FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Watching practice video in the linebackers room at the team’s facility one day shortly after being drafted by the Falcons, rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun vividly remembers a moment in which Deion Jones taught him a lesson he still uses to this day.
Oluokun, a sixth-round pick out of Yale in the 2018 NFL Draft, was trying to will his way past offensive linemen as they blocked him. It looked extremely familiar to Jones who, as it turns out, made the same mistake as a rookie, too.
Rather than just tell Oluokun he needed to use his hands to shed the blocks, Jones took a different approach in getting the message across to his new teammate.
“He’ll walk up on me and I’ll always hit his hands away and he’ll say, ‘Oh you want to use your hands here, but you won’t use them outside?’ He keeps it light-hearted like that,” Oluokun said.
That’s exactly who Jones is – and the Falcons (4-7) will finally have him back in uniform this Sunday when they take on the Ravens (6-5) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Coach Dan Quinn made the announcement Friday following practice.
It’s rare when you don’t see Jones with a gigantic smile or laughing. But when it’s time to take the field with his teammates, he’s all business. It’s also why when Jones suffered a significant foot injury in the season-opening loss to the Eagles that would land him on the injured reserve list, the Falcons defense took a hit.
And it was a big one.
Jones underwent a surgical procedure on his foot and for weeks wasn’t able to put pressure on his foot, having to ride around on a scooter for weeks.
As safety Damontae Kazee said, Jones is the “heart” of the defense. Jones is not only one of the Falcons’ most gifted athletes, he’s become the quarterback of Atlanta’s defense. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel lost the luxury of being able to say, “Debo [has] it under control.”
The biggest obstacle the Falcons defense has had to overcome without Jones on the field is the communication element. As the middle linebacker, Jones is responsible for getting everyone lined up. He is the one disseminating the information Manuel was sending into his helmet.
Others were ultimately thrusted into this role and there were growing pains for sure.
But through it all, Jones was right there to help his teammates in any way he could, despite being on IR.
Although Jones was disappointed when he learned the severity of his injury and how long it would keep him off the football field, he never let himself “get too low,” as Manuel often says.
That’s not who Jones is and it’s not who he would become.
“He hits you with a smile at the worst time, but he keeps everything in perspective,” Manuel said. “He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low.”
Jones is a leader by example, his teammates say. He’s not the loudest voice, but his play and the way he communicates on the field sets the tone for the defense.
So, the challenge for Jones would then become how to make sure his voice still would still be heard even when he was unable to take the field with his teammates.
To Jones that meant, being at walk-throughs, being in meetings, being on the sidelines at games when he could. Making sure he provided the same type of leadership to his teammates, just in a different way.
According to his best friend and fellow linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, Jones has conquered that feat.
“He’s always helping me out, on and off the field,” Campbell said. “He’s my extra set of eyes telling me stuff that I might not have seen in the moment. He’s a huge part of our team, having him back is major.”
Quinn echoed a similar sentiment regarding Jones’ involvement with the team and desire to get back on the field.
“We’re all so proud of him for the amount of work he put in to get back,” Quinn said. “It’s not easy to do and the amount of work he put in behind the scenes to get ready physically but also to stay in it mentally for the guys. He provides a lot of energy on the field, but he provides a lot off the field.”
Jones returned to practice in a limited capacity on Nov. 7 and was able to return to game action on Nov. 18 but wasn’t quite ready. As a player the Falcons’ brass views as someone they envision being around for a long time, they wanted to make sure they took their time with Jones and didn’t rush his return.
Now, Jones is ready to make his return.
"It’s going to be fun," Jones said of making his return to the field. "Get to get out there with my boys again. Set the tone and have some fun together.”
Not only is Jones monumentally important to the Falcons’ defense because of the type of leader he is, his ability to shut down running backs and create turnovers is something Atlanta’s defense relied heavily upon him for.
Jones is the Falcons’ best linebacker and his rare quickness allows for him to fly to the ball and close in on plays quickly as they develop. In 32 games played, Jones has recorded 253 tackles, seven interceptions and one forced fumble.
Atlanta’s defense has allowed a league-high 88 receptions to running backs this year for a total of 695 yards on the year. Only the Kansas City Chiefs have allowed more receiving yards to running backs having given up 772 yards. Through the same time period last season with Jones on the field, the Falcons ranked last in the league in receptions to running backs with 71 but the number of yards was down significant, giving up 535 yards which was 24th in the league, showing just how valuable Jones is in this aspect of the game.
Even though Jones has been sidelined since Week 1, the linebacker feels that he's almost a better player in a way because of his greater appreciation for the game.
“[I learned] how much of a fighter I am," Jones said on Friday. "How much I love this game and how much I miss being out there with my boys. Just not taking a play off, not taking my plays for granted. You can be in one play and not know if your going out the next game. So while your out there take advantage of each play.”
Perhaps Jones’ return gave can give this Falcons’ defense a spark to propel them as they make one last push to keep their postseason dreams alive.