Midway through the second quarter on Friday night, Atlanta faced a mundane third-and-5 situation from its own 24-yard line. The Falcons lined up in a four-receiver set with quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) in shotgun formation.
Last season, this situation might have been a struggle. More than a few times, the Falcons lined up like this with three of the four receivers being Brian Finneran(notes) and tight ends Tony Gonzalez(notes) and Justin Peelle(notes). None of those three run faster than 4.6 in the 40. Even that estimate of their individual speed is generous.
This time, three of the four included Roddy White(notes), Harry Douglas(notes) (who looks completely healthy now that he's nearly two years removed from a knee injury) and first-round pick Julio Jones. Douglas turned a simple crossing route into a 76-yard touchdown. Along the way, Jones provided help with a block that made sure Douglas ran all the way untouched.
While Atlanta fans saw many wonderful things last season on the way to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC playoffs, they didn't see anything like that. Not even close. The ponderous Falcons were big-play deprived a season ago, finishing second-to-last in the league with only 32 pass plays of 20 yards or longer. Their longest pass play of the season was 46 yards.
If you understand that fact and how important big plays are in the modern NFL, it's a lot easier to understand why general manager Thomas Dimitroff paid a heavy price for Jones. He wasn't looking for just a guy who hustles down the field to block. Dimitroff was looking for a difference maker, someone capable of changing Xs and Os and opening lanes for everyone. Most important, the Falcons needed the kind of guy who wouldn't take long to develop, a serious, focused athlete.
"Our expectations with Julio are for him to be a legitimate contributor from Day 1 and he has done nothing to make us feel that's off base," said Dimitroff, who got Jones after moving up from No. 27 to No. 6 in the first-round draft board after giving up Atlanta's first-, second- and fourth-round picks this year and its first and fourth next year.
"He put a lot of eggs in one basket," another executive said.
Maybe, but the Falcons had to do something drastic, even if their record last season didn't indicate that. A conservative GM might have ridden last season's record for a year or two, making little tweaks here and there while hoping the team held steady. Instead, Dimitroff took the sobering punch of a 48-21 loss to Green Bay in the playoffs and took stock of where his team stood. The Falcons were good, not great. Disciplined, not explosive. With Ryan, White and a solid nucleus of others, the Falcons had a nice foundation for the house. Now it was time for a really cool family room.
Enter Jones, a player some of those same executives have described as a faster version of White. At 6-foot-3, Jones is also physical. His block on Douglas' play was an example of how he played in college.
"That's the guy we saw at the University of Alabama," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "I saw him on tape from a game last year where he controlled the block all the way through the play. He took the defender all the way out of bounds. I asked him what he was trying to do. He said, ‘I'm trying to get my job done.' To me, that shows you he's an all-around player and he understands not only catching the ball, but being able to block."
In the exhibition opener against Miami, Jones put his other skills on display. He caught passes for 21 and 22 yards and ran a reverse for 12, getting first downs on all three plays. In two games (and really just about one game worth of total action), he has been a factor in three plays of 20 yards or better.
That's critical for the Falcons, who were starved for big plays last season. Atlanta spent last season often just getting by in important games. The Falcons went 6-2 in games decided by six points or fewer, winning despite having one of the most plodding offenses in the NFL. The record in close games was filled with one odd occurrence after another. Against San Francisco, the Falcons won on a late drive after the 49ers fumbled away an interception they didn't need to return. In their first win over Tampa Bay, they had a goal-line stand at the end. In an overtime win against New Orleans, they won after the Saints' kicker missed a 29-yard field goal attempt early in the extra period. The Falcons beat Baltimore on a touchdown with 20 seconds remaining on a questionable no-call. The second game against Tampa Bay required a 102-yard kickoff return for a score. Finally, they beat the Packers by a field goal in the regular season despite being outgained by 124 yards.
Another troubling indicator for the Falcons is that they were one of only three teams that were outgained on the average play, an extraordinarily difficult problem to overcome over the long haul of a season. The Falcons' average gain per play last season was 5 yards, while their defense gave up an average of 5.6. While that deficit of 0.6 yards may not seem significant, it tied the Falcons with Seattle for worst among the 12 playoffs teams (Chicago was the only other team with a negative mark at a 0.1 deficit).
Only New England in 2001 has ever won a title with a deficit in that category. The typical Super Bowl team is at 0.6 or more on the positive side. Last season, Green Bay was at 0.6 per play and Pittsburgh was at a stunning 1.1.
Within that, the most glaring deficiency for the Falcons was their inability to create big plays in the air. The only team in the NFL with fewer plays of 20 yards or more passing was Carolina (30).
While big passing plays aren't a prerequisite to success (a total of eight playoff teams had 47 or fewer), they obviously help. Pittsburgh and Green Bay had 62 and 57, respectively. Philadelphia, which narrowly lost to the Packers in the playoffs, had 61.
"It's something we were very cognizant of throughout the offseason," Dimitroff said.
"You want to be smart, but this league is also about taking risks," Smith said.
That's both in games and in building a team. Enter Jones, who has not only displayed great tools, but a willingness to learn.
"The blocking is something everybody does here, you see it in practice and you know that's part of how this team works," Jones said. "We have offensive linemen running down field like that all the time, so you know it's part of the job."
More important, Jones has been a quick study. In offseason workouts run by Ryan, the quarterback quickly found that out. "If you tell him something, he's going to do everything he can to do it exactly the way you tell him to," Ryan said. "We have a route on the outside where we stop on the route at 8 to 9 yards. He ran it a little deep the first time, probably 10 or 11 yards. I told him, ‘If you're ever going to err, err on 7, not 11.' I say miss at 7, hoping he's going to miss at 9 and he hits it right at 7. That's on me to tell him exactly how I want it because that's how he's going to be. I have to say, ‘Really, it's 8' … He is so detailed, I have to be precise in how I'm talking to him."
To Ryan, that's fine. As he looks across the field at his suped-up weapons, the possibility makes him feel better about the team's chances and his responsibility.
"I'm excited," Ryan said. "We have guys who have the ability to make big plays. Harry catches that ball at 10 or 12 yards and all of a sudden you see him get 70 and he's in the end zone. "To me, so much of that falls on the quarterback, too. You have to put them in position to get yards after the catch. You have to be so detailed in where you put the ball to help them out. If a ball is on this shoulder when the defender is on the other shoulder, you have a chance. But if you put it in the middle of a guy's body, he's going to get tackled.
"That's on me, the finer points that we're trying to accomplish."
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