ATLANTA From an end-zone standpoint, Julio Jones has technically enjoyed a better game in his career. Once.
But Jones's supreme Sunday effort (11 catches, 182 yards, one TD) in the Falcons' 31-24 victory over the Rams might have been his most important single-game contribution as a pro.
And that's a good thing, because Atlanta was essentially devoid of premium options on this day.
How short-handed were the Falcons? With receiver Roddy White (three catches, 21 yards) slowed by a ankle injury, workhorse back Steven Jackson (one TD reception) exiting early with an injured thigh and multiple Atlanta defenders (Sean Weatherspoon, Asante Samuel, Kroy Biermann) getting knocked out with injuries, the remaining few were left to combat the pressures of avoiding an 0-2 start with limited playmakers and marginalized depth.
Plus, the Atlanta offensive line was under a hotter-than-usual microscope all week, taking the brunt of blame for the club's tough loss to the Saints, in which quarterback Matt Ryan was pressured in 21 of 42 pass attempts, for a staggering rate of 50 percent.
Cue the welcome production of Ryan (374 yards passing, two TDs) and Jones, who combined for more than 550 yards against the Rams ... on the same day the Falcons only notched 36 yards on the ground with zero from Jackson.
"Julio and Matt seemed to be in sync, seeing the defense the same way," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith after the game. "When you have your receiver and quarterback doing that, you have a chance to be successful."
Smith added that Jones had an "outstanding outing," which helped negate the rushing struggles.
"We ran the ball six times in the first half, and we weren't very successful at it," Smith said.
Jones's first two receptions on Sunday netted a pedestrian four yards a sluggish start indeed. But everything changed toward the end of the first quarter, as Ryan connected with No. 11 on a 3rd-and-7 opportunity ... resulting in an 81-yard touchdown catch down the right side.
"It was an option route; so if it's Cover-2, I take it to the middle of the field," Jones recalled. "But I saw the safety roll late, so I just kept it up to the numbers. (Ryan) did a great job of finding me."
Coupled with Jackson's TD reception earlier in the quarter, the Falcons owned a 14-0 lead after one stanza.
When charting the rapid development of Jones, his 11-catch, 182-yard, two-TD demolition of the 49ers in last year's NFC title game immediately stands out given the enormity of the event.
However, Sunday's outing should easily rank second in the Julio Pantheon, ahead of his initial rookie breakout (11 catches, 127 yards against the Seahawks in 2011) and last year's explosion in the season opener (six catches, 108 yards, two TDs against the Chiefs).
In real-world andor fantasy circles, it's universally accepted that receivers make the greatest leap forward during Year 3. But Jones was already a special case historically speaking long before the Falcons opened training camp two months ago.
As a rookie in 2011, Jones needed only 13 games to post better first-year numbers than Jerry Rice, Larry Fitzgerald, Terrell Owens, Tim Brown and Cris Carter, to name a few NFL legends. On per-outing basis for 2011-12 (29 games), Jones also averaged 4.6 catches, 74.4 yards and 0.62 touchdowns.
And last year, he crossed the fantasy-elite threshold of six catches, 95 yards andor one TD nine times. Rare air for a 23-year-old wideout.
In the football book, War Room, author Michael Holley offered detailed accounts and anecdotes of how decision-makers Bill Belichick (Patriots), Scott Pioli (Chiefs) and Thomas Dimitroff (Falcons) perpetually went about constructing NFL rosters.
Regarding the Falcons, Holley invested nearly a full chapter to Dimitroff's fascination with A.J. Green (Georgia) and Jones (Alabama) as college prospects, and how the general manager had grand designs on engineering a blockbuster trade for either stud receiver in the April 2011 draft even though Atlanta was primed for a low pick in Round 1 (thanks to a 13-3 season in 2010).
The most interesting nugget: Dimitroff initially divulged his ambitious plan to Holley in October 2010, long before the Falcons coaches and executives would know the 40 time, shuttle-drill time, horizontal leap, vertical leap, or injury history of either Jones or Green.
In Dimitroff's adventurous mind, he was prepared to move heaven and earth to acquire Jones or Green ... even though the track record of receivers drafted among the top 20 pick is often middling, at best.
In the afterglow of a hard-fought victory, Jones was equal parts complimentary and diplomatic about the Falcons' composition of playmakers, once Jackson left the game to injury.
"I just did my job. This offense is full of playmakers, and we have guys that can step it up and carry the load and (won't) miss a beat. That's what we thrive on," said Jones, who has amassed nine touchdowns in his last eight games (playoffs included).
It certainly helps that Ryan has taken every crucial Atlanta snap over the last three seasons.
"Julio is, in my opinion, one of the very best in the (NFL). Week in, week out, he's getting more consistent for us. ... I think that's part of the maturation process and part of him becoming the player that I ultimately think he's going to be."
Ryan requires no such speculative promises of future greatness, for he racked up 12,501 yards passing and 92 total touchdowns (89 passing) from 2010-12 and stands as a healthy lock for a third straight campaign of 4,000 yards passing and 28 TDs.
Emphasis on the word healthy, for the Falcons have incurred an inordinate amount of injuries for Week 2.