There's no question that the loss of receiver Julio Jones to a fractured foot five games into the 2013 season was a major reason for the Atlanta Falcons' nosedive to 4-12 after five straight seasons of at least nine wins, and two 13-win campaigns. Yes, there were other reasons for the backtrack -- Atlanta's defense has been trending down for a few years and the offensive line was nothing to write home about last season -- but when Jones was hurt, he was the league's leading receiver with 41 catches, and only New Orleans' Jimmy Graham had more receiving yards than Jones' 580. Losing him was a big problem for quarterback Matt Ryan, and that's especially true in the deep passing game.
Now that Jones is back and healthy, Ryan and the Falcons offense have seen a complete turnaround in the vertical passing department. In all of 2013, Ryan completed just 15 passes targeted 20 or more yards downfield, which ranked 14th in the NFL (tied with Cam Newton and Oakland's Matt McGloin). But through just three games in 2014, including Atlanta's 56-14 thrashing of the Buccaneers on Thursday night, Ryan has already completed 10 such passes, leading the NFL by far, and Jones has the decisive league lead in receptions 20 or more yards downfield with seven. Interestingly enough, it's not longtime teammate Roddy White who ranks second on the team with two long catches -- it's Devin Hester, the former Chicago receiver and return man, who caught two deep receptions against the Saints in the season-opener.
In any case, Atlanta's passing offense is prolific again, and it's clear that Julio Jones is the force multiplier in that case.
More stats that caught our eye after two weeks (unless otherwise indicated, all metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus):
- One point of concern in Ryan's deep passing numbers is that he has thrown for just one touchdown on those 10 completions -- Philly's Nick Foles and Detroit's Matthew Stafford are tied for the lead with two deep touchdowns each, while Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick and Minnesota's Matt Cassel are tied for the NFL lead in deep interceptions with two each. Cassel should probably stop throwing deep balls altogether -- he's got zero completions to his own guys and two to the people in the wrong uniforms on six attempts. Not exactly the ideal guy for a Norv Turner vertical offense, which makes us wonder if it isn't time for the Vikings to start Teddy Bridgewater instead. (Hint: It is.)
- It was thought that moving Eric Fisher from right tackle to left tackle this season would result in an uptick in performance for the first overall pick in 2013. But through two games, Fisher has allowed a league-leading 10 total quarterback pressures -- no sacks, but seven quarterback hits and three quarterback hurries. He's gone against two defenses in the Titans and Broncos with multiple quarterback pressure artists, and things don't get any easier in Week 3 when the Chiefs face off with the Dolphins -- defensive tackle Randy Starks leads the team with four quarterback hurries, and right ends Olivier Vernon and Chris McCain have one sack each this season. Note to Andy Reid: You might want to keep a tight end on Fisher's side for the rest of the season.
- If we want to talk about a great offensive line, let's talk about the Bengals' unit. Not only has Cincinnati's front five not allowed a sack of Andy Dalton this season, they've only allowed seven total pressures. And the primary tackles, Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, have allowed one hit and three hurries ... combined. Not bad for a team with 62 total passing attempts.
- Buffalo fans, you're about to get some love for your team's defense. Tackle Kyle Williams, long one of the league's better and more underrated players, leads the NFL with nine total quarterback pressures (one sack, two hits, six hurries), not to mention the first interception in a career that goes back to 2006. But the real star of this team's resurgent defense is cornerback Corey Graham, the former Bears and Ravens defender who the Bills picked up on a four-year, $16 million contract with $8.1 million guaranteed. So far this season, Graham has allowed just eight receptions on 22 targets for 44 yards and no touchdowns, leading to an insanely good 25.9 quarterback rating allowed. And Graham's numbers don't come through a small sample size, at least early in the year -- no cornerback has been targeted more. We suspect that will change soon -- Leodis McKelvin, Graham's bookend, has allowed 12 catches for 149 yards and an opponent passer rating of 98.2 on 16 targets.
- The Browns defense is another squad that has seen serious improvement this season, and while there are several reasons for this, we'll point to an underappreciated aspect: the play of outside linebackers Jabaal Sheard and Paul Kruger -- they lead the league in run stop percentage (ie, tackles for a loss). They each have four run stops, with Sheard's coming on 33 run snaps and Kruger's coming on 43. We praise 3-4 outside linebackers for their ability to get to the quarterback, but stopping the outside run is important duty as well.