There are too many lessons to take away from the latest loss to the Saints for one short article. There’s Sean Payton’s continued, frustrating dominance over the Falcons, which tells a lot about the quality of coaching and roster-building these two teams have managed over the past decade-plus. There’s Taysom Hill’s solid day against a Falcons defense that had been improving, an embarrassingly sluggish ground game, and the fact that we once again are going to need to put up with justifiably crowing Saints fans for a while.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I took away, however, was how critical Julio Jones is to this passing game. It’s not just that Julio is a standout receiver who makes everyone around him better, as has long been the case. It’s that without Julio, this passing game has been disconcertingly bad. That falls on Matt Ryan, it falls on the offensive line, it falls on other receivers for not getting open, and it falls above all on Dirk Koetter for not working around it, but it’s gone from being a mostly-untrue meme to a legitimate problem.
The Koetter-coached passing attack in 2013 infamously survived the loss of both Julio Jones and Roddy White, as Matt Ryan somehow kept that part of an otherwise lousy team afloat with Harry Douglas and an aging Tony Gonzalez as his top two targets. Since then, Julio’s absences have generally been endured just fine by the Falcons, with Ryan putting up 350 yards and 4 touchdowns against Washington in 2018, plus a combined 500-plus yards and 5 touchdowns with no interceptions against the Rams and 49ers in 2016. With a quality play caller, compelling secondary options and Ryan near the height of his powers, the loss of Julio was unfortunate but hardly a game-breaker.
Under Koetter the second time around, that’s no longer true. In five combined games dating back to 2019 that Julio has either missed or played far less than his full complement of snaps in, Ryan and the passing game have gone for a combined 1,256 yards (251 yards through the air per game) with 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. In his other 20 games in that span, Ryan has averaged close to 280 yards per game with 30 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. That’s not Ryan and this passing game operating at peak capacity, but it is very clearly not as bad as things get when #11 isn’t available.
The implications of that are hardly pleasant, given that Julio is getting older and may not be available to be elite Julio 75% of the offensive snaps for 16 games going forward. The truth is that Koetter has never been particularly good or imaginative when it comes to scheming his receivers open, and Julio helps out a great deal with that by more or less commanding the attention of multiple defenders on every route he runs. Without Julio in the game, Koetter doesn’t scheme players open well, those players don’t necessarily get open on their own, and it comes down to whether Ryan can find a look he likes before defenders are on him. Against the Saints, in particular, he either lingered too long in the pocket or simply had no open man to throw to all day long, a problem that noticeably got worse as soon as Julio was out.
We will likely not have to deal with Dirk Koetter, Falcons offensive coordinator any longer after the 2020 season draws to a close, which is a comfort. The next regime is still going to be tasked with maximizing the personnel on hand on offense, and they’ll have to figure out how to craft a quality passing attack even if Julio can’t help carry it. The fact that it doesn’t seem like that’ll be an overly tough lift with Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Hayden Hurst and others is a lot pretty damning for Koetter.