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Julio Jones V. The Packers

Oct. 25, 2016
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Julio Jones is the best receiver in the league, and there’s not much debate about it. Jones has been a bit injury prone in his career, but injuries are just about the only thing that stops him. Only twice has Jones truly struggled this season, once against a still excellent Denver defense, and surprisingly, against a Saints defense that makes just about everyone else look like, well, Julio Jones (more on this later). The Packers have struggled mightily against number one receivers this season, most recently Cole Beasley of the Cowboys, but they’ve also put together some surprising performances, against Odell Beckham and just last Thursday against the Bears and Alshon Jeffery. How the Packers handle Atlanta will probably come down to health, and with Damarious Randall now sidelined indefinitely after groin surgery, it will be up to Ladarius Gunter and Quinten Rollins.

When Rollins and Gunter have played together with Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix behind them, the duo has been very good. When the Packer secondary has gotten torched this year it has generally been because Damarious Randall took an unwise gamble, or because injuries created chaos with assignments. The Dallas game was a disaster mostly because Rollins was hurt during the week and eventually scratched. When Randall also went down mid-game, Gunter and Goodson were unable to adjust to the additional responsibilities put upon them, and were repeatedly torched. Gunter was widely criticized by tape-watchers after the game, and while he was bad I don’t think that’s entirely fair. He has put together good performances much more frequently than bad ones, and the rapidity of secondary injuries made it impossible to prepare for a team as good as Dallas. Gunter very admirably put that disaster behind him and played extremely well against the Bears.

Rollins, like Randall, has been suffering from a groin injury but he has been making steady progress, and is (so far) expected to go Sunday barring setbacks. Rollins has been very good when on the field, and if the duo can both suit up, it will go a long way towards keeping Jones in check. Julio Jones will probably play well no matter what, but if they can keep him closer to “100 yards and a touchdown” than “200 yards and multiple touchdowns” they will give themselves a good chance to win the game. If there is any hole in the secondary though, the Packers will be in a world of hurt.

The Falcons are Uncommonly Smart

As previously mentioned, Julio Jones has been held in check twice this season, but...not really. Denver still boasts a great defense, but they have two big weaknesses; they are only average against the run (16th in the league, versus 4th against the pass), and they struggle against pass-catching running backs (just 24th in the league). Atlanta shifted their game plan to a run heavy attack, giving Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman 29 carries as opposed to just 28 pass attempts, resulting in 119 yards and a touchdown. Matt Ryan only completed 15 of those 28 passes, and almost half of them also went to Freeman and Coleman who turned 7 catches into 167 yards and another touchdown. Jones had just 2 catches but it hardly mattered as the Falcons hit the Broncos where it hurt, and they won 23-16. The Saints were another matter entirely. I had completely forgotten that Jones had just 1 catch (on 7 targets) against New Orleans in week 3, and in a vacuum that line makes no sense at all as the Saints are terrible in all areas of defense - except one. They are 29th against the run. They are 31st against pass-catching running backs. They are 25th against tight ends. They are 24th against slot receivers. And they are 27th against an opponent’s secondary outside receiver. But against an opponent’s primary outside receiver, they are 6th. 

In this particular game the Saints tried desperately to blanket the secondary with bodies and they did stop Jones, but in doing so they weakened an already bad run defense and Freeman and Coleman destroyed them. The Falcons gained a total of 442 yards against New Orleans, and 296 of those yards (67%) came from the running back duo, and Atlanta handily won the game.  

The Patriots are the team most likely to give up on having a balanced attack to mercilessly pick on an opponent’s weakness until they are just about ready to break down crying, and this season at least, Atlanta has exhibited a similar philosophy. Sometimes you can predictably rely on a team to run certain plays every game assuming they can simply out-execute you, regardless of how good you might be at stopping them. That has not been the case with Atlanta, and Dom Capers will have to be on his game to deal with their creativity. They’ve feasted a bit on a weak NFC South schedule, but they’ve also had impressive output against Denver and Seattle. This is the best Atlanta offense in years.

The Falcons’ offensive coordinator is Kyle Shanahan, who has seemingly been there forever. This year he deserves a lot of credit for calling creative and intelligent games, and for improving Matt Ryan’s technique. When they lose it rarely has anything to do with the offense.The head coach is Dan Quinn, late of the Seahawks. The Falcons brought him in to toughen up the team and rebuild the defense. That hasn’t worked.


The Defense

The Falcon defense is awful, and just like their division rivals the Saints, they’re mostly awful against “auxiliary receivers”. They struggle in the slot, against tight ends, and especially against pass-catching running backs. As a result, look for Ty Montgomery to again dominate the Packer backfield, and to be effective in doing so. Melvin Gordon, former Badger running back and extremely pedestrian pass catcher for the Chargers just lit up the Falcon defense with 6 receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown. Montgomery will be a matchup nightmare, and given their issues covering slot receivers, Randall Cobb should be the biggest beneficiary. Look for both to have huge games.

Atlanta is also terrible against the run, and it will be interesting to see if Knile Davis makes an extended debut. Montgomery probably cannot handle a full workload between the tackles, and the speedy former Chief will probably get his chance.

Tevin Coleman

The Packers receivers, running backs, and tight ends have combined to have only 4 receptions that gained over 30 yards so far this season. Atlanta’s backup running back Tevin Coleman has 5 such receptions on his own. Devonta Freeman gets the tough yards for the Falcons, but Coleman has been a surprisingly dangerous weapon as a compliment and more importantly as a receiver. Like any good pass catching running back, Coleman is pulling in nearly 80% of his targets, but unlike most running backs, he averages 17.4 yards per reception. In fact, for all receivers with 15 or more catches, Tevin Coleman ranks 9th in the league in yards per reception ahead of Odell Beckham, A.J. Green,T.Y. Hilton, and Brandon Marshall. He ranks just 6 spots behind Julio Jones.

The good news for the Packers is that Coleman pulled a hamstring last week against the Chargers and may miss the game. That would lead to more Devonta Freeman, and the Packer defense is excellent at stopping the Freemans of the world. The Cowboy game 2 weeks ago was strength on strength, and the Cowboys won decisively. This week we’ll see the strength of the Falcons in Julio Jones face the Packers’ biggest weakness in a banged up secondary. And we’ll see the Packers’ current strength on offense in Montgomery and Cobb against a defense ill-equipped to stop it. There should be a lot of scoring in this one.

The Pass Interference Problem Revisited 

The Packer offense still grades out fairly well by advanced statistics, but that is mostly the result of the fact that advanced statistics regard pass interference penalties as a positive. While they do help the offense just as a regular play would, the penalties that have benefited the Packers were in many cases gifts. 

Packers’ longest pass plays of 2016, update:
1. 66 yards - Pass Interference
2. 49 yards - Nelson
3. 44 yards - Pass Interference
4. 40 yards - Pass Interference
5. 39 yards - Nelson

The standard long Packer PI call involves Trevor Davis flailing, or Jordy Nelson throwing up his hands, or Davante Adams tripping himself. Many of these penalties were penalties, to be certain, but most of them would not have been catches had the play been clean.

Packers Receiving Leaders Update, yards:
Cobb - 388
Adams - 350
Nelson - 321
Pass Interference - 239
Montgomery - 164

Eventually opponents will stop making as much contact with Packer deep threats and these penalties will start to decline. If they don’t start actually hitting a bomb or two soon, it will severely hamper the offense. The Packers promoted the 6’3” Geronimo Allison from the practice squad this week, replacing the injured Jared Abbrederis. Allison isn’t a burner, but he’s a big body who can win battles at the catch point, and may give them some additional big play ability as well as a vertical presence near the end zone.

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