The Falcons are in a dire predicament in light of the news that Julio Jones is likely out for the season. Their offense is now without a No. 1 receiver, at least until Roddy White and his ankle and hamstring are fully healed. In the meantime the Falcons will have to be reliant on Tony Gonzalez to carry the offense from the tight end position. Not too dissimilar from the days under Michael Vick when Alge Crumpler was the de facto top option in the Falcons passing offense.
Can the team win that way? Perhaps, but it will be extremely difficult. In those days, the Falcons were able to get away with that style of play because it was buoyed by having one of the league’s premier rushing attack. Currently, the Falcons rank 25th in rushing yards per game and 17th in yards per carry. Much closer to average than back in 2004-06 where they led the league in both categories in each of those seasons.
Crumpler was also a much more effective vertical threat than Gonzalez currently is. In 69 games played with the Falcons thus far, Gonzalez has 23 receptions of 20 or more yards. In his final 62 games in a Falcon uniform, Crumpler had 50. That ability to provide big plays makes a dramatic difference in whether or not a receiver can carry an offense.
Even with the healthy returns of Roddy White and Steven Jackson, the best-case scenario for the Falcons offense over the remainder of the 2013 season will be reminiscent of the 2010 Falcons offense. It’s certainly possible, but given the state of the Falcons offensive line, that is more wishful thinking than anything. That 2010 rushing attack was dominant against some opposing fronts (4 games of 150+ rushing yards that season), but effective against most (12 games of 85+ yards). The Falcons have eclipsed 85 yards only twice this year: in the season opener against the New Orleans Saints, thanks largely to a 50-yard run by ackson, and against the Miami Dolphins. A healthier Jackson isn’t going to suddenly morph Garrett Reynolds and Jeremy Trueblood into Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo in their primes.
If the Falcons have any chance of turning their season around and making a late push towards a wild card slot, they need to rely on the arm of Matt Ryan. But that arm will be limited if the Falcons do not have a vertical threat in the offense that can affect how opponents play the Falcons. Julio Jones’ mere presence of the field makes defenses play the Falcons differently. They have to respect the deep ball on all plays because of Jones. Jones forced defenses to bracket him with safety help over the top, because he is capable of running past every corner in the NFL.
In recent weeks, NFL teams have devised a new way of playing the Falcons which is by doubling Gonzalez as well. Coupled with the bracketing of Jones, defenses are forcing a beat up White, Harry Douglas, and the rest of the Falcons unproven receivers to beat them. And it clearly has worked against the Falcons. Without Jones to help keep defenses honest, it will only get worse.