On second down and and nine yards to go, Matt Ryan utilized a play action fake and threw a beautiful pass to Julio Jones who then torched safety Dashon Goldson for a 46 yard touchdown to take a 6-0 lead in the NFC title game. The incredible eruption from the crowd when Jones made San Francisco’s defense look clueless was sublime. At that moment, every fan saw the brilliance of Thomas Dimitroff's five draft pick trade for Julio Jones.
Jones played the game of his life, carrying the Falcons during the first half and finishing the day with arguably the best post season performance by any Falcons wide out in the history of the franchise: Eleven receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns. He also averaged 16.5 yards per catch during the NFC title game.
It was a tale of two halves for the Falcons. Going up big in the first half, only to choke the second half of the game. It also magnified the decision to trade up in the 2011 draft to get Julio Jones. It was during the second half that every fan saw the defense struggle, one of the consequences of Thomas Dimitroff's trade for Julio Jones.
The Falcons offense didn't help by going scoreless in the second half, but the defense couldn't adjust to Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers offense. Coverages were blown, Frank Gore destroyed the run defense and, most importantly, there was no pressure on the quarterback.
This was a problem the entire season and it continued into the playoffs. When you have Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Babineaux, Cory Peters, Cliff Matthews and Peria Jerry as the only help for veteran sack-master John Abraham, it's hard to generate any pass rush. The fact that Abraham got 10 sacks last year was a miracle, considering the pieces he had around him in the 2012 season.
The point here is that the game of football is won in the trenches. The Falcons protected Ryan, but could not get anything going on Kaepernick. They managed only one sack, and that came on the 49ers first possession of the game. Kaepernick himself was 9 for 11 passing whenever the Falcons did send pressure, meaning that the initial pass rush of the front four was ineffective in creating opportunities for blitzing linebackers and corners to get any pressure on Kaepernick.
The linebacker core was also suspect, as they were consistently burned in passing downs, particularly in the playoffs. Sean Weatherspoon was the only real player of note amongst the linebackers who really had an impact on the field.
The secondary was probably the strongest aspect about the Falcons last year. Safeties William Moore and Thomas Decoud really improved, while Asante Samuel provided solid play at the cornerback position. The rest of the corners were hampered by the sub par play of Dunta Robinson and the loss of Brent Grimes.
Would the Falcons have been able to stop the 49ers with a better defense that could have been constructed with the picks that were spent on Julio Jones? Would they have even gotten to the NFC title game without Jones's explosive play-making abilities?
There were plenty of options to go after in the 2011 draft that the Falcons gave up by trading up for Jones. One such player was Justin Houston who could have helped apply that pressure on the quarterback that the Falcons so desperately needed, and still need. SEC fans should remember Houston, a powerful DE from Georgia who just finished last season with 10.5 sacks, and who wasn't drafted until the third round by Kansas City in 2011. Imagine him playing on the other side of Abraham last year. By trading away draft picks, Dimitroff really limited improvement of the team in a number of areas defensively. Five players for one, particularly for a wideout, just doesn't add up when your defense constantly struggles across the board.
The Falcons have improved the secondary in the draft this year with Desmond Trufant, a highly touted draft pick out of Washington, and Robert Alford, an underrated but well thought of DB to complement the aging Asante Samuel. They also drafted Malliciah Goodman out of Clemson, a DE with 7 sacks last season, a personal best number of sacks for his collegiate career. Another draft pick was spent on Stansly Maponga out of TCU. He's another DE who had a great sophomore season with 13.5 sacks before being hampered by injury last year. But the Falcons believe he has a ton of upside, despite the injury. So, maybe help is on the way for the Falcons in the trenches and with the defense in general. But it has taken two years to have a really defensive minded draft because of the Jones trade.
The Falcons have only one great defensive piece on the line, in the linebacker core and on the secondary, respectively, with Osi Umenyiora, Weatherspoon and Moore. But Umenyiora and Weatherspoon don't have much help around them, and it's going to hurt the Falcons again this year unless those other players really step it up this season.
It's almost a darned if you do or darned if you don't approach. Julio Jones is emerging as one of the elite receivers in the NFL. His presence alone helps the offense. But you don't gain this type of talent without losing something. He set career highs in receptions (79), touchdowns (10), receiving yards (1,198) and made his first Pro Bowl. But the defense continues to falter because of Dimitroff's gambit. Unless it pays off with a Super Bowl Championship, it's going to be hard to truly justify the trade despite Jones's talent and production because of how this move continues to affect the Falcons defense.
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