ATLANTA (AP) - When Julio Jones takes off from the line of scrimmage, it creates plenty of headaches for those guys who have to cover him.
That’s not their only concern.
The Atlanta Falcons receiver is also willing to dole out a crushing block when he’s not the intended target. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he’s certainly big enough to do some damage.
“We’ve very active in the blocking game because we love our running backs. You don’t want someone to have a free hit on your brother,” Jones said. “Also, if you can spring someone for a big play, a big run, it’s going to open you up in the passing game. So it’s a win-win.”
While receivers have always had to double as blockers to some degree, today’s generation is taking it to a whole new level. Star receivers such as Jones and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald are integral parts of the run game, even though they obviously make the big bucks for what they can do when the ball’s in the air.
“They’re bigger faster, stronger and smarter,” said Falcons safety William Moore. “I know if you ever play a guy like Julio, you’ve got to go block him before he blocks you.”
Fitzgerald is having another huge receiving year for the playoff-bound Cardinals.
But he can do so much more.
In an early season blowout of Detroit, Fitzgerald had four knockdown blocks and “sealed the edge for two long runs,” according to coach Bruce Arians. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer calls his 6-foot-3, 225-pound teammate “the best blocking wide receiver in the league.”
Blocking became a bigger focus for Fitzgerald after Arians was hired and shifted him from wideout to the slot. Fitzgerald wasn’t thrilled with the move, but he’s got no complaints now - especially after landing a new two-year, $22 million contract, all of it guaranteed.
Besides, given all the horrible teams he’s played on in the desert, the 32-year-old Fitzgerald was willing to do whatever it takes to help the Cardinals win.
“There are so many years … I was out of contention already,” he said. “We were scheduling vacations, seeing what I’m going to do after the season. Now nobody has that kind of mindset around here anymore. We’re focused on winning this division, executing assignments on every single play.”
Even though he’s still the main man of the offense, Fitzgerald doesn’t care who gets the glory.
“No matter who scored the touchdown, you see Larry jumping on somebody in the end zone,” said Harold Goodwin, Arizona’s offensive coordinator. “He knows that he can block and spring a running back, we’re making plays and having success as an offense. That’s what brings him joy.”
In Minnesota, the receivers know running back Adrian Peterson is going to be the centerpiece of the offense, so they’ve got to pitch in with something other than their catching skills.
“They’re not always getting all the catches that they want to get, but they understand we’re pretty good running the football and they’re a part of it as well,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “Those guys go in there and they’ve got to block safeties all the time and corners. That’s who we are and they have to take part ownership in it as well.”
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said a receiver’s size doesn’t really matter.
Blocking if all about attitude.
“It doesn’t have to do with whether you’re big or small,” Shanahan said. “It has to do with the ‘want to.’ Usually, if guys are willing and their technique is good, they can be an effective blocker.”
Jones showed off his desire to be more than a pass catcher on a play that didn’t even count earlier in the season. After an interception, he ran nearly the length of the field to tackle Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander, even though the Buccaneers had clearly jumped offsides before the snap.
The Falcons kept the ball on the penalty, but Jones won even more respect from his teammates.
He’s certainly got the respect of his opponents - whether he’s receiving or blocking.
“They just keep their heads on a swivel,” Jones said. “They’re looking for you. So it’s kind of getting them out of position. They’re looking for you instead of coming down into the box to defend the run.”
It’s a matter of self-preservation, said Moore, who recently went down with a season-ending injury.
“As a strong safety and being down in the trenches a lot, I face a lot of receivers that are physical,” he said. “That’s one thing I look for when I’m watching film. If the receivers are physical in the run game and the blocks, I know how to approach it during the week so it won’t be a blind side (hit).”
Obviously, some receivers are more willing to block than others. Frankly, top players such as Jones and Fitzgerald could get away with giving it the matador treatment. It’s not like they’re going to get dumped because they can’t block.
For others, it’s a necessity for staying in the league.
“Some guys don’t like to get in there and get messy,” Shanahan said. “Usually those guys, if they’re not extremely talented and making up for it in other places, it’s tough for those guys to last.”
AP Sports Writers Bob Baum in Phoenix and Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL
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