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  • Julio Jones excels on in-breaking routes, but in the red zone, most passing plays are designed to attack outside. Could that explain Jones's lack of touchdowns?
By Andy Benoit
October 21, 2018

Julio Jones’s lack of red-zone production is perhaps football’s greatest ongoing mystery. The receiver who has the best combination of size, speed and technique in all the land—the receiver who has averaged 97.8 yards a game since the start of 2017, second only to Steelers’ Antonio Brown—has caught just 5 of 22 passes in the red zone during that time. Just one went for a touchdown.

How can this be?

One theory: what makes Jones great in the rest of the field doesn’t apply as much in the tight confines of the red zone. Jones, with his size and body control, is tremendous on in-breaking routes. Almost half of his catches since 2017 have come on some form of slant route, dig route, deep crosser, drag or post—routes, in other words, that attack aggressively inside.

In the red zone, the majority of passing plays are designed to attack outside. One defensive coordinator even told me his team found that 90% of red zone pass designs that go past the goal-line aim for either the front or back pylon. Geometry is to blame. With no deep space to defend, safeties and linebackers can play more downhill, naturally crowding the middle of the field. It’s only gotten more crowded in recent years, as red-zone defenses have taken to rushing three and dropping eight into coverage.

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Two very common red-zone throws are fades and back-shoulders, but Jones and Falcons QB Matt Ryan have connected on just three of these types of throws total since 2017. Jones has caught more than a dozen out-routes, but in the red zone, where everything happens more quickly, out-routes tend to be run from the slot—not from out wide, where the wide receiver typically aligns.

Still, no matter how you dissect the numbers, Jones’s red zone futility is befuddling. Physically, Jones doesn’t struggle against press coverage like former wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the big-name non-producer in the red zone of the early 2000s, did. Jones is very good on contested catches. Yes, he attracts a lot of double-teams in the red zone, but so do most top receivers.

To end on an anti-climactic note, it’s possible that Jones’s red zone futility is one huge coincidence. He could have two red-zone touchdowns against the Giants on Monday night and another five red-zone touchdowns before Thanksgiving, and not a soul would be surprised. But until that happens, this will remain one of football’s biggest mysteries.

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