The Atlanta Falcons, under new coach Dan Quinn, are off to a fast start but they face a challenge as they welcome the Houston Texans, and all-world defensive lineman J.J. Watt to the Georgia Dome. Dave Archibald has a two-part preview, focusing on the Atlanta running game and here, on the unstoppable Julio Jones.
What a difference a year makes. The Texans nearly made the playoffs in 2014, finishing with a 9-7 record in Bill O’Brien’s first year as head coach, while the Falcons went 6-10 in what would prove to be Mike Smith’s last year as head coach. Buoyed by a new coaching staff, including head coach Dan Quinn, some key additions, and a soft early schedule, Atlanta is off to a 3-0 start. Meanwhile, the Texans dropped their first two games before an uninspiring 19-9 victory over the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, pushing them to 1-2. The two teams square off Sunday in Atlanta. Houston could use a big road victory to get back on the path to contention, while Atlanta looks to keep pace with division rivals the Carolina Panthers, also undefeated.
The most compelling matchups will occur when the Falcons have the ball. Atlanta is currently fifth in league in scoring and fourth in total yardage, led by quarterback Matt Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones, but they face perhaps their sternest test yet in a Houston defense that ranks ninth in points and tenth in passing yards per attempt. The Texans boast the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in J.J. Watt and fine cornerbacks with veterans Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and rookie Kevin Johnson. The game promises a matchup of talent and tactics pitting strength against strength.
Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
The first thing Houston will have to contend with is Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver. The 26-year-old is a tough assignment for any secondary – big and physical enough to defeat press coverage, fast enough to win deep, and slippery enough to do damage after the catch. He can make good defensive backs look bad, and make it look easy.
With Byron Maxwell (#31) of the Philadelphia Eagles lined up against him, Jones (#11) makes an initial move to the outside as if he’s running a fade, a route he beat Maxwell on for a touchdown earlier in the contest. The cornerback shuffles to try to cut off the fade and effectively takes himself out of the play; the wide receiver has a clear running lane in front of him and runs straight down the field unimpeded. Ryan drops in a perfect pass and Jones rumbles for a 44-yard gain.
Ryan is completing a league-best 70.6% of his deep passes, mostly to Jones, but Houston might have better luck than Atlanta’s previous opponents did. Not only do they have stingy group of defensive backs, but they play a conservative style intended to limit the deep pass. Jones has gotten a lot of his big plays this season against press man, but the Texans play a lot of Cover 4 and off man coverage, allowing big cushions and preventing receivers from getting behind them.
The Panthers come out in 13 personnel, a run-heavy look, and they execute a play-fake to convince Houston that they are running the football. This is a shot play, designed to get the ball to wideout Devin Funchess (#17) on the deep post. Jackson (#25) gives Funchess a seven-yard cushion at the snap and stays on top of the deep route, and the underneath pass defenders also stay tight to their assignments. Newton ends up pulling the ball down and scrambling for a short gain.
Given their conservative style, it seems likely the Texans will limit Jones’ long catches, but they might open themselves up to death by a thousand cuts as Ryan picks them apart with screens, quick slants, and other routes that take advantage of the big cushions to get Jones the ball in space. Jones is a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands – he’s currently third in the NFL in yards-after-catch – and the Falcons are happy to attack off coverages or soft zones by throwing screens.
The New York Giants play six yards off in Cover 2, so Ryan throws a screen to Jones (#11), lined up in the slot. Fullback Patrick DiMarco (#42) is out wide and blocks cornerback Jayron Hosley (#28), opening a lane for Jones. Making things worse, linebacker Devon Kennard (#59) takes a false step away from Jones at the snap of the ball, creating more space for the run after catch. By the time Hosley and safety Brandon Meriweather (#22) chase him out of bounds, Jones has a 13-yard gain and a first down. It doesn’t get much easier than this.
The Falcons have enough firepower that they ought to be able to move the ball against Houston’s defense, but they have to be willing to take what the Texans give them. The deep routes might not be open, but they can still pick apart Houston underneath with quick hitches and screens to Jones. If they stick to that and use running back Devonta Freeman against the Houston linebackers, they will put up points and be on their way to a 4-0 record on the young season.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.