Let’s start with an analogy, since I’m a huge fan of them.
Imagine this: after the 2017 NBA Finals, Steve Kerr decided to leave his position as the Warriors’ head coach, for whatever reason. Whoever came in as the new head coach would have the league’s best and most dangerous offense at his disposal. But the new head coach decided to use his most dangerous weapon, Kevin Durant, as a decoy. Yeah, stopping just Steph Curry is difficult, but it’s doable (think Cleveland in 2016). But stopping both Curry and Durant is damn near impossible. Utilizing just one of them would make absolutely no sense.
That’s exactly what’s happening right now in Atlanta. Steve Sarkisian took over the league’s most potent offense and has two bonafide superstars at his disposal. But for some inconceivable reason, he seems to be using his most dangerous weapon, Julio Jones, as a mere decoy, and the Falcons are paying for it.
This is especially true when the Falcons drive into an opponent’s half, where Sarkisian shies away from dialing up plays for his #1 receiver. Check out the percentage of Matt Ryan’s throws in the opponent’s half that went to Julio Jones by year:
The 2017 dropoff is even more inexcusable when you take into account that, according to Pro Football Focus, Jones has the 2nd highest quarterback rating when targeted among all wide receivers, trailing only Antonio Brown.
I’d argue that Julio Jones is the most talented wide receiver in the league. His route running ability is comparable to the likes of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr., but his 6’3” 220-pound frame makes him an even tougher cover than Brown and Beckham, who are both under 6’0” tall. But you’d never know that based on their targets. Most quarterbacks dial up their #1 target over 30% of the time once they cross midfield. That’s not even close to the case with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Take a look:
Julio Jones is the most talented out of those four guys. It’s totally inexcusable that he’s being treated as a middle of the road receiver by his offensive coordinator.
This boneheaded playcalling becomes even more boneheaded when the Falcons enter the red zone. Julio is so big and imposing that Atlanta should use him like a Calvin Johnson by giving him 50/50 balls in the end zone. But Atlanta just ignores him. This has actually been an ongoing phenomenon. Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan seemed to avoid Julio in the red area, but the Falcons were a top-8 red zone team last season, scoring touchdowns on 65% of their trips there, so no one really batted an eye. Now that they’re ranked 18th in red zoning offenses, converting red zone trips into touchdowns only 50% of the time, this phenomenon deserves our attention.
Take a look at receiving yards per game vs red zone targets per game for the league’s most dangerous pass catchers since 2014:
Curiously, Julio Jones is averaging the most yards per game but sees the least amount of red zone targets per game. This graph is especially mind-boggling when you consider that Jones’ frame should make him the most dangerous red-zone target listed, with the exception of MAYBE Gronkowski.
So Steve Sarkisian has ruined the Falcons by ignoring Julio as soon as the Falcons get in the oppositions’ territory. But he can revive them by simply dialing up #11 just as any other offensive coordinator would.