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How Julio Jones makes a difference in the red zone even when he doesn’t touch the ball

There has been plenty of discussion about Julio Jones’ peculiar numbers in the red zone. Let’s take a closer look.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When you are considered to be one of the most terrifying players in the league, coaches will lose sleep in attempting to figure out ways to prevent you from dominating games. It may consist of using constant double teams against a disruptive interior tackle or chips from the outside to stop an explosive edge rusher. There are certain positions that command extra attention, and wide receiver is one of the top positions on the list of concerns for coordinators. Julio Jones can attest to that.

Jones is the epitome of a game-changer. There isn’t a route he can’t run with his blazing speed and terrific footwork. There isn’t a cornerback capable of locking him up for an entire game. The list is endless when reviewing his credentials. Jones has been playing at an elite level since 2012. Other than fracturing his foot in 2013, there haven’t been any other setbacks during his remarkable career. One may possibly be creeping up after an odd 2017 season.

Red zone problems

The superstar wide receiver didn’t show any signs of declining last season. As a matter of fact, his reception and yardage total actually increased. For all the justifiable criticism directed towards Steve Sarkisian, Jones caught five more passes and gained 35 more yards in his offense compared to Kyle Shanahan’s legendary 2016 offense (playing one extra full game helps). That said, judging his performance strictly off statistics would be foolish. It’s evident that Jones didn’t produce as many big plays as everyone normally expects. Look no further than what transpired in the red zone during the entire season.

Nobody should be surprised that Jones ranked in the top fifteen for most red zone targets. Why wouldn’t a quarterback look for their number one receiver during every scoring opportunity? Jones ended up being targeted 19 times, which is the same amount as DeAndre Hopkins. The human highlight-reel from Houston managed to turn 19 targets into seven touchdowns. This is an impressive conversion rate, especially when considering Hopkins played the majority of the season with an array of backup quarterbacks.

As for Jones, he scored one measly garbage-time touchdown from 19 targets. Jones had to essentially toss Malcolm Butler aside like a ragdoll when catching Matt Ryan’s underthrown fade. Besides saving the Falcons from being shut out in the Super Bowl rematch, Jones failed to score another red zone touchdown in the regular season. Catching only five passes in total raised major questions across the league. Did Jones suffer from playing in an offense with an overwhelmed offensive coordinator or is he simply ineffective in narrow areas? While Jones can struggle making contested catches, it would be preposterous to put the low touchdown total predominantly on him.

Excluding his injury-shortened 2013 season, Jones scored six or more touchdowns in every season prior to 2017. That includes scoring eight touchdowns in his rookie year, which is even more impressive considering Mike Mularkey was the offensive coordinator. Receiving double teams and tight press coverage isn’t anything new to the five-time Pro Bowler. It’s part of the game for top-tier wide receivers to handle. Defensive coordinators will do everything possible to make other skill position players beat them rather than risk getting torched by the primary threat.

It puts Jones in a difficult position, where he is essentially forced into creating openings for his teammates. That also requires the help of his offensive coordinator. Despite Sarkisian’s struggles, there were moments of brilliance showcasing what Jones can do without the ball in the red zone to help the Falcons prevail in some massive games.

Red zone satisfaction

The Falcons’ red zone issues started long before Sarkisian arrived. In Shanahan’s first season, they finished 18th in red zone conversion rate. A combination of Roddy White’s rapid decline, Leonard Hankerson failing to develop, and Jacob Tamme struggling to win in traffic made passing in the red zone extremely difficult. That is why the front office made it a priority to sign a true complement to Jones. A big, physical wide receiver like Mohamed Sanu was exactly what they needed.

Adding Sanu to the offense took some pressure off Jones. His presence gives Ryan a genuine outlet in all of areas of the field, but particularly in the red zone. Sanu knows how to use his body against cornerbacks to go along with his excellent hands. On third down, Sarkisian decides to use Jones and Sanu together with the dual threat lined up in the slot. That is where Sanu does his finest work. With Jones expecting to be covered by multiple defenders, what better way to throw off Seattle’s defense than by using a rub route concept?

Jones uses his body effectively to force Jeremy Lane into taking a more difficult angle. With Earl Thomas fully expecting Jones to get the ball, he accelerates to where Jones is intending to go. That leaves Sanu with space to do what he does best. Attack the ball and come down with an impressive catch. Ryan throws a beauty up there for him to come down with a stunning one-handed snag. Using your best receiver to create enough space for your second best (and most physical) receiver to score in the red zone is how successful offenses operate. This moment proved crucial in the Falcons’ close win over Seattle, as they were officially on course in their pursuit to get back into the playoffs.

Opposing defenses will improvise different strategies when trying to stop Jones. If that means dropping eight into coverage and using their best pass rusher to affect Jones, then they will go to that extent. New Orleans went to great lengths in making sure Jones didn’t get the ball on third down. Cameron Jordan is the Saints’ most athletic defensive lineman by a great distance. Lining him up on the outside shows their intentions in doing everything possible to make Ryan throws elsewhere. Jones ends up being targeted, but it’s clear New Orleans got what they wanted from Ryan’s desperate heave.

What makes this play noteworthy was how Jones was defended. It shows how much respect he commands. With a better supporting cast and play design, the Falcons should be able to capitalize when defenses try to stop Jones in a similar manner. Giving a quarterback of Ryan’s caliber ample time in the pocket will usually result in a big play. Adding Calvin Ridley should give him another reliable weapon, along with Austin Hooper potentially taking a major step in his development. Both players would be expected to make defenses pay for not only situating themselves to stop Jones at all costs, but for only rushing three against the 2016 NFL MVP.

The Falcons eventually found the breakthrough in the red zone against New Orleans. Sarkisian was having great success in utilizing bunch formations to create openings for the receivers. After committing three turnovers on the previous four drives, the offense was under serious pressure to produce on third down. They needed to score in the fourth quarter of a vital divisional battle. Putting Jones and Sanu on the same side with Justin Hardy was designed to give Ryan, who was clearly rattled, a high-percentage look. As Jones bursts across the field, Marcus Williams immediately looks to close him down. That is when everything comes together.

Jones’ sheer presence makes the difference again. Along with using trips to the left, it creates the necessary space for Sanu to roam free into the end zone. The formation alignment confuses Sterling Moore long enough to get him out of position. With Williams vacating his area to make sure Jones doesn’t get the ball, Sanu finds himself open on the backside. This is a prime example of how Jones can change games in the red zone without being targeted. Similar to their win against Seattle, the Falcons beat New Orleans by a field goal showing how crucial Jones was on a scoring play in the red zone.

Red zone glory

As much as Jones can make a difference without catching the ball, it remains a huge priority to get him into clear scoring opportunities. If Houston can devise plays for Hopkins to score, there is no reason why Atlanta can’t do the same with a better quarterback and supporting cast. They need to find ways to create space against opposing defenses that are looking to jam Jones on every snap in the red zone. After failing to do so for the majority of the regular season, things eventually clicked at an opportune time.

The Falcons were clinging to a six-point lead against the Rams during the fourth quarter of wildcard weekend. Similar to most games, they were struggling to score in the red zone. Converting only one of three opportunities was the main reason why it still remained a one-possession game. After catching Wade Phillips’ defense off guard with a well-timed screen to Sanu that produced a 52-yard gain, Sarkisian had another trick up his sleeve. It consisted of a play fake to Devonta Freeman with Jones motioning from the left. The Rams were clearly fatigued and started looking discombobulated. Using some kind of misdirection with their best player as the primary target sounded like the perfect recipe for the Falcons to secure their first road playoff win since 2002.

Everything about this play is magical. It’s evident that Los Angeles is struggling to get organized, as Alec Ogletree is shouting instructions. Combining the play fake to Freeman with Gabriel crossing the field garners most of the defenders’ attention. John Johnson III was the first player to recognize Jones looping towards the pylon. His reaction is too late, as Ryan throws a rainbow shot leading Jones into the end zone. The best quarterbacks know how to throw their wide receivers open. With his back foot sliding on Los Angeles’ wretched field and Connor Barwin ready to pounce, Ryan throws a perfect ball into the waiting hands of Jones. This is a fantastic moment for one of the NFL’s best quarterback-wide receiver pairings following months of frustration in the red zone.

It will be fascinating to see how much Jones’ numbers improve in the red zone. He is fully aware of how his production will still be largely dictated by how defenses set up their coverage. From using a two-man alignment to having the free safety move instantly towards his direction, defensive coordinators will structure their red zone defense to stop him. The pressure falls on Sarkisian to decipher schemes and figure out ways to create space for Jones in tight areas. It will also be on Ryan and the supporting cast to deliver when multiple defenders are swarming Jones. The phenomenal wide receiver will do his part in drawing attention to create openings for his teammates. It’s on the rest to to not only help him receive chances to shine, but to ultimately boost Atlanta’s subpar red zone conversion rate from last season.