Atlanta Falcons Blog

Atlanta Falcons blog by D. Orlando Ledbetter, the pro football and Atlanta Falcons reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cover9@9: Jones part of the Red Zone Revitalization Project

All-Pro wide receiver had just two touchdown passes from Matt  Ryan last season


Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It's our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m. Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons. We sat down with Falcons coach Dan Quinn and covered a wide range of topics including how wide receiver Julio Jones was going to be available this offseason. 

1. Quinn on Julio Jones: For Quinn there’s no replacement for practice.

He noted last season that the passing game suffered because All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones and speedster Taylor Gabriel could not practice all of the offseason.

He’s excited that Jones, who was coming off of foot surgery last season, will participate in the offseason program, OTAs and minicamp this offseason.

“The chemistry that takes place between receivers, running backs, coaches, everybody, it’s important,” Quinn said. “When you miss those steps, although for instance, Julio and Matt have lots of hours logged together through the years, but there is nothing that takes the place of on-the-field practice.

“So, we are excited for guys like Julio who’ll be able to work this spring and get that timing with him and (quarterback) Matt (Ryan) just right.”

Jones had a 59.5 percent catch ratio (148 targets, 88 catches), which was his second-lowest since his rookie season, when he had a 56.8 percent catch ratio. 

Jones caught only 6 of 22 passes (27 percent) thrown to him inside the 20-yard line for one touchdown. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown caught 13 of 23 (56.5 percent) of his passes in the red zone for six touchdowns.

Jones, who also had seven drops, finished with 1,444 yards and three touchdowns. 

“So, for (Jones) to have the ability to run and catch and do all of the stuff that we want to do, that’s a big thing,” Quinn said. “So, last year, with (first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian), we had to tell him Julio is pretty good and Gabe is pretty good, but they didn’t’ get a chance to (practice) last year. For us coming into the offseason with the receivers being healthy and in place, that’s a good thing.”

2. Red zone woes: Quinn said Jones’ lack of touchdowns was a part of the offense’s bigger problem of struggling inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

“The red zone scoring in general will be something that we’ll be attacking this offseason,” Quinn said. “The way that we frame it is: what do we need to stop doing? What we need to start doing? What do we need to do differently? Something is going to fall under those three guidelines.”

Of course, getting Jones the ball will be a big part of the red zone revitalization project. 

“It is always a good decision to get him the ball,” Quinn said.

But when teams take Jones away, he needs other players get open. 

“That’s a big topic for us and one that we are spending a lot of time on this offseason,” Quinn said. “We are going to devote the practice time to that as well. We are not only glad that we’re devoting the practice time, but guys like Julio are able to do the practice. That’s a big thing.”

The Falcons scored touchdowns on 49.18 percent of their red zone trips last season, which ranked 23rd in the league.

3. On Matt Ryan improving: Quinn is looking forward to Ryan working with new quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. 

“There’s a lot that he can improve on,” Quinn said of Ryan. “It might be in (his) play-action. Can I leave the ball in there longer, or just small things in a a game and I’m just using that as a random example. Some of that is under way. How can I not hitch on this play, this is a no-hitch throw. 

“In our offense, there is quick-game, keepers, the play-pass with the hard play-action and the drop back stuff. Within each of those areas ... all of those makeup playing quarterback. In each of those areas, what do you want to improve on.” 

4. Returners: Quinn said that Justin Hardy and Marvin Hall will be in the mix to replace Andrew Roberts as the punt return. Hardy and Reggie Davis will get a shot at the kickoff returner spot. The team is expected to draft a wide receiver who has returning skills also.

“We’ll definitely add guys to the mix at that spot as well, but those two guys specifically have the speed to add to our team,” Quinn said. “We’ve spent a lot of time with their development.

5. Quinn on Bethel: Quinn had not spoken about the addition of free agent cornerback Justin Bethel until Tuesday.

The Falcons added the three-time special teams Pro Bowler in free agency.

Bethel, who was a sixth-round pick by the Cardinals in 2012 out of Presbyterian, made it to the Pro Bowl from 2013-15. 

Bethel, 27, is listed at 6-foot and 200 pounds. He’s played in 96 games with 14 starts. He has four career interceptions and 116 tackles.

Bethel should help the special teams’ coverage units.

Overall, the Falcons’ special teams were sub-standard last season. They finished in the bottom half of the NFL (22nd) in  Rick Gosselin’s industry leading rankings.

The coverage unit ranked 32nd (last) in kickoff coverage at 26.2 yards per return. 

Here’s what Quinn had to say about Bethel: 

“With Bethel, the first thing that jumps out is the speed,” Quinn said. “That’s where it starts. He’s had a terrific background on special teams. For us, that’s a real area of emphasis going into the offseason. How do we improve our starting field position in terms of how we cover?

“That goes into kickoff coverage. That goes into punt coverage. His experience outside at gunner. That’s where you better make sure you have two in the vice. If he gets singled, he’s going to get a lot of tackles. 

“We like (punter Matt Bosher) and all of the stuff that he does. We are fortunate that he’s able to directional punt. When you can do that, it allows the cover guys to … we’re going to put it outside the numbers and they have the speed to go corral the guy and get him down. 

“That’s a real factor for us on teams. Then we’ll let him go and battle (at cornerback). He’s more of an outside guy at corner for us with that speed and length. In our system, whether if it’s three-deep or man-to-man, the corner better stay on top and you have to have the speed to go on some of the long routes because they are going to try you. He fits the bill on both of those.”

6. Quinn on Paulsen: Quinn had not spoken about the addition of free agent tight end Logan Paulsen until Tuesday.

The Falcons released Levine Toilolo and added the 264-pound Paulsen in free agency. He was signed to a one-year, $1.005 million contract.

Here’s what Quinn had to say about Paulsen: 

“We’ve watch Logan for awhile,” Quinn said. “He came out of UCLA. At the line of scrimmage is where he is best. It’s the physicality with blocking an outside linebacker or a defensive end.

“We wanted that as part of our game and (for it to be) really in tact. He brings that to our game in terms of playing in-line. We call that the Y (tight end). (Austin Hooper) we move a little bit more to where he can be outside and split to do some of the pass-catching responsibilities that we ask him to do.

“Logan, some of things he’ll do, won’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. But it’s the physicality that we felt we really needed in our run game. With all of the combination blocks that take place between a tight end and a tackle when you run wide-zone, you better have really strong ability to get a guy pushed with all of those blocks that happen. We are really pumped to have him, too.” 

7. Quinn of Fusco: Quinn also discussed adding guard Brandon Fusco for the first time on Tuesday.

Fusco, who was signed to a four-year, $12.75 million deal, will compete with Wes Schweitzer for the starting right guard position.

Here’s what Quinn had to say about Fusco:

“When we went into free agency, between Thomas (Dimitroff) and I, there was kind of plan between free agency and the draft. These are some of the needs of the club. The interior spot at guard, we definitely wanted to address.

“We added Fusco after looking at the guards and centers. Sometimes it’s the centers who can play guard, too. …What we came out with is a guy in Fusco, who has really good pass protection ability. That was one of the topics in our our scheme that we felt we really wanted to address inside.”

The Falcons did a film study of all of the free agents.

“Pass protection inside is something that we definitely saw,” Quinn said. “We liked the versatility in the run game. For us to play into the wide-zone scheme, you have to have the ability to get lateral and really haul ass when you can get on the edge.

“So, we saw those two things and we saw them in that scheme. It was also a good thing for us to see in the scheme that he was in both at Minnesota and at San Fran where he could get going and get running. We’ll put him right into the mix in a competition at the right guard spot. We know the competitor that Wes (Schweitzer) is. We’ll put him at right guard and let them battle it out. We’re excited to have him.” 

8. Quinn on Beasley:  Left defensive end Vic Beasley is working on his inside counter moves this offseason. He needs a change-up from speed rushing around the left end. 

“For him, it was all related to pass rush,” Quinn said. “It was what moves can I throw in there to work on. He’s already underway.”

9. Quinn on Neal: Safety Keanu Neal has to learn when to go for the kill-shot tackle and when a regular tackle is require to stop a play. 

“The thing I really admire about his game first is his ability in the run game to force fumbles,” Quinn said. “I think in two years, he has eight. I don’t know where that stands, but that’s a good number for a (defensive back). He plays by the line of scrimmage. So, run-fit wise, that part is good. Two things that will be a part of his point of attack (tapes) this year is the missed tackles and it wasn’t from an athletic ability standpoint.”  

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.