Alien. Beast. Freak. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is all of these things and more. A top tier of pass catchers in the league, Jones possesses a rare blend of size, speed, and technical brilliance. Watching him toy with defenders is, as they say, not safe for work.
Over the past four years, he ranks 4th in targets (684), 2nd in receptions (411), 1st in yards (6,317) and 2nd in first downs (300). The only lacking aspect of his production is touchdowns (23), which remains a bigger mystery than JFK’s assassin. You could blame a lack of red zone targets (16th) in that same time span and you’d be on the right track.
Dismissing Jones over touchdowns is a mistake defenses and coordinators don’t make, they leave that nonsense for the fantasy crowd. Remember, he’s an alien, a beast, a freak. He’s a dominant receiver with elite traits and teams spend an enormous amount of resources figuring out how to game-plan against him.
I’m no defensive game-planning guru. I can’t tell you how to stop Jones. What I can do is pour through his film and tell you, gentle reader, how the Falcons like to attack defenses with him. It’s something they’ve done to the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles defense of the past with success. Jones has played the Eagles five times and averages a solid stat line of 11 targets, 7 receptions, 106 yards, over half a touchdown and 5 first downs. All things considered, including the once perpetual upheaval in the Eagles secondary, that’s not a bad job in limiting one of the league’s most dangerous weapons.
Looking back at those game, you can see why limiting Jones can be such a large ask. There isn’t one way in which he wins and there isn’t one spot in which he aligns; far from it.
FOLLOWING THE SCRIPT…
From the outset of the 2017 divisional round playoff game, the Falcons tested the Eagles by seeing how they would react to Julio in a double tight alignment. On the first play, tight end Levine Toilolo leaked out into the flat as Julio occupied Mychal Kendricks on a short curl with Ronald Darby getting sucked in from his outside leverage. The result was a 12-yard gain and it showed that the Eagles’ secondary could be pulled into Jones’ gravitational pull.
After two runs, facing 3rd & 5, the Falcons motioned out Devonta Freeman to the outside, leaving Jones in the slot. Malcolm Jenkins followed Freeman, Darby lined up across from Jones. The Falcons would convert with a rub concept that freed Mohamed Sanu, who caught the pass in the area vacated by Julio’s seam route. Darby did well on his coverage, riding Julio’s hip, and he received helped over the top from safety Rodney McLeod who was zeroed in on the dynamic receiver.
Next followed a run look with I-formation from 21 personnel with Jones split just inside the numbers. The Falcons like using him on tighter alignments like these due to the route options it gives them. On a numbers split (aligned outside the numbers), if you have an outside release, you’re essentially limited to comebacks and go routes (unless you’re Jones, but it’s still more difficult). From a tight alignment, Jones has access to a full route tree with plenty of space on either side. These two-way go’s can be difficult for any corner to handle. The result of the play was a 6-yard gain on a speed out from Jones, which Darby closed on well for the tackle.
Another concept the Falcons used on the first drive before settling for a field goal was a hi-lo mesh double wheel where the mesh receivers sat down in zone voids before intersecting. There was pre-snap confusion from safety Corey Graham, who vacated his zone to chase the wheel to the field side that was already accounted for. Lapses in pre-snap communication plagued the Eagles early in games last year and needs to be cleaned up this year. If Matt Ryan waits an extra beat, a completion to Jones and the resulting run after catch could have been trouble for the busted secondary.
The takeaway here is that the Falcons’ opening salvo will be designed to make the Eagles tip their hand. They’ll want to establish how the Eagles will react to various alignments and how much attention Jones will garner to all three levels of the field. With that baseline established, they will key in on match-ups and coverage schemes they feel comfortable exploiting.
I’ve seen this shot play concept with a couple of names and it has a multiple variations. The Falcons call it “burner”, it’s also been called “yankee” is a two-man route combination with either a post or corner route on one side with a deep over route from the other side. You’ll typically see this from 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) in a heavier run look, but in 2016 Week 10 action against the Eagles, the Falcons threw in a wrinkle.
The “orbit motion” from wide receiver Taylor Gabriel is all eye candy, a focal point to deceive the defense and pull players out of position. With the nickel blitz already on, Rodney McLeod rolls down into the box, and post-snap linebacker Nigel Bradham will clear out and track Gabriel. The Falcons are well-equipped to handle this blitz. They have 6-man protection with the tight end staying in and running back Devonta Freeman can abandon his run-fake if he diagnoses a secondary defender coming hot.
This is all to give Ryan a simple read on a downfield shot.
At the top of the screen, cornerback Leodis McKelvin is run off by the vertical route. The deep safety reacts to that same vertical route and gets in his deep third responsibility. The combination of those two give Ryan a defined read; Jones has cornerback Jalen Mills one-on-one across the length of the field on a deep over.
Overall, this is solid coverage from Mills. What cost him is the initial jab step from Jones causing him to slightly open to the outside. This gives Jones a free inside release. Tracking 4.34 speed across the width of the field is never going to be a plus situation for Mills (or any corner) and a well placed pass from Ryan completes it for a chunk play of 28 yards.
The Eagles saw this concept again in the playoffs last year. On that occasion a blitz got home under better circumstances. First, the tight end was to the left side of the formation with the run fake happening to the same direction. Ryan is a right-handed quarterback and the play-action on this concept dictates that he’s likely to play-action to the left, allowing him to quickly set up at his landmark.
Falcons offensive staple- Play-action Yankee concept. Reduced splits give a false run key. Schwartz dials up a rare safety blitz, coming from linebacker depth. Coverage had clamps too, beautifully executed all around- pic.twitter.com/A9SuLNehts— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) April 7, 2018
This blitz design was successful for a number of reasons: No orbit motion eye candy, no tight end on the blitzing side, Brandon Graham’s initial inside rush further condensing the arc, and Freeman has to clear Ryan on the play-action before he can work to McLeod. All of this is a long way of saying, you can’t throw it to Jones if you can’t protect. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz won this round.
IN THE SLOT...
Jones typically plays approximately 25% of his snaps from the slot and how the Eagles handle it works a few different ways. As previously mentioned, how the rest of the offensive is set up affects how the Eagles deploy their defense in response. For example, if the Falcons bring a running back outside of Jones, the Eagles will counter by putting Jenkins out wide and bringing an outside corner to cover Jones. If Jones is in a tight alignment with another tight end or wide receiver(s), the Eagles are more likely to run a “banjo” concept with help over top to that side.
There are cases where the Falcons have been able to get Jones isolated one-on-one with Jenkins from the slot, with mixed results.
From the 2016 tilt, the Jones gets matched up by Jenkins on a game-deciding 4th & 5 from the Atlanta 40-yard line.
Julio vs Jenkins on 4th Down, Part 1 pic.twitter.com/nwAozaNjaU— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) September 5, 2018
The Falcons love getting Jones deep and to the sideline on corner routes with some type of underneath route on the outside to hold the cornerback. They try it here, but Jenkins has sticky coverage. He’s got safety help over top, so he can operate comfortably from a trail position. With Jenkins in Jones’ hip pocket, Ryan has no choice but to throw it behind to give the play a chance. Jones has to make a tough adjustment and is unable to complete the catch.
I show this because the reaction to the next play from last years’ divisional round completely disregard that the previous play ever happened.
Julio vs Jenkins on 4th Down, Part 2 pic.twitter.com/29gyjNLjb1— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) September 5, 2018
This time Jones wins at the release point by clubbing Jenkins’ right elbow. That clearance allows him to get to speed without contact to fight through and allows him to separate. Jenkins again has help over top, but McLeod is a touch late breaking and it provided just enough of a window to convert a key fourth down.
Jenkins will be tasked with covering Jones at some point in Week 1. He will win some, he will lose some and he will probably have help. Everybody stay calm.
One area where the Falcons have failed to be creative and active enough with Jones is in the red zone. This isn’t just a problem with Sarkisian, Jones was strangely absent in 2016 with Shanahan. That year there were 86 other receivers that received more targets than him inside the 20. Last year he tied for 13th in red zone targets with Mike Evans and Nelson Agholor, getting a look 18 times. He caught only 4 of those targets (28%) for one lone touchdown. It points to an offensive coordinator that can’t manufacture creative ways to feed the ball to their best weapon when the field condenses.
In the playoff game, the Falcons tried the predictable fade “50-50” ball with no luck. They also tried to get Mills to bite on a sluggo, but the cover 3 cloud coverage the Eagles deployed gave Mills inside help and incentivized him to stay over top of the route.
A little help inside from the linebacker and we have a sluggo that didn't go for 6, incredible - pic.twitter.com/Zv5VvOpzgV— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) September 4, 2018
The Falcons inability to unleash Jones in the red zone is best left unfixed for at least one more week. The Eagles are hoping they continue to run a fullback out wide like they did on the last gasp of the divisional round match-up that sent the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game.
We’ll soon find out how the Falcons choose to attack the Eagles secondary in Week 1. Based on what we’ve seen so far, you can bet it will be in a variety of ways. How the Eagles initially deploy their defense will determine how the cat and mouse game goes for the rest of the night. One thing is for sure, multiple defenders will get a crack at shutting down Julio Jones, but the best you can hope for is limiting his impact.