NFC Championship: Green Bay Could Stop Julio Jones, But Does It Matter?
A lot has changed for both of this teams since the middle of the season, so taking that game as a roadmap to how the NFC Championship Game might play out is a mostly futile exercise. Though, one aspect of the regular season meeting is intriguing when considering the result -- the statistical impact of Julio Jones.
During the full regular season, Jones was second in the league in receiving yards and led the league in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target among 41 receivers thrown to at least 100 times.
But against the Packers, Jones was held to just 5 targets, 3 receptions, and 29 yards, despite playing 84 percent of the team’s offensive snaps during the game.
The Packers were 23rd defending the pass this season by Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, and the containment of Jones was the best Green Bay put up against an opposing number-one receiver.
As the two teams get ready to meet again, a big question will be whether or not the Packers will be able to slow down Jones. If they can, maybe an even more interesting question is whether or not it will matter.
Short and Sweet
In the Week 8 meeting, the Falcons started off lining Jones up in the slot more often than usual. While doing this, Jones was left to work the short and intermediate middle of the field. Though the Falcons were a big play offense, Jones wasn’t the roster’s biggest threat on the deep ball.
Of his 83 receptions, 66 came on passes that traveled fewer than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, and 955 of his 1,409 receiving yards came on passes that deep.
Two of Jones’ three receptions in this game were on the same drive in the first quarter on back-to-back plays.
For his first catch, Jones lined up in the left slot and ran a shallow drag route across the field. He was able to beat his defender off the line and gained a few more yards by turning up field after the catch for a gain of 12. (Video courtesy: NFL Game Pass)
On the next play, Jones lined up as the inside-most receiver on the trips side of a three-by-one empty set. Jones ran the same route, and while the defense closed in faster after the catch, Jones was able to break a tackle and turn up the field for another gain of 12.
Part of what makes the Falcons offense so dangerous -- and the number-one offense by Adjusted NEP per play -- is the amount of weapons that can be featured. The play that followed Jones’ two receptions was Atlanta’s longest play of the game, and it came without their top receiver on the field.
The play was a beautiful strike to Taylor Gabriel that resulted in a 47-yard touchdown. While Jones led receivers with at least 100 targets in Reception NEP per target, Gabriel was the leader among 92 receivers with at least 50 targets. He was the only receiver to hit that target mark and post a score above 1.00.
Gabriel had the big play, but the most targeted receiver for the Falcons against the Packers was Mohamed Sanu. Sanu finished the game with 10 targets, 9 receptions, 84 yards, and a touchdown. He was worth 0.83 Reception NEP per target during the day, well above his 0.68 season average.
Sanu’s biggest impact on the game came on the final drive when the Falcons trailed by six points. The free agent addition had two important catches to finish off the drive, but those plays had as much to do with the impact Jones had on the defense as Sanu himself.
From the Packers’ 33-yard line, Sanu motioned to the left slot, inside of Jones who was out wide. At the snap, Jones ran a deep corner route that pulled three Green Bay defenders with him. This left Sanu wide open and allowed for an easy gain of nine yards.
After a three-yard pass to tight end Austin Hooper on the next play, the Falcons had a 1st-and-10 from the 11. Jones and Sanu lined up stacked on the left side of the line against Green Bay’s two-safety look. At the snap, the safety to the right of the offense covered Hooper on a corner route, and the safety to the left helped to double Jones in the end zone.
With the middle of the end zone open now open, all Sanu had to do was beat linebacker Jake Ryan. That turned out to not be much of a problem. Matt Ryan hit Sanu for an open touchdown that tied the game with 31 seconds remaining before the extra point gave the Falcons their margin of victory in the game.
This play is also a reason Kyle Shanahan is probably going to be a head coach next season.
The Packers have already stopped Julio Jones from putting up a big game once this season, so there’s reason to believe the defense could do it again.
But even with Jones not making a statistical impact, he was an important piece in opening up the offense for others. In any game, Jones has the ability to take over, but even when he’s stopped, it doesn’t mean the Atlanta offense will be too.