The curious case of Carlton without Liam Jones

Time to scrap the warning for 6-6-6 infringements? (1:41)

The ESPN Footy Podcast's Matt Walsh and Jake Michaels discuss whether the time has come to just pay a free kick for 6-6-6 violations. (1:41)

A quick glance at the AFL ladder will tell you Carlton are flying. In fact, their 4-1 start to the season is their best since 2012, but as astute Blues fans will tell you, things didn't end well for the team or its coach that year.

The club failed to make finals, sacked Brett Ratten, and proceeded to embark on arguably one of its darkest timelines ... under Mick Malthouse - a 2013 finals berth aside.

But things seem different a Ikon Park this season under new coach Michael Voss. The Blues are a midfield powerhouse once again. They're scoring from centre bounces, dominating clearances, and winning the hard ball. Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow have combined for 26 goals. The one aspect the Blues are struggling in, however, is their defence.

In Round 2 against the Bulldogs, Carlton found themselves 31 points up at half time only to scrape home - thanks in part to the Bulldogs' inaccuracy. In Round 3 against the Hawks, the half time lead was 30 (and game-high lead was 41) and they held on by a point, and on Easter Sunday against the Power, the game-high lead was 50, and the final margin just three.

It means the Blues are indeed 4-1, but with a percentage of just 102.6 - more than 27 percentage points behind the next-lowest of the five four-win teams.

Can you blame the forwards for not working up the ground? Or the midfielders for lacking late-game run? Perhaps a little, but the make-up of Carlton's success this season has stemmed from its midfield depth and forward potency -- things that have been sorely lacking for the Blues in recent years -- while the defence has struggled, in contrast to some particularly stingy back sixes in seasons gone by. Voss truly has turned the club on its head.

So what's the difference is this year? It's Liam Jones, one of footy's great enigmas.

He retired in the offseason as he did not wish to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in line with AFL protocols, capping an at-times weird, at-times wonderful decade for Jones - a Bulldog-turned-Blue, and failed-forward-turned-backman.

Illustrating the hole he's left behind, in 2021, Carlton was ranked fourth in the league for intercept marks, taking 17.7 per game. Jones was the No. 1 interceptor in the competition, taking 4.2 intercepts per game across the season.

This year, Carlton has taken 54 intercepts at a rate of 10.8 per game to be ranked last in the AFL. Not only that, but 54 is the fewest any team has ever taken through the first five rounds since Champion Data started tallying the stat.

And it's evident on gameday. Against Port Adelaide, Carlton survived attack after attack in the fourth term and were let off by Port's inaccuracy (they kicked 3.4). Against the Dogs, repeat entries to the forward line were again rife, and Carlton again saved by inaccurate kicking from the Dogs, who managed just two goals and seven behinds (including five straight minors in quick succession) in the final term.

With no notable interceptors, other parts of Carlton's defensive setup are under pressure. Too often Carlton's exits out of defensive 50 are poor, and from too deep. Midfielders and forwards are struggling to find space to become an easy hit-up target across half back, and the opposition is often forcing front half turnovers which immediately have Blues defenders under pressure - and struggling to intercept. It's a cycle.

One would think a team on the up would be improving across the board, and if not organically in one half of the ground, as a result of general team improvement -- after all, a rising tide lifts all boats -- but the Blues have gone backwards in the back half. From conceding a score from 44.6% of their opponents inside 50s (15th) in 2021, that's slipped to 47.2% (16th) so far in 2022.

So how can Carlton address it? Lewis Young is playing a lockdown role with some success in Oscar McDonald's absence - but even McDonald's ability to stay on the park is suspect. Jacob Weitering is not as damaging as he has been in the past (perhaps due to not having a capable chop-out partner), and Lachie Plowman has been in and out of the team and seemingly isn't one of Voss' go-to players.

Brodie Kemp is close to a return and has been impressing in defence, but neither he nor Liam Stocker (who has been used off the back flank) are true interceptors.

Mitch McGovern could be the answer, in what would be a fitting, if twisted turn of fate; Jones, the forward-cum-back replaced by McGovern, a forward-cum-back. The former Crow impressed onlookers with his defensive efforts against the Tigers in Round 1, but injury has kept him out of the side for the past three matches. As Carlton fans will tell you, reliability with his body has been questionable at best since arriving in Melbourne's leafy inner north.

The Blues don't have the hallmarks yet of a flag contender, that much is clear. They're 4-1, but haven't even won 50% of their quarters played (they're 9-11), they're ranked 12th for points from turnover differential - a key stat which the best teams excel in, and they're ranked 13th for stopping 'points against from turnovers'. The good sides -- as in, those with 'premiership credentials' -- consistently rank in the top 6 for these stats, according to Champion Data on the ESPN Footy Podcast.

But the season is young, and before this turns into 'another 2012', there's time to fix things and make it a Blue '22.