ATLANTA -- There should be no doubt about Julio Jones' right foot now.
The Atlanta Falcons star receiver, back in action following last year's season-ending foot surgery, scored on a 52-yard catch-and-run during Saturday's 24-17 preseason loss to the Tennessee Titans. Jones took the pass, made a quick spin, then utilized a tremendous block from Harry Douglas and exploded all the way to the end zone.
Jones' practice workload just increased recently following a cautious start to training camp. The plan all along was to have him at his best for the Sept. 7 season opener against the New Orleans Saints. If Saturday was any indication, the rest of the league better watch out.
Here are some other thoughts on the Falcons' third and most important preseason game, the dress rehearsal for the regular season:
Speaking of big-play receivers, veteran Devin Hester once again showed how valuable he can be on offense with his second touchdown of the preseason. He caught a short pass from Matt Ryan and made a few quick moves on the way to a 31-yard touchdown. It capped a 11-play, 79-yard drive. Hester finished with four catches for 56 yards. He looked very sharp running his routes.
Oh, by the way, Hester also showed why he was brought to Atlanta. He had a 47-yard kickoff return that helped set up Ryan's touchdown connection with Jones.
Ryan, who was replaced by T.J. Yates in third quarter, got solid protection from his starting offensive line. The pocket was clean, for the most part, as new left tackle Jake Matthews won most of his battles. Even new right tackle Lamar Holmes held his own. Ryan finished 18-of-23 for 224 yards and two touchdowns and was sacked once. Through three preseason games, his numbers: 28-of-37 for 314 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 118.5
There were some moments of solid pressure, but the Falcons just couldn't finish with the sacks early in the game. Linebacker Paul Worrilow notched the defense's first sacks late in the first quarter, while cornerback Robert Alford notched a sack off a blitz. Outside linebacker Stansly Maponga, who worked hard on his pass rush during pregame warmups, was active throughout the night and played well. In fact, general manager Thomas Dimitroff said during a radio interview that Maponga's play has been on the rise. Rookie Ra'Shede Hageman notched a sack off an explosive move in the third quarter.
Although the Falcons' defense had some moments, surrendering big plays -- a big issue from last season -- surfaced once again. Titans receiver Nate Washington got behind Desmond Trufant and the Falcons defense on a 63-yard touchdown connection with quarterback Jake Locker. It appeared as if Trufant expected safety help. Those are missteps the Falcons can't afford against Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 1.
Penalties again surfaced as a problem for the Falcons. During their second drive of the game, they were whistled for four penalties, including two pass inference calls on Roddy White. The rookie Matthews had two penalties in the first 10 minutes of the game. And in the fourth quarter, a slew of defensive penalties for the Falcons allowed the Titans to go ahead with a touchdown. Then rookie outside linebacker Jacques Smith got ejected for unnecessary roughness on the same scoring drive. To top it off, the Falcons had two fouls on their final possession on fourth-and-goal. Atlanta finished with 10 penalties for 97 yards. The Falcons had been whistled for 25 penalties in their first two preseason games.
Rookie inside linebacker Prince Shembo truly has a chance to earn a starting spot. Shembo rotated with starter Joplo Bartu in the first half. Then, Shembo started the second half with the first-team defense. One couldn't help but be impressed with Shembo's speed to the ball. He might not be the starter for Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints, but his time is coming.
Veteran Eric Weems, who signed a one-year deal to return to Atlanta on Friday, was active on special teams. He played on the coverage units and even spelled Devin Hester as a return man. Weems went 28 yards on his first kickoff return. Since Dimitroff said in a radio interview he anticipated big special teams contributions from Weems and Courtney Roby, one would expect both to be on the 53-man roster.
A couple of injuries surfaced. Rookie safety Dez Southward left the game with a head injury and was getting checked for a concussion. Southward already got off to a slow start due to a knee injury. The Falcons need safety depth with Dwight Lowery coming off concussion and Zeke Motta (neck surgery) not expected to play this season. Also, offensive lineman Mike Johnson, used as the extra tackle at the start of the game, left with a foot injury and didn't return. Steven Jackson (hamstring), Gabe Carimi (ankle) and Mickey Shuler (concussion) all were in street clothes.
Sean Renfree looks to be the backup quarterback after a nice drive at the end of the game, although he couldn't punch it into the end zone. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 59 yards. Yates might be the odd man out.