PITTSBURGH -- The Atlanta Falcons obviously weren't trying to freeze out their best player, but it happened.
Wide receiver Julio Jones, the guy who entered Sunday's action leading the NFL with 502 receiving yards and tied for fourth in the league with 46 targets, didn't catch his first pass of Sunday's 41-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers until the 13:44 mark of the fourth quarter. Jones finished with five catches for 62 yards and no touchdowns on nine targets, but there's no doubt the Falcons wanted to get him involved earlier.
"Yeah, definitely not by design," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "Just have to make sure he gets as many touches as we can in the game. He's one of our best and most explosive players so every game, we want him involved."
Quarterback Matt Ryan echoed Quinn's words.
"Obviously, we want to get him involved," Ryan said. "I missed one for him earlier in the game on his back hip; then one was tipped when we had a shallow cross. ... They made a pretty concerted effort to take him out and that created opportunities elsewhere.
"We will find ways to continue to get him the ball, regardless of coverage. ... For sure, we want to get him the ball throughout: first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, anytime of the game."
The Falcons certainly don't want to establish a habit of Jones not catching passes until the fourth quarter, unless they're scoring touchdown after touchdown with with rookie Calvin Ridley or other targets in the process. Such wasn't the case against the Steelers, although Mohamed Sanu did score on a 43-yard pass play down the middle.
The Steelers commended Joe Haden for following Jones for most of the day, though Jones did not acknowledge that Haden was shadowing him. Then again, Jones rarely gets caught up in matchups.
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian often talks about making sure Jones get his chances regardless of the situation. You have to wonder if that first drive to start the second half against the Steelers, when the Falcons trailed might have had a different outcome had Jones gotten his hands on the ball. Instead, the biggest play of that drive was Ryan's 10-yard scramble on third-and-8 before the Falcons eventually had to punt.
The last time Jones didn't have a reception in the first half of a game was in 2016 against Denver in Week 5. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Sunday marked the third time in his career that Jones had been held without a catch through three quarters. It also occurred during his rookie season in 2011 against the Minnesota Vikings and in 2012 against the Carolina Panthers.
Jones explained what happened against the Steelers from his vantage point.
"It's never frustrating, first off," Jones said. "They had a good game plan for me, a lot of two-man, things like that. Discouraged Matt earlier on in the game that two guys were going to be on me throughout the whole game."
Jones was asked how he stayed into the game while not catching a pass through the first three quarters on four targets.
"For me, it doesn't matter," Jones said. "I'm the type of guy, I never look at the scoreboard. Until it's 0-0, zero on the clock, I'm going to play. That's what happened today. They had a good scheme."
Jones scoffed at the notion it's hard for him to get into a rhythm when he catches the ball so late in a game.
"This is my eighth year now," Jones said. "I've been doing this in college, high school. It's no rhythm for me. They just had a scheme put together. That's all it was. ... I'm not a rhythm player."
Whatever the case, the Falcons need Jones to be dominant to salvage this season after a 1-4 start and dropping three in a row, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2) coming to Atlanta next. It's the Falcons' last NFC South home game, with the final three division contests all on the road, including Thanksgiving night at New Orleans (3-1).
"You can't look down the road," Jones said. "It's one game at a time for us. That's it."