There was one notable difference in the Falcons' first meeting with the Panthers and their second – All-Pro receiver Julio Jones.
Nobody needs to be reminded how good Jones is or why he is such an important part of Atlanta's offense, but he provided that reminder during Thursday night's 25-17 victory against Carolina. Without Jones on the field in Week 5, the Falcons had difficulty moving the ball through the air in their 23-16 loss to the Panthers, but that wasn't the case on Thursday.
The Falcons' longest pass play in the first game against the Panthers went for 26 yards and didn't occur until 2:06 remaining in the third quarter. Atlanta nearly matched that success on its very first play from scrimmage when Matt Ryan connected with Jones for a 24-yard gain.
Atlanta's second play of the game was even better – a 28-yard pass on a deep speed out, one of the best routes in Jones's arsenal and something perhaps no receiver runs as well as he does.
Jones's ability to press a vertical route longer than is typical for a receiver while still retaining the ability to cut quickly and flatten out to the sideline is one of the true hallmarks of his game. And it's why he draws extra attention from defenders.
Interestingly, the Panthers didn't change their zone defense too much with Jones, who caught seven passes for 137 yards, on the field. Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the two biggest aspects of the game where he noticed significant attention on Jones was on third down and inside of the red zone.
"They doubled him more on third down and in the red zone," Koetter said. "They didn't really double him as much on first and second down, that's why he had his explosives in those situations. When Calvin is out there, it's been a little bit harder on first and second down to double Julio, because we've been hitting those big play-action passes with Calvin down the field as well."
Ridley enjoyed a big game the first time these teams met in 2020, catching eight passes for 136 yards, but the Falcons could get little else going in the passing game. The next-best receiver for Atlanta in that game was running back Todd Gurley, who had four catches for 29 yards.
With Jones again at the top of the pecking order and drawing extra eyeballs, if not extra defenders, the Falcons had more balance in the passing game. Ridley finished with 42 yards despite leaving the game early due to injury, and tight end Hayden Hurst caught five passes for 54 yards.
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Carolina has commonly dropped seven or eight players into coverage this season, the first under head coach Matt Rhule. This approach forces offenses to meticulously pick their way down the field and is designed to prevent many deep passes. That was the case for the Panthers in their first game against the Falcons.
In Week 5, Ryan's completed air yards per pass attempt was just 3.8 yards, meaning the Falcons were having much more success connecting on short passes than deep shots. That was the lowest yardage on that metric of the season for Ryan.
Week 8 told a much different story. Ryan's completed air yards per pass attempt was 6.4 yards, the highest of the season. Much of that can be attributed to Jones's presence. Five of Jones's seven receptions in the game went for 20 yards, a testament to how effective he is as a deep threat and on late-breaking routes.
That distinction was put into contrast even more sharply on Ryan's lone interception of the game. Deep down the left sideline, Ridley ran a similar route to the 28-yard reception Jones had on the second play of the game. He was unable to shake the defender on the deep out, however, allowing him to undercut the throw and come away with the pick.
Thanks to Jones, the Falcons were very successful at moving the ball on Thursday. Ryan's passing yards per attempt of 9.37 were the most this year, and up from the 6.11 yards he had in the first meeting against Carolina. Atlanta bogged down in the areas where Jones drew more attention, however.
The Falcons were just 3-of-9 on third down against the Panthers and converted just 2-of-6 trips to the red zone. On one particular play, Koetter noted that Atlanta's determination to get Jones involved near the end zone may have cost them an easy touchdown.
"We ran a double-post concept on one of those times where we were trying to force it to Julio," Koetter said. "If you remember that play, the safety kind of cheated over the top. All week we had worked on throwing that thing to Julio. Matt had a play-action, and he turned his back on the line of scrimmage and he spun around, and Calvin popped clean out the front door. That's one of those ones we were trying to jam in there to Julio, and it kind of bit us in the rear end because Rid was wide open."
Still, Atlanta knows full well that Jones is capable of beating double coverage and making big plays. He's a potential Hall of Famer because of his very ability to do so. While Ridley has proven that he can be an elite receiver in the NFL, the Falcons are still at their very best with Jones as the No. 1 option.
Thursday night provided a very clear reminder of that fact. Without Jones in the lineup in Week 5, the Falcons struggled to move the ball through the air and couldn't mount a late comeback. With Jones back on offense, they didn't need to.
While they weren't perfect, they moved the ball in chunks and dictated play. Jones commanded attention and still made big plays while freeing up space for others. It's not much more complicated than that.