If the Panthers can't come up with a better strategy to defend Julio Jones, then we will definitely have a problem in 2012 and beyond. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
'They traded what? For who?!.... BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!"
On draft night it was easy to make fun of our fellow division rivals. The New Orleans Saints for a running back who couldn't average 4 YPC last year, and the Falcons gave up a ransom for the second best wide receiver in the draft. Superficially it was easy to dub Julio Jones as a 'workout warrior'; after all, most didn't peg him to go above the 20's until he ran like lightning in Indianapolis, and caught everything thrown at him– all with an injured foot.
Now the Falcons can preen, because thus far it looks like their move will result in Atlanta adding one of the best wide receivers in the NFL to their roster. If it turns out that they basically got a receiver in the mold of Terrell Owens without any of the baggage, is there a price that was too high?
Last season A.J. Green was surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance; supporting Andy Dalton in a manner that made headlines and highlight flow easily. Meanwhile Jones struggled with injury during the middle of his season, and still managed to put up 959 yards and 8 TDs in 13 games. Still recovering from his broken foot, and a bad hamstring on 12/11 he finished with 104 yards receiving, and two touchdowns against the Panthers solidfying a win.
This isn't designed to genuflect to the brilliance that is Julio Jones, but rather look at how of all the players in the NFC South the Panthers don't have a good option to deal with him. We'll delve into why this is...
After the jump
Last night Jones made the 1st team Ravens defense look foolish. He's already developed a rapport with Matt Ryan that seems to put them on the same page better than even Ryan and Roddy White are, and when the Falcons needed a big play he looked for Jones, just like he did all last season.
Chris Gamble is an amazing cornerback. We've extolled his virtues around here to the nth degree, but there are certain types of receivers he performs better against. He can stay in the pocket of guys like Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, and Roddy White who are longer striders, and don't display a huge amount of aggression off the line. What makes Julio Jones such a tough match-up is that he plays like a chippy, sub-6ft receiver, squeezed into a 6'2" frame, and given a healthy smattering of breakaway speed. Gamble has never done as well against these guys. Try to throw a go route, or deep post against him and you're asking for trouble, throw a quick slant and it gets a lot easier.
When playing Atlanta the proper match-up is to put Chris Gamble on Roddy White, an excellent receiver in his own right, but someone who Gamble has his number by now. White is still a 1,000 yard receiver, and has to be accounted for because he's the Falcons' chain-mover. However, Jones has become their big play threat, and it was big plays that killed the Panthers in 2011.
We continue to wait to see how the CB situation shapes up across from Gamble, and whether it's Brandon Hogan or Josh Norman they need to get healthy quickly. After spending time watching film on Norman, and seeing him in Spartanburg I'm not sure he's a good matchup for Jones either. Like Gamble he performs better on the deep routes, and was able to keep up with Steve Smith in these situations. However, when the routes were more compact and he was asked to cover double moves, hitches, and slants Norman started to look out of his depth. I have all the utmost confidence he'll develop these skills, but hey, he's still a 5th round rookie, and that's going to take time.
Based on playstyle alone, Brandon Hogan might be the best matchup for Julio Jones, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. At WVU Hogan showed a knack for dealing with the quick twitch, but he also had an 'all-or-nothing' approach that put him out of position on a lot of occasions.
Last year the Panthers had no answer for Darren Sproles, and he dismantled the Panthers. To that end Luke Kuechly's sideline to sideline speed will pay huge dividends, but as it stands Carolina have no answer whatsoever for Julio Jones. He dealt with injury last season, describing how his ailing hamstring felt a '5 or 6' out of ten, yet still managed to total five 100+ yard receiving games. Now he says he's at 100%, and even before last night's ludicrous 109 yard performance in one quarter he was turning heads in Falcons' camp as making huge strides.
There are smarter people than I who are in the Panthers braintrust who need to work out a way to contend with Julio Jones, but as it stands the only real option looks like a shootout– and that's not a great answer.