Julio Jones is about to have a monster season
Remember when Josh Gordon put up 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in just 14 games for the Cleveland Browns? As impressive as that was by Gordon, the real architect of those numbers wasn’t even on the field while they were being posted: the offensive coordinator and the scheme he crafted that enabled his star wide out to take advantage of big one on one opportunities. That coordinator was Norv Turner, but the same pattern is repeating itself in Atlanta with Kyle Shanahan.
Shanahan replaced Turner in Cleveland, and is now in Atlanta, and we got a look on Monday Night Football at exactly what his offense can do, and the results it can achieve, in particular for Falcons star receiver Julio Jones (our second-ranked wide receiver in the NFL).
Within this system, Jones is going to have a monstrous season.
He finished the game with 141 yards and two touchdowns, catching nine of the 11 passes thrown his way and also drawing a defensive pass interference penalty from Philadelphia cornerback Byron Maxwell, his chief victim for the evening. His PFF game grade was far and away the best for any wide receiver in Week 1 (+5.7).
One-game sample sizes obviously don’t extrapolate well to a full 16-game schedule, but it’s pretty clear to see that Jones is going to put up massive numbers in this offense.
You don’t need to go far into the game to get the first look at exactly why that is the case. It’s somewhat ironic in a league becoming ever more pass-happy, with offenses drawing heavily from college spread systems to keep advancing, that one of the league’s most exciting systems instead draws from more traditional pro-style attacking logic. Shanahan’s offense is based on the idea of a pounding run game, play-action passes, and wide receivers single covered on the outside who can exploit the space of that one-on-one coverage.
In Jones, there may not be a better wide receiver in the game to exploit that space and devastate one-on-one coverage.
The first pass play the Falcons ran came right after the first run, in typical “run to set up the pass” fashion.
Atlanta lined up with 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) in an offset I-formation straight out of the 1990s. This is a power-running formation. It invites players up into the box to stack against the run, and even though the wide receivers are quite tight to the formation, it leaves them essentially one-on-one in space against a cornerback. When you look at the play pre-snap, it doesn’t look like there’s much space for Jones (split to the left) to work in, but the reason that isn’t true is because the Falcons are about to force eight guys to defend the run.
Instead of relying simply on play-action fakes, the Falcons are running a play which is both a run and pass at the same time. These “packaged plays” are run plays with a built-in route by the wide receiver, usually on the back side of the play. The offensive line, tight end, fullback and running back are all expecting run, while the quarterback has the option to hand it off or to hit the receiver running a pattern if he likes that read. In this way, the offense doesn’t simply “fake” the defense out, but actually moves it around by forcing it to defend what nine players on offense are legitimately running.
With most of the offense flowing to the right the defense scrambles to get in position to stop the run, streaming to the same side and opening up the space for Jones to run into. He runs a quick slant against Nolan Carroll, beating him immediately to the inside, catching the pass in the space that two seconds ago had been crowded with linebackers, and getting 17 yards downfield before Carroll can make the ground back up and make the tackle.
What looked pre-snap like it should have been a tough space to work in for Jones was suddenly transformed into a one-on-one situation in space by the packaged play Atlanta ran.
The entire offense is designed around opening up space for receivers to make big plays downfield. The old thought process was that you needed to have success on the ground to suck up defenders and then hit them over the top in the passing game, but Shanahan has shown that the running game doesn’t even need to be that successful to have the same effect, and the aim is really only to use it to manipulate a defense, moving players around to create the big passing plays that really blow a team apart.
Later in the game we see a good example of the hard play-action fake at work. The linebackers all bite up on the run fake, leaving Jones to run a simple crossing route behind them in the space they vacated. This kind of route is a typical man-coverage beater, but even had the Eagles been playing some form of zone there is very little chance they would have been able to defend it because of the movement from the linebackers. Eagles corner Byron Maxwell actually covered it pretty well, but it was still an easy first-down conversion for the Falcons.
The bottom line with all of this is that Jones will win the matchup against any one defensive back most of the time. Maxwell is not a bad player by any stretch, but he just couldn’t deal with Jones off the line for most of this game, struggling to live with his release, and then failing to match his breaks later in the route. Jones has the kind of quickness to win immediately off the line and the speed to blow straight past defenders once he’s moving. The ability he has to come out of breaks and stop from full speed is incredible for a guy his size.
The key difference between Jones’ potential production and that of any receiver in Cleveland isn’t just his freakish athletic ability though, it is the difference in quarterback play they will be on the receiving end of. Shanahan’s offense crafted a lot of easy chances down the field for Bryan Hoyer last season, but he wasn’t able to hit them often enough. Matt Ryan didn’t have his best game against Philadelphia, but still showed that he can make up for some of those misses and complement what Jones can do even when the coverage plays it well.
In one of the rare occasions that Maxwell did well off the line against Jones, he was beaten for a touchdown anyway, this time because of the ball placement from Ryan. Maxwell got a solid jam on Jones, and squeezed him toward the sideline with excellent position for most of the play. Ryan still liked what he saw with single coverage and trusted Jones to keep fighting and to eventually win the battle down the sideline, so he gave it a shot. He was right, and Jones did eventually get the better of the battle, but it was the ball placement that made this play, with Ryan dropping the ball over Maxwell and almost right on the pylon at the front of the end zone.
Anything other than a perfect pass and this play goes down as a rare win for Maxwell on the night, but because we’re now looking at a quarterback with this kind of ability, Jones was given the chance to make the big play that other receeivers wouldn’t have had.
The Atlanta Falcons upgraded in a big way on both sides of the ball this offseason by their coaching hires, with new faces bringing in schemes that are proven success stories in today’s NFL. Shanahan’s offensive system is not just proven to work across multiple teams, but it is set up to send the numbers of its best receiver into the stratosphere. Jones was already putting up big numbers in any system he has played in before, but in this one has the potential to re-write records. Don’t be surprised if he jumps ahead of Odell Beckham Jr. to earn the top-ranked receiver spot in our ratings at some point this season.