Julio Jones vs. Richard Sherman: Who Won the Week 6 Matchup?
The game featured the best offense in the league by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric with Atlanta and a top-five defense in Seattle.
NEP, for those new to the metric, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform, according to historical data.
Within that matchup existed the question of how the Falcons’ top-ranked passing offense by Adjusted Passing NEP per play would fare against Seattle’s seventh-ranked pass defense by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play.
It appeared the outcome of that battle would have a sizable impact on the outcome of the game.
Entering the week, it was announced Sherman would follow Jones in coverage everywhere except when the receiver was lined up in the slot.
The obvious counter would be to line Jones up in the slot more, and that’s what the Falcons did. In the first quarter, Jones lined up in the slot six times. None of them saw Sherman lined up across from Jones, but the Atlanta receiver also saw no targets on those plays, some of which were running plays. Jones actually saw no targets at all during the first quarter.
Jones again lined up in the slot for six plays in the second quarter, but Sherman was across from him in coverage on three of those plays.
Jones’ first target from the slot did not come until there were 25 seconds remaining in the first half, but that play was called back due to holding on the offensive line. Jones did get his first two targets and catches in the second quarter working against Sherman on the outside.
The catches came on back-to-back plays, which took advantage of Seattle’s zone principles. Jones first ran a comeback, which might be Sherman’s biggest weakness in coverage, and on the next play, Jones ran a quick slant that got the ball in the receiver’s hands before the corner could make a play.
However, holding Jones to 2 catches and 24 yards in the first half was a win for the Seahawks.
At halftime, the Falcons made some adjustments to get Jones more involved in the passing game. It paid off almost immediately, as Atlanta’s first drive of the second half ended with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Jones.
Jones lined up in the slot and got passed off in coverage to no one and was able to get in for the score. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass).
However, Atlanta’s adjustments weren’t simply to line Jones up in the slot and take him away from Sherman. Instead, the Falcons focused on using Seattle’s scheme against them. Jones only lined up in the slot three times during the third quarter, and just one of those plays drew Sherman in coverage. Jones and the Falcons saw the most success trying to stretch out the Seahawks' defense.
On the next drive, the Falcons ran a play that had Jones lined up on the outside left of the formation across from Sherman. But before the snap, Jones motioned to the right side, and Sherman stayed in his zone on the left. Jones ran a deep post for a gain of 24 yards.
For the following play, Jones lined up from Sherman and ran a quick post for a gain of 16. Atlanta took advantage of quick breaking routes when Sherman was playing off the line as another way to use his style of play against him rather than try to avoid him.
There’s no question the third quarter sparked a turnaround in the Atlanta offense, and it was Jones’ most productive of the day. In just that quarter alone, Jones had 5 catches for 115 yards, and his Reception NEP would have been enough for the 10th-most on the day.
The best adjustment made for the Falcons was simply throwing Jones the ball more often.
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But the Seattle defense tightened a bit in the fourth quarter, and Jones saw only two targets. The first led to an interception, which bounced off Jones’ hands on a pass that should have been caught. The interception dropped Atlanta's win expectancy by 17.46 percent per numberFire Live, and Seattle would score the go-ahead field goal on the following drive.
The second target came on Atlanta’s last offensive play of the game, which fell incomplete. There was some controversy on the play about whether or not pass interference occurred, but either way, what’s most interesting about the play is it was the only slot target Jones had with Sherman also in coverage, and it ended up deciding the game.
Jones still had the seventh-best receiving game of the week by Reception NEP. He also had a Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- of 100 percent on his 7 catches. Jones still has a 100 percent Success Rate for the season and has the highest reception total among players who have been successful on all receptions.
Despite the loss, Atlanta is still set up in good position in the NFC South. The Falcons still have a game in the loss column over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints, who are both 2-3. While the Carolina Panthers may be a tough opponent, even late in the season, they’ve played themselves out of playoff contention and now sit at 1-5 and last place in the division. The Falcons get two straight home games coming up against the San Diego Chargers and Green Bay Packers.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks are in full control of the NFC West. At 4-1, they’re two games ahead of the 3-3 Los Angeles Rams and possibly the Arizona Cardinals pending Monday night’s game against the New York Jets. The Seahawks are clicking like many expected they would at the beginning of the season. Outside of the third quarter against Julio Jones, the Seahawks are playing like a top-tier defense, and the offense has been improving.
Entering the game, Seattle was just 22nd in Adjusted NEP per play, due to poor play at the start of the season. But Christine Michael is on a roll, Jimmy Graham is naturally a big piece of the offense -- unlike last season when he was unnaturally forced the ball -- and Russell Wilson is again making up from some pass protection problems with his legs.
Like Seahawks seasons of the past, this team should continue to get better later in the season and could get back to a top-level offense in the near future. Despite the early-season struggles, Seattle never dropped out of the top five of our nERD rankings and won’t after this week, either.