The Denver Broncos may have the best secondary in the NFL, starting with corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, but they’ll still have their work cut out for them against the Atlanta Falcons. Containing wide receiver Julio Jones looks like a daunting task, to say the least.
Jones went off for 300 yards last week. That’s also known as more yards than most quarterbacks threw for on Sunday. His quarterback, Matt Ryan, put up 503 yards, setting a franchise record.
It’s hard to trust the Falcons after last season. They started out undefeated, winning their first five games, and everyone was raving about them. Speculating about whether or not they were among the NFL’s elite already. Then they lost eight of their next 11 games, ending the season at 8-8. That’s usually considered perfectly mediocre, but it was looked at as a massive failure considering how things began.
Still, no matter what the Falcons are as a team, it’s impossible to deny that they have firepower. Jones is the best wideout in the NFL, he’s playing in a system that gets him plenty of touches, and he’s going to be hard to stop.
The nice thing, for the Broncos, is that they don’t have to do much else. The Falcons are 30th in defense, two spots away from dead last. They’re massively banged up, especially at linebacker. They’re averaging one sack per game, which actually is dead last in the NFL.
It’s clear that this is an offensive powerhouse, but not a complete team. Jones’ production has opened the way for the running game, which is seventh in the league. The overall offense and passing offense both rank out at No. 1. It is still early in the year, but the Falcons are a team that will score like mad, but that can’t stop anyone.
We’ve seen this story before. No. 1 offense against No. 1 defense. It was the Super Bowl, with the Broncos against the Panthers, and the defense won resoundingly.
To do that, it all starts and ends with Jones. The corners have to at least contain him and try to slow him down. They’re not going to take him entirely out of the game. But they do need to keep him from just running up and down the field through this defense. That’s how the Falcons control games and it’s how they win. If they can’t do it, they have very little hope.
The Broncos could really let the running game do what it wants. If the Falcons are going to try to beat them on the ground, so be it. A huge day from Jones is the only way they’ll win, and preventing that is the top priority.
Fortunately, with an elite secondary, they can get it done. Talib is a big, physical corner – something Jones never saw last week, against that young Panthers’ secondary. He plays a physical brand of football meant to knock wideouts off their game, and it works. Jones may be a freak athlete, but Talib is one of the few guys in the NFL who can actually match his athleticism.
The Broncos can also scheme him out; defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is a genius with schemes, and it doesn’t take a genius to know that rolling a safety over the top of Jones can help prevent that deep ball. Jones will think twice knowing that Darian Stewart and TJ Ward are waiting to light him up.
As usual, though, the Broncos will probably slow down the passing game by getting to Ryan. He’s used to a well-timed offense, played indoors, where everything has the crisp nature of a video game. He needs to be able to communicate with his guys, making sure they’re all on the same page. Outside, in Denver, with the screaming home crowd, he’s already out of his element.
If Harris and Talib can hit Jones at the line and the safeties can lurk over the top, they can slow the individual plays themselves down. Make Ryan hold the ball longer. Blow up that timing. Against a pass rush that can’t get home, Ryan could stand in and find a target. With Derek Wolfe and Shane Ray and Von Miller all bearing down at 100 miles per hour, though, that pocket will be shredded in seconds and Ryan will be on the ground.
Once again, defense will beat offense, because the offense needs multiple things to go right on every snap. An elite defense just needs two seconds of chaos, and they force that offense to fall apart.