FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- There Deion Jones was, sitting at his locker the day before the big rivalry game, pondering how important it was for the Atlanta Falcons to defeat his hometown New Orleans Saints.
"I won't be able to go home," the Falcons linebacker said aloud with a laugh, referring to the reaction he'd get from Saints backers among his family and friends that would tease him about a Falcons loss.
Jones made sure he didn't have to endure such taunting, especially with a return trip home coming up Christmas Eve. He put pulling out a win on his shoulders, just like any true leader would do.
The breathtaking performance Jones had last Thursday night, highlighted by a leaping, game-sealing interception of Drew Brees to go with what his coaches counted as 17 tackles, might go down as the most important individual game by a Falcon this season as the team makes a playoff push. The nationally televised game gave the world a snapshot of the immense talent inside Jones' 6-foot-1, 222-pound frame.
Behind the scenes, Jones continues to ascend into a leadership role on an improved defense that has "taken the baton" from the high-power offense to help win games.
"You can't force leadership," said free safety Ricardo Allen, one of the designated "chiefs" of the Falcons. "Deion has continued to grow into it. He's in a good spot. You can tell he's not trying to overpush it. He's not trying to be a leader because that's what people are telling him to do. He's being a leader because that's what he feels comfortable doing.
"And what he feels comfortable saying, that's good enough right now. This is only his second year. You feel like you've been here, but you don't want to just be saying stuff to say it. You want to make it feel as genuine as possible. That's what he's doing."
Jones grew up wearing a Ray Lewis jersey and plays the middle linebacker position, yet he doesn't take Lewis' animated approach when it comes to addressing teammates. As a rookie last season, Jones had to be prodded to raise his tone just to relay the defensive calls. Now, he's heard.
"It's the communication that takes place on the field, where last year he was so inclined just to make sure that he had his job," coach Dan Quinn said of Jones' evolution. "Now if you listen to him ... it's loud. It's communicating. It's giving the alerts to other players based on his film study. ... That's been one part of his game that, man, has that ramped up like crazy."
As Quinn pointed out and Jones would attest to, playing under linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, with Ulbrich's 10 years of experience as an NFL inside linebacker, has been a key factor in Jones' maturation process. Jones also has become a better tackler after some key misses as a rookie. He ranks among the NFL's top 10 with 109 combined tackles. Being a sure tackler will be key down the stretch in the last three games, particularly against running backs such as Doug Martin of Tampa Bay coming Monday night, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram of the Saints in two weeks, and Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey of Carolina in the season finale. Covering those types of backs one-on-one is a key element of Jones' game featured even more this season.
Jones' speed is unquestioned, as the play he made in space to run down Saints receiver Willie Snead last Thursday night showed. And like teammate Mohamed Sanu said, Jones "has hops" as everyone witnessed with his acrobatic interception.
Jones still prefers to lead with his play, but he'll raise his voice occasionally.
"I feel like I do a good job of handling it," Jones said of a leadership role. "I'm not perfect all the time. There are certain situations where I wish I would have stepped up and said something. That's part of the growing process. You have to follow the right people before you can be able to lead.
"Watching guys like Matt [Ryan], Alex Mack, Julio [Jones], how they take charge, being in a room with those guys you see where you can take your leadership to the next step. Then you look at a guy like A.C. [Adrian Clayborn], he leads by example. I'm kind of in the middle. I can be vocal and lead by example. It's finding your own way."
It appears that Jones has found his way, and his teammates are more than happy to follow.