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A Closer Look: Julio Jones is healthy

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After suffering a toe injury against Kansas City, Julio Jones was limited in December. He looked back to his old self against New Orleans.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When looking back at my recent breakdown pieces, the defense has been featured over the past month. The defensive rookies, pass rush, and Jalen Collins were recently evaluated. How can we forget about this historic offense? They’ve received plenty of media attention this season. Based on averaging nearly 34 points a game, Kyle Shanahan’s offense deserves every ounce of it. Matt Ryan has so many versatile playmakers at his disposal. It starts with their superstar wide receiver.

When a player is diagnosed with turf toe, there is concern about their future availability. Julio Jones only missed two games and made his return at an opportune time. The coaching staff did an excellent job managing his reps against Carolina, and his contributions played a notable role in their division clinching victory.

Many expected him to play 35-40 snaps against New Orleans. Jones surpassed those expectations in a stunning manner. He looked like his explosive self, along with taking some big hits in traffic.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are Jones’ seven catches and a bonus clip, which includes multiple angles on nearly every play.

1st quarter: 1st and goal at NO 7

Using your best player on a rub route to spring another receiving option free is rare. It shows how Shanahan is constantly making defenses guess on a weekly basis. Tevin Coleman doesn’t need a pick to separate from middle linebacker Craig Robertson. With Jones running a shallow cross, it makes the play much easier by preventing Robertson from even attempting to handle his coverage responsibility. A big-bodied wide receiver can be useful on rub routes, if they move smoothly.

Mohamed Sanu is very effective on these plays. His patience and smoothness forces referees into accepting it as a clean route, when it’s evident that he is trying to open up space for another player. Look no further than Austin Hooper’s touchdown against Tampa Bay. Jones does well to free up Coleman for an easy touchdown. It’s not smooth, but he doesn’t use his shoulder or try to barge into Robertson. A simple rub route is only effective with proper discipline and technique. Jones shows it here.

1st quarter: 2nd and 10 at NO 24

New Orleans decides to blitz and play zone coverage. It allows Jones to find a quick opening on a drag route. With Jairus Byrd blitzing, nobody comes close to picking up Jones. Ryan instantly reads the blitz and makes sure Jones can do something after the catch. The Saints’ defense was getting destroyed on crossing patterns. They failed to address it and blitzed more often than usual. That left them hopeless against Atlanta’s high-octane offense.

2nd quarter: 1st and goal at NO 8

Not putting a defender directly on Jones in the red zone is bizarre. Allowing this much space to an elite wide receiver in a narrow area makes no sense. The Falcons gained an easy seven yards on first down. How can New Orleans expect Robertson to cover enough ground to break up this pass? This completion gives the Falcons three opportunities to score at the one-yard line. Ryan doesn’t hesitate to feed Jones, especially given his physical traits. He nearly muscled his away into the end zone.

2nd quarter: 2nd and goal at NO 1

Some fans have questioned Jones’ lack of usage in the red zone. They fail to recognize that most defenses double-team him near the goal line. Ironically, NFC South teams are the lone exception. Jones scored against Tampa Bay on a similar play. It was surprising to see Mike Smith leave rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III on an island with Jones. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen decided to put B.W. Webb on Jones without any safety help.

Ryan attacked the favorable matchup and perfectly placed the ball into Jones’ hands. Before the pass, this play is won at the line of scrimmage. Look at how Jones plants his right foot and fakes inside to get Webb out of position. The overmatched cornerback already finds himself trailing on a fade. Ryan leaves the pass high for Jones, where he can catch it. The superstar wide receiver shows excellent footwork to get both feet inbounds. It’s highly unlikely that an opposing defense will leave one cornerback on Jones near the goal line during the playoffs. He simply can’t be contained based on his explosiveness and catch radius.

2nd quarter: 2nd and 9 at ATL 25

Sterling Moore tries to jam at the line of scrimmage. He does a decent job, but Jones is too big and still gets off a nice release. This play is a prime example of a player returning to full strength. His explosiveness off the line of scrimmage and elevation to make the catch is impressive. Jones runs an inside route and takes a hit from Byrd. It appears that Sanu is Ryan’s first option. As Nate Stupar drops back into coverage, Ryan notices Dannell Ellerbe is completely out of position and makes a necessary adjustment. Jones leaps up to make a great catch.

3rd quarter: 2nd and 10 at ATL 1

This is essentially a broken play. Sanu is the first option again, but defensive tackle Tyeler Davison drops into coverage. Robertson closes down Sanu as well. Ryan doesn’t recognize Justin Hardy is open, due to Cameron Jordan beating Ryan Schraeder with a nasty swim move. Jones finds himself open without finishing his route. Ellerbe’s lack of awareness benefits him. Ryan sees Jones downfield and avoids taking a safety. Sometimes, you are at the right place at the right time.

3rd quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 16

Ryan didn’t stop looking downfield against an undermanned Saints’ secondary. Jones runs a deep post, as New Orleans is playing zone coverage except for Webb. This is another play showcasing Jones’ agility. The toe injury isn’t derailing his ability to jolt downfield and make cuts. Byrd is slightly out of position, which allows Jones to make a clean grab without any defender trying to break up the pass. Moore lands a decent hit, but Jones wasn’t going to be rattled. Lining up Jones and Sanu together could cause matchup problems for opposing defenses, if they decide to play more man coverage.

3rd quarter: 3rd and 2 at NO 28

This is a simple, yet effective play call. It looks like an intended swing pass to Devonta Freeman. As Ellerbe closes in, the design was meant to take out the linebacker for Ryan to have a clear throwing lane. Jones runs a quick slant and picks up an easy first down. New Orleans rarely played man coverage against him. Given their cornerback situation and Carolina’s implosion in October, they wanted to make sure Jones didn’t bust out any big plays. That ended up being a small victory for an otherwise miserable day for the defense.