Julio Jones made highlight reels across the nation Sunday with his two big-play touchdowns. (MRQ/Icon SMI)
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a notable play or performance from Sunday’s games.
All Julio Jones needed to finally find the end zone in his rookie season was a game against the hapless Colts. Jones broke loose Sunday and finished with three catches for 131 yards, with scores on back-to-back Atlanta possessions.
The rookie wide receiver was back to 100-percent health in Week 9, after missing nearly a month due to a hamstring injury. He showed what he's capable of in Atlanta's offense -- the Falcons drafted him as a home-run, playmaking threat and Indianapolis saw first-hand the potential.
But the Falcons had been laying the groundwork for Jones all season. How did it all click Sunday? Let's break it down:
Matt Ryan's first pass to Jones fell incomplete, so it wasn't until later in the first quarter that Jones actually got his hands on the ball. He did so courtesy of a reverse -- Jones' third carry of the year. His previous two netted eight yards.
This one picked up 14 and caught the Colts completely off guard. But take a look at the Indianapolis defensive formation just before the snap:
The Colts had nine players in the box, to counter Atlanta's heavy-run formation, leaving Jones one-on-one on the outside with a deep safety. Indianapolis came into the game giving up the second-most rush yards in the NFL and seemed committed to taking away Michael Turner early.
That, in turn, ratcheted up the pressure on the Colts' young secondary.
One play after Jones' 14-yard run, the Falcons went to an unusual shotgun formation. Jones (boxed) and Roddy White were the two receivers, with Michael Turner next to Ryan. Offset from the offensive line were tight end Reggie Kelly, who's next to Jones, and an extra offensive tackle next to White.
The idea was to give Ryan some extra time, because both White and Jones ran deep routes -- White a crossing pattern about 20 yards downfield; Jones a post to the end zone.
Ryan chose to throw to Jones. On the surface, the decision was a pretty terrible one -- this is the coverage Ryan was looking at when he let the ball go:
Jones was bracketed totally by a pair of defenders, with a third racing over to try to provide help. This is essentially a "Make a play" situation for Jones -- he never had any separation from the defenders.
So Jones took matters into his own hands.
He somehow slipped between the two Colts' defenders and managed to haul in Ryan's pass as he fell into the end zone. It was an absolutely magnificent display of athleticism, and a perfect example of why the Falcons drafted Jones. He's not on the team to go out and run Wes Welker-type precision routes underneath. Atlanta wants to put Jones in position to make plays -- from there, it's up to him.
Jones' second TD came on Atlanta's next possession. On 3rd-and-3, the Falcons again went to a shotgun look, with Jones lined up wide right. Just prior to the snap, the Colts walked a second defender in front of Jones (boxed), showing a two-tiered look.
Ryan took the snap and immediately locked on to Jones. He was the No. 1 option on this play, and the Atlanta QB never hesitated, even with Antoine Bethea walking up underneath cornerback Kevin Thomas pre-snap.
Ryan made the right read, too -- Bethea crept up to keep an eye on fullback Jason Snelling, which left Jones with inside position on Thomas.
The pass was perfect and Jones had just enough of a seam to get beyond Thomas. And from there, the Colts were done.
If the first TD pass was an example of Jones' athletic ability, the second was a highlight of his elite speed. He blew past Thomas, outraced the rest of the Colts' secondary and went 80 yards to the house.
Jones' big day was met with a sort of "Where has this been all season?" reaction.
The truth is, though, that the Falcons did the same things with Jones Sunday that they had been trying to do all season, prior to his hamstring injury. Given Jones' size and quickness, Ryan showed from the get-go this year that he was comfortable taking a shot in Jones' direction.
In a Week 5 loss to Green Bay, Jones had a couple of one-on-one opportunities against Sam Shields. Here's the first, and you'll notice -- just as on his acrobatic TD catch Sunday -- that Jones has no room.
That play resulted in an incomplete pass, as did a later Ryan-to-Jones deep ball, which happened to be when Jones tweaked his hamstring.
Time and again, though, we've seen Ryan give Jones opportunities. He looked his way multiple times in Week 3 against Tampa Bay. The problem with what Atlanta has asked of Jones thus far is that he often finds himself trying to make difficult catches.
That was the case early on in that loss to the Bucs, when Ryan tried to fit one in to Jones between two defenders.
The result: Another incompletion, as Jones could not haul a pass in over his shoulder as he tumbled out of bounds.
But later in the game, he should have had his first NFL TD. Jones had one-on-one coverage and got behind both the cornerback covering him and Tampa Bay's deep safety.
Ryan, however, underthrew the pass, which forced Jones to slow way down to make a catch.
The play was there -- and even though it didn't produce a touchdown immediately, it did set Atlanta up to score.
Maybe Indianapolis' reeling defense is the reason Jones got going Sunday. Maybe it was the fact that he had almost a month to rest after suffering his hamstring injury.
But the main reason Jones had a breakout performance in Indianapolis is that Atlanta had been setting the stage for it all year. It can take some time for a QB and rookie receiver to adjust to each other, especially when so many plays between the two are designed to be of the highlight-reel variety. Ryan appears to be fully aware of what Jones is capable of, and Jones might have turned a corner Sunday in being able to deliver those results.