In the NFC Conference Championship game, Julio Jones gained 180 yards through the air on nine catches while also hauling in two touchdowns. In this game, he showcased excellent route running, elite speed, and how to use his 6’4” frame to box out defenders and high point passes. The Green Bay Packers’ defense simply had no answers for the elite receiver and consequently lost the game 44-21.
To start, we will look at his 73-yard touchdown at the start of the third quarter. The Falcons are in Shotgun with 11 personnel. Jones is in the slot and runs a dig route over the middle of the field. Cornerback (36) Ladarius Gunter attempts to slow him down by getting his hands on the large receiver. To counter, Jones swipes away the contact which causes Gunter to lose balance and illegally hold onto him.
Jones shows strength to beat the illegal hold getting open over the middle of the field. To make matters worse for GB’s defense, the deep free safety takes an over-aggressive angle up the field and doesn't see (18) Taylor Gabriel on his post route. This boxes him out of the play allowing the receiver to get to the sideline. From here, he uses his speed and strength to not get tackled on the long touchdown pass.
In this play, the Packers were in man coverage while they sent a blitz. This five-man pressure package with man coverage was a very common trend for this defense throughout the game.
For example at the start of the fourth quarter, Green Bay send a blitz while leaving cornerback (24) Quinten Rollins in man coverage. After the snap, Jones jumps forward forcing Rollins to step back and open his hips. Rollins is now caught flat-footed and is late in trail technique. This allows him to slip past and for Matt Ryan to immediately target his receiver for a 13 yard gain on third down.
My favorite reception came in the middle of the second quarter. Atlanta runs play-action while Green Bay is in “Cover 2 Man”. “Cover 2 Man” means the cornerbacks are in man coverage while there are two deep defenders in zone coverage splitting the secondary in halves.
After the snap, Jones fakes the post route over the middle of the field before sinking his hips to break back towards the sideline. The defensive back who was in “trail” technique, or in coverage at the receiver’s hip pocket, is completely fooled because he was caught looking into the backfield expecting a throw on the post route.
Since Jones threatens the middle of the field, which is one of the weak spots of this two deep coverage, this causes the right safety to be late breaking on the play towards the sideline allowing the reception.
From the end zone camera, we can see that Matt Ryan feels the pressure of the rush but stands tall in the pocket. Since his throw is mostly based on arm strength not being able to fully step into it, the pass sails on him but is still within reach of the tall receiver. He snags the ball gaining 20 yards on first down.
Jones was superior throughout the entire game. He was physical elevating for high passes.
He showcased excellent body control to catch passes with both feet in-bounds for a touchdown on this fade route.
He also showed incredible burst up the middle of the field to gain yards after the catch, which is especially important in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Really the only mistake I saw during this game was a dropped pass halfway through the second quarter. The ball hits him square in the hands, but he can't bring it in for the reception.
Moving forward it will be very interesting to see how the New England Patriots intend to cover him in the Super Bowl. Bill Belichick has only faced Jones once back in 2013. In that game, Matt Ryan targeted him 13 times where he caught six of those passes for 108 yards. My guess is that they will use Malcolm Butler or Eric Rowe in some combination of help by free safety Devin McCourty.
As you can see in this breakdown, directly game planning for an elite receiver is extremely difficult. The Patriots can consider using a safety to bracket, but since he lines up in the slot so frequently and runs such a large variety of routes, it's difficult to put two men in coverage on him at all times.
While Bill Belichick is one of the best at not allowing an opponent’s best player to beat him, Atlanta also has the 7th best running game according to FootballOutsiders. Should the Patriots focus on stopping the run then?
The Green Bay Packers clearly did that as they held DeVonta Freeman to 3.0 yards per carry and Tevin Coleman to 2.6 yards per carry, but their secondary was brutally exposed by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. In my opinion, since the Patriots already have a top tier run defense they should focus on stopping Julio Jones through the air.
Interior defensive lineman (97) Alan Branch and (90) Malcom Brown are two of the best run defenders in the NFL and should be an excellent match for center Alex Mack who signed with Atlanta last offseason. Regardless of the outcome, this should be an excellent game. Hopefully it will be a close match since the average margin of victory during the playoffs this season has been 15.8 points.
The Seattle Seahawks were eliminated in the divisional round of the playoffs versus the Falcons. In the two times the team faced this season, Julio Jones gained over 125 yards and caught at least seven passes. Belichick will clearly have his hands full to stop Kyle Shanahan’s high-powered offense.