Bucs' Smith: Jones' return changes outlook

Lovie Smith doesn’t need to be reminded of how dangerous and dominant Julio Jones can be on a weekly basis.

The new Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach developed an appreciation for the Atlanta Falcons receiver back in 2011. And it has nothing to do with anything Smith saw from Jones on the football field.

"I remember at the combine when we interviewed him, he wanted to talk about defense,’’ Smith said, referring to his meeting with Jones as the Chicago Bears' head coach. "I was so fired up about him. When you can tell if you’re a tough football team or not is the way you’re wide receivers block and the way your cornerbacks tackle. And he talked about how important it is to block and all those things that most receivers don’t talk about.’’

Now Smith and the rest of the coaches in the NFC South have the task of trying to figure out how to defend one of the league’s top threats twice a year. Jones is expected to be back at full speed after missing the majority of last season with a fractured foot. He had it surgically repaired and is on pace to return this spring, as head coach Mike Smith reiterated during Senior Bowl week.

In just five games last season, Jones caught 41 passes for 581 yards and two touchdowns. Had he kept that pace, he would have been on track for 130 catches for just under 1,900 receiving yards. (Detroit's Calvin Johnson holds the NFL record for single-season receiving yards with 1,964.) Roddy White holds the team record for single-season receptions and receiving yards with 115 catches and 1,389 yards.

"Whenever you talk about a special player in the division on a team, things change automatically,’’ Smith said of Jones’ return. "You just look at all that Julio brings to the table. Look at this toughness. Yeah, it’s easy to talk about him as a receiver, catching the ball and all that. But man, this is a tough guy.

"He’s just a special talent. There are some special receivers in the league. Of course, Calvin Johnson is special. But Julio is big, fast, strong, tough. He’s got everything you’re looking for. Atlanta’s automatically a lot better just based on him being back on the field.’’

Carolina Panthers Ron Rivera echoed Smith’s thoughts.

"They’re back to who they are,’’ Rivera said of the Falcons with Jones. "Anytime you lose your No. 1, it really does change things. So he’s back, and they’re as dangerous as ever. That’s who they are.’’