There are two problems with trying to stop Julio Jones: The first is that even game plans built to impede the Falcons wide receiver may not work; the second is that the few times they do work, his teammates can be just as devastating.
Sunday’s Super Bowl isn’t just a matchup between a young, upstart team and an established dynasty; it’s a test of whether the Falcons can prove to be the rare offense immune to Bill Belichick’s unrivaled ability to take away what the opponent does best. Teams have flopped in myriad ways when trying to shut down Jones, and now the coach best known for being able to neutralize almost anyone will get his crack when it matters most.
This season, the Falcons scored the seventh-most points in NFL history thanks in large part to Jones, who makes Atlanta different from any other Super Bowl participant: No team in NFL history has made the contest with a player who has gained as many yards per game in the regular season as Jones’s 100.6. Only Jones and Michael Irvin (100.2) have made the Super Bowl after snagging 100 yards per game that season, so in this era of seemingly unstoppable pass catchers, Jones is the first to dominate a season and then get his team to the big game.
Jones has made such an unprecedented impact at his position because he’s the rare non-quarterback who cannot be rendered ineffective; even “stopping” Jones means unleashing a different iteration of Atlanta’s offense that’s just as potent. He dominated the regular season and then took over the playoffs because opponents routinely fail to find the middle ground between letting him run wild and focusing on thwarting everyone else and throwing so many bodies at him that he’s able to suck the life out of the defense while his teammates do the scoring. Of course, even in that second scenario, Jones still makes catches. Jones was the league’s most dominant receiver this season in yards per game, and his team figured out how to fully capitalize on his greatness even when it came in the form of a distraction. Matt Ryan’s quarterback rating this season when throwing to someone other than Jones increased to 124 from 82 last season; his touchdown-to-interception ratio on those throws rose to 32-to-3, compared with 13-to-14 last season.
“If you want to [sell out] to stop Julio, it gets everyone else open,” says Falcons receiver Justin Hardy. “You can pick your poison, what you want to stop. But how we run things, the depth we have, it’s next man up.” Or, as wide receiver Taylor Gabriel puts it, “I have no idea how you’re going to stop us.”
For as long as Belichick has been in Super Bowls, though, he’s taken dramatic steps to ensure that opposing stars have an atypically small impact. As Giants defensive coordinator in the 1991 season, he installed a scheme featuring as few as two defensive linemen with the rest of the defenders in coverage, focusing on stopping Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly and virtually ignoring the team’s secondary star, running back Thurman Thomas. In his first Super Bowl as head coach, in the 2001 season, Belichick built his entire scheme around nailing Rams star Marshall Faulk on every play, whether or not the play was going his way.
Belichick will have to craft something special for Jones, too, because normal defense doesn’t work on the sixth-year receiver. Trying to rough him up at the line rarely works, because this season Jones gained the most yards in the NFL on plays in which a player was pressed by a defensive back at the snap, with 659 of his 1,409 receiving yards coming in those situations. “I’ve seen plays where a guy is holding him at the line, [they don’t call a penalty], and he’s getting jammed, and Julio made a big play,” says Willie McGinest, the former Patriots linebacker and current NFL Network analyst. McGinest acknowledges that the Patriots will almost surely throw frequent double coverages at Jones, because the technique, which places a cornerback near the line of scrimmage and a safety to help protect against deep passes, is a Belichick staple when facing a dominant player. The Patriots want to contain the receiver between those two players using this “bracket” coverage.
But McGinest also notes that in addition to doubling Jones, the Patriots could employ some variation of what they did to Faulk in the Rams-Patriots Super Bowl, where relentless physicality keyed the Patriots’ massive upset. He expects the Patriots to hit Jones plenty, especially within the 5 yards in which contact is allowed. Rules experts are less convinced that the Pats will go that route, however, especially as the NFL continues cracking down on pass interference and defensive holding. This regular season, officials accepted 102 more defensive holding penalties and 73 more defensive interference penalties than in the 2001 season, when the Patriots vanquished the Rams for the title.
“People are saying: Do you grab Julio Jones? Do you hit him? Do you try to take him out of the game that way? I don’t think you can,” says longtime NFL referee and current Fox analyst Mike Pereira. “I don’t think New England can grab him and hold him. … The playing field as it is now favors the offense.”
Throwing extra bodies on Jones increases the risk of penalties and leaves every other Falcons receiver in single coverage — and it doesn’t even always work. He’s the rare player for whom solid double coverage does not automatically prevent a throw.
While the Falcons prefer to take the easy deep completion, they will still throw to Jones even when he’s smothered. In fact, Falcons quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur says the offense is built in part on the understanding that Jones must still get opportunities even when two defenders are on him. Of course, there’s a screening process in place for smart decision-making: “You better have the right route called for him in order to even think about throwing versus some of those two-man coverages,” LaFleur says, specifying that often means a route that either cuts to the corner of the end zone or cuts toward the goal post, giving Jones an opportunity to take a few steps that almost no defender — with or without help — can stick with. “He has this ability to threaten going deep, cut, and create a huge separation with anyone because other guys can’t make the same step,” says backup quarterback Matt Schaub, who also echoes LaFleur, noting that even when the Falcons know Jones will be double-covered, they “still put him in a position to get open. They aren’t just giving him routes that are going to be taken away.” The upshot is that Jones is rarely out of a play, even if the opponent thinks that he is.
And in the rare instances in which he is out of a play, it’s not so bad for Atlanta. He was held below 40 receiving yards four times this season — and the Falcons won all four games. Gabriel says his eyes got big when he first saw the defense in Atlanta’s first matchup against Green Bay, in October, which he calls a receiver’s dream: The Packers sold out to stop Jones, leaving other players in one-on-one coverage. Eight Falcons caught a pass that day, and Atlanta won 33–32. Jones finished with 29 yards.
Even in those rare quiet outings, Jones still has his moments, thanks largely to his ability to get open despite the odds. Falcons coaches marvel at his route-running precision despite his 6-foot-3 frame. “He’s a big guy who doesn’t just rely on being big,” says wide receivers coach Raheem Morris. “He has great short-space quickness, he goes in and out of breaks, he has all the small things you covet in a small receiver. It’s just unbelievable. We look for receivers who can separate, and usually those guys all happen to be smaller. It just so happens that we have a giant who can do it.”
The Patriots used bracket coverage on Antonio Brown for large chunks of the AFC title game against the Steelers. Though they used Malcolm Butler and a safety in that game, in the past they’ve typically used their second-best cornerback in the double coverage, leaving their best cornerback in single coverage on the opponent’s second-best wide receiver. It’s unclear which tactic Belichick will favor on Sunday, but his approach against the Steelers produced Brown’s first non-100-yard game of the playoffs. Almost everyone expects that double coverage to come in some form against the Jones — and they also expect Jones to break free a few times.
“He’s going to be double-covered,” says former Colts receiver and current NFL Network analyst Reggie Wayne, who faced Belichick 16 times over his career. “Belichick forces you to play left-handed … but there may be times when he’s double-covered, Julio runs a comeback, and Matt Ryan gets it there. I don’t think Julio needs to think he’s not going to have any involvement. It may come sparingly, but it could be a big play.”
Cris Carter, a Hall of Fame receiver who is now a Fox analyst, marvels at the mixture of deep and intermediate routes that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan draws up for Jones. Carter compliments one of Jones’s subtler skills: never allowing his body language to suggest that he’s out of a play and never letting the defense get comfortable by tipping off that the ball is going in the opposite direction. “He doesn’t let up when there’s no chance of him getting the ball,” Carter observes, and Shanahan says there’s a clear reason: Those plays aren’t what they seem.
“Because with Julio,” Shanahan says, “there really is always a chance.”