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After finding voice as rookie, Falcons' Deion Jones ready to elevate game

Deion Jones finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting after playing a big role in the Falcons' run to the Super Bowl last season. Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It took two weeks after the Super Bowl for Deion Jones to collect himself, but the Atlanta Falcons linebacker finally decided to flip on the tape and digest the colossal collapse.

First, he watched the coaches' film on his iPad. Then Jones viewed the television version of his team's 34-28 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.

"The TV version was worse," Jones said. "You could hear the crowd. You could feel what was going on."

Each time Jones watched, it made him feel a little queasy. The 14 days that elapsed from game's end to his reviewing the film allowed him to come to grips with the harsh reality.

"I was in a dark place for a little bit, but it happens," Jones said. "I feel like with that whole experience, all I want now is a championship ring. It just made me hungrier."

Jones made his presence felt on the NFL's biggest stage, coming up with a big strip and turnover, breaking up a pass down the sideline and making some key stops to help stake the Falcons to a 28-3 third-quarter lead. But he also was part of a defense that ran out of gas at the end, contributing to the Falcons' blown 25-point lead. Jones played all 99 defensive snaps.

"I don't regret anything from the Super Bowl, to tell you the truth," Jones said. "Like in my life, I always enjoy the highs and lows. There were some low moments, and there were some high moments -- not just for me but for everybody."

Such highs and lows were symbolic of Jones' rookie season, when he found his voice while orchestrating the defense from middle linebacker. It was a season in which his missteps made him a more polished player going into 2017. He led the team -- and all rookies -- with 106 tackles and collected three interceptions while finishing third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting behind Joey Bosa and Jalen Ramsey.

As Jones navigates through his second training camp the next few weeks, he won't forget how his rookie campaign molded him into a player who could be a difference-maker for the Falcons for many years to come.

A different breed

Jones, a second-round pick from LSU, wasn't sure what to anticipate when he stepped on the Falcons' practice field for the first time last spring.

He knew he had a "hip" head coach in Dan Quinn who liked to play rap music at practice. He knew his competition for the starting job was Paul Worrilow, an undrafted guy who led the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons. He knew his position coach, Jeff Ulbrich, had plenty of knowledge, having played 10 NFL seasons at linebacker with San Francisco.

"When did he first yell at me? On Day 1," Jones said of Ulbrich. "It was because I didn't pick up a race route, and he got on me. Yeah, he was cussing a little bit. It wasn't, like, bad, but he got on me."

Ulbrich rode Jones a little harder for good reason. The Falcons knew there was a strong chance that Jones would surpass Worrilow as the team's starting middle linebacker, despite initial talk of Jones playing the weak side. Ulbrich viewed Jones as more than mentally capable of directing the defense, despite starting just one year in college. Ulbrich never once doubted Jones' speed and athleticism, particularly after Jones ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds at LSU's Pro Day.

"I think it was the first padded practice in training camp, and it was a perimeter run play that we previously struggled with as far as going outside, and Deion got over the top and had a nice little strike on the running back," Ulbrich said. "It just looked different. I can't tell you who the running back was, but Deion just looked different. You'd see those glimpses from him throughout camp."

Jones started from Week 1, overtaking Worrilow while developing a bond with the now former Falcon and current Detroit Lion. He didn't mind bringing Worrilow water and energy drinks or carrying Worrilow's pads.

"He competed with me day in and day out," Jones said of Worrilow. "He also was a mentor to me by keeping me level-headed when I messed up. He congratulated me when I did something good. Even when I did do something good, he was critiquing me, like, 'You could have done this better.' He was just always supportive and always got on me."

On the field, everyone knew Jones could run. Off the field, he was just another rookie trying to find his place. His first big purchase was trading in his Honda Accord for an Audi S7. The New Orleans native got homesick once, so he drove 45 miles to a restaurant called Spondivits to find his favorite food, char-broiled oysters. In the meeting room, the guy nicknamed "Debo" as a tribute to Deion Jones and Bo Jackson wasn't immune to being harassed, especially about his habit of eating his hands -- fingernails, callouses and all.

"He's got a problem with his hands," Ulbrich said. "I teased him about it. And I teased him about balding at the age of 21. He looks like he's 45."

Coming of age

The signature moment of Jones' rookie year came just three games into the season.

It was a Monday night game at home in New Orleans, inside the Superdome he always dreamed of playing in as a kid, the same stadium in which his late grandmother took shelter during Hurricane Katrina.

Jones grew up a Ricky Williams fan, and his parents were Saints diehards. As he exited the locker room to stretch and run a few laps before kickoff, Jones set off on his pregame mission: find section 305.

"My parents told me before the game what section they were going to be in," Jones said. "When I went out to warm up, I just wanted to see exactly where they were sitting. I didn't know what was going to happen after that."

It was the start of the fourth quarter with the Falcons leading 38-25. The Saints were in the red zone and faced first-and-10 when Drew Brees took the shotgun snap, dropped back and fired a pass to receiver Michael Thomas. Nickelback Brian Poole, Jones' close friend and roommate on the road, stepped in front and deflected the ball. Jones caught it in a full sprint and returned the interception 90 yards for a touchdown that sucked the life out of the Superdome -- and the Saints.

Jones held the ball tightly in his left arm as he crossed the goal line, then glanced up into the stands to section 305 before being mauled by his teammates.

"It was crazy," Jones said. "I knew exactly where my parents were after I scored, and I looked up and saw them. I just started laughing because they were going crazy. It was great."

The play showed Ulbrich and the rest of the coaches just how capable Jones is of being a game-changer. But it didn't mean that he had it all figured out after just three games.

Jones had his bouts with adversity. He missed one game with an ankle injury suffered while knocking Carolina's Cam Newton out with a concussion. Five games after his return, Jones got pushed around like a rag doll against the Eagles, failing to shed blocks in a 24-15 road loss. Folks wondered from the start how his 6-foot-1-inch, 222-pound frame would hold up, but Week 10 marked the first time Jones looked overmatched physically.

"There was a couple of running plays where I got pushed around, got out of my gap," Jones said. "My pad level was high. It was just the mental stuff. I knew better."

The bye week followed, which gave Jones a chance to reflect and make the necessary tweaks. His resolve was tested again when the coaches opted to start physical LaRoy Reynolds ahead of him against Arizona. Jones, who had a bad missed tackle in the game against Cardinals running back David Johnson, collected himself, refusing to let his rookie season spiral out of control.

"It was a real unique way with how the season went for Deion," Ulbrich said. "Early on, our offense was doing such an amazing job scoring so many points that we were thrust into the two-minute mode for the majority of the games. So Deion was basically getting a glorified 7-on-7 passing league the first half of the season.

"Then the Philly game, suddenly it wasn't just about his speed. It wasn't just about his athleticism. It was about toughness. It was about technique. It was about eyes, leverage, hands and all those things."

Jones refined all those aspects while becoming more authoritative with his voice, a vital characteristic when directing the defense at middle linebacker.

"For guys to really listen and respond, you've got to produce, and you've got to play at a high level," Ulbrich said. "And you've got to put it on tape. That's what Deion started to do. His teammates recognized that. Now all of a sudden, here's a guy where maybe he's yelling at the same volume he was yelling at before, but now they have a higher level of respect for him, so they're listening more."

Going into his second season, Jones certainly has his teammates' respect as the Falcons try to avoid a Super Bowl hangover and put together another run at a championship. The defense, on paper, has gotten better with the return of Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant from season-ending pectoral surgery, the addition of two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe up front and the drafting of speedy linebacker Duke Riley, Jones' former LSU teammate and a player who might crack the starting lineup alongside him.

Quinn said he wanted Jones to be a little heavier going into this season so that he can "make sure he has enough in the tank in his size with the tackling." Jones already has proven he can carry his weight on defense. Now it's about taking his game to the next level after an impressive rookie showing.

"Everything happened so fast," Jones said. "The journey wasn't easy, but it was worth it, like Coach Quinn always says. The older guys like Matt Ryan and all the guys pushing me just helped me along the way. And I took advice from everybody. Just the maturity of getting more involved in the scheme and taking care of my body. I'm just trying to get better at everything."