Atlanta Falcons (2-1) at Minnesota Vikings (1-2)
Sunday, 4 p.m., FOX
FLOWERY BRANCH — These days, the game looks so much slower to Julio Jones.
When the Falcons receiver goes out for a pass, he understands why the route calls for him to go 15 yards this way, 8 yards that way. When he sees a defensive back across the line, he recognizes the little nuances in his body language, those telltale signs of what's coming next.
"When I'm out there running around, I see everything," Jones said Thursday, holding court in Atlanta's locker room. "I had tunnel vision when I was younger. I couldn't really see anything. I didn't really know the concept of the plays, why I was running this route. Now I do."
To everyone else, Jones looks faster, bigger, stronger than he's ever been.
After missing most of last season with a foot injury, the Falcons receiver has played with such domination — men against boys, really — that it seems as though he's intent on making up for lost time.
He leads the NFL with 365 receiving yards on 23 catches, including a 40-yard touchdown grab against Tampa Bay that will surely go down as one of the receptions of the year. Looking back for the ball over his left shoulder, Jones spun his head to the right just as Matt Ryan's arching pass arrived, sticking out those massive hands to haul it in as he was tumbling to the turf, both feet safely within the end zone.
The crowd gasped.
Jones simply flipped the ball to the official, like it was no big deal.
A week later, as the Falcons (2-1) prepared to face the Minnesota Vikings today, he still felt that way.
"It was good throw by Matt, and I was able to make a play on the ball," Julio said with a shrug. "I expect to make those kind of plays when they present themselves."
Everyone else knows how special it was.
"It was a great catch," said teammate and fellow receiver Roddy White, a mentor of sorts to Jones. "It's crazy, because we go out there and practice that situation, and then it comes up in the game and he makes it look real easy. I guess practice pays off."
White chuckled and went on.
"He's a great player. He's going to be the best receiver in this league, it he ain't already. And he's going to continue to get better. This is just his fourth year. He's just coming into himself, going out there playing relaxed, going out there playing with a lot of confidence, going out there attacking people."
Jones certainly doesn't take anything for granted, not after what he went through a year. He was on pace for a massive 130-catch, 1,800-yard season when his foot buckled in a Monday night game against the New York Jets.
Maybe that's why he doesn't get overly excited about his numbers through these three games.
"We've still got the whole season left," Jones said. "I'm just trying to finish the season and stay healthy."
The Vikings know what they're up against, trying to defend Jones while also keeping an eye on the other Atlanta receivers — White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.
"Julio Jones has looked outstanding to me: big, physical, strong," coach Mike Zimmer said. "They've got several guys that can create mismatches and problems for you. We're going to have to pick our spots and be smart."
While Jones insists that he doesn't worry about personal accolades, he's certainly willing to put in the time it takes to be great. White has noticed all that extra hours spent in the film room, in the weight room, out on the practice field, when Jones hangs around after a tough workout to catch extra balls.
Jones, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, is a totally different player than he was four years ago, coming into the league as a highly touted rookie from Alabama.
"It's like night and day. He's improved every year," White said. "He's worked on all aspects of his game. He studies hard. He knows what he's getting from defenses. And he's playing well, playing at a very high level. We expect him to play like that every game."
While Jones was recuperating from his foot injury, he focused on strengthening his quadriceps.
What a difference that made.
"I can in and out of my cuts easier because my quads are very strong now," he said. "Last year, I wasn't as strong. I was using more of my hamstrings. Now I'm able to explode out of cuts and therefore get separation from DBs."
Nothing slow about that.