Falcons receivers struggle with Julio Jones injured again

New Orleans cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) in the second half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

New Orleans cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) in the second half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)

Down by 15 points in the fourth quarter, Falcons receiver Julio Jones attempted to give it one more go for his team. Hoping to spark the Falcons to a late rally, Jones, who injured his hamstring during the second quarter of Sunday’s 24-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints, came back to the playing field to aid quarterback Matt Ryan and the passing attack.

On a fourth-and-13 play with less than seven minutes remaining in the game, Ryan drifted to his right in the pocket before firing a pass to his trustworthy receiver. Jones leapt in the air to make the play before being tackled for a 22-yard gain.

But that would be it for Jones as his hamstring just wasn’t strong enough to keep playing. Like he was for most of the game, Jones, who has had a nagging hamstring injury for a good portion of the 2020 season, came out and didn’t return.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said the team will know more about Jones’ status moving forward on Monday.

Without Jones for a sizable chunk of the afternoon, it proved to be a tough outing for the Falcons’ receivers. Ryan finished the game 19 of 37 passing for 232 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Although Ridley caught five passes for 90 yards, no receiver was able to separate from the Saints’ defensive backs on a consistent basis.

In return, Morris said the lack of open receivers contributed to Ryan taking eight sacks throughout the course of the game.

“You’ve got to give the Saints credit,” Morris said. “They did a great job on defense. Their defensive backs did a nice job of eliminating what we wanted to do. Those guys had a great game plan for us. They did a nice job of keeping Matt under control. They did a nice job keeping our receivers under control.”

Morris said the Saints’ secondary mixed up two-deep and quarters coverages while sitting defenders on routes underneath. Routinely, Ryan was forced to hold the ball much longer than he normally has all season, which occurred even with the Saints playing without top cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

While Ridley came close to 100 yards, Russell Gage was the team’s second leading receiver with seven catches for 58 yards. Tight end Hayden Hurst, a frequent target of late, went without a catch. Without Jones, Ryan said the Saints were able to focus on taking away other options as opposed to devoting so much attention to his top target.

“It’s always tough any time he goes down because it’s hard to replace that production,” Ryan said. “It also changes how teams defend us. But that’s not an excuse. We have to find a way with the guys we have out there to be better off. That’s going to take all the guys on our offense — 22, 23 guys deep. We have to find a way to be productive.”

Said Morris: “It’s just like any other great player, when they leave in those moments somebody’s gotta step up — next man up mentality. We have to do those things quicker, faster, more deliberately while we’re in the game so we can get a win.”

Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (18) pulls in a pass over New Orleans Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins (20) in the first half Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in New Orleans. (Brett Duke/AP)

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After their opening drive of the game, which resulted in a field goal after penetrating the red zone, the Falcons were unable to reach the Saints’ 20-yard line for the remainder of the game. The Falcons tried to mix in a number of runs early but had little success, with the running backs ending the game averaging 3.7 yards per carry on 14 attempts.

The Falcons were forced to the air early and often thanks to a lack of success on early downs. Eleven of the Falcons’ 14 third downs were all from 5 yards or longer. The Falcons were only able to convert two of their 14 total third down plays.

The Falcons haven’t been the same through the air when Jones is absent. Without Jones against the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers, Ryan combined to complete only 53.3% of his throws. Although Jones played some Sunday, Ryan was only able to complete 51.4% of his passes. If Jones is forced to miss time due to his latest hamstring aggravation, the Falcons will need to figure a way to get their receivers open without their top option present.

Regardless, Ryan said the Saints had a great game-plan for what the Falcons wanted to do. New Orleans took away the types of routes the Falcons preferred to run, which made things difficult in every other facet of the offense.

“They did a good job of covering in the back end,” Ryan said. “You have to tip your hat to them. They played well today. We have to play better in a couple of weeks when we see them again.”