The Seahawks' cornerback duo of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman faces a tough challenge on Sunday — Atlanta's talented receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Falcons coach Mike Smith calls them 1 and 1A — his dynamic wide-receiver duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Many believe they are the best twosome in the NFL, though Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz of the New York Giants might have something to say about that. And if they do, the brash White had a pre-emptive answer earlier in the season when he said, dismissively, “Victor Cruz is more of a slot receiver. The big boys play on the outside.”
White and Jones are big, explosive and physical. Their success, or lack thereof, against the Seahawks’ big, explosive and physical cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, likely holds the key to the outcome of Sunday’s playoff game.
“That’s what everyone’s talking about,” veteran Falcons center Todd McClure said. “They’ve got good corners; we’ve got good receivers. I think when you look back on this game Sunday afternoon, whoever wins that matchup will probably be successful on the field.”
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The Falcons know one thing: Sherman will match White for bravado. Jones’ persona is quieter, like Browner, but as people say, you have to watch out for the quiet ones. Asked Friday what he thought about Sherman’s chirping during games, Jones said dryly, “I don’t know. I can’t hear him talking on film.”
On the same subject, Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said of Sherman, “Everybody has their approach to the game. He likes to mess with people’s minds and get people out of their game.”
But White said he’s not going to let that happen.
“We go out there and we play football,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s going to have that much time to be talking, because we’re going to be getting after him.”
White, 31, and Jones, 23, have become inseparable friends despite their eight-year age difference. Both exceeded 1,000 yards receiving this year, though White had his streak of four straight Pro Bowls ended. Jones, in his second season out of Alabama, was selected to his first, which gives White some big-brother pride.
“He’s a stud, man,” White said. “He’s big-time. He’s big, fast, strong. If they want to wrestle around, things like that, he’ll do that. He doesn’t have to change his game for this game. He just needs to be Julio, go out there and be explosive and hit big plays down the field, and we’ll be just fine.”
White knows of what he speaks. Last season, in a 30-28 win over the Seahawks in Seattle, Jones caught 11 passes for 127 yards, while White had six for 78. But that was before Sherman became a starter.
On the other hand, it was also before Jones — whom the Falcons coveted so highly they traded up 21 spots with Cleveland to get him with the sixth pick in the 2011 draft — had his breakout year, catching 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was before new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter tweaked the Falcons’ offense, adding a screen-pass element that has opened things up for everyone.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan also has the luxury of a third dangerous receiver in tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns. Running back Michael Turner had a down season, gaining just 800 yards with a 3.6 per-carry average. But Turner rushed for more than 1,300 yards in each of the previous two seasons, and scored two touchdowns against the Seahawks last year.
Gonzalez calls it Atlanta’s PYP Offense — Pick Your Poison. And White and Jones are the most potent.
“Our receivers are really, really good,” Gonzalez said. “I know their corners are really good, but you better give (White and Jones) credit, too, because these guys are going to come to play. And I’m going to come to play, and whoever has that matchup, Matt’s going to find us, and we’ll try to exploit it and get in that end zone.”
Gonzalez is in his 16th and likely final NFL season, so he has some perspective. And he can’t remember many receiver tandems better than White and Jones.
“I have never played with any, certainly,” he said. “You might have seen it a couple of times. Jerry Rice and John Taylor. They’re up there, too. And it’s just beginning. Because Roddy’s got a lot of football left. These two guys have a chance to do something incredible. Maybe with my butt gone, they’re going to put up even bigger numbers. It’s really something special to be playing with guys like this. They make it a lot easier for me, especially.”
Back to Sherman, Gonzalez knows exactly what to expect, and how the Falcons need to react.
“You’ve got to stay disciplined,” he said. “You know he’s going to come talk. That’s how it goes. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen plenty of Shermans. He’s that style of player. You’ve got to ignore it, have some fun with it. If anything, take it for a little bit of fire and turn it into a positive for yourself. Go out and say, ‘All right, you want to talk, this is how we have to respond.’ But he’s a competitor. He’s a good player.”
It’s a matchup to savor, the corners versus the flyers, but Jones is quick to point out, “It’s the Falcons against the Seahawks. That’s the matchup.”
Said White: “We don’t feel we have to do anything different from what we’ve done all year. We just have to go out there and play football, play Falcon football, and get out there and get after these guys.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org