Sometimes, against the best of the best, there's no true way to completely stop them, you just have to slow them down.
That's a statement that perfectly applies to Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who will play his first game against the Carolina Panthers this season on Thursday night after missing the last matchup between the two teams due to injury. Some of the best game of Jones's career have come against the Panthers. In 15 games against Carolina, Jones has caught 82 passes for 1,390 yards and six touchdowns.
The Falcons hope that Jones proves to once again be a difference-maker on the field against Carolina, but they know the Panthers – like every team – will try to have a plan for slowing the star receiver down.
"Realistically, it's kind of the Jordan Rules back in the day," interim head coach Raheem Morris said. "You don't really stop [Michael] Jordan, you've got to find a way to slow him down. So, who's going to be your [Joe] Dumars of the day? Who's going to be your person that you you're going to put there and your call of the day that helps you slow down Jordan in order for you to have a documentary a couple years later about how you had a Jordan killer?"
The Jordan Rules were a special set of rules the Detroit Pistons had whenever they played Michael Jordan to limit how effective he was, individually. Jones has gotten very used to seeing multiple defenders focused on him every single play, and he still has been one of the most dominant receivers of the last decade despite the extra attention.
It's possible that Carolina might also have one of the game's most dominant offensive players back on the field since being injured in a 31-17 loss to the Buccaneers on Sept. 20. All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, who had 2,392 combined yards and 19 touchdowns in 2019, has been designated to return from injured reserve by the Panthers and could be activated before Thursday night's game.
While it remains unclear whether or not McCaffrey will actually be back for Carolina, Morris said the Falcons will have a plan in place if No. 22 does suit up.
"When those kinds of players are on the grass, defensive coordinators, head coaches, everybody has to be all hands on deck to stop those kinds of people," Morris said.
Carolina won a close 23-16 game in its first meeting against Atlanta, and the Falcons had an opportunity to tie the game midway through the fourth quarter but that hope ended with a Matt Ryan interception. With Jones on the field, the Falcons will be at full strength on offense and his presence should only benefit Atlanta's other weapons.
Calvin Ridley has proven capable of being a No. 1 receiver this season, and he was just that in the first game against Carolina, catching eight passes for 136 yards, but he was really the only reliable target for Ryan that day. Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus and Hayden Hurst combined for just five catches for 37 yards. With Jones back, the extra attention he commands should help the others get favorable matchups.
"Defenses tend to swing their defense and things like that based on if I play or if I don't play," Jones said. "Going into the game, we've just got to see that. We've got to exploit more of it if they're going to double me, if they're going to pay attention to me with two guys."
Of course, the Falcons don't yet know exactly what Jordan Rules the Panthers could apply. It's the first time Carolina will play Jones in the Matt Rhule era, and the Falcons will have to be quick to adjust to what they see.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said it may take two or three series to fully get a sense for how the Panthers are trying to slow Jones down, but they will be ready to take advantage of other opportunities. One such opportunity may be on the ground. With Carolina often dropping seven or eight men into zone coverage, Todd Gurley had his best game of the season in Week 5, gaining 121 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. He also had four catches for 29 yards.
Now, the Panthers truly have to pick their poison. Do they give Gurley a light box once again, or do they risk allowing Jones to create big plays by dedicating more players to stop the run? Whatever they choose to do, Jones isn't particularly worried.
"When I go into a game, it doesn't matter if you double me," Jones said. "It doesn't matter if you play Cover 2, 3, 4-kick, 11-B, 11-plug. For me it doesn't matter, I can adjust on the fly. Just my presence, like I said, those other guys can go out there and win their matchups. I mean, I'm never out of the fight, don't get it wrong, now. Even though they are doubling me, I'm trying my best to get open and also make plays down the field."
The Atlanta Falcons head to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers in Week 8 of the 2020 NFL season. Take a look back some of the history of the matchup at Carolina.