener against Seattle, which probably was to be expected given the length of his layoff. House, who spent the previous two seasons in Jacksonville, played 218 snaps through the first four weeks in 2016, an average of 54.5 per game. He finished the year with 54 snaps in the last 12 games combined, his poor play and lack of commitment landing him on the bench.
This year, House injured his hamstring during training camp and played only three snaps during the entire exhibition season. It meant that Sunday’s game against the Seahawks was the most he has played since Oct. 2, 2016 — three weeks shy of a full calendar year.
His lack of polish showed on a handful of poor plays: He was turned around by wide receiver Paul Richardson and flagged for holding; he was beaten badly by speedster Tyler Lockett on a double move and bailed out by pressure from defensive end Mike Daniels; he lost contain on running back Chris Carson for a play that gained 30 yards; and on special teams, where House started as a hold-up man, he could not impede cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who sprinted past him and tackled return man Trevor Davis for no gain on the game's first punt
On the flip side, House did not allow a catch.
“Experience has paid really good dividends for Davon,” Capers said. “I see a different guy coming back here than really when he left. I think he’s confident, really smart, prepares well, not afraid to ask questions. If there’s a gray area, he wants to clear it up. He’s going to ask why you’re calling things in certain situations, and what your thought process is, which I think is always a positive thing.”
The more likely scenario is that the Packers will choose to play Jones straight up, rolling out their top three or four corners and defending him with whoever is across the line of scrimmage. Everyone from House, Randall and Rollins to rookie second-round pick Kevin King will have an opportunity to test themselves against arguably the best receiver in the league.
Still, the cornerbacks won’t be without help. Clinton-Dix will be lurking over the top of Jones throughout the game to offer bracket coverage, just as he did in both meetings last season. This should be one of his primary responsibilities regardless of whether the Packers shadow Jones.
Having safety help allows the corner defending Jones to be more aggressive, according to Rollins, who played in the slot against Seattle. But the Falcons see double coverage so frequently that by now, after seven years with Jones, they have devised ways to beat it.
“When we played them last year it felt like they knew what (coverage) we were going to be in,” Rollins said, “and then vividly I think Julio ran like a two-man beater. He ran like a dig-out, which if you see a dig, the corner is going to turn and look (at the quarterback), and then he brought it back out (toward the sideline), so it’s kind of hard for both the corner and safety. I mean, there definitely are beaters to it.
“At the same time, you’ve really just got to bring your A-game and play like you have no help. That’s how I would do it. If I knew I was getting help, I would still play like I had none.”
That’s often how it looked in the NFC Championship game last season.