Every sport has its hold-your-breath moments. You draw in a deep breath, inch yourself closer to the edge of your seat, and wait to either erupt in cheer or sigh in disappointment.
The home run versus the “it looked good off the bat” fly ball. The fade-away 3-pointer versus the off-the-iron-and-out miss. The penalty shot on the ice and the penalty kick on the pitch. And of course, the deep ball.
Oh, the beautiful deep ball.
Outside of the game-winning field-goal attempt, is there any individual play that grabs you the way a deep throw does? The snap is routine, like any of the 60-some odd other offensive plays in a game, but then you see the receiver streaking down the field and, he’s open!
Your anticipation builds as you see that the quarterback has realized his receiver has a step on his man. He lofts the ball high into the air. You lose it for a second as you glance at the receiver to see if he’s still open. Did the QB overthrow it? No, it’s on the money.
Amplify this feeling a few times if it’s a touchdown. A few more if it’s a high-five your buddies because he definitely got two feet in situation.
That was all of us on Sunday when Matt Ryan connected with Julio Jones for a 34-yard touchdown to tie the game against the Dallas Cowboys. Ryan has taken a fair share of flack for his deep ball over the years, but the veteran signal caller is a better deep thrower than many want to give him credit for.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan has connected on 18 of 43 passes thrown 20-or-more yards downfield. Among quarterback’s with at least 40 deep ball attempts, Ryan ranks fifth in accuracy and boasts a 108.4 passer rating.
Unsurprisingly, half of Ryan’s deep-ball targets and completions have gone to Julio Jones. The all-universe wideout has caught nine of 21 deep passes for 316 yards and one touchdown. Using Next Gen Stats, let’s take a look inside that touchdown.
Atlanta trailed Dallas 19-12 at the two-minute warning, needing a touchdown to pull itself back into the game. The Falcons offense broke the huddle and lined up in its most popular personnel group, 11, with one running back, one tight end and three receivers. Mohamed Sanu lined up wide to the far side with Calvin Ridley in the slot and Austin Hooper aligned tight alongside Jake Matthews. Ryan stood in the shotgun with Ito Smith to his right. This left Julio Jones as the lone receiver aligned to the short side of the field.
The Cowboys countered with a nickel package featuring four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Jones drew man coverage from Chidobe Awuzie with Jeff Heath serving as the single high safety.
At the snap, Sanu and Ridley both ran underneath crossing routes while Hooper split the linebackers and forced Heath to stay in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Jones started wide and then with a few bounding steps exploded downfield. Awuzie turned to run with Jones but Ryan’s pass dropped perfectly into the hands of his leaping receiver, who came down with the ball for the tying score.
Jones hit 20.56 mph on the play, the fourth fastest top speed that he has reached in a game this season. Jones covered 41.8 yards on the play and Ryan’s throw traveled 45.5 yards in the air. What went down in the stat sheet as a 34-yard touchdown pass, covered 32.5 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage until it was caught.
The most impressive thing about the throw and catch though, how tight of a window Ryan had to fit the ball into and how precise Jones had to be on his route. If either one of them is off just a little bit, this is an incompletion. Awuzie gave Jones 2 yards of cushion prior to the snap. That’s pretty tight coverage, but Jones got a free release, which allowed him to quickly accelerate off the line.
By the time Ryan released the ball, Jones was already running at 18.63 mph. Awuzie showed off an impressive turn of speed as well, matching Jones’ top speed on the play, but Jones’ acceleration and Ryan’s pinpoint accuracy combined to make this a touchdown.
When the ball arrived, Jones had just .72 yards of separation. Given the tight coverage, the distance of the throw, and the receiver’s proximity to the sideline, this pass had a completion probability of 23.9 percent – one of the lowest percentage completions of the weekend.
Although the game ultimately didn’t go Atlanta’s way, Ryan’s 34-yard touchdown to Jones showed not only what this duo is capable of but also what this offense can do in pressure situations. In a “got-to-have-it” moment, the team’s two crucial offensive players connected on one of the most dramatic plays in sports to give the team a shot.