ATLANTA — Julio Jones' nagging hamstring injury has made his value to the Atlanta Falcons more obvious than ever.
Jones has missed four games this season and his status is in doubt for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Atlanta's backups have shown flashes of promise while filling in for Jones, the most accomplished receiver in the history of the franchise. But those glimpses haven't been enough to replace Jones.
Interim coach Raheem Morris says that void can't be filled if Jones can't return this week.
“There’s no replacing Julio,” Morris said Wednesday.
The Falcons (4-9) are 1-3 without Jones, including last week's 20-17 loss at the Los Angeles Chargers.
Calvin Ridley has taken the lead as Atlanta's top receiver this season. He had eight catches for 124 yards with a touchdown against Los Angeles. Laquon Treadwell also had a scoring catch.
Other receivers, including Olamide Zaccheaus and Russell Gage, have had some big plays, but that hasn't been enough. Zaccheaus is now on injured reserve with a toe injury.
Matt Ryan's production has suffered when he doesn't have Jones as his most dependable target. Ryan threw three interceptions against the Chargers.
Ryan has thrown four touchdown passes with six interceptions in four games without Jones. In the other nine games, he has 15 touchdown passes with five interceptions.
“It’s always tough when you’re missing a great player, there’s no question about that,” Ryan said Wednesday. “When he’s out there, he’s a difference maker for us. That’s part of it in this league, there’s going to be certain times when guys are down and other guys have to step up and adjust. I think we’ve done a good job of it at times and at other times we haven’t done as well as we needed to. I think it’s been kind of a mixed bag from that perspective.”
Jones, a two-time All-Pro, is perhaps the most difficult Falcons player to replace — including Ryan.
“The guys have come in and have done a nice job of stepping up, with Treadwell being the latest to go out there and be productive, but you don’t replace Julio,” Morris said. “There is no replacing Julio’s production with one person in particular.”
Jones did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Morris said he hasn't given up on Jones playing again this season.
“We’ll take Julio as far as we can take him each week to see if we can get him to play and be productive, and if we can’t we just have to move on with that week and give him another opportunity the following week,” Morris said.
In past seasons, foot, ankle and other injuries have kept Jones out of practice, but he usually has been able to return for games. This season has been different for Jones, 31.
Morris said he doesn't believe this is a reason Jones can't return as a reliable top receiver next season.
“To be quite honest with you, I’d have to say no, based on what the injury is,” Morris said. “It’s been a nagging hamstring and those are well-documented all over the place. When those things happen to somebody throughout a year, generally they come back to bite you over and over and over again.”
Jones has 51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns in nine games. He has had at least 80 catches for at least 1,300 yards in six straight seasons, but now is bound for his fewest catches since 2013, when he had 41 receptions while limited to five games.
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Charles Odum, The Associated Press