2012 Key Player: Julio Jones
When looking over the final numbers that Julio Jones posted in 2011: 54 catches, 959 yards, 17.8 avg, and 8 touchdowns, you would think he was one of the most feared wideouts in the league. Then considering that he missed what combined to be 3.75 games (about 15 quarters), then his production becomes even more astounding. His projected 1253 yards over 16 games would have had him finished 10th in the league in yards not far behind Roddy White (1296 yards), and his 10 touchdowns would have ranked 6th, exceeding that of White and players like Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Vincent Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Greg Jennings. But as usual, when one examines only the raw numbers it can paint an inaccurate picture. A deeper look at Jones performance in 2011, particularly when you look at each game paints a slightly different picture.
Not to slight Jones and his excellent rookie season, but there were trademark signs of the inconsistency that is common among first-year wideouts that is not easily seen if you just look at the overall numbers. Two prime examples of this was his Week 3 performance against the Bucs and his Week 13 performance against the Panthers. In both games, his final box score numbers looked great with 6 catches for 115 yards against Tampa Bay and 3 catches for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns against Carolina. But in both games, Jones was extremely quiet for the first three quarters of the game.
Against Tampa Bay, he was targeted a grand total of 2 times in the first three quarters, catching the ball once for an 18-yard gain. With the Falcons down 16-3 going into the fourth quarter, Jones was able to turn things on, catching all 5 of his targets for 97 yards including a 49-yard bomb that set up a scoring play to Tony Gonzalez which cut the Bucs lead to 6 points with 10 minutes to go on the game.
Against the Panthers, through the first three quarters Jones had been targeted a total of 6 times, catching the ball only once for 12 yards. That also included 2 dropped passes. Then in the fourth quarter, he caught a pair of touchdowns on his only two targets for a total of 92 yards.
These two games are perfect illustrations of the highs and lows that Julio Jones experienced in 2011. With the highs you get that game-changing big play ability that this offense was sorely lacking in previous seasons. But with the lows, you get next to nothing where he is virtually a non-existent factor in the offense.
Another often overlooked thing was Jones number of drops. While most observers criticized Roddy’s league-leading 15 drops, forgotten is that Jones had 9 of his own. Once you factor in targets (91 for Jones, and 175 for White according to Pro Football Focus.com), you realize that Jones dropped a slightly higher percentage of passes than White did: 9.8% for Jones vs. 8.6% for White.
The key for the Falcons in 2012 is to find ways to minimize those lows while also being able to maintain or maximize the highs. That will be potentially the biggest priority that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will need to accomplish this year. And if the Falcons can get him to a point where opposing defensive coordinators have to fear him the most, then that opens up opportunities for their other weapons.
We saw a bit of that with Tony Gonzalez’s uptick in big plays, having 8 receptions of 20 or more yards in 2011, after a total of 9 combined in 2009 and 2010. One could certainly argue that Jones presence on the outside allowed Gonzalez to have more one-on-one opportunities inside which he exploited. But what is interesting about that is that 5 of Gonzalez’s 8 20+ yard plays came in the first half of the season at a point before when Jones was playing his best football. Gonzalez was arguably the team’s most valuable player in the first half of the season, while Jones big play ability allowed him to shine in the second half. Koetter will need to strike a balance between the two, and find ways to create more opportunities where both Jones and Gonzalez will be playing at a very high level.
It’s going to be tough considering the Falcons still have the old reliable options elsewhere in Gonzalez along with Roddy White and Michael Turner. What once was the “Big Three” can now be considered the “Big Four” with Jones’ continued emergence. At the end of the day there is only one football to go around, and someone is going to have to suffer for it. For most of 2011 that player was Jones. But that should no longer be the case, because it’s clear that Jones is by far the most dynamic player on both the Falcons offense and team overall.
It would be downright inexcusable if the player among the “Big Four” that winds up being left in the cold more often than not in 2012 is Jones. He is by far the most likely of the group to give opposing defensive coordinators the biggest problems trying to scheme against him. One way that could be accomplished is if the Falcons take advantage of Jones’ versatility a bit more than they did last year. Jones has great potential to be a force in the slot because his size and speed makes him a near impossible matchup for most nickel corners. We saw flashes of that last year, on a very limited basis when working inside.
The problem that arises is that utilizing Jones too much in the slot somewhat negates Harry Douglas to a significant degree. Douglas is far less effective when he lines up on the outside. Here are some numbers based off Pro Football Focus:
Douglas/Jones Slot Performance
Pay closest attention to the catch rate and target percentage stats and the difference between when both players worked in the slot. The fact that Falcons QBs are completing under 50% of their passes when targeting Douglas when he’s on the outside is not a good thing. That number should be approaching 60% at the least. And the target percentage is interesting because it’s the number of times they are targeted per snap. And for Douglas the fact that his number drops more than 50% as opposed to when he’s in the slot means that he’s essentially more than 50% less effective.
That’s why it could be important for a player like Kerry Meier to take a big step forward this year and be capable of being an option on the outside if/when the Falcons move Jones inside. Meier was predominantly a slot receiver in Kansas’s spread attack during his college days. But with his size and hands, he should be better able to handle the more physical play necessary to beat man coverage on the outside unlike a Douglas who has difficulty beating press. A player like Kevin Cone might be an even better fit given that was primarily his role at Georgia Tech: line up outside and go downfield. But given his rawness, that might be too tall an order to expect of him. Meier, who is now entering his third summer with the team doesn’t have an excuse any longer, and any strides he makes in 2012 could be critical to the team’s plans to maximize Jones’ production.
But regardless the Falcons need to find ways of getting more out of Jones. Playing him in the slot could help, but it’s just one of several solutions that Koetter will be tasked to find. If he is successful in finding those answers, then Jones could be a huge key to what could be one of the league’s most explosive offenses in 2012.