Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter knows that he has one of the most dominant offensive weapons around in wide receiver Julio Jones, a player who has amassed 12,125 receiving yards through 126 games for the highest per game average in NFL history (96.2 YPG). However, there is an element of Jones’ statistics that is somewhat puzzling.
Why doesn’t he have more touchdowns, particularly on plays in the red zone?
“That’s a really good question," Koetter said. “It seems like such an easy thing. But Julio gets doubled so much, you just don’t get many chances. You think, ‘Just throw him a fade. Just throw him a fade.’ I mean, it’s so rare that Julio is single-covered in the fade area."
Jones has 11 red zone TD catches the past three seasons, which ties him for 11th among all wide receivers. He's tied for 19th the past three seasons in TD catches, with 17. As dynamic as Jones is, he alone has led the Falcons in touchdown receptions just once in the past five seasons, when he caught eight touchdowns in 2015. Last season, his six touchdowns tied him with tight end Austin Hooper for second on the team, behind the ascending Calvin Ridley's seven.
Of course, quarterback Matt Ryan would like to see more touchdown connections to Jones as the Falcons aim to regenerate the league-leading scoring offense that averaged 33.8 points per game under then-coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the 49ers head coach.
Ryan was asked if he ever gets the feeling that the Falcons could score every time by simply throwing to Jones in the red zone.
"Yeah, I wish it worked where it was one-on-one every time for [Jones] because I think that would be the case," he said. "I think defenses think like that, too, like, 'They've got Julio Jones. We better account for where he's at.' There's definitely an emphasis, when you have a player like that, to find ways to try and get him involved."
Jones' career-best effort came during Koetter’s first stint as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, the season the Falcons went 13-3 before losing to San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. (Andre Rison holds the franchise single-season record with 15 touchdowns in 1993.)
Koetter won’t enter Sunday’s 2020 season opener against the Seattle Seahawks encouraging Ryan to force throws so Jones can score. But Koetter does have a plan to create more scoring opportunities for his top threat.
“I really think for Julio to get more touchdowns, it has to come on either deep throws -- deeper throws where you take your shots whether it be go balls or deep posts -- or it has to be stuff like slants and intermediate routes where Julio breaks or spins out of a tackle," Koetter said. "Or like the Philly game: a screen where he catches it, gets a great block from Jake [Matthews], and he runs for  yards. I think he’s going to have to run some in."
Of Jones' six touchdowns last season, only the 54-yarder Koetter mentioned involved a run after the catch. The other five were all in the end zone, including the game winner at San Francisco. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones, now 31 years old, still possesses outstanding speed and explosiveness. Ryan, now 35, has unique chemistry with Jones from nine years of playing together, which leads to unspoken communication and strong chemistry. When it comes to throwing, Ryan is better known for his accuracy than his deep ball.
“There are not a lot of guys out there -- maybe the kid in Kansas City [Patrick Mahomes] or the kid in Houston [Deshaun Watson] -- there are not a lot of guys throwing 60-yard bombs," Koetter said. “Most deep balls travel 38 to 42, 45 yards in the air. That’s the majority of them."
Ryan was 1-of-4 on throws of 38-45 yards in the air last season. The only completion was a 93-yard touchdown hookup to receiver Olamide Zaccheaus on a ball thrown 41 yards in the air. His three incompletions were all intended for Ridley, including one interception. The play to Zaccheaus marked the first time that Jones was not the target of Ryan’s longest throw since 2012.
“Matt can throw the deep ball just fine," Koetter said.
It’s just a matter of Ryan and Jones being in sync and the often criticized offensive line giving Ryan ample time to throw. Koetter also spoke about Jones having the opportunity to run for scores after the catch. Well, Falcons quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp said one area Ryan focused on before this season was throwing the ball in a better place on deep crossing routes, allowing Jones, Ridley and others to catch it in stride and collect more yards after the catch.
In regard to the fade, the Falcons could have used a successful one in their divisional playoff loss to Philadelphia in 2017. Ryan and Jones noticeably worked on fades during this training camp. But as former Falcons receiver Roddy White pointed out, the fade has never been a big part of the team’s arsenal.
“That’s a true statement, what Roddy said," Koetter said. "Fades are a lot lower percentage than people would think. We haven’t been great at them, but one of the reasons we haven’t been great at them is because we don’t get many chances to do it. When they do have a chance to do it, it’s usually in the field, like around the 50-yard line or something like that. We practice it. We work on it.
“One of the things that would allow us to get more fades is if we become a better running team, which we want to be a more productive running team. That would probably decrease the number of times that you were able to double Julio because defenses would want to have another guy in the box."
Koetter hopes Todd Gurley is the guy who sparks more production in the run game. Gurley has 55 red zone rushing touchdowns in his career, so he should be a serious threat if he remains healthy.
It isn't always a bad thing when Jones draws added defensive attention. It opens opportunities for others, such as Ridley and pass-catching tight end Hayden Hurst, to win one-on-one matchups. Heck, Ridley might be the one drawing double coverage in the near future.
“Most teams' low red zone defense is somewhere inside the 12-yard line, and Julio was hardly ever single-covered inside the 12," Koetter said. “It makes other guys have single coverage, and that’s why maybe your tight ends get more balls or your backs."
Now with the Cleveland Browns, Hooper took advantage of Jones' drawing an extra defender on at least three of his six red zone touchdowns last season.
“It requires two people to account for Julio, or he’s going to score every time," Hooper said. “It helps out everyone else. And it limits what a defense can do coverage- and blitz-wise."
It will be interesting to see how many scoring opportunities Jones, Ryan, and the Falcons produce Sunday against the Seahawks, traditionally known for having a stingy defense. In Ryan's seven career games, including the playoffs, against Seattle, he has 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. In Jones' six career games against Seattle, he has two touchdowns, both in the Falcons’ 36-20 divisional-round win during their Super Bowl season.
Jones would certainly trade touchdowns for wins and a return trip to the Super Bowl.