The Falcons are lucky to have a bye week. After heartbreaking news that star wide receiver Julio Jones is out for the year with a foot injury, they’re going to need that valuable time to reconfigure their offense, which will certainly change without him.
So how exactly will it change?
The biggest change will be to how defenses defend them. Because Jones was such a dynamic player, he was able to lift the lid off of defenses vertically with great speed and route running. He averaged 14.1 yards per catch and had nine 20 or more yard catches through only five games, good for fourth in the NFL. To combat his vertical prowess, defenses rolled coverage to his side and frequently played with a two-deep shell.
Here’s a good example of how Jones was defended. It comes from Monday night’s Week 5 game against the New York Jets, and he’s lined up with a short split in the boundary, the short half of the field. Defensively, the Jets are showing one-deep safety standing in the middle of the field, but there’s more to it than that. To Jones’ side, there’s one cornerback pressing him at the line of scrimmage, while another is in off-coverage nearly 10 yards away. At the snap, the coverage changes.
The single-high safety in the middle rotates over to the field side (wide) of the field, giving extra help to the cornerback covering wide receiver Roddy White. Meanwhile, the off-coverage cornerback rotates toward the middle of the field and the press-corner covers with inside leverage. When Jones releases off the line of scrimmage, he takes an outside path before breaking it back inside at the 40-yard line, effectively running a post route. He doesn’t get open because the Jets have him bracketed (double coverage) underneath and over the top.
Despite the coverage from the Jets, this play still is a success for the Falcons because of Jones. The two-deep shell created additional room in the short to intermediate range for his teammates to work with. This was exacerbated when he ran a post route, taking away two defenders and leaving room for tight end Tony Gonzalez to run a sail route to the sideline for a 14-yard catch.
Here’s another example that shows the cause and effect of Jones’ presence. Early in the third quarter, he’s lined up as the isolated receiver on the left side of the field. It’s the short side once again and he’s going to be running a simple clear-out route down the sideline. This route is designed to do exactly what its name suggests — clear defenders out and create room in another area on the field. That area is the middle of the field.
The Jets are playing a two-deep shell, which means there isn’t a defender in between the hashes. Once Jones runs his route, this area expands because the safety to Jones’ side widens to help the cornerback while the other safety stands outside the hash. Gonzalez is able to take advantage of this when he comes across the field from the right side and runs a spot route just outside the left hash.
This is what Jones did for the offense: force two-deep shells, creating room for his fellow wide receivers and tight ends to catch passes and the running backs to run. Unfortunately the latter hasn’t had much success doing its job because of how much the offensive line has struggled, but the Falcons will have a chance to fix it with running back Steven Jackson and left tackle Sam Baker potentially coming back in Week 7.
Although Jackson has played only 45 snaps this year due to a hamstring injury he suffered in Week 2, he was the team’s most effective runner at 5.5 yards per carry. His teammates pale in comparison, with Jacquizz Rodgers averaging four yards and Jason Snelling 3.4.
Moreover, they’ll need to find out how to attack the new coverages that defenses will throw at them, which will likely consist of more one-deep shells. It simply doesn’t make sense for defenses to continue to play a two-deep shell because no one (including White) is a vertical threat like Jones was. As a consequence of the one-deep safety look, the Falcons will see an eighth defender in the box, making it even more difficult to run the ball than it has been. But it also means that they’ll have more one-on-one matchups on the outside, which wide receivers White and Harry Douglas will have to win on the outside.
For quarterback Matt Ryan, the job becomes much tougher. He’s going to have to beat defenses with stick throws and extended plays, which hasn’t always been his strength. His reliance on Gonzalez as a safety blanket will become more difficult as well because Gonzalez is going to continue to see coverage focus, with linebackers likely bracketing him inside and outside, or if he’s running down the seam, underneath and over the top. Defenses know how much Ryan loves to throw to Gonzalez, so they’ll be sure to know where the tight end is every snap.
It’s going to be a tough season for the Falcons’ offense moving forward, but it’s not over yet. Players and coaches will have to step up and redesign their offense to attack single-high safeties. If they’re able to do that, they’ll right the ship and get out of the 1-4 hole they’re currently in.