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A Closer Look: Missing Julio Jones

Why aren’t the Falcons targeting their superstar wide receiver more often?

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There are many questions about the Falcons’ lackluster offense. Nearly every player is either underachieving or being misused. Steve Sarkisian has received major criticism for his conservative, predictable play calling. While you can list numerous concerns about the overall team, Julio Jones’ production is among the biggest worries.

He has turned into a possession receiver under Sarkisian’s system. In four-and-half games, Jones’ longest catch went for 34 yards. A combination of Matt Ryan’s poor accuracy on deep balls and Sarkisian using him on shorter routes is neutralizing the transcendent superstar. How can someone so dominant and talented limited? Dan Quinn is still trying to figure it out.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are four missed plays, where Jones could have been targeted.

Third Quarter: 3rd and 13 at ATL 14

Miami drops nine players into coverage, yet somehow give Jones space on a dig route. This is a great opportunity for Ryan to find his best receiver to regain some momentum. By having more than enough time to throw, he should be able to survey the field and make the right decision. To not get the ball in this situation must be frustrating for Jones. There are clear limitations in the offense, which has restricted him to being used on more short and intermediate routes. A completion would have given Jones a rare catch over 15 yards. Since his solid performance against Green Bay, the stud wide receiver hasn’t caught a pass over 18 yards. That is a staggering statistic for one of the most terrifying players in the league.

Sarkisian’s offense deserves criticism, but it shouldn’t be blamed on this play. Ryan has been reduced to throwing more check downs in recent weeks. The return of Ryan Schraeder should have inspired more confidence, especially when the opposing defense is only rushing two linemen. According to The Ringer’s Robert Mays on The Ringer NFL Show, Ryan completed seven of eight passes on third down. Only four of those completions were third down conversions. Ryan’s pass to Austin Hooper is a prime example of the Falcons’ lackadaisical offense and how Jones isn’t getting enough targets.

Fourth quarter: 3rd and 24 at MIA 47

As everything began to unravel for the Falcons, Ryan started dealing with more pressure. Schraeder couldn’t handle Cameron Wake’s power off the edge. The ageless wonder forced Ryan into more rushed decisions and less targets for Jones. You can see Jones was open on a deep out. The offensive line crumbled at the worst time, which forces Ryan into another check down. Jake Matthews and Andy Levitre failed to properly handle a stunt, along with Schraeder being overwhelmed. That leaves pressure coming from both sides. It’s impossible for Ryan to look downfield and throw a dart to Jones.

What hurts even more is that they couldn’t get back in field goal range. There are several plays that can be evaluated in a three-point loss. With the offensive line continuing to play maddeningly inconsistent, they will look back on this as a game-altering play. Ryan and Jones have impeccable chemistry on these particular play designs. Ryan will release the ball, before Jones even finishes his route. The timing is usually perfect between both players. That didn’t work here, as the Falcons lose out on a chance to score three valuable points.

Fourth Quarter: 3rd and 16 at ATL 19

When the pressure starts intensifying, every quarterback must give their best wide receiver a chance to make a play on the ball. It’s hard to be critical of Ryan or Sarkisian in this dire situation. The offense is clearly all out of sorts. With a buzzing defensive line gaining more confidence, it’s almost impossible to find any semblance of a vertical attack. What Ryan could have possibly done involves getting rid of the ball faster. Jones is charging up the seam from the slot. It would have been a tight window for Ryan, but he is throwing to a wide receiver that can make any catch imaginable.

For Ryan to wait and throw up a prayer to Taylor Gabriel is about as low percentage as it gets. The offensive line’s ineffectiveness can’t be ignored. Wake beats Schraeder far too easily again. It forces Ryan to step up into an interior tackle and chuck an off-balanced pass. He can’t keep a steady base nor set his feet. Asking a quarterback to make a correct decision under pressure and throw an accurate 40-yard pass is a tall order. It’s more about providing more opportunities for Jones. Let him be great. Sarkisian’s willingness to use him in the slot is encouraging. It’s time to capitalize on it.

Fourth quarter: 2nd and 10 at ATL 40

Sarkisian’s usage of Gabriel is puzzling. Instead of using him on more vertical routes or creative designs, the embattled offensive coordinator is putting him in a position that requires catching passes in traffic. That is not an effective way to use the explosive playmaker. The Falcons have three wide receivers known for making tough catches. If Jones isn’t the main target, Justin Hardy or (when healthy) Mohamed Sanu are capable of being effective on these quick pass designs in the middle of the field. Miami does play this perfectly and nearly earns an interception for their efforts.

They are fortunate Jones wasn’t the primary option. Ryan doesn’t bother looking in his direction, as the focus is on picking up a few yards to put themselves in a more manageable third down situation. That appears to be a new philosophy under Sarkisian. Picking up quick yardage is being prioritized over dissecting ways to scheme players open and producing big plays. This is a frustrating change for an offense that torched countless defenses in a variety of ways last season. When Jones is in the slot, it usually leads to favorable matchups. Both Ryan and Sarkisian need to recognize that going forward.