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Julio Jones finally is coming around. Not coincidentally, so is the Bucs offense

The 33-year-old veteran receiver played arguably his best game of the year in Germany.
Published Nov. 24|Updated Nov. 26

TAMPA — The adage has a lot of tread but a lot of subscribers. It’s the one about the NFL season not really starting until after Thanksgiving.

In that case, Julio Jones made his highly anticipated arrival to the Bucs offense a couple of weeks early.

But the wide receiver is a couple of months tardy by the fans’ collective clock.

In the end, it may not matter. If Jones can remain healthy and continue delivering the quality reps — and periodic burst — he provided to the Bucs in their win over the Seahawks on Nov. 13, posterity will reflect on his assimilation into the offense as perfect timing.

“It’s great to have him here healthy, finally getting healthy,” coach Todd Bowles said.

Three and a half months after signing with the Bucs, there was Jones — circa 2015 — running a slant route, taking a short Tom Brady pass and sprinting down the right side for a 31-yard touchdown against Seattle in the Bucs’ most recent game. For good measure, he nailed Seahawks safety Josh Jones at the goal line, completing his most profound play in pewter.

“It did feel good to kind of get out there and be able to move around,” said Jones, who tied his season high in catches (three) and targets (five) in that 21-16 triumph. “Play a full game, full-speed routes and just being physical in the game.”

At this juncture of Jones’ Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, the Bucs don’t need him guzzling from the same fountain of youth that keeps reinvigorating Brady. A few sips would suffice.

He is, after all, recovering from a torn posterior cruciate ligament that Fox Sports reported won’t require surgery. But a few doses of Jones’ trademark fleetness and physicality per game could open things up for his younger peers and really help get the offense humming.

Julio Jones goes in for a touchdown during the first half the Nov. 13  game against the Seahawks.
Julio Jones goes in for a touchdown during the first half the Nov. 13 game against the Seahawks. [ GARY MCCULLOUGH | AP ]

“Really important,” Brady said. “I just think it’s production outside of what Chris (Godwin) does and what Mike (Evans) does. That third receiver position, whoever is in there, has to be productive.”

The way Brady sees it, 400 yards of offense per game is a baseline figure for an NFL team. How it arrives there (250 passing/150 rushing, 300 passing/100 rushing) can vary. Throw for 300 or 350 and “you’ve had a hell of a day,” Brady said.

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“If Chris and Mike go for 90 each, you’ve still got to come up with 170,” Brady said. “So it’s the third receiver, it’s tight ends, running backs. Everyone’s got to figure out how to produce and add to that yardage total.”

For half the season, Jones, 33, could add nothing to that sum. In the wake of one injury-besieged season in Tennessee (career-low 31 catches), skepticism over his future mounted as Bowles insisted the Bucs were focused on getting Jones healthy in time for the season’s stretch run.

Jones caught three passes for 69 yards in the opener against the Cowboys, missed the next two games, returned for a cameo Oct. 2 against the Chiefs (one catch, 7 yards), then missed the next three contests.

“(The injury) just happened. It’s football; anything can happen,” Jones said. “But just sticking with it, the support here, the training staff … everybody’s just been on board helping me get back to where I’m at today, just gradually getting better.”

Jones has averaged 36 snaps over the last three games, totaling seven catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns in that span. Regarded as a solid blocker throughout his career, his mere presence adds a dimension that could spread a defense, free up a fellow receiver or even enhance play-action.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bucs have totaled 313 rushing yards in the two contests in which Jones was most conspicuous, against the Cowboys and Seahawks.

“He’s very good in the run game as well. He can do a lot of things for us,” Bowles said. “We’ve just got to keep him upright that way. He’s been good the last couple of games. He’s been good this off-week. We’ll just try to keep him healthy going forward.”

If Jones’ health holds up down the stretch, his delayed route into the rotation could be remembered as a perfect-timing route.

“I don’t look to the future; that’s how I’ve always been,” Jones said. “I’m not even a stat guy. I don’t care; whatever comes comes. But as long as we stay healthy and we just keep working and believing one another, we can do whatever needs to be done to get where we want to go.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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