Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley could be double trouble for Lions' defense
One of the core tenets of Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia's defensive philosophy is attempting to take away what the opposition does best each week. Obviously, that's easier said that done, and not always executed to design, but the idea is you force an opponent to beat you with someone or something else than their preferred method.
It's the football equivalent of making a right-handed dribbler go to their left.
The Lions defense got the ship righted last week against Jacksonville, and to stay on course, they'll now be tasked with slowing the Atlanta Falcons' high-octane attack. That starts with seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones.
Jones returned to the lineup last week — after missing the better part of three games with a hamstring strain — exploding for eight catches, 137 yards and two scores as the Falcons got into the win column for the first time this season with a 40-23 dismantling of the Minnesota Vikings.
"His return, his play, his speed, his strength, his power, his run after catch, all of it – just showed in its full form," Patricia said this week. "I think that you just see on tape how dominant he is as a receiver, how great of a player he is. It’s like I say all the time – when you’re that great of a player and everybody knows you are, (they) try to do everything you can to limit what you can do, but you still go out and do what you do every single game, it’s pretty amazing. That’s a big one for us right there."
On a per game basis, Jones is the most-productive receiver in NFL history. His 96.0 yards per game over his decade-long career is more than 11 percent better than the next guy on the list, Saints receiver Michael Thomas.
But health has limited the Falcons superstar this season. He suffered a hamstring strain that sidelined him the second half against Green Bay as well as two other games. And the difference between when he's in the lineup compared to when he's out is stark.
In the three weeks Jones was fully healthy, the Falcons have averaged nearly 35 points per game. In the weeks he barley played or was held out of the lineup, the team averaged a little more than 19.
That leaves little doubt to his impact. But even when he's on the field, focusing all your attention on stopping him will only get you so far with how the Falcons' offense is currently constructed. That's because the team has another first-round receiver, Calvin Ridley, in the midst of a breakout campaign.
"Ridley on the other side — some of his ability to get in and out of breaks, his explosiveness in start-stop is amazing," Patricia said.
Though six games, Ridley had been one of the league's most-productive wideouts. His 91.0 yards per game ranks seventh in the NFL and his five touchdowns are tied for third.
Ridley has been a premier scoring threat since entering the league, with 22 touchdowns in his first 35 games, but he's been a far more productive weapon overall for quarterback Matt Ryan this year, possibly fueled by necessity with Jones' injury.
"I think that’s where they’ve done an outstanding job of balancing off their weapons and their skill players," Patricia said. "(Russell) Gage in the slot, too – he’s done a great job of being productive. I think both of those players have just taken their opportunity to grow when Julio was not out there, and just can see how dynamic those guys are."
With Ridley, Jones, Gage, and even tight end Hayden Hurst — who is on pace to blow away previous career-bests for pass-catching production — this is shaping up to be the most difficult challenge Detroit's secondary has faced all season. And you have to remember, this is a defense that gave up 42 points to the Packers and five consecutive touchdown drives in a loss to the Saints.
"Everyone knows they got a great receiver corps over there," cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. "We got our hands full this week and we got to trust the game plan the coaches have drawn up for us. Make sure we make it a physical game and just try to play to our strength and make it hard for them. I think we don't need to do anything spectacular, we just need to do our best."