Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills said Monday he does not foresee Julio Jones' red zone struggles becoming especially relevant to Mills' preparation for the divisional round playoff matchup Saturday with the Atlanta Falcons.
"Man, I don't know" why getting the ball to the five-time Pro Bowl wideout has been such an enduring quest for the Falcons, through various coaching regimes, Mills said. "If you line up in front of '11,' you've gotta think that you're getting the ball, regardless. As far as the red zone, whatever it is."
Jones, 6-4, 220, able to run a 4.39 40, caught 88 passes this season, but only eight of them came in the red zone, for two of his three touchdowns. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan found Jones for the clinching 8-yard TD pass Saturday against the Rams in their wild-card matchup, something celebrated on the broadcast as a rare feat.
Jones finished that game with nine catches for 94 yards and the TD.
We don't know how the Eagles will approach defending Jones this time. When they played the Falcons here on Nov. 13, 2016 – a 24-15 Eagles victory – they used a lot of Cover 2 and tried to keep the NFC's most potent receiving weapon in front of them. Jones caught 10 passes for 135 yards, but he was targeted 16 times, and he didn't score a touchdown.
Mills, then a seventh-round rookie, spent a lot of time with Jones that day. This is a different season, though, and the Falcons have a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian, with Kyle Shanahan having left to coach the 49ers. The Eagles brought in cornerback Ronald Darby for matchups such as this, though they generally prefer to play sides, not to have a corner follow a wideout around the formation.
Sarkisian talked in the offseason about the need to do more with Jones in the red zone. But eight catches this season on 22 red zone targets, for 47 yards, really doesn't reflect any sort of breakthrough, when you consider that overall, Jones led the NFC and was second in the NFL to Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown with those 88 catches for 1,444 yards. That's just 113 fewer yards than Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery achieved this season, combined.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had the deflector shields raised to playoff-level intensity when he met with reporters Monday, but the gist seemed to be that keeping Jones in front of the defenders will again be a major focus, and the Eagles won't be fretting about catches and yards if they don't produce points.
"The point is to try to win the game. We have to keep our eye on that," Schwartz said. "If Julio Jones has 350 yards receiving, and we win the game, that's what it took to win the game. If he has 10 yards receiving, for the game-winning touchdown, then that wasn't [good] enough.
"I think you have to look at it that way, and say how do you stop their offense? How do you minimize their scoring? And not just concentrate on one player."
Mills referred to the change in coordinators, and said the Falcons "do quite a bit of different things than they did last year. You see them feature those running backs [Davonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman] a lot more."
The Falcons' running game definitely seemed to wear down the Rams defense in the second half Saturday.
Asked about last year's matchup with Jones, Mills said: "It was definitely crazy, being a rookie and everything, going against a guy like that; you've seen him, throughout college, in the pros, doing what he's doing."
Jones is "just a big guy who can run," Mills said. "Sometimes you get a lot of big guys, you know, they're just big targets who can catch the ball. He's a guy who can run, and run routes [precisely], at his size."
Schwartz apparently isn't playing up the fact that the Eagles are the first top-seeded divisional round underdog under the NFL's current format, but Mills noted that when the Falcons visited in 2016, a similar motivation existed. The Eagles, with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, were headed for 7-9, while the Falcons were headed for the Super Bowl.
"I was ready to go," Mills recalled. "They were kind of the talk of the town a little bit … putting up a lot of points on a lot of guys."
Mills called Ryan, a graduate of Penn Charter, "a guy who can hit all of his targets from the left side of the field all the way to the right. There's not one pass he can't make … We have to cover the whole field."
Schwartz said that though he didn't hesitate to send Mills up against Jones in 2016, Mills is better equipped now.
"His technique is better. He's more consistent," Schwartz said. "Every corner is going to have to battle through rough spots, it's just inherent to the position . .. I really like Jalen's ability to respond to that. That's something that's in him. That wasn't new last year and it wasn't new this year; I think he's probably always been that way."