It’s a cornerback’s dream scenario, a chance to demonstrate the talent to shut down one of the NFL’s most dynamic receivers when it matters most.
Of course, if it goes poorly …
Trumaine Johnson of the Rams expressed only confidence and respect Wednesday when asked about an expected matchup with Atlanta Falcons star receiver Julio Jones in an NFC wild-card playoff game Saturday at the Coliseum.
“He has that ‘it’ factor,” Johnson, “that dog factor.”
The Rams, seeded No. 3 in the NFC, are playing in their first playoff game since 2004. Shutting down Jones, or at least keeping him under control, is crucial for a Rams team that — with a victory — would advance and play the No. 2 seed Minnesota Vikings on the road.
The Falcons are led by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL most valuable player, and feature several other game-breaking talents besides Jones, including running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.
“They can run, they can run past you, they can catch over you,” Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman said. “Wherever Matt puts it at, they can make all the catches.”
But the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones stands out.
“He may be the best — if not one of the best for sure in the league,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
Jones, a seventh-year pro and five-time Pro Bowl selection, can take over a game in spectacular fashion or quietly set up teammates for success.
Jones’ presence on the field dictates coverage, and has helped Sanu break free for five touchdowns, tight end Austin Hooper for three.
“He’s willing to do the extras,” said Johnson, who is big for a cornerback at 6-1, 205 pounds but still smaller than Jones. “He’s willing to block for his teammates. Man, he’s a complete player.”
Johnson, a third-round draft from Montana in 2012, was in his second NFL season when the Rams played the Falcons in a Week 2 game at St. Louis in 2013. Jones caught 11 passes for 182 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown, in a 31-24 victory.
“That was the first time seeing him,” Johnson said, recalling Jones’ performance. “He’s real.”
Last season, Johnson was looking forward to matching up against Jones at the Coliseum.
“He’s a beast, he really is,” Johnson said before the Week 14 game.
But Jones sat out because of a toe injury, leaving teammates to dismantle the Rams in a 42-14 rout that ended the Jeff Fisher era.
Jones has been nursing ankle and ribs injuries this week, and was limited in practice Wednesday.
But Johnson and the Rams are preparing to see Jones — and the Falcons — at their best.
The Falcons are averaging 22.1 points per game , nearly 12 fewer than their league-leading average in 2016. But Johnson noted that Jones and his teammates are reigning NFC champions and that they were in control of the Super Bowl until they lost a big lead against the New England Patriots.
“So you got to look at all that,” he said. “They’ve been there, done that.”
This will be the first playoff game for Johnson and most of his teammates. Only six players on the Rams roster have postseason experience
“We haven’t been to the playoffs, but at the same time we’re much more confident,” Johnson said. “You keep hearing, ‘Are the Rams for real?’ And we feel like we keep shutting down the critics.”
A victory will extend Johnson’s tenure with the Rams. A defeat could end it.
Before the season, the Rams put the franchise tag on Johnson for the second year in a row. They then attempted to trade him, and did not offer him a long-term contract.
Johnson has earned nearly $17 million this season. He will become a free agent at season’s end, but has expressed a desire to remain with the Rams.
“It slips into my mind from time,” he said of his situation, “and I know when that time comes it will take care of itself.
“I want to be here, but at the same time it’s a business. … Right now my main focus has been on winning games, like I said at the beginning of the season, and this playoff game is big.”
The Rams will play a game in Mexico City next season, a person with knowledge of the situation said. The Rams have played a game in London the last two seasons. They are expected to play another International Series game in 2019 before moving into their new Inglewood stadium in 2020. ... Kick returner Pharoh Cooper (shoulder) did not practice but coach Sean McVay said he was on track to play against the Falcons. Receiver Mike Thomas (ankle) did not practice and linebacker Mark Barron (Achilles) was limited.
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