FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Everytime Julio Jones steps to the podium, he's asked a question about the Atlanta Falcons' red zone offense. And every time, Jones' tone seems to become more defiant, as if he's eager to shut up all the nonbelievers.
Fixing last season's red zone woes continues to be an emphasis for the Falcons throughout training camp. Jones scoring a red zone touchdown on a jump ball from Matt Ryan in front of cornerback Robert Alford and free safety Ricardo Allen on Tuesday didn't stop the Falcons from putting in extra work on the same throw 10 minutes after practice.
"It's very important for me and Matt to be on the same page down there in the red zone," Jones said. "Over the years, I have the ability to make plays, and he has the ability to put balls there. But it's all about us being on the same page, not having to think when we get down there, knowing where he's going to put the ball, and knowing what I can do before he puts the ball in there."
The Falcons finished 23rd in the league in red zone offense a year ago, converting at a 50 percent clip (27-of-54). During the Super Bowl run in 2016, the Falcons ranked ninth in red zone offense, hitting on 61.9 percent of those opportunities (39-of-63). It was part of the reason their scoring average dipped from a league-best 33.8 points per game to a pedestrian 22.1 points per game last season.
Jones had nine receptions on 24 red zone targets last season, including the playoffs. His two red zone touchdowns came in a Week 7 loss at New England and in the playoff matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. Although Jones doesn't play for statistics, he surely wants to score more than the three touchdowns he had during the 2017 regular season, with two of those scores coming against struggling Tampa Bay.
Jones emphasized, as he has multiple times, how the Falcons have to be smart in scoring situations and not try to force him the ball.
"It's one of those things when you're down in the red area, a lot of teams double me," Jones explained. "Two-man, guys sit underneath me, so I can't really slant. They have a safety kind of cheated out, as far as the fade balls and things like that. But when we get our opportunities, we've got to make people pay."
Maybe those one-on-one opportunities will arise more often based on personnel. The addition of playmaking rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley should take some of the defensive attention away from Jones. During 11-on-11 drills Tuesday, the Falcons showed a look with Jones wide left, Ridley wide right, and Mohamed Sanu in the slot, a look that could become familiar during the regular season.
During a 10-play drive near the end of Tuesday's practice, when the offense seemed to work on certain clock situations as it approached the end zone, Ryan targeted tight end Austin Hooper five times with four completions, including a red zone score for Hooper. The possible emergence of Hooper as a legitimate red zone threat is another factor that could create more opportunities for Jones.
The secret weapon could be newcomer Logan Paulsen, a blocking tight end who can catch the ball as well. Paulsen could help give his teammates much-needed space by clearing holes.
But everyone knows the Ryan-Jones connection is the one that will strike fear in opponents, especially when clicking at a high level. A reporter asked Jones if he felt he wasn't always on the same page with Ryan last season.
"No, not at all," Jones said, dismissing any such disconnect. "It's just that the more you work something, the better you get. That's all it is. We worked on it, but we're making it a big emphasis this year for us to just be more on the same page.
"We were on the same page. Like I said, I make plays when the ball is in the air, and he can throw some balls down there. But it's another thing to know what each other's thinking, and [at] a certain time, where the defense is at, things like that."