During the 10 games this season in which Deion Jones was not in the middle of the Falcons' defense, his value to the unit became clearer. When he returned to the lineup in Week 13, that value was unassailable.
Some would argue that even with Jones in the lineup, the Baltimore Ravens gained 366 yards on offense, including 207 yards rushing, and dominated time of possession.
Neither of those points can be disputed, but it's important to remember the Falcons had three penalties after a third-down stop that extended drives. And, although this is not definitively provable, things might have been much worse without Jones' instincts and athleticism working in the Falcons' favor.
Simply put, on a defense that is built to be "fast and physical" Jones is noticeably advanced in those two areas, and he finished the game with 15 tackles, a tackle for a loss and a sack.
There were three aspects of his game that were particularly apparent against the Ravens' run-heavy approach: His ability to diagnose and react to plays; how effortlessly he weaves through traffic to make sound tackles and his closing speed when defending the pass.
Top-level read-and-react instincts
When he entered the league, Jones' athleticism and natural instincts helped him become an impact player early on for the Falcons. Now in his third season, Jones has refined those instincts with experience and become one of the best read-and-react linebackers in the league.
That was especially apparent against an offense that ran a lot of read concepts with motion to confuse Atlanta's defense. The best way to slow down a fast player is to slow him down mentally.
That didn't work against Jones, who stayed disciplined to his assignment and processed things at a high level. Here is a glimpse at some of the things Jones was looking at on Sunday:
There are three options for the Ravens on that play above. Lamar Jackson can either give the ball off on the jet sweep to the receiver, he can keep the ball himself on the zone read or he can hand the ball off to Gus Edwards, which he did.
Baltimore doesn't appear to have a blocker to account for Jones, but if he bites on the outside motion enough, the hole for Edwards would be there for a big gain. Jones stays true to his assignment, reads the play and stays balanced to make the tackle.
Jones' ability to recognize plays quickly as they're unfolding often leads to him making positive plays. Sometimes, though, they help him prevent disastrous breakdowns for the defense.
Early in the third quarter, the Ravens ran a bootleg pass with two tight ends running across the field at a shallow level and a deeper level. Jones initially slipped on the play, which left him trailing the action. As he ran to catch up, Jones saw that there was a breakdown in coverage with tight end Mark Andrews left wide open.
Andrews' momentum ultimately carries him out of bounds, but Jones' effort to get back into the play and close in on the Ravens tight end would have prevented him from turning upfield for a huge gain if he had somehow been able to gather his feet.
As I mentioned earlier, Jones has always had elite athleticism at the linebacker position. Now that he can read a play very quickly as it unfolds, his athleticism can be fully put to use. Every step Jones makes is often with a purpose and in the right direction.
On the play below, watch how Jones initially closed down his assigned gap before cutting at nearly the exact same time as Edwards to get to the outside of the defense and make the tackle. Because he did this so quickly, the Ravens' offensive lineman did not have the chance to come off his block and get a hand on Jones.
Jones did not only force the cut because he defended the gap correctly, he also mirrored the running back and took away his secondary lane. That's pretty impressive.
He's hard to get a hand on and hard to get past
While Jones' recognition and instincts help him in small-area situations like when a team runs between the tackles, he's also very skilled at making plays while having to sift through traffic on the run. Seemingly without losing any speed, Jones can navigate a number of blockers to get to the ball carrier quickly.
Of course, it's not easy to time a tackle while covering a lot of ground with everyone on the field running full speed. Balance and leverage are important aspects of making a tackle, but it can be hard to maintain those two qualities while sprinting. Jones makes it look easy.
One of the things Jones does very well as a tackler is bind a runner's feet, as he did on the play above. He doesn't often go for the big hit but rather makes the safe tackle to prevent any chance for the runner to get free.
The above play is a perfect marriage of all the skillsets I've described thus far. Jones wastes no time hesitating on the play, flows incredibly fast, makes a blocker miss at the point of the attack and shoots his arms to take out the runner's legs.
"When he got back I started watching him and I was like, 'dang,'" Falcons rookie linebacker Foye Oluokun said. "I was doing alright and then I looked at him and I was like, 'I've got a long way to go.' So now I watch him on tape or when I'm not in, I watch him and think, 'Oh, OK. He can do that, maybe I can do something like that.'"
Once you see that back in the Falcons' defense, it's obvious how much it was missing for much of this season.
Dropping the receiver where he makes the catch
This wasn't the game that best showcased Jones' prowess in coverage. But his skills in that area are already well documented – he was Pro Football Focus' top-graded linebacker in coverage in 2017.
The easiest way to explain why Jones is such an asset for the Falcons in coverage is that he does exactly what Atlanta's scheme needs him to do: Defend running backs out of the backfield and minimize a receiver's yards after the catch in zone coverage.
It's the latter of those two things that was on display against the Ravens. Jones twice dropped into zone coverage in the middle of the field and closed on a short crossing route to prevent the receiver from turning upfield and picking up extra yards.
Atlanta's defense will usually funnel the ball towards the short, middle part of the field, and the Falcons rely on Jones and their other speedy linebackers to act like Hoover vacuums and clean the play up quickly.
When Jackson threw the ball on the play above, the receiver was at the 48-yard line. Jones arrived at nearly the same time as the ball and initiated contact at the 48-yard line. The receiver managed to pick up a first down by extending the ball across the 50, but almost fumbled the ball in the process. It was ultimately a first down, but it provided an example of how Jones makes teams work for any yard when throwing the ball.
Jones' absence has been noticeable this season for the Falcons' defense, but his presence on Sunday offered a reminder at just how good he already is. Welcome back, Deion Jones.