Over the last two seasons, with two different offensive coordinators (Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian), Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has the seventh-most regular-season targets (277), the eighth-most receptions (171), the most receiving yards (2,853), the fourth-highest yards-per-reception average (16.7) and the second-highest yards-per-target average (10.3).
And yet, per Pro Football Reference, Jones is tied for 40th in touchdown catches with just nine. The other players with nine scores are guys like Brandon LaFell, Cole Beasley, Will Fuller V, Jack Doyle and Jones' teammate Mohamed Sanu, who had 100 fewer targets.
Last season, in Sarkisian's less expansive and multiple offense, things were at their worst for Jones. He ranked seventh in targets with 148 and scored three touchdowns—tying for 71st. Sanu scored five touchdowns—on just 96 targets.
Clearly, this is a problem. It was far less of a problem when the Falcons were taking over the NFL with Shanahan's schemes in 2016 (at least until that 28-3 problem in Super Bowl LI), but the absence of a functional plan for Jones in the red zone in 2017 bordered on the incomprehensible.
One may wonder why it's important for one player to score more if a team is winning. The answer lies in the difference between the 2016 and 2017 Falcons offenses. In the transition from Shanahan to Sarkisian, Atlanta switched to schemes based more on player execution than schematic brilliance.
Receivers did not find the same easy openings as frequently. Quarterback Matt Ryan had tighter windows than he had before. As a result, a similar offensive roster dropped from first to 15th in points scored and from second to eighth in yards gained.
If you're going to have an execution-based offense, it's crucial for the best players to be in contention to make plays in key situations as much as possible. Jones is the Falcons' most dominant athlete on offense; he might well be the best athlete on the team. And given the construct of Sarkisian's offense, he should see the ball more often in red-zone situations if that offense is to work.
Jones didn't catch a touchdown pass until Week 7 against the New England Patriots, and that remained his lone scoring catch until Week 12, when he tallied his other two of the season against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary that seemed overmatched against most teams. After those first five games (the Falcons were off in Week 5), head coach Dan Quinn said the idea was to get Jones the ball more in the red zone but that the team had to be judicious about it, via Mark Inabinett of AL.com:
"He's our guy. He's 100 percent our guy. But wherever the coverage takes you, there's times when, 'No, you can't do that.' [The opposing defense is] going to say, 'He's not going to beat us on this play.' And so then, that might not be the time to do it.
"But there's times that it is, even if he's got two [defenders] on him. On that particular one, it wasn't. But that certainly wouldn't be what I would want to discuss with you today to say, 'Every time we have a got-to-have-it moment, we're going to throw it to Julio Jones.'"
One problem is that Jones has the ability to beat those coverages. Sometimes, you want your best receiver to simply take the ball away from the opponent in tight situations. When Sarkisian was hired to replace Shanahan, who had become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, he said it would be a priority to get Jones the ball more, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
"Number one, they were really good in the red zone, but when you have [a] player like Julio, [we want to] make sure that we are maximizing his opportunities because there is so much double coverage. There are so many unique coverages that roll his way that when we don't get that, let's make sure he's one of the primary receivers on that play because [he's] such a [difficult] matchup for anybody one-on-one."
Given Jones' size (6'3", 220 lbs) and the plays he's made throughout his career, it's odd that the Falcons don't use him more as the X receiver, isolated against the opponent's best cornerback, with the larger number of receivers (and defenders) on the other side of the field. Doing so would allow Jones to use his speed in and out of breaks, his jumping ability and the physicality with which he attacks the ball.
Instead, the Falcons seem to have decided that Jones is an outstanding decoy, best-suited to soak up double coverage while his batterymates benefit from the attention on him.
When there is an intent to get Jones the ball in one-on-one matchups—when Jones is aligned and moved to create a schematic advantage—the outcome is generally positive, though it doesn't happen nearly enough.
This eight-yard touchdown pass in the Falcons' wild-card playoff win over the Los Angeles Rams is a perfect example of not only a great opening for Jones but also the kind of concept the Falcons should use more frequently to get the most out of their excellent receiver corps and dynamic rushing attack.
Jones (No. 11) is the outside receiver to the left in a twins formation, with Taylor Gabriel (No. 18) to the inside.
After the snap, several defenders crash the line on Ryan's play fake to running back Devonta Freeman (No. 24).
The fake takes away coverage from the middle of the field, which is an advantage for Gabriel, who's running a short crossing route, and Jones, who's sweeping through the backfield from left to right.
Safety John Johnson III (No. 43) gets out of the scrum to try to cover Jones after he's fooled by the fake, but it's too late—Jones has cleared coverage, and Ryan's already thrown him the ball. This is a perfect example of how you use scheme and player placement to affect coverages and force receivers open.
This route concept in the Falcons' divisional round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, on the other hand, seems singularly ill-suited for Jones—indeed, ill-suited for any Atlanta receiver when the advantage should be the Falcons'.
Jones is the middle receiver in a trips-right formation, and the Eagles have a three-on-three to that side. They're allotting their defenders in a zone concept, so Jones should have an opening.
But Sanu (No. 12) runs a crossing route in front of Jones as Jones runs a comeback, so Jones is obstructed. Ryan has a split second to find the opening to that side before the pressure gets him, but the opening isn't there.
It takes a desperate heave to Freeman to save the play—a great move by Ryan, but hardly structured or repeatable or preferable.
If you want to see the primary reason Jones doesn't score more often, this touchdown pass from Ryan to Sanu in Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints typifies how Jones is used perhaps most often—as a draw for coverage and a facilitator for single-teamed receivers everywhere he isn't.
Jones is the outside man in a bunch-left formation. When he runs his crosser, he takes safety Marcus Williams (No. 43) and cornerback Ken Crawley (No. 20) with him over the middle.
That leaves Sanu and receiver Justin Hardy (No. 14) with single coverage to the left side—Hardy runs an out cut to the boundary, and Sanu takes cornerback Sterling Moore (No. 24) to the goalpost.
Because Sanu does a great job of establishing inside position, it's an easy touchdown—but Jones' work taking two defenders out of the picture is the real difference-maker. This is a functional construct of the Atlanta offense, for better or worse.
On Thursday, Jeff Schultz of The Athletic reported Jones wants a financial bump on the five-year, $71.3 million extension he signed in 2015. That's not likely to happen in 2018, as the Falcons have other players they must extend if they're to remain contenders. The team instead told Jones there's room for a renegotiation in 2019.
In the near term, though, Jones' main opponent in the Atlanta front office isn't who doles out the dollars—it's the coaching staff that doesn't seem to know how to use his generational abilities as it could. Unless that changes, his touchdown drought will continue—and he will not have the effect he could and should on the Falcons offense.