January 08, 2018
A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons' run to the Super Bowl, which ended in a heartbreaking loss to the New England Patriots, came largely on the back of the team's potent passing attack. Quarterback Matt Ryan won the MVP honors while racking up nearly 5,000 passing yards and throwing 38 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
A big part of their aerial attack in 2016 was veteran wideout Julio Jones, who failed to match his numbers from a career year in 2015, but still managed to put up 1,409 yards and six touchdowns in fourteen regular season games. He also led the NFL in yards per game (100.6) and earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors for the second straight year. In the postseason, Jones was even better. In three games, he caught 19 passes for 334 yards (111.3/game) and three touchdowns.
In 2017, Jones again posted a season of one 1,400 receiving yards for the fourth straight year, including an eye-popping 253 yards and two touchdowns (on 12 catches) in Week 12 against the Bucs.
But when the Falcons come into the Linc on Saturday afternoon to face the Eagles in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Ryan-to-Jones connection is hardly the only one that worries Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
"There's still a lot of challenges on that team," Schwartz said Monday as the Birds returned to practice following their first-round bye. "It goes well beyond Julio Jones; it goes well beyond the quarterback. Their tight end [Austin Hooper] is having a great year. Their running backs [Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman]– if you combine their running backs, you're talking about a first-team All-Pro, 1,500 yards and I think 12 touchdowns. So we have to look at it that way, that there's going to be a lot of challenges this week."
Since the Falcons changed offensive coordinators from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian in the offseason, their offense has seemed more well-balanced. There were some growing pains earlier in the season as the team struggled to find its identity. But thanks to an improved defense and a potent rushing attack – something we wrote about on Sunday – Atlanta was able to climb back into playoff position and clinch a spot on Week 17.
In the wild-card round, the Falcons upset the No. 3-seeded Los Angeles Rams, 26-13, thanks in large part to their rushing attack. But the backbreaking touchdown on Saturday night came from Jones, who hauled in an eight-yard score from Ryan with 5:48 left to play and finished the game with nine catches (on 10 targets) for 94 yards and a touchdown. (He also had a 13-yard run in the game as well.)
The offense may have more weapons, but Jones remains an integral part of their attack. And stopping the big, extremely talented wideout is hardly the only recipe for slowing down the Falcons.
For example, in the Eagles' 24-15 win over the Falcons last season, Jones caught 10 passes for 135 yards. But because the defense was able to keep him out of the end zone while simultaneously holding Atlanta to just 48 yards rushing, the Birds were able to have their way with Falcons.
Schwartz understands this. And he doesn't seem ready to load up on Jones if it could cost his defense in other areas.
"I think ... here's the point: The point is to try to win the game. And we have to keep our eye on that," Schwartz said. "If Julio Jones has 350 yards receiving and we win the game, [then] that's what it took to win the game. If he has 10 yards receiving but [scores] the game-winning touchdown, then that wasn't enough. So I think you have to look at it that way and say, 'How do you stop their offense?' and 'How do you minimize their scoring?'
"It's not just about one player because, like I said before, they do have other players that are threats. [Mohamed] Sanu has been a consistently good player for a long period of time. Their tight end has really developed. Both backs can catch the ball out of the backfield. Pro Bowl quarterback. It's not just a one-man team."
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