ASHBURN, Va. -- The trouble with Julio Jones is knowing exactly where he's going to be and what he'll then do. Just look at what the Atlanta Falcons did with their top receiver against Dallas two weeks ago. One play he’s motioning to a stacked position and two plays later he’s outside the numbers.
Later, he’s back inside, tight to the line of scrimmage running a deep cross for 22 yards. Three plays later he runs a skinny post from a similar spot on the other side of the line for a 45-yard touchdown.
He’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, can run and is versatile.
“If you create a player on Madden, that’s him,” Redskins corner Will Blackmon said.
“They move him all over the field and it’s hard to figure out where he’s going to be,” Redskins corner Bashaud Breeland said.
Difficult indeed. Jones leads the NFL with 38 catches and 478 yards receiving, and poses a large problem for the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
It’s not as if the Falcons can’t be beaten with him; they’ve struggled the past two seasons. But the combination of Jones, quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has resulted in big numbers.
It’ll be tough for Jones to maintain a 9.5-catches-per-game pace. And it’s not as if he hadn’t been productive in past years: He caught 104 passes for 1,593 yards last season.
But the Falcons are moving him around more, preventing defenses from always getting a handle on him. That, plus Shanahan’s misdirection offense, often leaves Jones more open than defenses would want.
“It speaks to the volume of how bright Julio is,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “He’s got a terrific football mind.”
Against Dallas, for example, Jones was aligned just outside the right tackle when Ryan executed a play-action fake. With the corner playing outside leverage against him, Jones ran a deep cross. And because Jones was coming from the other side, the linebacker to the area he was headed didn’t see him and therefore had no reason to drop deeper. That left Jones hauling in a 22-yard catch with a corner trailing him.
“He’s a great player wherever he is,” Gruden said. “When you line up a great player at one spot, sometimes you can cloud to him, you can do some things to him. When you move him around -- you put him in the slot, you put him over here, you put him in motion -- that’s a little bit more difficult. There’s a lot more communication that has to take place.
“He’s like a great basketball player -- he’s going to get his touches. He’s going to get his points. We’ve just got to make sure he doesn’t hurt us with the over-the-top big plays and make sure when he does get the ball we have a group effort to get him down."
A cornerback must prepare well before facing such a receiver. It’s not just that he lines up in different areas, it’s that he’ll then run different routes. So a corner must know what routes he’ll run from what alignment.
“That’s why we make six-to-seven figures,” Blackmon said. “We have to know all that stuff.”
Going back to the Cowboys game: Jones’ ability to run various routes helps him create extra yards of separation. In a stack formation, the corner anticipated him going inside as he had on a previous look. But Jones instead took it back outside for an easy catch as the corner was caught leaning inside.
On some routes, like on a hitch, Jones will be patient. But when he breaks, there’s a burst back to the ball to create more room.
“Usually you don’t see receivers his size in the slot,” Blackmon said. “It’s just those special guys. It’s an easier target for inside throws and he’s been real productive in there running little one-step routes because he’s physical. He’s a big target as opposed to a smaller guy in there where the quarterback has to throw it in there and try to fit it in.”
The danger is paying too much attention to Jones, leaving others free. He'll run pick routes to free others up; it's how former Redskins receiver Leonard Hankerson caught a touchdown pass last week vs. Houston. Other times, Jones will line up in the backfield, with running back Devonta Freeman aligned at fullback.
But you must pay close attention to Jones; it’s tough to jam him, but corners have tried to play up on him. And it'll be difficult to slow Jones if corner Chris Culliver can't play because of a bad knee. Regardless, the Falcons moving him around makes Jones even better -- and tougher to stop.
“He’s a big, physical receiver and has great speed,” Redskins slot corner Kyshoen Jarrett said. “Whether he’s in the slot or outside. He gives any corner a great challenge.”