The Cascading Effect of Julio Jones

With the arrival of Julio Jones in Nashville, the ceiling on the Titans offense has been removed. It’s hard to overstate the impact Julio has on this offense. On one hand, this is all very obvious. Adding a future Hall of Fame talent is going to make any offense better. There’s not much requisite knowledge needed to connect those dots. However, the downstream effects of stacking Julio Jones on the Titans – a team that already has a true number one in AJ Brown, and the league’s best pure rusher in Derrick Henry – are multifaceted.

Before we get into that, let’s all get one thing out of the way. Julio Jones is getting older. There’s no arguing something that’s a simple fact. However, he has not lost a step. Perhaps one injury plagued year (the first time playing less than 14 games since 2013) has warped some perceptions, but this man was a monster when healthy in 2020.

On a per target basis, Julio was one of the most productive receivers in the NFL in a 2020 season cut short by injury. And, this shows up consistently on tape.

The guy still is playing at top speed. I’d even go as far as to argue that this was what magnified his hamstring issue last year – Julio only appears to play at an all out top speed. It is this violence in his initial stem, elite size and speed, and an incredible attention to route detail that has created such consistent production over his career. It’s also fair to make the deductive leap that when his physical performance starts to decline, his nuanced receiver play in every other facet of his game could allow him to play much longer than some of his peers. That’s something the team can worry about in the future. For now, the Titans have two bonafide WR1s. How does this affect the rest of the offense?

A refresher on box numbers

This is a commonly misunderstood thing even among analysts. The thing that matters with box numbers is not the sheer number of defenders in the box. Rather, it is the number of defenders in the box relative to the number of blockers. For example:

Here the Titans bring out 12 personnel and are met with 7 box defenders. They have a hat on a hat blocking. This is not a loaded box. The easiest way to identify this is by first noticing the number of safeties. It is virtually impossible to have a loaded box with two deep safeties. In order to do so, you’d have to leave a wide receiver uncovered.

On the very next play, the Titans get into 11 personnel. However, the Vikings still have 7 box defenders, yet this is a loaded box. They do this by dropping a safety into the box, which is the most common way to add a defender to the box. With 7 defenders in the box, the Titans now are unable to block all of the gaps up front. From a pure numbers perspective, this should lead to a free rusher.

This can lead to comparative problems when using gross numbers. For example, saying one team/player faced more 8 man boxes than another doesn’t tell us much. While an 8 man box will almost always be a loaded box (unless the offense is in 13 personnel), the same is also true for a 7 man box on a team that runs the ball out of 11 personnel. What really matters is how often the box is loaded – meaning it has more defenders than blockers. Adding Julio Jones to the offense creates a new dynamic for defenses to contend with and how often they can afford to load the box against Derrick Henry.

What went wrong against Baltimore

Since 2018, Derrick Henry has rushed for less than 3.0 yards per carry in 5 games. The Titans lost all of them.

There are a few remarkable things here:

  1. Henry is the overwhelming leader in carries over this period, yet he only ranks 21st among all qualifiers (10 carries or more) for games with less than 3 YPC.
  2. He is one of only two players in the top 25 here with zero wins.
  3. Despite both of these two things, teams still struggle to stop him.

Nonetheless, he can be stopped. And, when he is, the team hasn’t found ways to win without him. That’s exactly what happened against Baltimore. To mix sports metaphors, the Titans may have the best fastball in the league, but they struggle when that’s taken away.

Overwhelmingly, Henry faced loaded boxes against Baltimore. Like this:

And this:

The Ravens stacked the box, overpursued gaps and basically dared the Titans to beat them in the traditional passing game. They did this by playing almost exclusively single high coverage. On run downs, they’d aggressively play downhill to stop Henry. On 2nd and long situations, they often flooded the middle of the field with either linebackers or rat linemen that they’d sink into zone coverage. Of course, this oversimplifies things some, and coverages varied, but the general strategy was this – we’re going to take away Derrick, and your play action over the middle. If you want to score, you have to beat our corners on the perimeter. And, it worked.

Ryan Tannehill Wild Card Weekend Pass Chart

The Ravens forced the ball to the perimeter. In the traditional dropback game, the Titans struggled both with pass pro, and creating space on the outside. The team either didn’t have confidence to attack outside, or pressure prevented them from doing so at times.

Now, of course, AJ Brown still did AJ Brown things like this:

And this:

Still, those are low percentage throws, even when thrown to one of the best receivers in the NFL. If the defensive strategy can reduce any team to needing to throw only perimeter passes 10+ yards down the field to one player, it’s going to be a long game for that offense.

The reason the Ravens could afford to do this was Corey Davis as the #2 receiver. Now, to be clear, I think Corey is a really good player. I thought the Titans should have re-signed him. But, he’s not a true #1 threat. As a complementary piece, he fit well opposite AJ Brown. He ran the crosser well, and could reliably beat press. It also helped that he was a proficient blocker in the run game. And, all these things made him a valuable piece in one of the best offenses in the NFL.

That said, would I want him isolated one on one against some of the better corners in the league? The answer is very clearly, no. We saw that show up against Baltimore with zero catches on two targets.

Enter Julio Jones

A player of Julio’s caliber flips this proposition on its head. In 2018, Julio Jones lead the league in receiving yards vs press man coverage with 747 yards. Isolating a corner on him in man coverage is completely different from running the same coverage against Corey Davis. He’s an absolute freak that happens to play football. Look how he attacks these corners in off coverage.

1st play of the game against Carolina. The thing to note here is the violent initial stem by Julio Jones. He attacks the corner at full speed before he gets into his break.

The very next play. Look again, he’s so aggressive in the way he runs at the corner. The corner anticipates the in breaking route and has his hips open the entire play. Julio’s quick break puts the corner on the ground.

The thing is, too, that he appears to play like this every single snap. He only has one speed – all out.

Of course (like it or not), run blocking matters in our offense. Robinson had this to say about Julio:

After watching film, I saw it, and I kind of alluded to it in my press conference, we’re going to hand the ball to Derrick and we’re going to do what we do. [A receiver is] going to have to go in there and go at a safety or a linebacker. He showed the willingness to do that last year. The Seahawk game stands out, him and Jamal Adams going at it. Jamal Adams, great player, and Julio went in there and did what he had to do. I just thought there, ‘It’s a good fit.’ What we’re going to ask of him, to catch and block, you can still see him doing that at a high level in Atlanta.

Jon Robinson in his interview with MMQB:

We can see the play Robinson is describing above. Julio is working from a tight split (something common in Tennessee) a blocks down on Adams with an effort rarely seen out of wide receivers.

Earlier in the same game, Julio puts his defender on skates when the ball is pitched out side in his direction. Again, the result of his blocking is great, but equally important is the willingness to put in this kind of effort in the run game.

Corey Davis was an excellent run blocker, too, so this isn’t a huge upgrade in this department. Like everything in a dynamic game like football, though, it is about how everything fits together. Julio Jones is a terror to defend in one on one coverage. He’s a vertical threat with aggressive strength at the line of scrimmage to beat press. And, he’s also a technician as a route runner against off coverage. In addition to this, he can also handle corners as a run blocker on the outside, which matters in an offense built around outside zone. If the box is loaded, Henry finds the edge, and Julio has engaged his defender, it’s just Henry against a safety. And we’ve all seen how that turns out.

Football strategy is all about tradeoffs. Teams study tendencies and do their best to game plan, but it is all just a best guess. Every play is intended to be better against different looks, but they all have contingencies and should theoretically work against everything they face.

This is especially true of defense.

I mean, theoretically, every defense that comes out in this alignment should be able to lock down the WRs and win the down. But, with the addition of Julio Jones, those probabilities have changed dramatically. You now have not one, but two, elite WRs that can win against any corner in the NFL at any given time.

The lifeblood of every offense is the ability to move the chains and get first downs. However, the true differentiator between good and great offenses is the ability to generate explosive plays. And, if you’re lining up in single coverage against Julio and AJB, it’s just a matter of time before explosives happen in a game. The question is – are you going to sell out to stop Derrick Henry and live with those explosives, just hoping they aren’t back breaking? That is a terrifying proposition that every opposing defensive coordinator is going to be faced with each week they face the Tennessee Titans.

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