If you’ve managed to catch much of the Atlanta Falcons early on in the 2015 NFL season, you’ve probably noticed how important wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman have become to this offense during a 5-0 start. Jones exploded out of the gates with one of the most incredible starts for a wide receiver in NFL history and Freeman emerged in Week 3 after initially sharing carries with rookie Tevin Coleman prior to him going down with an injury.
But whether you’ve seen them both put up monster numbers like they did in a Week 3 win over the Dallas Cowboys, or you’ve seen them each shouldering the load individually, you’ve probably gathered by now that they’re essential. And in the first half of a Thursday Night Football matchup with the New Orleans Saints, that continued to be the case.
Freeman and Jones combined to produce 140 of the Falcons’ 256 first-half yards, with Freeman tallying 60 yards on 10 carries with three catches for 14 yards and Jones putting up 68 yards on just three catches. That was good enough for 55% of the Falcons’ offense, and when you look at those raw numbers you’d almost have to assume that things were going well. Unfortunately, if you’re a Falcons fan, a pair of botched snaps (one resulting in an actual turnover and the other resulting in a turnover on downs in plus territory) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown made sure that wasn’t the case.
But none of the things that put the Falcons into the 14-7 halftime hole they faced had anything to do with Freeman and Jones. If anything, those two proved that they were most capable of leading the offense in the second half, and yet…
Coming out of the half with a fair amount of momentum having forced a missed field goal and owning possession to start the half, Freeman and Jones became afterthoughts in the Falcons’ gameplan despite the fact that it was still just a one-score game at the time. As a matter of fact, prior to getting the ball back after another missed field goal by Saints kicker Zach Hocker with 3:57 remaining left in the game when hope, for all intents and purposes, was already lost with the Falcons trailing 31-14, Freeman and Jones had combined for just nine touches.
On those nine touches, they had produced 47 of the Falcons’ 96 yards of offense up to that point, and Freeman had managed a 25-yard touchdown scamper to pull the Falcons to within 24-14. Yet, that was all the action the two biggest playmakers in that offense received during the first 26 critical minutes of the second half.
By the time the Falcons had realized their mistake, it was too late, but Freeman and Jones continued to prove why they should have been first and foremost in the game plan regardless. On an 11-play, 62-yard scoring drive to make it 31-21 with 1:29 to play, Matt Ryan found Julio Jones once for a big 16-yard gain on a 4th-and-5 play and completed five dumpoffs to Devonta Freeman for 42 yards and the touchdown.
And while there were other factors that led to the demise of the Falcons’ perfect season–namely the five total fumbles (three lost), the 44:21 pass-to-run ratio despite running for 7.1 yards per carry, the five sacks (three by Cameron Jordan) by the Saints’ defense and a defense that was somehow decimated by Ben Watson–it’s hard not to wonder what was going through Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan’s head.
That pair has done an excellent job throughout the season of getting Freeman and Jones the ball when it mattered most, but Thursday they failed. And even though Julio Jones was clearly limited with his hamstring injury (he routinely just covered up and got what he could as opposed to making dynamic plays after the catch like he normally would), he was able to create enough separation to reel in those six catches for 93 yards on 10 targets. And Freeman certainly made the most of his 21 touches with 156 yards and the pair of scores, so what gives?
In those 26 minutes where Jones and Freeman were forced into hibernation, the Falcons ran 15 plays that didn’t wind up in their hands for a total of 49 yards. And while there were missed shots downfield to Jones late and a drop by Freeman even later on in garbage time, they had opportunities to lean harder on the running game and on Jones.
That in and of itself might not have been enough, but when those two players have been the two primary ingredients in a 5-0 start, people tend to notice when the recipe is off and the taste (read: result) doesn’t match up.