Through the first five games of the 2009 season, Julio Jones has amassed only 9 catches for 133 yards and one touchdown. After establishing himself as an absolute phenom as a true freshman, the lack of production to date has left many befuddled and asking themselves exactly what is wrong with Julio Jones? And, of course, those concerns were only magnified this past weekend when, against Kentucky, Jones had only two catches for 13 yards.
Personally, going into the Kentucky game, I paid little attention to Julio's lack of production to date. After all, we had played only four games in the season, and Julio practically missed two entire games with a bruised knee, plus Virginia Tech's Bud Foster effectively approached the Alabama game with the intent that hell would freeze over before he would let Julio Jones beat his Hokies. In other words, the lack of overall production to date was really just more of a result of a small sample size mixed with a little bad injury luck, neither of which would constitute a major concern moving forward. But with the two catch, 13-yard performance against Kentucky, the critical fires were only further fanned, and after that I decided that closer scrutiny was warranted.
So, exactly what is going on with Julio Jones? There is really only one way to answer that question, and that is to simply put on the game film and take a closer look, and that is what I have decided to do here. All told, we targeted Julio Jones seven times against Kentucky, and all seven passes to him are included in the following 2:15 YouTube clip that flaco posted.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say from the outset that what I expected to find before looking at the film was that, against Kentucky, we would see a Julio Jones who was probably hampered by injuries -- in particular the sports hernia that he had surgery on in late April, and the bruised knee -- that was largely shut down thanks to the play of star Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley, and the collective efforts of the rest of the Kentucky secondary, largely by bracketing the wideout. With that expectation in mind, let's look at the film:
Much to my surprise, however, I actually found the opposite of what I expected to find. Kentucky did not really try to take Julio out of the game, per se. In fact, they effectively took the anti-Foster approach by practically begging us to throw the football in Julio's direction. Not a single time did he draw double coverage, nor did Kentucky actually bracket him with two defenders. At most, Kentucky would roll a safety in his direction on deep routes, and that was about it. Furthermore, on the seven passes thrown towards Julio, Lindley was only covering him on two those passes, and actually Kentucky matched up a safety in man coverage on him twice. And much to the contrary with regard to my expectation for a banged up Julio, truth be told Julio looked very good on film. He faced a lot of single coverage against Kentucky, and perhaps not too surprisingly, he was practically open all day long. Kentucky really just could not cover him, plain and simple. Again, after watching the film, I basically found the exact opposite of what I expected to find.
Julio Jones' lack of production on Saturday really had almost nothing to do with his own shortcomings. In actuality, the real reason for the lack of production was largely the inability of Greg McElroy to get the football to him when he was open. Let's take a closer look at all seven balls thrown in his direction to get a better understanding
Target #1: The first pass to Julio comes on the first play from scrimmage in the game. On 1st and 10, the 4-3 based Wildcats comes with a standard four-man rush, and drops all three linebackers into a loose zone behind the pass rush. The first read for McElroy is looking deep for Marquis Maze on a go route, but against a Cover Four shell nothing is open downfield. Julio Jones, on the other hand, is the second option in this play. He runs a short crossing route, and once he identifies the three-man zone by the linebackers, he does what he is supposed to do and finds the hole in the zone, and waits on his quarterback to throw him the football. And, actually, Jones does a fine job in this regard, and he is wide open, as you can tell by the following picture:
Unfortunately, McElroy doesn't get the ball out on time here. He checks down quickly, as he should, and he goes to throw the football to the open Jones, but for some reason he pump fakes instead. This pump fake causes Julio to move around trying to create a better throw for his quarterback, and it causes Kentucky safety Winston Guy to come up to play the short pass. The pump fake throws the entire play off, and the ball gets thrown at a bit of an odd angle, which ultimately Julio cannot bring in against tight coverage. This is not a sexy play regardless, and one that even if completed properly only gets four or five yards, but again this should be a completion. Inexplicably, however, McElroy doesn't get the ball out on time, and it results in an incomplete pass.
Target #2: On the following drive, Alabama is driving yet again, and here Julio Jones is in fact isolated in man coverage against Trevard Lindley. A safety does eventually roll in Julio's direction late, but he has no real impact on this play. Julio gets off the line very well against Lindley, and he is open streaking down the sideline on the go route. He has a step on Lindley, and with a good throw this is a touchdown. Unfortunately, the ball is underthrown and tails back towards the sideline in its flight, and Julio has to try to re-adjust his route, thus losing all separation. Even so, though, the ball is effectively uncatchable and falls to the ground incomplete.
Note: Notice on this play that the ball should not go to Julio Jones. Look to the left of the formation for Mark Ingram slipping out of the backfield. There is barely anyone on that side of the field, and if we get the football to him out in the flats, he has a huge play, and may very well even score. He's wide open with hardly a defender in sight.
Target #3: Later in the first quarter, we're trying to get the passing game going, so we call an easy pass here. Julio lines up in the slot to the left with safety Taideo Smith -- admittedly a bit of a small, coverage-oriented type safety who is really more physically built line a corner -- and on the snap he runs a quick flare out into the flats before cutting back inside to catch the wide receiver screen. Greg McElroy and Julio Jones do a good job on the simple pitch and catch, and Julio looks for daylight behind his linemen that broke free (in particular Mike Johnson). It's a solid play that has some promise, but unfortunately Julio runs smack into the massive stud linebacker Micah Johnson. And as usually happens what someone runs across Mr. Johnson, forward progress stops immediately. Four yard gain.
Target #4: Two plays later, Alabama is facing a 3rd and 6. Jones once again lines up to the left of the formation against (I think) the aforementioned Smith. It's man coverage, and quickly identifying that, McElroy immediately targets Jones, who runs about a 9-yard out route that will clearly get the Tide the first down. All is going well and looking good for the completion, but Julio slips coming out of his break and the ball sails by for an incomplete pass. It's a good throw by McElroy, but poor footing costs Jones the catch and 'Bama the first down.
Target #5: This one is simply a huge play where Julio comes up big with a key catch against tight coverage from Trevard Lindley. This is a 3rd and 3 with approximately 4:00 remaining in the second quarter, with the Tide clinging to a 7-6 lead. A punt here means that you have to get a defensive stop just to retain the lead going into halftime, so converting here is of the utmost importance. We run a quick slant here to Julio, and he does exactly what we need him to do. He fights hard and gets inside position on the All-American. Notice in the following picture how Julio places his 6'4 frame between the football and the cornerback:
This is a pure trust throw here by McElroy, and a pure trust play call by McElwain. Simply put, on a quick slant the ball has to be thrown before the receiver establishes inside position, so a quarterback and a play caller need full and complete confidence that the receiver in question will run the route perfectly, and in particular calling this play in such a critical situation against such a high quality defender is a risky call. Fortunately, Jones plants the left foot in the ground, gets inside position, and then goes out strong with his hands to get the football. Julio ultimately grinds out nine yards, and with a new set of downs, a few plays later the Tide scores a touchdown.
Note: Also notice here tight end Michael Williams running a nice route out into the right flat that, too, would have likely yielded a first down had the football been thrown in his direction. I mentioned this on Twitter earlier, but I'll reiterate here that Williams is really starting to get a lot of meaningful playing time.
Target #6: This pass comes late in the third quarter on a 2nd and goal play with the Tide holding a 31-13 lead over Kentucky, and it could have been an absolute, unmitigated disaster. Julio Jones is split out wide to the left, and runs the quick slant. Kentucky outside linebacker Sam Maxwell lines up in a two-point stance right at the line of scrimmage, and he drops back into pass coverage, reading the quarterback's eyes the entire way. McElroy has absolutely no idea whatsoever that Maxwell is reading him like a book, and he in turn throws the slant to Julio. Now, Julio beats his man on this route because he establishes inside position on Kentucky cornerback Randall Burden, but when the ball is in the air Maxwell pounces and reaches up to grab the interception. Fortunately for the Tide Maxwell drops the almost certain interception, and thankfully so because this is the exact kind of throw that can quickly turn into a pick-six going in the opposite direction. At the very least, this should be an interception that results in a long return by the defense, but fortunately the pass falls harmlessly to the ground. One way or the other, though, you cannot blame Jones here because it is a terrible decision by McElroy to throw the football in his direction and the ball never actually gets to him (and even so he ran the route properly).
Target #7: The final pass towards Julio Jones comes on a 3rd and 7 midway through the fourth quarter. Julio has man coverage to the left of the formation against Randall Burden, and just like he did earlier in the game against Trevard Lindley, Jones beats the Kentucky cornerback off the line and has a step on him as they both race down the sideline. See the following photo, for visual confirmation:
As you can see in that photo, Julio has separation between himself and the Kentucky defender, and keep in mind that photo is taken right after Julio starts to slow down to re-adjust to the ball that was, just like the earlier go route against Lindley, underthrown by Greg McElroy. Unfortunately, the underthrown ball means that Burden catches back up to force an incompletion, and it is also allows the Kentucky safety the time to get over and lay a cheapshot on the defenseless Jones. A likely touchdown turns into a painful incompletion because of yet another underthrown ball.
So, again, what did we see here? We saw Julio really wasn't the problem at all. Five incomplete passes were thrown in his direction, only one of which was his fault, and the other four completions were simply poor throws by Greg McElroy. Simply put, Julio found himself open all day long. He beat both Lindley and Burden deep on go routes, and picked apart the Kentucky zone on the opening play. His biggest "fault" of the day, if you can even call it that, was that he slipped coming out of his break on the incomplete out route, and that simple mistake is hardly damning regardless of the circumstances. If McElroy can get the ball to Julio effectively, he has five catches for 100+ yards and a couple of touchdowns, and we're all sitting here talking about how Julio is back and what an unstoppable, once-in-a-generation physical specimen he is.
And with that said, keep in mind that none of this should come across as bashing Greg McElroy either. Again, consider that we are discussing a very small sample size here, and while he did struggle to get the football to Julio Jones on Saturday, he nevertheless did a fine job of getting it to everyone else. On the 19 passes where Julio Jones was not targeted, McElroy went 13-19 for 135 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions (i.e. he completed over 68% of those passes for a QB rating of 162.8), and he did all of that against one of the SEC's best pass defenses. He made some mistakes, to be sure, but all that proves is that McElroy is capable of error, which any rational observer ought to know anyway, and at any rate he's still playing the position better to date than any Alabama quarterback has since Jay Barker in 1994. Moreover, no one could legitimately claim that McElroy didn't try to get the football to Julio enough, as more than one-quarter of our passing attempts went in the direction of Mr. Jones (no small amount, especially when considering how deep we are with quality receivers).
That said, all in all, when watching the game film of Julio Jones, all I could think of is was, "What sophomore slump?" The production might not be there just yet for a variety of reasons, but after watching Julio on film I really see nothing wrong with him. It should go without saying that anything can happen moving forward, and for whatever reason the production could continue to lag, but objectively after viewing the Kentucky game film, Julio looks to me to be as impressive as ever, and a player who could very well have a huge game at any given time. Let's all hope it happens this Saturday when we hit the road to take on Colonel Reb.