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Why Can’t Julio Jones Score a Touchdown?

The most prolific receiver in the game is on pace for the single-season receiving-yards record. He has zero touchdowns. What gives?

Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Half of the following names are NFL players with more touchdowns than Julio Jones this season, and the other half are characters from the new Tom Hardy movie, Venom. See if you can guess which is which.

  • Zach Line
  • Carlton Drake
  • Jason Croom
  • Zach Pascal
  • Eddie Brock
  • Cletus Kasady
  • Josh Bellamy
  • Geoff Swaim
  • Jackson Maine
  • Guy on Street No. 3

OK, I cheated: Jackson Maine is Bradley Cooper’s character in A Star Is Born, and “Guy on Street No. 3” is my nickname for Sammy Watkins. But Jones, who has zero touchdowns this year, is being outscored by nobodies, which is strange because he is having a spectacular season by every other metric. He leads the NFL in total receiving yards (502), receiving yards per game (125.5), and yards per touch (17.1). As ESPN’s Matthew Berry pointed out, Jones is on pace for 2,008 receiving yards—which would be an NFL record and the first 2,000-receiving-yard season in league history to boot—with zero touchdowns.

Four games is a small sample size, but Jones has had trouble scoring touchdowns for years. Falcons rookie receiver Calvin Ridley has as many touchdowns in his past three games (six) as Jones does in his past 30. From the start of the 2016 season to present, Jones leads the NFL in receiving yardage but is tied for 50th in receiving touchdowns with nine scores. That’s behind Ted Ginn Jr., Donte Moncrief, Robby Anderson, Nelson Agholor, Chargers tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry, and his teammate Mohamed Sanu. He’s tied with the likes of Brandon LaFell, Cole Beasley, and even Cooper Kupp, who began his pro career in 2017. Jones has more than twice as many yards in that span as all of the above players, plus he’s taller, faster, stronger, and can jump higher than just about every other receiver in the NFL. So why can’t he score touchdowns?

It’s not just randomness. FiveThirtyEight’s Michael Salfino wrote last season that between 2014 and midway through last year, Jones’s percentage of targets in the Falcons offense went down the closer the Falcons got to the end zone, dropping from a third of quarterback Matt Ryan’s pass attempts near Atlanta’s own goal line to under 30 percent in opposing territory to just over 15 percent in the red zone.

When Atlanta does target Jones, something always seems to go wrong. In the divisional round of the playoffs against the Eagles last year, with Atlanta trailing by five late in the fourth quarter, Ryan found Jones four times on the final drive to get the team to the Eagles’ 2-yard line. Jones slipped on a potential game-winning touchdown on the Falcons’ final play. In the Week 1 rematch to open the 2018 season, the Falcons faced a similar situation with Jones leading the charge to the red zone, but they sputtered in the end zone, where two potential game-winning touchdowns fell incomplete. On second-and-goal, Ryan forced the ball to Jones in double coverage to no avail.

On the Falcons’ final play, Ryan’s pass took Jones out of bounds on a leaping catch that might have been a score with different ball placement.

Earlier in the game, on Jones’s best scoring chance of the year so far, Ryan underthrew him and took him to the sideline rather than the middle of the field for a surefire touchdown.

The best recent analog for Jones’s season is Calvin Johnson in 2012, when he led the league with 122 catches and set the NFL single-season record with 1,964 receiving yards but caught a mere five touchdowns. In that season, Johnson was tackled at the 1-yard line an astonishing five times, plus another three times inside the 5-yard line. Jones is on pace to break that yardage record but somehow fall shy of Johnson’s paltry scoring mark. It’s the football equivalent of being ahead of everyone in a race but missing all of the checkpoints.

Stealing Jones’s thunder (or, uh, touchdowns) has been the other Calvin: fellow first-round Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Picked by Atlanta 26th overall in this year’s draft, Ridley has been a scoring machine through four games, which is largely why the Falcons’ red zone woes have disappeared over the past three games (the team turned 11 straight red zone trips into touchdowns after that Week 1 loss to the Eagles). Ridley is the first receiver who commands respect across from Jones since Roddy White. The Rams’, Chiefs’, and Bucs’ passing games have been lauded this year, but the Falcons sit behind those three at fourth in net yards per pass attempt at 8.1. Atlanta figures to keep moving the ball as Steve Sarkisian’s offense gels, and Ridley’s emergence may decrease the double-teams that Jones sees (or at least make safeties and linebackers shade their positioning a little bit farther from Jones) and open up the chances of him finally scoring (again, and again, and again).

This week’s game against the Steelers is a great bet to end Julio’s drought and put him back on pace with his contemporaries. Pittsburgh is 27th in tackling, per Pro Football Focus, and Jones’s shiftiness with the ball could prove difficult for anyone in the Steelers’ secondary to handle. Part of that is Pittsburgh’s lack of depth in the secondary after cornerback Joe Haden. Here’s a list of Steelers defensive backs playing more than 40 percent of snaps mixed with more characters from Venom.

  • Sean Davis
  • Roland Treece
  • Dan Lewis
  • Mike Hilton
  • Cameron Sutton
  • Artie Burns
  • Chasing Guard

With Ridley churning, the Falcons offense can finally make defenses pick their poison, and playing against a ragtag group whose names are indistinguishable from the Venom cast means Julio might finally strike gold this week.