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Falcons feature separation specialists at wide receiver

An in-depth look at how Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu get so open

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the most underrated responsibility for a wide receiver is to create separation from his defender before the ball ever even touches his hands. Of course, nothing is more important than catching the ball as a WR, but those who can’t get away from the defender seldom get that opportunity.

The NFL features some of the most athletic, quick, and technically sound people in the world playing defensive back, and their main objective is to keep the opposing team’s WR from catching the ball. If you can’t separate from these athletes, then you’re not long for the league.

The Atlanta Falcons feature arguably the best wide receiver trio in the NFL — Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu. Between the three of them, they combined for 243 receptions, 3,336 receiving yards, and 22 touchdowns last season.

One of the main reasons why this trio is so prolific is because they know how to get open. Through a combination of crisp route running, quickness, and fluent footwork, all three of Atlanta’s primary WRs can be considered separation specialists in one form or another, and the statistics back that claim up.

Let’s take a look at all three individually, and dive into what makes each one so proficient in getting open, from a technical point of view.

Julio Jones

Julio Jones is the best wide receiver in the game, and that doesn’t just happen by accident. He’s elite in every sense of the word, and excels at almost everything a WR is asked to do. One of the things he’s best at is making himself open and available for his QB:

2,100 of Jones’ league-leading 3,121 receiving yards over the past two seasons has come with a step or more of separation from the closest defender. When you take into consideration how many double teams Jones has been faced within that time frame, that number feels ridiculous.

Julio is arguably the best route runner in the NFL. Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota’s All-Pro cornerback, ranked Jones as his toughest wide receiver to guard and cited the Alabama product’s superior ability to run every single route in the tree as the primary reason for that difficulty: “You have receivers that have some routes, he (Julio) don’t have some routes. He can run every route in the tree.”

Let’s take a look at some of those routes:

Julio Jones has a lot of attributes that make him unguardable in one on one situations — the 6’3 height combined with 4.3 speed is one thing, but what seals a defender’s fate is Julio’s ability to cut on a dime while carrying that much height and weight and going that fast.

Smaller receivers who make it to the league are often proficient in making quick cuts, but it’s completely unnatural for someone who’s Julio’s size (6’3, 220 pounds) to be able to stop and change direction so quick.

If you don’t bracket cover him, and leave a poor CB on an island alone with him, then Jones will either run past him with that aforementioned 4.3 speed, or he’ll use the threat of a vertical route to keep the CB honest before cutting on that deep out to get wide open. That’s what makes the “Julio deep out” so lethal.

That’s also exactly what happened to Ronald Darby on this play in Week 1. Darby has no choice but to turn his hips and run stride for stride with Julio, who explodes off the line of scrimmage on what looks at first to be a “go” route. If Darby doesn’t commit, then Jones will burn him deep. With the defender having gone all-in on stopping the vertical route, however, Julio makes an insane cut and takes a hard left turn to lose him on the deep out. Child’s play.

This is another route where Jones showcases his unnatural ability to change direction. He completely baffles poor Ryan Smith, whose legs give out on him as he tries to counter Jones’ cut to keep up.

The safety, who’s providing over the top help, isn’t even in the same vicinity as Jones, and doesn’t look at all like he was ever expecting Smith to get beaten so badly on an outside route.

Here we see one a picturesque stop & go from that same Week 1 Eagles game from last season. To make this route look so fluid, and to sell it so well, is the product of years of experience and many repetitions on the practice field honing technique.

Jalen Mills is beaten here the second he steps up and bites on the fake. With his momentum carrying him forward, he has no chance of recovering in time to catch Jones, who at this point is using his incredible speed and acceleration to blow by him. By the time Mills re-starts his acceleration back toward the deep part of the field Julio is already a number of steps ahead of him.

Even though the refs unjustly called this an incomplete pass, this is one route I can watch on a loop over and over again.

Another completely lethal aspect of Jones’ game, that makes him a nightmare to defend, is the fact that you’ll never see him run a perfunctory route — he won’t just go through the motions out there.

There’s nobody in the league who’s better at “selling” a route better than Julio, and that’s what makes him the best route runner in the game (and if not the best then certainly top three).

Here we see him sell a corner route perfectly, changing Isaiah Johnson’s direction by just a step and making it impossible for the defeated safety to recover in time.

We see Julio’s commitment to sell a different route than the one actually run in every single tweet gif within this article. At some point it’s just not even fair to the defenders tasked with guarding him.

Calvin Ridley

I actually wrote an article talking about how impressive Ridley was from a separation standpoint, at the start of the offseason. Ridley created the most separation among all WRs in the NFL last year:

While Ridley did get some help in the form of the added attention Julio Jones received on the opposite side of him, number 18 still did his part in achieving this impressive feat.

Ridley was the most polished WR to come out of the 2018 NFL Draft, and he really had no business falling to Atlanta at 26. Ridley’s route running was one of his best attributes coming into the league, and it was on display throughout his rookie season.

To be able to completely embarrass a professional CB, who was formerly a first round pick himself no less, in just your fourth career NFL game is special.

On this play, the Bengals matched fellow Alabama alum Dre Kirkpatrick up against Ridley with no safety help, and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian dialed up a “stick n nod” play which eviscerated the Cincinnati defense.

Ridley sold the stick play perfectly, and used his incredible acceleration and fluid hip movement to immediately cut up field and put Kirkpatrick in a blender after the cornerback bit hard on the fake. Just like with Julio’s stop & go route that we looked at, Kirkpatrick was beaten the moment he stepped up to defend the short route.

Maybe my favorite part about that route is Ridley’s head movement — he sells the short route in every facet, including with his eyes. I’m not in the least bit surprised that Kirkpatrick fell for it so badly.

I would normally hypothesize that Julio Jones’ tutelage helped Ridley with selling his routes, but as we saw from his days at Alabama, Ridley was already an expert at this. As evidenced by the next route we’ll look at, this one from his days donning a Crimson Tide jersey:

The sluggo route — this time with Ridley coming in before viciously cutting upfield — is worked in the same mold as that stick n nod against the Bengals.

Ridley completely sells the inside route, this time aided by a perfect pump fake from QB Jalen Hurts, before using his fluid hip movement and wicked acceleration to cut upfield and leave the poor CB on all fours at the 45-yard-line. Once again, watch Ridley’s eyes — they’re completely focused on Hurts right before he makes the cut, completely selling the short route.

Ridley’s hip movement is really second to none; and we’ll see it on display on the final route we’ll look at, from Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints:

Ridley has all the route running technique you could want in WR, and maybe the best part about his game is the no-nonsense approach he takes when running those routes — the cut is always prolific, the speed at which he makes his movements is always in full gear, there’s nothing lazy about his progression.

On this route, Ridley makes P.J. Williams nearly freeze in his tracks with the double-move, leaving him at the type of crossroads which Robert Frost would be proud of. Williams has no idea whether Ridley will stop on the intermediate route or keep going toward the end zone. All it took was a split second of indecisiveness to seal his fate.

It wasn’t just his proficiency as a home run threat with Alabama which made Atlanta infatuated with Ridley, he was also an absolute technician on short and intermediate routes as well:

Ridley’s polish and technique gave him a very high floor as a prospect, and those same attributes should lead to a very long NFL career. Speed and athleticism are the first things to leave an athlete when he gets older, but route running and technique are worked on traits that won’t ever really go away.

Even though Ridley came into the league as an older player (he’ll be 25 in December while fellow 2018 draft class WR D.J. Moore, for example, just turned 22), his best attributes will let him play the position well into his 30s.

Mohamed Sanu

Now often the overlooked man within Atlanta’s prolific trio, Mohamed Sanu still has a say as one of the league’s more impressive route runners:

Even though his route running skills aren’t at the level of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, Sanu keeps some very good company on this list, indicating that it’s a mistake to dial up press coverage against him.

Sanu’s best attribute is easily his elite footwork. Let’s take a look at the clinic Sanu put on with his footwork against B.W. Webb, in a video which ended up going viral:

Webb is perplexed throughout the process of Sanu’s movements, and with good reason. Sanu worked through this play with the grace of a ballerina, and gave no indication as to whether he was going right or left until his final cut. Webb was caught leaning to the right, no doubt mesmerized, and that’s all it took to finish him off.

Working within the slot has opened up a world of new opportunities for Sanu, as he’s now given more space to work with on both sides of the field than he had when playing on the outside.

While Sanu isn’t as agile and fast as the traditional slot WR, he makes up for it with his footwork, physicality, and size. Slot corners are posed with different problems when facing Sanu, who’s much bigger and more physical than your average slot WR. That footwork is also second to none.

Sanu makes a clutch 4th down reception against the Arizona Cardinals, in Week 12 of the 2016 season (clutch receptions have become part of his DNA as an Atlanta Falcon at this point).

It happens in an instant, but pay attention to the footwork on this play. Looking like his route is designed to take him deep, Sanu instead gives a little skip step to propel himself outside and beat fellow Rutgers alum Marcus Cooper in coverage. It’s so subtle, yet so effective.

Here’s an example of Sanu using the threat of the whole field, from the slot, to his advantage. Sanu freezes Daryl Worley for just an instant with his first step, which he takes to the inside of the field. Once again, he uses his quick feet to shift outside and leave Worley just a step behind. It’s once again subtle excellence at its finest.

Of course the catch and run by a wide receiver is what makes the highlight videos, and for good reason. Those plays are exciting — they move the chains, they put points on the board, they result in fantasy football points scored.

What happens before the catch is ever made, before the QB ever even throws the ball, is what often goes overlooked, however. If a wide receiver doesn’t run his route well, if he can’t get separation from his defender, then that catch and run will likely never happen.

The Atlanta Falcons have three WRs who excel at creating that separation. With the new-look offensive line expected to give Matt Ryan more time in the pocket this season, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu should be able to give defenders even more nightmares, moving forward.