BUCCANEERS // FALCONS OVERVIEW
Because we do our own research (and do our best to trust this research, rather than trusting hype, noise, or recency bias), we don’t always end up on the same plays as everyone else — but there is no way this game will go overlooked by the masses, as most people will see this as a “no research required” spot. It’s obviously great when “no research required” spots prove to require more thought than others are putting into them, but it seems unlikely that we will find that to be the case here.
The Falcons rank 30th in red zone defense this year, while the Bucs rank 32nd. Tampa ranks second in the NFL in yards per game on offense, while both teams rank bottom five in yards allowed per game. These teams rank sixth (Tampa) and ninth (Atlanta) in points per game, and they hold down the bottom two spots in the NFL in points allowed per game. Neither team plays particularly fast, nor does either team skew super pass-heavy, but they each rank top half of the league in those categories. Each defense ranks bottom six in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. The Bucs’ offense ranks 11th in drive success rate, while the Falcons’ offense ranks fifth. Tampa ranks 30th in drive success rate allowed, and Atlanta ranks 32nd. This appears to be the matchup people thought they were getting last week in Pittsburgh — and those who approach this as a “no research required, just load up” spot appear to be in good shape early on.
BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
In spite of all the injuries on defense, Atlanta ranks a respectable 14th in yards allowed per pass attempt — but as noted last week, they are getting there by playing back and forcing teams to throw short, then swarming to the ball after the catch to limit yards afterward. This has led to the Falcons allowing the third lowest aDOT in the NFL, while impressively ranking eighth in YAC allowed per reception. It’s extremely difficult to rank near the top of the league in both aDOT and YAC per reception, as teams usually have to sacrifice YAC when forcing teams to throw short. The injuries to Atlanta have not affected their ability to keep up this approach…and yet, as noted above, the Falcons have been the worst team in the NFL at preventing sustained drives. Atlanta also ranks 31st in opponent first downs per game. This happens because the Falcons are allowing the fifth highest completion percentage in the NFL. Teams are completing a ton of short passes against the Falcons (while also pounding their poor run defense), which enables them to march up the field with ease.
The interesting wrinkle here is that Tampa has gotten the job done on offense by attacking downfield more aggressively than any other team in the NFL. Ryan Fitzpatrick will carry the deepest average intended air yards in football to the bench with him, while leaving behind two guys in Mike Evans (13th) and DeSean Jackson (fourth) who rank top 15 in aDOT.
The receivers who have posted solid numbers vs Atlanta this year have been Devin Funchess (7-77-0 // nine targets), Michael Thomas (10-129-0 // 10 targets), A.J. Green (4-78-1 // eight targets), Tyler Boyd (11-100-0 // 15 targets), and Antonio Brown (6-101-2 // 13 targets).
Mike Evans is essentially a Major League version of Devin Funchess — with similar size and route trees between them — so the line by Funchess provides hope for what Evans can do in a more downfield, less over-the-middle role than Thomas and Boyd carried against Atlanta. Evans will have a difficult time connecting on the sideline shots the Bucs like to take with him, but he should produce solid efficiency and around 10 to 12 yards per catch even without any broken plays. If he gets 11 or 12 targets and adds a touchdown, he’ll be a nice piece. He has target counts on the year of seven, 12, 11, and nine.
A.J. Green and Antonio Brown saw more downfield targets against Atlanta, and while this led to poor efficiency, each was able to produce solid, touchdown-aided lines. DeSean Jackson has more nuance to his route tree than he showed the first three games (this nuance showed up in Week 4 vs the Bears), and he should get a couple of the intermediate looks that A.J./A.B. had in this matchup, while also seeing a couple looks deep. Jackson has target counts of five, four, five, and eight, making him boom/bust in this spot. He has landed on the “boom” side in three of four games already, and if Atlanta produces on offense, the Bucs will have to continue taking shots all game.
From an actual “route tree vs this defense” perspective, the guy who matches up best for the Bucs is Chris Godwin, who has similar responsibilities in this offense to what Michael Thomas and Tyler Boyd have in theirs. The difference, of course, is that Thomas is the top option on his team, while Boyd is the second option on his. Godwin continues to play almost exactly half of the Bucs’ snaps — seeing less time on the field than both Jackson and Adam Humphries. Godwin has target counts on the year of four, six, 10, and two.
Humphries has seen five to seven targets in three of four games, but he has yet to top 36 yards in a game. He has a check-for-typo aDOT of only 2.8 — 1.4 yards lower than any other player in the NFL.
One of the biggest DFS attention-getters in this spot will surely be Cameron Brate, who is on track to operate as the lead tight end this week. I’m honestly hoping O.J. Howard gets cleared to play (he looks like he has a shot), as it seems silly to not play Brate — and yet, it’s far less of a slam-dunk than it appears on the surface. Through four games, Brate and Howard have posted combined target counts of four, four, 12, and seven — and if Brate sees only four to six targets, it would not be difficult for him to disappoint. But last year, Brate was one of the top targets for Jameis Winston in the red zone — seeing 13 red zone looks, and hauling in five red zone touchdowns. Atlanta has been below-average against tight ends — and with DeSean and Evans spreading out the defense vertically (and with Atlanta sure to be focused on keeping those guys in front of them), Brate should have opportunities for check-downs. He’s a moderate-floor, solid-ceiling play if Howard misses this week. If Howard plays, neither guy can be given a high floor, but Howard’s upside will keep him in the conversation.
BUCCANEERS RUN OFFENSE
The Buccaneers’ wide receivers take on added intrigue since Peyton Barber has only two catches this year on six targets, while Ronald Jones is a noted liability in the pass game. Jacquizz Rodgers is the best pass-catching back on this team (six catches on seven targets to open the year), but Tampa is not going to play him on early downs over Barber and/or Jones. Against an Atlanta team that has been lit on fire by pass-catching running backs, this backfield will be primarily stuck to ground mode.
Atlanta has also been poor at stopping the run, ranking 29th in adjusted line yards — though the Bucs’ offensive line has not been any better, ranking 31st. Atlanta ranks 28th in yards allowed per carry. Tampa ranks dead last in rushing yards per carry.
Although Ronald Jones looked nowhere close to ready during the preseason, the Bucs may have seen enough of “featured Peyton Barber” at this point. Two weeks ago, they gave Barber eight touches and Jones 11, while Jones played 20 snaps to 31 for Barber. Barber will likely retain a role even after the bye, as Tampa prefers him for pass blocking (he pass blocked eight times a couple weeks ago), but perhaps against a weak Atlanta pass rush, they will leave Jones on the field a little more. Ultimately, a move here requires guesses on playing time and usage, while also hoping for an unpredictable spike in pass game usage or a couple carries near the goal line.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
I’m not going to finish writing this week’s NFL Edge until around 8 A.M. on Thursday morning (I’d like to say I’ll sleep hard after that…but realistically, I’m too excited on NFL Edge Thursdays to sleep much, as I want to wake up and read the article myself), but even with the huge chunk of time this week’s article has vacuumed up, I couldn’t help but go back and watch all of the Falcons’ offensive plays from their 34-20 home win against the Bucs last Week 12. I remember that game well — for a completely different reason than the 50% of the field that rostered Julio Jones. I was on a massive hot streak going into Week 12, and it crashed and burned when Julio (who had only one touchdown catch on the entire year to that point — because: Sarkisian) lit the slate on fire with a 12-253-2 line. I was in the DraftKings suite at Gillette Stadium for that game, and I am pretty certain I was the only person not celebrating the explosion.
The obvious question is, “How could you not roster Julio in that spot?” But a better question to me at the time was, “How could you roster Julio at 50% ownership when he has one touchdown through 10 games, and he has topped 100 yards only twice?” Naturally, Julio went 3-54-0 against Tampa a few weeks later, on only eight targets, and he finished the season with only three touchdowns all year, and only four 100-yard games. The Steve Sarkisian Factor remains in full effect, making Julio a make-or-break option on this slate, as he’ll likely be around 50% owned once again, and his production will have little to do with matchup and much to do with usage.
Much like last year (when the Bucs allowed average aDOT numbers, but allowed the second highest catch rate in the league), the 2018 version of this Bucs defense has allowed average aDOT numbers and the highest catch rate in the league. Tampa Bay’s defense ranks 28th in adjusted sack rate, which should allow Matt Ryan plenty of time to throw, and they have been attackable at all levels of the field, with the deep middle being their worst area of all. Before going on bye, the Bucs had allowed the most pass plays in the league of 20+ yards.
Quite literally, if the Falcons decided, “We are going to drop back and throw the ball to Julio 20 times, no matter what,” they would destroy the Bucs in this game. But because Steve Sarkisian is calling the plays, we are introduced to far more question marks than should be in play in this spot. I honestly get upset while digging into Falcons research and seeing Julio’s usage — especially as there is no rhyme or reason most times to when his usage will spike or drop (as evidenced by his usage changing so dramatically from one matchup vs Tampa to the next last year). This often requires us to “get inside Sarkisian’s head” to guess from one week to the next whether or not one of the best weapons of a generation will actually be featured. I’m going to wait until “JM’s Interpretation” to give you my own “inside Sarkisian’s head” take, in order to give you an opportunity to form your own take first (which I encourage you to do). Obviously, our standard approach is to provide the research with as few opinions as possible, and to then provide my opinions at the end — so you can separate the “research” from my own take on the research. But “research” in this spot is quite literally, “Julio will destroy this team if the Falcons use him, and there is no reason for them to not use him. But because they are the Falcons, they may underutilize him anyway.”
Behind Julio, Mohamed Sanu continues to function as a near every-down player (while actually running more pass routes than Julio over the last couple weeks), and he has seen his responsibilities expand over the last two weeks to include more than just low aDOT stuff — with several legitimate downfield targets coming his way across the last two games. Outside of Sanu’s two-target game vs Carolina in Week 2, he has seen target counts on the year of six, seven, nine, and seven — and again: these targets the last two weeks have been actual upside looks. There is nothing in the matchups the last two weeks that suggest Sanu should have been used any differently than he was used the first three weeks, so it’s somewhat safe to assume this new usage will stick (with that “somewhat” tied, frustratingly, to Steve Sarkisian’s unknowable brain). Six to eight targets is a reasonable expectation once again.
Calvin Ridley has seen recent target counts of five, eight, six, and five, while running only 11 fewer pass routes than Julio across the last two weeks. For all intents and purposes, he can be viewed as a near “every passing down player” in this offense, with five to eight targets his expected range from week to week. He has a healthy aDOT of 13.0, giving him upside on these looks.
Note: This is as good a time as any to pause and take a guess as to how you think Sarkisian will use Julio this week.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
Devonta Freeman is expected to return to the sidelines this week with a foot injury — though if this changes, you can essentially replace the name Tevin Coleman with the name Devonta Freeman, while erasing Ito Smith and replacing him with Coleman.
Tevin Coleman should operate as the lead back in this offense, with a snap rate of 65% to 70%, and with roughly two-thirds of the running back touches. Coleman’s running style matches up well with this defense, as he is most effective when running off-tackle, or between the tackle and guard. He disappointed against New Orleans (2.2 YPC) and Pittsburgh (2.1 YPC) — two teams that are weakest up the middle, and are elite to the outside — but he averaged 6.7 yards per carry against a Carolina team that ranks first in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ metrics on runs up the middle, but that ranks bottom three in runs to both the right and left tackles. Tampa is stout up the middle and average to the left, but they are near the bottom of the NFL in runs to the outside on the right. Atlanta’s run blocking has been poor, but runs outside to the right have been their relative strength, and last year in Week 12 (Freeman missed that game), Coleman went 19-97-2. Because of Sarkisian, of course, Coleman had zero receptions in that game. In spite of being one of the most dangerous pass game backs in the league, Coleman has averaged 2.4 receptions per game this year.
Ito Smith will clean up the remaining portion of this timeshare, and should see six to 10 touches. If he happens to be the back on the field when the Falcons approach the end zone, he’ll also be trusted with work, giving him a decent shot at a solid stat line.
Given how much time I spent digging into this game (I literally tripled the time budget I had set for it), I am now actually on pace to not finish writing this week’s NFL Edge until 10 A.M. (hmmm…I may have to take a nap and wrap up the article in the morning…), but I have a much clearer picture now on the Bucs’ side of the ball, while I at least feel that we can head into the weekend knowing what the guesswork is on the Falcons.
I won’t have any interest in the Bucs’ backfield, but their passing attack is very much in play. Evans will have a tough time posting a monster yardage game, but something like 70 to 100 yards is in his “likeliest scenario” range, while he could post a big day if he adds a touchdown or two.
I am leaning toward a scenario this week in which Tampa opens with their standard “vertical attack” approach, which will either lead to DeSean Jackson having early success, or will lead to Tampa stalling out early, Atlanta (hopefully) taking a lead, and the Bucs being forced to continue staying aggressive. This would lead to DeSean landing at the higher end of his target range (say seven to nine looks, instead of five or six), and would give him a chance to hit for a couple big plays. He’s an interesting tourney piece, with iffy floor but plenty of ceiling. I also like Godwin as a pivot off DeSean, as he could see heavy usage underneath if this game stays close throughout, while he adds some big play and touchdown appeal.
If Howard misses, Brate fits well as a guy who should see four to six targets, with upside for more. From a strategy standpoint, he’s the kind of guy you play in cash games rather than overthinking things, while considering a tourney fade given that he could easily prove to be bad chalk. His day will almost certainly come down to whether or not he scores a touchdown.
I like both quarterbacks, and I wouldn’t be afraid to play Jameis Winston with the bye week and plenty of practice time under his belt, though Tampa is the team that ranks dead last in the league this year in passing yards allowed per game (81 more yards per game than Atlanta has allowed), and Matt Ryan has played excellent ball this year. He’s obviously one of the top plays on the slate vs a Tampa team allowing the most fantasy points per game to the position.
Have you come up with your own Julio guesses?
My thoughts on Julio go as follows: The Falcons are 1-4, and they desperately need this win. They are taking on the worst pass defense in football, and they have one of the best players in the league at wide receiver. Sanu and Ridley (and even Austin Hooper last week, on one of his random spiked games) have done enough to command respect, and Tampa doesn’t have the pieces to even slow down Julio without allocating lots of extra attention his direction. As such, I’m going to bet on Julio seeing double-digit looks this week and being involved early and often after taking a backseat for three full quarters in an embarrassing loss a week ago. All of this is just guesswork — but on a guy who has legitimate upside for a score this week that no one else will be able to touch, I’ll almost certainly go overweight compared to the field. The big question for my three teams in the $3k Milly Maker will likely be whether I want to go all the way overweight (100% exposure), or whether I instead want to hedge with one team, recognizing that if Julio misses, he could miss hard (he has two games already this year of five catches, 60ish yards, and no scores). My standard style of play calls for me taking a stand and going all-or-nothing, but the anti-genius of Sark presents a unique element to account for, and I may take advantage of my “three team” approach this week by putting myself in position to capitalize if Julio surprises the field by being underutilized once again.
I like Sanu and Ridley alongside Julio, but if betting on a monster Julio game, it might make sense to fade these guys. Alternately, if you fade Julio, you need to realize that you are essentially saying, “I don’t think Julio will break the slate, because I think one of these guys will have a big game instead.” You are practically forced to roster one (or both) of these guys if you fade Julio. The standard approach if building three teams here would be to build one that bets against Julio (taking Sanu and/or Ridley), building another that bets on an even distribution (taking Julio alongside one or even both of these guys), and building a third team that bets on Julio hogging all the yards — while leaving the other two alone. I’m not sure if that’s the approach I’ll take this week myself (I’m hoping to still be able to play this spot more like a single-entry player, so I’ll see if I can get any closer throughout the second half of the week to one isolated approach), but it certainly makes sense from a “hedge” / “account for Sarkisian” perspective.
In the backfield, I like Coleman as a solid piece this week, especially after his price was lowered to account for his expected backup role. This team has no idea how to use him most effectively, so he needs touchdowns in order to hit — but he’ll have a shot at some long runs and possible touchdowns in this spot.