NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Statistically, Sunday's game wasn't exactly an announcement to the rest of the NFL that Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones is officially back, as Jones finished with 4 receptions for 33 yards on 6 targets.
More importantly for the Titans, though, was that the veteran wide receiver returned to the field for the first time since tweaking his hamstring and being placed on injured reserve last month. Jones played 32 snaps in the Titans' 20-0 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and felt his body responded well to his return.
"Just coming out of this game feeling the way I feel, I feel great," Jones said Sunday. "I didn’t have any setbacks. I didn’t feel it throughout the game or anything like that, so I’m very excited. Moving forward for myself, I feel great. I’m ready to go."
The Titans envisioned a potent one-two punch of Jones and third-year wideout A.J. Brown teaming up with quarterback Ryan Tannehill when general manager Jon Robinson sent a 2022 second-round pick and 2023 fourth- and sixth-round picks to the Atlanta Falcons for the future Hall of Famer.
Mike Vrabel on Julio Jones' return and how he'll help the #Titans offense. pic.twitter.com/E7AG8qKnIi— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) December 15, 2021
However, injuries to both Jones and Browns have derailed those plans.
Jones has 25 receptions for 369 yards (which ranks second on the team) and hasn't scored a touchdown in seven games, and Brown is on injured reserve (chest).
Brown does have 46 receptions for 615 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. Brown leads the team in receptions and yards and is tied with MyCole Pruitt and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for the team lead in receiving touchdowns. He will likely return against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 16.
Despite not having their dynamic duo on the field together for a large portion of the season, the Titans (9-4) are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and in the driver's seat to finish on top of the division for the second season in a row. Getting Jones healthy and keeping him that way could help Tennessee make a late push for the top seed in the conference.
But it will require patience. Jones unsuccessfully tried to work through the hamstring injury before the franchise ultimately decided a stint on IR would be the best option.
“Anytime you’re in this situation, we kind of have a big-picture mentality,” Titans receivers coach Rob Moore said. “We know that going forward, it’s in our best interests to make sure we don’t push the envelope too much because at the end of the day it’s about getting [Jones] through the remainder of the season and -- hopefully -- into the postseason.”
That's why Jones was on a snap count in his return to the lineup last week. Jones played 23 snaps in the first half against the Jaguars.
Despite not getting the ball, Jones ran his best route on a play where he topped out at 18.2 mph, according to Next Gen Stats. That was his fastest speed since Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I wanted the ball," Jones said. "I know I killed the safety, I had the safety on me. But unfortunately, it didn't work out. It is what it is."
Tannehill wasn't able to get Jones the ball because Jacksonville's pass rush flushed him out of the pocket. The route was similar to the one Jones ran against the Seattle Seahawks in a Week 2 win when Tannehill hit him for a 51-yard completion, which is Jones' longest reception this season.
The 128-yard performance against Seattle was by far Jones' best of the season, but it's starting to look like he isn't the same deep threat he was with the Falcons.
Ryan Tannehill on Julio Jones being back and how it changes the picture for the #Titans pic.twitter.com/WCYKTQtq8b— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) December 15, 2021
With Tennessee, Jones' role seems to have evolved into more of a possession receiver who can work the middle of the field and along the boundary.
Still, Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing will occasionally dial up a play-action pass to Jones on a deep route.
"He's certainly made big plays before he got here," Downing said. "His presence on the field certainly gives us a big target that we can add to the mix."
Being able to get plays on film where he gets behind the secondary is enough to have an impact, but Moore admits the impact may not show in the stat sheet.
Rather, it appears in how defenses go about trying to stop the Titans when Jones is on the field, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will have that task Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
Regardless of the role Jones plays down the stretch, Tannehill is pleased to have him back in the lineup.
"Any rep that we have together and get to connect is a good thing," Tannehill said. "Keep stacking those good days. I love throwing him the ball. He does some good things for us. I'm seeing some good things from him, and I'm excited to have him out there."