The Falcons have revitalized their season by winning four of their last five games. During this positive stretch, Matt Ryan has played at an extremely high level. His early season struggles marred by overthrows and wasted opportunities is long behind him. When Ryan starts finding a rhythm, one outcome is bound to transpire. Julio Jones will be involved. That usually translates into some monster performances. Based on Jones’ past success against Tampa Bay, it seemed fitting that he would finally be “unleashed” in Steve Sarkisian’s offense.
Jones was dominant against the Buccaneers’ overmatched secondary, as he caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. His memorable performance added to a collection of big games against the divisional foe. In eleven games, Jones has 80 receptions for 1359 yards and ten touchdowns. Former Falcons’ offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter admitted to not having answers for him. That isn’t all that surprising, considering Jones said they didn’t make any adjustments after Sunday’s game. Not an encouraging sign for Mike Smith, who coached him for four seasons.
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. Jones was the easy choice this week. Here are four of his twelve catches to help the Falcons win their first divisional game of the season.
Second Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 28
Not many wide receivers have the athleticism and body control to run the pinch route successfully. It takes incredible detail and sharp footwork to beat defenders with this move. Jones has perfected it over the years. Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson felt his wrath last season. His ability to sell the post and break to the outside is exceptional. It leaves cornerbacks searching for answers, as they trail behind him. If Ryan receives sufficient protection, this is an automatic big play.
Unlike his receptions against Kansas City, he didn’t have to beat the opposing cornerback on this play. Brent Grimes is reading the quarterback instead of being fully responsible for the wide receiver. Tampa Bay lines up in a Cover 3 Buzz look with one of their linebackers covering the left flat. Kwon Alexander comes racing in to prevent Jones from making the catch. The speedy linebacker covers a ton of ground to put himself in a decent position. A tremendous throw from Matt Ryan allows Jones to catch the ball on the opposite shoulder. It’s more of a well-designed play and throw rather than individual effort on Jones’ part. This catch does set up the conclusion of a successful drive.
Second Quarter: 1st and 10 at TB 25
After starting the drive with a pinch route, Jones uses it to finish the drive in a devastating manner. He moves to the left side on this play. That puts Ryan Smith in a precarious position. The second-year player replaced Vernon Hargreaves, who suffered a hamstring injury. Tampa Bay decides to blitz again, as Mike Smith was being more aggressive than usual. It leaves both outside cornerbacks on an island. Asking a backup to man up against Jones is essentially looking for trouble. With a bottom-tier pass rush, they felt the need to blitz more. What a costly decision that proved to be for the Buccaneers.
Jones sells the post route brilliantly to set up his break to the outside. The head fake adds a nice touch, as Smith loses his balance. It’s a highlight reel jaw dropping route. For all his capabilities, Jones’ route running doesn’t receive enough appreciation. It’s something that he has worked relentlessly on during past off-seasons. To be the best in the business, you must hone your craft and evolve as a player. Jones is more than capable of accelerating past cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage. It’s what he does at the top of the route that makes him such a unique talent. This is a sensational touchdown, which ends with Jones going airborne. Recognizing where the pylon is and staying in-bounds from a difficult angle makes the touchdown even more special.
Fourth Quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 22
This is one of Sarkisian’s signature play calls. After seeing how much success Ryan had off play action last season, the coaching staff needed to continue emphasizing play action into their weekly game plan. Ryan is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at selling the fake. Look at Chris Conte bite on the fake and lose his positioning. It ruins Tampa Bay’s chances of trying to stop Jones at full speed. With Taylor Gabriel running a vertical route, the middle of the field is open for Jones to run free.
Whether it’s Mohamed Sanu or Jones, the Falcons create so many explosive plays off this concept. They used Sanu on a similar design against Seattle, which resulted in a 21-yard gain. Using Jones on a deep crossing route creates fear in the opposition. It leaves safeties discombobulated, as Conte can’t even attempt to disrupt Jones as the robber in Tampa Bay’s Cover 3 scheme, let alone stay in front of him. This is another big play for Jones that includes Ryan Smith losing his footing. Not many teams utilize play action better than the Falcons. It’s a staple to their success. To have a freakish talent like Jones turns high-percentage plays into huge gains.
Fourth Quarter: 3rd and 8 at ATL 36
With the Falcons clinging onto a seven-point lead, it was time for their superstar receiver to make one more play. Isolating Jones against Smith proved to be effective again. Ryan instantly knows where the favorable matchup is on third down. One of the most impressive things in Jones’ arsenal is how he stops at full speed on comeback and hitch routes. He will accelerate at full speed to make corners believe that he is running a straight go route. As they turn their back and prepare to run step for step downfield, Jones quickly stops, turns around, and leaves the defender out of sorts. Richard Sherman found himself on the receiving end of Jones’ brilliance in both games last season.
Tampa Bay found some success blitzing in the first half. As the game wore on, the Falcons made adjustments to counter their five and six-man rush designs. Leaving Tevin Coleman in the backfield to block and targeting Jones helped them make Mike Smith’s defense pay in critical situations. It was surprising to see a conservative head coach like Smith go with a kill or be killed approach. Most would expect him to use a safety to provide support. Ryan Smith had his struggles all game in man coverage against Jones. To think he can make a play in a make-or-break situation is absurd. That played a major role in Jones repeatedly killing the Buccaneers for his seventh 100-yard performance (along with his first 200-yard game) in 11 games against them.