Five things to watch: Falcons-Jaguars

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
10:43
AM ET
ATLANTA -- Five things to watch in Thursday night’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars:

Julio Jones. The rookie wide receiver has had some ups and downs throughout the season, but he’s coming off perhaps his best game of the year. Jones caught two second-half touchdown passes in Sunday’s come-from-behind victory against Carolina. There’s never been any doubt Jones is an exceptional talent, but he and the Falcons experienced some early growing pains. A game like the one in Carolina might bring Jones’ confidence level to a new high and quarterback Matt Ryan and the coaching staff might trust him to do even more. Jones might be hitting the point where he’s turning from rookie to veteran.

Atlanta’s pass rush. The Falcons have only 25 sacks on the season and that puts them in a tie for No. 24 in the league. If they want to really take control of this game and take another step toward solidifying a playoff berth, the pass rush has to be better. Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert still is very capable of making big mistakes. But the Falcons have to force him into mistakes.

Who’s watching MJD? About the only really good thing the Jaguars have going for them is running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Atlanta’s run defense has been pretty good all season, but Jones-Drew presents a different challenge than the typical running back. He can run inside and outside and also catch passes. Second-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been emerging as a star. This could be the game where he really establishes himself. Weatherspoon is the one Atlanta linebacker with enough speed to keep Jones-Drew from getting into the secondary too often.

The secret weapon. Jones isn’t the only rookie who is emerging for the Falcons on offense. Running back Jacquizz Rodgers gradually has been getting more touches and he caught a pass for a touchdown against Carolina. Even though Michael Turner has been bothered by a groin injury in recent weeks, he still is going to get the bulk of the carries for the Falcons. Rodgers took some time to learn the playbook and earn the trust of his coaches, but he’s at a point where he can ease Turner’s load a bit and bring an element of speed out of the backfield that the Falcons didn’t have before.

Four for four. If the Falcons win, they’ll have nine victories. That would mark the fourth straight winning season for Atlanta, which is far more remarkable than it first sounds when you put it into historical context. Before coach Mike Smith arrived in 2008, the Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons. Smith hasn’t had a losing season yet and you can go ahead and start calling him the best coach in franchise history.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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