When a quarterback throws for more than 500 yards in a game, and a single receiver accounts for 300 of those yards, it is always going to draw a great deal of attention.
In Week 4, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, and wide receiver Julio Jones combined for one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances, as the Falcons beat the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers 48-33 to move to 3-1, taking an early two-game lead in the NFC South.
Icing The Game With The Biggest Play Of The Game
The design of this play was as simple as it is brilliant. With just under four minutes left in the game, on the first play from scrimmage following a score by Carolina to pull within eight points, everyone in the stadium, including the Carolina defense, was thinking Atlanta would run the ball and the clock. But Falcons’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, had other plans.
Atlanta came on to the field for first down in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers), and after motioning the tight end from out wide back to the core of the formation, and showed simple inside run action.
Because of Jones’ ability to win deep down field, the Carolina free safety is aligned about five yards deeper than the typical 10-12 yards. The threat of the run has the linebackers at the second level, at only four yards off the ball, and chomping at the bit to come down hill to make a play.
Because of the reduced split from Jones, mid-way between the numbers and the hash, the corner has to be prepared for a two-way go, knowing he had no help to the outside. At the snap, Jones gives a jab step to the outside, forcing the corner to react that way, before crossing his face back to the inside. With the safety deeper than normal and the linebackers stepping forward with the play action, the middle of the field was wide open.
Even with the massive leverage advantage that Jones has to the inside, the ball comes out a bit late, which forces him to throttle down to make the catch. For most receivers this deceleration would allow the defenders to close and make a tackle. However, with Jones’ strength and speed, he was able to stiff arm the Panthers’ corner, then re-accelerate to still beat the angle of the deep safety down the sideline.
The understanding of the game situation, as well as the expectations of the defense in that situation, gave Shanahan the perfect opportunity to dial up a play-action strike to his best player, which wound up being the knockout blow delivered squarely to the jaw of the Panthers. Down two scores, with starting quarterback Cam Newton out of the game with injury, Carolina’s chances of winning virtually disintegrated as Jones raced down the right sideline on his way to the end zone.
This play, along with three other receptions by Jones of greater than 30 yards, paced the Falcons offense as they moved it up and down the field on the once vaunted Panthers defense. Showing domination in the passing game, only a week after running roughshod over the Saints defense on the ground, sent a message to the rest of the league that this Atlanta offense is a force to be reckoned with.