One thing we talk about somewhat often in the NFL Edge is the fact that communication and assignment-strong play on defense matter more than talent (and in fact, matter far, far more than most of our competition — both in terms of DFS players, and in terms of DFS content providers — give it credit for, which is one of our sharper edges each season). And for a defense like the Falcons (more on the structure of this defense in a moment), the “do your job” mentality is especially valuable. It sounds simple, but this is the mentality on which Bill Belichick has built his dynasty: you have a responsibility on defense, and sometimes that responsibility is to NOT make a play, but to instead play your assignment in such a way that allows multiple other players to have a shot at making a play (i.e., if that one player plays out of assignment and misses the play he’s trying to make, it opens opportunities for a big play; but if that player instead sticks to his assignment, he can increase the chances of a play being made, as multiple other players will have a shot). And for the Falcons defense, assignment-sound play is everything, as that’s what this defense is built around.
Much like Dan Quinn’s old defenses with the Seahawks, the Falcons are designed to A) stop the run, B) keep everything in front of them with short throws, and C) prevent yards after the catch. When the Falcons are able to do this effectively, they can force opponents to march the entire field, and they can create second- and third-and-long situations that can allow them to bring pressure with a four-man rush while clogging up passing lanes on the back end. The entire idea behind the Falcons defense (very unlike the Patriots) is that they do not adjust from opponent to opponent, but instead practice the same thing every week — getting better and better at it so that the opposing team is forced to beat a sharp, disciplined, communication-strong defense.
And so, the story of this defense goes back to halftime of their 27-20 loss to the Seahawks, when they were losing 27-0 and Ricardo Allen (and a few other players) stepped up and basically said to the rest of the defense: no matter what, play your assignment. Just play your assignment. There have been a few other adjustments from there, but that has been the biggest thing for the Falcons over their last two and a half games, when they have allowed 12 points in 10 quarters to the Seahawks, Saints, and Panthers (with these last eight quarters coming on the road). This is how Takk McKinley (for example) — who entered last week ranked third in the NFL in pass rush win rate (behind only T.J. Watt and Robert Quinn — who have 19 combined sacks) — finally picked up his first solo sack on the year, as the secondary finally held long enough for his pressures to turn into a sack. It’s how the Falcons have notched 11 sacks and picked off four passes in the last two weeks. And it’s the biggest storyline for this game…
As we have explored all year, the Buccaneers are below-average in the secondary, but they are not nearly as bad as their “production allowed” would make it seem, as much of their “production allowed” has been due to volume, with this team facing over 40 pass attempts per game (most in the NFL — and far ahead of most other teams). The Bucs are elite at stopping the run, and they are decidedly below-average against the pass, and so teams have hammered them in this area. In their last two games, however, the Falcons (with combined road wins of 55-12) have called on Matt Ryan for two of his three lowest-volume (healthy) games on the year — and even with how good the Bucs’ run D is, it’s tough to see the Falcons throwing 40+ times in a blowout win. Atlanta should have a really nice game through the air regardless; but volume would have potential to boost the Falcons’ passing attack to the top of the slate (and the chances of volume showing up will be helped if the Bucs can get something going on their side of the ball).
Before we get to the Bucs’ side: we were accurate in our assumptions about the Falcons’ passing attack last week, as backup tight ends Jaeden Graham and Luke Stocker combined for only two targets in the absence of Austin Hooper, while Brian Hill (three targets) was used sparingly in the pass game. Russell Gage saw four targets as a short-area outlet (with a touchdown disappointingly overturned on review), while Julio Jones (eight looks while seeing a dose of double-teams) and Calvin Ridley (eight looks in single coverage) paced the pass catchers.
While Gage will again be the player likeliest to soak up short-area looks out of the slot (while also giving up a handful of snaps to Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus), the Bucs are boosting opponent aDOT by 7.6% and rank 31st in adjusted sack rate, which should allow Matt Ryan to attack downfield to his more explosive targets. Julio has recent target counts of 9 // 9 // 12 // 9 // 8, and while he has not scored since Week 3 (the Falcons — amirite?), he has topped 79 yards in five consecutive games. Ridley has recent target counts of 6 // 6 // 7 // 5 // 8 and has topped 48 yards only twice in that stretch, but he has a good shot to end up on the higher end of that target range in this spot.
We’ve talked a lot over the last few weeks about teams still growing and adjusting as the season moves along, and that now makes it worth noting that the Bucs (after giving over 50% of their targets to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin over their previous five games) have now fed these two only 32.3% of their available targets over the last two. It’s difficult to say for certain whether this is due to a philosophical shift or (more likely) opponents finding ways to force Jameis Winston to look other places, but if these two are averaging 16 combined targets per game, they become quite a bit less valuable than when they were averaging 22 combined targets per game. The Falcons were able to hold Evans // Godwin to 40.8% of the Bucs’ targets across two games last season (and in their first meeting — before injuries destroyed their secondary — the Falcons held these two to a combined 10-114-1 line). The Bucs have thrown the most interceptions and taken the fourth most sacks in the league.
While those are some bleak notes for the Bucs, it is also worth pointing out that this team has thrown the ball 99 times the last two weeks, producing 60 completed passes and 671 passing yards, and this team is aggressive enough that it’s almost certain some sort of usable production piles up in this spot. Given the roles that Godwin/Evans have in this offense (and the way the Falcons aim to play defense), Godwin is the player likelier to see volume, while Evans is the better bet for a big play — though volume is also, obviously, in Evans’ repertoire, while Godwin can post his share of big plays. Michael Thomas still managed to go 13-152-0 in this matchup two weeks ago, and D.J. Moore (15 targets) went 8-95-0.
If both Evans and Godwin “miss” again: it was Ronald Jones two weeks ago hauling in eight of eight targets for 77 yards (while O.J. Howard contributed 4-47-1 of his own), and last week — after Howard bobbled an easy catch and popped it up in the air for an interception and found his way to the bench as a result — it was Cameron Brate who went 10-73-0 on an incredible 14 looks.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I’ll have a difficult time getting excited about either backfield in this spot, as the Falcons — regardless of whether or not Devonta Freeman is healthy this week — have the toughest running back matchup in football, while the Bucs remain a split backfield against a Falcons team that ranks 11th in DVOA against the run. If chasing in this spot, Ronald Jones would be the play — but he would likely need this game to remain close in order to produce, as he played only 20 snaps last week (12 for Peyton Barber) with the Bucs falling behind early and Dare Ogunbowale soaking up 29 snaps of his own.
In the pass game for the Bucs, I expect Jameis to make some mistakes throughout — continuing his crusade toward a backup job in 2020 with a few more sacks and turnovers — though given how willing this team is to attack, I’ll also continue to have deeper tourney interest in him, as he’ll continue to have a strong shot at a solid score as long as he doesn’t get benched.
There are also three pass catchers on the Bucs that I’ll have interest in — and while I’ll be surprised if any end up in Tier 1, all will at least be kept in mind for me as I move deeper into the week, and I won’t be surprised if I end up with moderately heavy “Bucs offense” exposure on this ugly week:
Godwin is a good bet for double-digit targets after falling below eight looks last week for the first time in nearly two months. Unless I dig up something unexpected deeper in the week, he’ll be a tough sell for me as a core piece — but I always like the upside on this offense, and he’s the likeliest player to hit.
Evans has gone 6-78-0 // 5-79-1 // 4-58-0 // 6-106-2 (injury-wrecked Falcons secondary) in his last four games vs Atlanta and is a “bet on big play” piece in this spot. With that said: big plays are always on the table for him, and it’s not impossible for volume to pop as well.
Finally, O.J. Howard is an ultra-risky play; but the Bucs refused to trade him at the deadline when several teams were calling, and it seems unlikely that they will permanently bench him just a few weeks later. As such, I’m expecting Howard to be back on the field for his normal role this week — which makes him a sneaky bet for a “get him going” game in which the Bucs try to send a few targets his way at the front end of this game. This is a higher-risk play, but the upside on Howard makes it attractive as a deeper tourney play.
On the Falcons’ side: Julio has gone 12-253-2 // 3-54-0 // 10-144-0 // 9-138-1 in his last four games in this spot, with 13+ looks in all three of those higher-production games. He likely needs the Bucs to keep this game close in order to post a ceiling game, but he carries one of the more attractive ceilings on the slate.
Ridley is a candidate to go over-owned after his big game last week and could suffer from a Julio-focused game plan in a matchup that will make it easy for the Falcons to emphasize their alpha receiver, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he can win this matchup if the volume is there. If we take ownership out of the equation, Ridley carries a solid raw projection and is another solid way to gain exposure to this likely-high-scoring offense. Here is a look at the (long list of) notable stat lines the Bucs have allowed to pass catchers this year:
6-110-0 Greg Olsen
11-182-2 Mike Thomas
8-114-1 Mike Thomas
Matt Ryan also stands out as one of the sharper quarterback plays on the slate — and while he’ll likely need the Bucs to keep pace in order to be a truly standout play, his floor and ceiling are among the highest at the position this week.