FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Believe or not, Julio Jones was human at one point.
Long before the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver became the talk of the NFL world with his record-setting 2015 pace, he was a highly talented rookie out of Alabama who needed major polishing.
One game in particular stood out to Falcons wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie as the game showed just how much refining Jones truly needed: a Dec. 4, 2011, road matchup against the Houston Texans, the same opponent coming to the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
"The ugliest game I ever saw him do it was Houston in Houston about four years ago and technically, he was awful," Robiskie said of Jones. "I think it was a good thing for him because from there, he learned, 'Oh, OK, I see what you're saying. I've got to fix that.'"
Specifically, Robiskie rode Jones back then about running without the football.
"He was running and kind of jogging for the ball," Robiskie said. "Then I got him to the theory of, 'Let's see if you can outrun the ball.'"
How Robiskie emphasized such a theory is a tale in itself.
"So, what I explained to him -- to keep it in simple fashion -- was, 'I'm going to put the ball in the JUGS machine and you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to shoot the ball from here to the CNN Center. I'm going to see if you can get on that freeway and run and beat the ball to the CNN Center. Let's try it. Let's see if you can do it.' And that's kind of what we do on the football field.
"I put him on the goal line and tell him I'm going to shoot it out of the gun and, 'Let me see if you can beat it. And if you can beat the ball, then I know what we've got.' So, he's learned how to outrun the ball. That's route running."
Jones recalled the lessons learned from the last matchup with the Texans. He caught four passes for 68 yards in a 17-10 loss.
"I was just a rookie," he said. "I was looking too early. I didn't have any patience as far as when the ball was in the air. I was looking back too early instead of running my route, getting the depth, and then looking and finding the ball."
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones seems flawless now. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan praised him for being able to run every route in the route tree, which has allowed Shanahan to move Jones to different receiver spots and keep defenses guessing. Going into Sunday's game, Jones has 440 receiving yards on 34 catches with four touchdowns, putting him on track to surpass 2,000 receiving yards and break the NFL record set by Detroit's Calvin Johnson (1,964 yards). He could notch his fourth consecutive 100-yard receiving game against a Texans defense that likes to play off coverage with their cornerbacks.
Last week in Dallas, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli praised Jones' physical attributes but said what separated him from other receivers was his route running. Robiskie understood why Marinelli made such a point.
"He's a good route runner, but he works at it," Robiskie said. "We work at it. That's what coaching is: getting guys who are not quite as polished as they can be and keep making them better. It's always hard for a tall man as opposed to a short man to get out of a cut because if you're (6-3), you've got to come down and drop your hips, drop your head, drop your chin to get out of something. He's struggled with that when he got here. We've improved that, and he's really, really good at it."
Robiskie explained one other aspect related to Jones' enhanced route running.
"Being able to explode out of a break, explode out of his cut ... a lot of guys can run 4.4 north and south, but can you run a 4.4 north and do the same turning to go east? That's a route," Robiskie said. "The guys who can go 100 miles per hour that way and then go 100 miles per hour the other way are the guys who can run a route.
"Julio has learned to go left and right as fast as he can go straight. That's what we've gotten him to improve on, and he's outstanding with it right now."