COWBOYS // FALCONS OVERVIEW
Both of these teams are hanging around in the NFC playoff picture at 4-5, with the Falcons coming off a dispiriting road loss to the Browns, and with the Cowboys traveling down the coast after a big road win over the Eagles. For whatever it’s worth, the Falcons are 3-2 at home, while the Cowboys are 1-4 on the road.
This game pairs contrasting styles, as the Cowboys prefer to lean run-heavy (23rd in pass play rate), while the Falcons focus primarily on the pass (fourth in pass play rate). Teams have attacked Dallas through the air at the eighth lowest rate in the league, while Atlanta has faced the sixth highest opponent pass play rate this year.
While Atlanta ranks top eight on offense in both yards and points per game, Dallas has allowed the third fewest points per game and the seventh fewest yards per game. Opponent point totals on the year against the Cowboys look like this: 16 // 13 // 24 // 24 // 19 // 7 // 20 // 28 // 20 — creating opportunity for Atlanta to pile up enough points to matter, but making it difficult for this team to really pop as a whole this week.
Atlanta’s defense, of course, has significantly boosted opponent production, allowing the fourth most points and the third most yards per game. No team has allowed a higher drive success rate than Atlanta, and only two teams have allowed a higher red zone touchdown rate. Only two teams have allowed more touchdowns to wide receivers, and only two teams have allowed more touchdowns to running backs. Atlanta does return difference-making linebacker Deion Jones this week — though it should be pointed out that Jones is an anchor to this speed-based attack, and as such he is a bit undersized (6’2″, 220 pounds) against a guy like Zeke (6’0″, 225 pounds). This should remain an above-average matchup for what Dallas wants to do.
Vegas has given this game a bold Over/Under of 48.0 — with only one of the Cowboys’ nine games this year rising that high (a 24-26 game vs Detroit). The Falcons have played better defense lately (20 points to the Giants, 14 points to the Redskins, 28 points to the Browns), and they are returning one of their key players on this side of the ball, so don’t be surprised if this total trickles down a bit, but there should still be some opportunity for production to pile up.
COWBOYS PASS OFFENSE
The Colts and Bucs are the only teams allowing a higher catch rate than Atlanta, creating a solid setup for Dak Prescott, who has thrown the ball over 30 times in three consecutive games — after cracking 30 attempts only once in his first six contests. Along with the way, Dak has also been using his legs more, averaging 6.2 rush attempts per game across his last five contests, after averaging only 4.25 rushes per game in the Cowboys’ first four weeks. Only the Saints, Bucs, and Bengals have allowed more fantasy points per game to quarterbacks than the Falcons, with only the Bucs allowing more passing touchdowns. The Falcons have also allowed the fourth most rushing yards to the position. Dak has encouragingly accounted for two or more touchdowns in four consecutive games.
Dallas continued to heavily feature Amari Cooper last week, feeding him 10 targets one week after giving him eight looks. Against the Eagles last week, the Cowboys used Cooper on some of the sideline routes that have worked well against the Falcons this year, creating optimism for his outlook in this game. The targets appear set to remain — and as long as they do, his floor looks secure; and while the Cowboys have been a bottom 10 team in red zone touchdown rate, they get a scoring boost in this spot vs the third worst red zone touchdown defense.
Behind Amari, Cole Beasley continues to operate in a low-upside possession role (only two games all year north of 56 yards). Michael Gallup (target counts of six and three since Amari arrived) and Allen Hurns (target counts of one and two with Amari on the team, with only 15 snaps played last week) are afterthoughts. Geoff Swaim returned last week to post his standard three targets.
COWBOYS RUN OFFENSE
While targets have been down for ancillary pass catchers behind Amari, targets have held steady for Ezekiel Elliott, who has seen at least four looks in all but one game this season, and who has recent target counts of 6 // 5 // 7. Since Week 3, Zeke has only one game below 21 touches, and he has gone for 25 or more touches in four of his last six games. This week, he’ll take on an Atlanta defense that has allowed the most running back receptions in the league, with the second worst YPC allowed and the third most running back touchdowns allowed. It should be noted that Zeke has topped 36 receiving yards only twice this season, as the Cowboys are not proactively scheming him Upside looks — while Atlanta is decent after the catch against running backs. But even with that, this is a great spot for a 100-yard, multi-touchdown game from Zeke, with a spike in pass game involvement along the way — as long as Dallas is able to keep this game close enough to continue leaning on the run throughout.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
Dallas has really not been all that fierce against the pass — allowing the fourth highest completion rate in the league, while ranking middle of the pack in yards allowed per pass attempt and picking off the third fewest passes in the NFL. But for whatever reason, teams have been choosing to avoid the Cowboys through the air, with only four teams facing fewer pass attempts on the year than the Cowboys, while 16 teams have faced more rush attempts. I have not been able to find any clear reason for this run-leaning tilt against Dallas — especially as they have been great against the run, allowing the third fewest yards per carry in the league. With Atlanta ranking fourth in the NFL in pass play rate, there is a solid chance that the Falcons dip away from the standard approach against the Cowboys and hammer this matchup through the air. The Eagles did this last week against the Cowboys (74.19% pass play rate, compared to the 55.96% rate the Cowboys have faced on the year), and Carson Wentz managed to pile up 360 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns on 44 attempts. While I never like to try to guess what Steve Sarkisian is thinking, there is some serious appeal to fading the low season-long passing numbers vs the Cowboys and instead recognizing that Dallas has been a middling unit, and that it makes sense for Atlanta to attack in the way they feel most comfortable.
The 52 pass attempts Matt Ryan threw last week against the fast-paced Browns are outside his normal range, but he did have exactly 38 to 41 attempts in five weeks leading up to that game — and if Atlanta wisely chooses to stick to their standard approach and attack through the air, something in this range is likely again.
Julio Jones has seen nine or more targets in six consecutive games, with 12 or more in half those games — and last week, he saw three targets inside the 10-yard-line, after seeing only two such targets all season. While that could be a one-game blip, we saw this happen in late October last year, and Julio’s red zone role remained on the rise the rest of the season. Julio carries strong floor and ceiling even without a red zone role, given his volume, his talent, and his ability to score from anywhere on the field, but a rise in red zone usage will make him that much more likely to explode a couple times down the stretch.
Behind Julio, Calvin Ridley has topped six targets only twice this year, but he has fallen shy of five targets only two times as well, giving him a comfortable range of usage in a high-powered offense. Consider Ridley’s floor to be around 4-40-0 in this spot, but his ability to score from inside or outside the red zone does provide upside.
Mohamed Sanu popped for eight targets last week, though he still failed to top 50 yards for the seventh time in nine games, and those looks came with Ryan throwing 52 times. Sanu will likely score one or two more touchdowns this year, but these end zone visits will be unpredictable, and he’ll be a disappointment most weeks he does not provide a touchdown.
This is a good spot for Austin Hooper, who has six games of two to five targets…and three games of double-digit targets. Those double-digit games came against Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Cleveland — all of whom rank in the top eight in most receptions allowed to the position. Dallas has allowed the fifth most receptions to tight ends, and this could be another “checkdown to Hooper” game for the Falcons’ passing attack.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
The Cowboys are allowing only 3.56 yards per carry to running backs this year, and only five teams have allowed fewer rushing yards to the position. Their six touchdowns allowed to running backs is the eighth best mark in the league.
Tevin Coleman has not topped 13 carries in any of his last five games, making him a thin play from a volume perspective, as he continues to share time with Ito Smith (recent carry counts of 11 // 7 // 10 // 4). On a more encouraging note: these two have combined for 9.5 targets per game across their two contests since the bye, after averaging only 3.67 combined targets per game the previous three weeks. The Cowboys are attackable through the air with backs, so there is room for another four to seven looks for Coleman and another two to five for Ito.
Dak and Amari are an interesting tourney stack, and Amari is in play on his own this week — with a clear case available for him even in cash games, given the likely flow of this game and the sheer volume we can count on in this spot. (Amari is much easier to like on DraftKings and FantasyDraft than he is on FanDuel, where the gap between Amari and the top guys — Julio // Hopkins // OBJ — is much smaller.) I also like Zeke quite a bit on this side of the ball, as it’s difficult to see him falling shy of 17 DraftKings points and 14 FanDuel points in a “20th percentile scenario” (around 80 rushing yards, and 6-30-0 through the air), while he has a clear shot to add plenty of additional yards and scores from there.
Matt Ryan has quietly been playing at a near-MVP level, with 300+ yards in six of his last seven games (he had 285 yards in his other game in that stretch), and with recent passing touchdown totals of 5 // 3 // 1 // 3 // 1 // 4 // 2. He has accounted for three or more touchdowns in four of his five home games, and this is a sneaky winnable spot if the Falcons indeed lean pass-heavy.
A Ryan-to-Julio stack looks good in that context, as Julio should be a lock for another nine to 12 targets, with potential for an increased red zone role along the way. These two may not quite be necessary in cash games, as there are slim volume concerns in this game, and there is a slim chance the Falcons lean toward the run — but I like this play a lot in tourneys, and I would feel comfortable with it in cash myself. I’m unlikely to have interest in Sanu or Ridley (outside of a possible large-field dart on the upside of Ridley), but Hooper may be a viable piece again this week. I hate to bet on a guy whose targets are so unpredictable, but he doesn’t kill you when he sees only four or five looks, and he carries potential for double-digit targets again in this spot.
I won’t be on the Falcons’ backfield, as I’ll be looking for higher-floor plays at that position — but if the pass game involvement remains from these guys, there are certainly paths for one of them to hit, with Coleman in the lead between the two.