Julio Jones-Matt Ryan Connection Makes Atlanta Falcons Offense Unstoppable

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 2, 2016

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) celebrates his touchdown catch with quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the fourth quarter of their game against the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 48-33. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When an athlete is a truly special talent, he or she makes everyone around them better. 

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones falls into this category as the NFL's most physically gifted target. Because Jones has the ability to dominate on a weekly basis, he makes quarterback Matt Ryan better. As a result, the Falcons offense is operating at a level previously unseen in the franchise's history. 

Entering Sunday's contest against the rival Carolina Panthers, the Falcons already developed into the league's best offense and led the NFL in yards per game, yards per play and yards per pass play. 

Those numbers improved after Sunday's 48-33 victory. Ryan threw for a career-high 503 yards, while Jones became the sixth wide receiver in NFL history to register a 300-yard game, according to ESPN: 

No other quarterback-wide receiver duo has ever accomplished both in the same game, per ESPN Stats & Info: 

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"The connection with Matt and Julio today was as strong as ever," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.

Just how good was the Falcons' offensive performance? 

"Three of the Falcons' five touchdown drives Sunday had distances of 92, 98 and 99 yards," ESPN Stats & Info added. "Coming into the day, there had been one touchdown drive of 98 or more yards this season. It was only the second time in the last 15 seasons that a team had three 90-yard touchdown drives in a game."

As a team, Atlanta managed 571 total yards while setting a new NFL record for points scored and allowed through the first quarter of a season, according to Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar: 

What makes the latest effort even more impressive is it came against one of the NFL's best defenses. Sunday's explosion didn't take advantage of another poor defense found on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints. Carolina ranked third overall in total defense prior to the meeting. 

But offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan found ways to exploit a suspect secondary, and the game plan appeared relatively simple: Feed Jones the ball. 

"At the end of the day, it comes down to Julio making some plays," Ryan said after the contest, per the team's official site. "I thought he played awesome, and he was huge for us in critical situations. He showed how great of a player he is." 

This became an important rebound performance after a one-catch, 16-yard showing against the New Orleans Saints. As such, a concerted effort was made to get the ball in Jones' hands a week later. 

After all, the Falcons' No. 1 wide receiver led the league last season with 136 receptions for 1,871 yards. Here's the scary part for the rest of the league: He can be even better, and the dichotomy seen over the last two games shows exactly why. 

Jones can and will take over games, but he doesn't have to anymore. That's the beauty of the Falcons offense as it's currently constructed. 

There were times over the last few seasons when shutting down Atlanta's top target would force the entire offense to sputter. This is no longer the case. Even when the Saints blanketed Jones, the Falcons amassed 442 yards with 217 coming on the ground. 

His presence demands a certain level of attention, though. Teams are going to roll coverage to Jones' side. If they don't, he'll make them pay. 

For example, the Panthers made a massive mistake trying to cover Jones one-on-one after initially lining up in the slot with a nasty split and only a single high safety over the top. 

The result? A 75-yard touchdown after a simple 10-yard reception, via the Falcons: 

The wide receiver's combination of size and speed is simply too much to handle. At a sculpted 6'3" and 220 pounds with legitimate 4.39-second 40-yard-dash speed, Jones can consistently win when bodied up or run by defensive backs. This makes him a true threat every time the ball is thrown in his direction. 

But there's always room for improvement.

Last year, the Falcons faltered after a strong start. The team's offense played well to open the campaign but struggled through the final 11 games. Ryan, in particular, didn't perform to expectations. 

The quarterback committed a career-high 21 turnovers. In fact, he threw an interception in eight of the team's final 10 contests. So far this season, Ryan has completed 72.1 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions. 

Two major differences have allowed Ryan to improve this fall. 

First, he's in the second year of Shanahan's system. The growing comfort level with all of the team's veterans is obvious. 

"Definitely much more comfortable in Year 2," Pro Bowl fullback Patrick DiMarco said in a phone interview with Bleacher Report on Friday. "It's just like any other offense. In your first OTAs and practices, it's a foreign language. I didn't know what I was doing; I was just trying to figure it out. As camp came around, we started to get into a groove and get a little more comfortable. 

"In the second year, you understand the entire scheme. You know who the receivers are blocking, what the backside will look like and what the tight end is doing. The offense grows as a whole, and it allows you to do more. It's makes our jobs easier, because we know what's going on to make the play successful even when it isn't perfect." 

Center Alex Mack also has played a big part in this year's offense after signing a five-year, $45 million contract in free agency. The Pro Bowl blocker makes life much easier on his quarterback. 

"He's making all of our calls along the line," DiMarco stated, per the Orange and Brown Report. "That takes so much off of Matt [Ryan]. Over the last few years, Matt had to make the Mike calls, tell the line what to do and calling hot routes. When Mack first arrived, he said, 'Hey, Matt. You worry about the coverage. I got the protection.' It’s shown and taken so much off of Ryan's shoulders. He can now be himself and attack defenses."

What Ryan and Jones did together Sunday is easy to celebrate because the duo orchestrated a special performance, but their work over a number of years along with reinforcements around them enabled the historic effort. 

This is what happens when a unit is comprised of talented teammates. A symbiotic relationship forms, and everyone improves. 

In Atlanta, everything starts with Jones and the trickle-down effect results in the league's best offense with Ryan playing at a level not previously achieved, a running game counted among the league's best and an offensive line working hard to provide every extra second of protection to all of them. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter@brentsobleski.