Through the first three weeks of the NFL season, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has been perhaps the most dominant player in the league.
Jones signed a five-year, $US71 million contract at the start of the season, and early on, he’s made it look like a bargain.
Through three games, he has 34 catches, 440 yards, and four touchdowns. He’s on pace for a 181-catch, 2,347-receiving yards, 21-touchdown season, which would set records for catches and yards and would rival the record for receiving touchdowns in a season.
Though Jones has always been one of the better receivers in the NFL, he’s making a claim for best receiver in the NFL this season. Injuries have held him back before, but healthy and under a new scheme with the Falcons, Jones has become a force of nature on offence.
Part of this is natural — at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, he’s fast, strong, and athletic, a tough cover for any defensive back. There are very few people in football who can pull off this catch:
However, the Falcons have also taken steps to use him all around the field. While Jones was never solely a deep threat, it was often one of his primary weapons. In 2014, he led the NFL with 31 catches for over 20 yards. Compare this to Antonio Brown — who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2014 and is often paired with Jones as the best receiver in the NFL — who had 19 catches for over 20 yards in 2014.
As Grantland’s Bill Barnwell breaks down, new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has found creative ways to use Jones. In some cases, the Falcons have been lining up Jones close to the line of scrimmage, setting up run plays before quarterback Matt Ryan calls an audible and hits Jones with a short pass.
Barnwell uses this play as an example, where the Giants send a blitz, and Jones is open for a short pass:
To try and keep Jones under wraps, teams will put a safety deep and have a cornerback stick to Jones for double coverage. Barnwell notes that the Falcons combat this by stacking receivers up to shuffle the defence and get Jones open.
Here, the Falcons put Jones in front of receiver Leonard Hankerson. Jones opens up space for Hankerson by running toward the sideline. Hankerson goes deep and to the corner, clearing out the defender and the middle of the field as Jones then cuts back for the catch:
Between smart scheming and Jones’ overall talent, Jones is a matchup nightmare. ESPN writers polled several NFL cornerbacks to find out the best way to defend Jones. Browns cornerback Joe Haden said:
“It’s never really going to be domination against Julio. He’s going to be able get his plays. You’re never going to be able to stop him from getting all of his. I would say you have to put somebody over him and under him. Double-covering him is the best way. I’d just know it’s going to be a day. He’s going to get his, and I’m going to get mine.”
Jones is the perfect storm right now. He’s healthy, in his physical prime, and playing in an offence that’s using him in smart ways, combatting adjustments defences make to try and slow him down.
Whether Jones can continue at a record-setting pace is unknown. Currently, he’s as dominant an offensive force as there is in the NFL. More importantly, and if he keeps it up, he’ll give the 3-0 Falcons more opportunities to keep winning.
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