FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - Falcons receiver Julio Jones has waited 11 months to return from a broken right foot and regain his Pro Bowl form.
Now that it’s just three days until Atlanta opens the season against New Orleans, Jones says he’s ready to wreak havoc on the Saints’ secondary.
“I was down last year. I wasn’t there to help my teammates,” Jones said on Thursday. “I feel great, man. I feel like I’m 100 percent right now.”
Jones’ season ended after five games last year, at which he point he led the NFL in catches and ranked second in yards receiving.
Losing Jones, the No. 6 overall draft choice of 2011, was a huge blow, and the Falcons finished 4-12. Quarterback Matt Ryan suffered behind a porous offensive line and was limited in the passing attack with tight end Tony Gonzalez drawing double coverage and receiver Roddy White playing with a sore hamstring.
Though Gonzalez retired, Atlanta likes its chances against the Saints’ defense with Jones and White back together on the field.
They were one of four pair of receivers two years ago to each have at least 1,000 yards receiving, and the Falcons finished 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl.
Jones’ job will be to draw double coverage on deep routes and exploit one-on-one matchups when they’re presented on quick slant routes. Ryan also will give receivers Harry Douglas and Devin Hester chances in the passing attack.
“I expect to have double coverage, you know?” Jones said. “If not, I’m going to go out there and make some plays and make something happen. But I’ve got to take my job seriously in those situations. I can’t go out there and take plays off because I’m not getting the ball. I’ve still got to go out there and run full speed to try and draw that coverage.”
The Saints have undergone a bit of a makeover in the secondary with the departures of Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins.
New Orleans’ biggest move in free agency was signing Jairus Byrd and pairing him at safety with Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round pick last year. Patrick Robinson and Keenan Lewis return at cornerback.
“We played (Byrd against) Buffalo last year,” Ryan said. “We know the kind of range he has, the kind of ball skills he has. That’s a huge addition for them. The addition of him, along with the way their front seven plays, makes that secondary tough to go against.”
Jones is eager for the Falcons, who have routinely struggled against the Saints in six years under coach Mike Smith, to avenge last year’s season opening loss in New Orleans.
“We’re just going to get a win out of the way,” Jones said. “We win, and we’re up in the division, but we’ve got see where we’re at. Last year was a season we’d like to have (back), and we’ve just got to go out this season and start over.”
White feels as if Atlanta is in better shape mentally and emotionally with the first game quickly approaching. That wasn’t the case so much last year as the Falcons seemed to believe the hype that they were Super Bowl-bound.
“We kind of like our position and where we’re at,” White said. “We can just go out there and play. We have no pressure on us, no Super Bowl aspirations and stuff like that and then you have to go out there and win nine, 10 games in a row. But this is a very important game. We have to get off to a good start.”
Atlanta’s offensive line faces a tough challenge in holding back a stout Saints defense that had 49 sacks, the league’s fourth-highest total.
“Their line will put pressure on your quarterback,” Jones said. “Their very athletic in the secondary. We’ve just got to pick our spots and connect on them.”
And New Orleans coach Sean Payton knows his team can’t take its eyes off Jones.
“He’s got great athleticism and very, very good hands,” Payton said. “When you put together his speed and size and obviously athleticism, you’ve got to be mindful of where he is on each play.”
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