FALCONS // BROWNS OVERVIEW
The Falcons are clinging to life in the NFC playoff race at 4-4., and they will travel to Cleveland this week to take on the 2-6-1 Browns. Cleveland has lost four straight since their win over the Ravens, dropping a close overtime game against the Bucs and getting pasted by the Chargers, Steelers, and Chiefs. Outside of a game against the Raiders, the Browns have failed to top 23 points in any game this season. The banged-up Falcons defense will give Cleveland a chance to finally eclipse this mark again — though Atlanta boasts a high-motor team that will do everything possible to make life difficult for Baker Mayfield and company. Vegas has kept the Browns just below 23.0 in their early-week numbers, with an Over/Under of 50.5 and Vegas-implied totals of 27.75 for the Falcons and 22.75 for the Browns.
Even with the coaching change in Cleveland, the Browns did not slow down their pace of play last week — overrating their ability to compete on offense, and holding steady at the third fastest pace in the league. Cleveland has allowed the most opponent plays per game this year, and even when we break out the overtime periods, Cleveland remains one of the most generous teams in the league in terms of opponent plays allowed. Atlanta also allows an above-average number of opponent plays per game, as they rank eighth in pass play rate and face the third highest opponent pass play rate on defense — creating additional opportunities for clock stoppages and for plays to pile up. This game should see a few extra plays added to both sides of the ball.
Atlanta has the better offense in this game :: fourth in drive success rate (29th for Cleveland) // fifth in yards per game (23rd for Cleveland) // eighth in points per game (23rd for Cleveland).
Cleveland has the better defense :: 10th in drive success rate allowed (Atlanta ranks dead last) // fourth in yards allowed per drive (Atlanta ranks dead last) // sixth in points allowed per drive (Atlanta ranks dead last). As noted last week, the Browns — in spite of their great “per drive” stats — actually rank 30th in yards allowed per game and 28th in points allowed per game, as their fast pace and their mistake-prone offense have allowed opposing teams to pile up plays; but on a per-play basis, this matchup is tough. Cleveland’s defense is weakest in the red zone (24th in opponent red zone touchdown rate), while Atlanta ranks seventh in red zone touchdown rate on offense.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
Cleveland has competed hard in the secondary this year, allowing the second lowest catch rate in the league and notching the third most interceptions. Only 10 teams have allowed fewer passing touchdowns than Cleveland, and only the Bears have allowed a lower quarterback rating. The Browns have already faced Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is the only quarterback in that group who topped 300 yards with multiple touchdown passes (Roethlisberger is the only other QB in that group to have topped 300 yards, and he added only one touchdown and three picks in that game). Mahomes is also the only quarterback in that group to notch more than two touchdowns against the Browns.
As noted last week :: The interesting thing about the Browns’ style of defense is that there is really no “type of receiver” or “type of route tree” that works best against them, as this unit has stymied John Brown while getting torched by Tyrell Williams; they forced Michael Thomas to pile up 12 catches just to reach 89 yards, but they let Mike Evans go 7-107-0 on 11 looks; they gave up 119 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster in Week 1 and held him to 33 yards in Week 8; and they let Amari Cooper, of all players, go 8-128-1. When it comes down to it, this is a defense that is going to make life difficult on a per-play basis, but that is also going to get overaggressive a few times per contest, allowing one or two guys to pick up chunk gains.
Denzel Ward (who left last week’s game early but reportedly “looked good” on Wednesday) should see a decent chunk of Julio Jones, but the Falcons’ star receiver can win in this matchup if the targets are there. Ward has keyed the low completion rate allowed by this secondary, with a slim 55% completion rate allowed on 60 passes charted in his direction, but if Julio sees 12 to 14 targets, something like an 8-110-0 line is not at all out of the question. It is worth pointing out that Julio’s touchdown last week came from outside the red zone, and he is still sitting on an embarrassing three red zone targets (and zero red zone receptions) nine weeks into the season.
Behind Julio (who has recent target counts of 12 // 9 // 14 // 12 // 10), Calvin Ridley encouragingly came out of the bye playing the same number of snaps as Mohamed Sanu (after topping him by one snap in Week 7), and he has seen fairly steady target counts over his last five games (6 // 5 // 3 // 6 // 9). His unsustainable touchdown binge this year (seven touchdowns through eight games, on only five red zone targets and one target inside the 10) has him priced higher than he should be as a guy seeing five to six steady targets, with only one game all year north of 71 yards. But for whatever it’s worth: it did pop out to me when watching film this week that Ridley’s unique burst will create opportunities for him to hit for a big play against this aggressive defense. If the Browns get over-aggressive on a misdirection play or simply overplay the ball while hunting for an interception, Ridley could notch another long touchdown. His score in Week 9 came on a creative third down play that was designed to get him into open space, with Sanu literally blocking his guy out of the way before the ball was even thrown.
Sanu has seen his targets dwindle while playing through a hip injury, with recent target counts of 2 // 2 // 5. He has topped 46 yards only twice this year, and he is third in line for targets right now, though it’s never out of the question for him to hit for a big game.
The same could be said of Austin Hooper, who has recent target counts of 4 // 2 // 12 // 10 // 4 // 3. No one in the country knows when and why Hooper’s targets will spike. This is an above-average matchup for tight ends, making Hooper a low-floor, decent-upside play.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
The Falcons emerged from the bye last week feeding a season high seven targets to Tevin Coleman — getting him set up with consistent screen passes that worked him into open space. Washington had not shown any notable weakness to pass catching backs before that, though they are a team that opponents shy away from on the ground (fourth highest opponent pass play rate faced), so there remains a chance this was game plan specific. As noted time and again in this spot: Steve Sarkisian has consistently failed to utilize his backs out of the backfield — a shame given how explosive both Coleman and Devonta Freeman can be in this area. If Coleman sees a heavy target share again, he’ll set up as a potentially explosive play against a Cleveland defense that has allowed the fifth most receiving yards in the league to the position, while giving up the second most running back touchdowns. If Coleman drops back to the target range in which he entered Week 9 (3 // 3 // 2 // 2 // 2), he’ll be a “yardage and touchdown” back who can be counted on for 10 to 15 carries.
While Coleman has recent touch counts of 17 // 9 // 11 // 13 // 18, Ito Smith has not been far behind him, with touch counts in that same stretch of 10 // 4 // 13 // 9 // 11. Smith has, incredibly, scored four touchdowns in his last five games. Another touchdown here would make him “salary-saver relevant” once again.
BROWNS PASS OFFENSE
Last week was encouraging for the Browns, as Mayfield notched his highest completion rate in a start this year, while piling up his highest yards per pass attempt in four games. Freddie Kitchens used David Njoku as a big body over the middle; he used Jarvis Landry as a “possession receiver with the ability to go downfield,” rather than trying to turn him into a true downfield threat (four of Landry’s six catches came within five yards of the line of scrimmage); and he used Duke Johnson as a mismatch-maker out of the backfield.
Yards will likely pile up for this passing attack, but it is difficult to pinpoint any individual players likely to post a big game, as this team is developing a broad target distribution :: seven different players saw at least four targets last week (think about that for a moment…), and 10 players in all saw at least one target — including Seth DeValve and Dontrell Hilliard. The only players to see more than six targets were Landry (seven) and Duke (nine). Most of Duke’s targets were concentrated around the two-minute offense, and a more reasonable projection for him is one or two carries and six or seven targets.
If you feel compelled to consider guys in this offense, I don’t blame you, as Atlanta has been one of the most generous defenses in the league, and the Browns are an ascending unit, playing at home. Landry’s upside appears limited against a team that forces a below-average aDOT and tackles well after the catch, but he carries the highest floor. Njoku has a good matchup and should return solid tight end value. Antonio Callaway carries the highest upside among remaining wide receivers, though we know by now how low his floor is. Duke is obviously intriguing against a pass defense that has (once again) allowed the most running back receptions in the NFL — though his carries should remain limited, which leaves him needing high efficiency on his targets in order to pay off. I’m also comfortable this week — in this improving offense — expecting 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns from Mayfield. He has thrown two touchdowns in three consecutive games, and he fell just shy of 300 yards last week (297). The Bucs and Saints are the only teams that have allowed more fantasy points per game to the quarterback position.
This offense rounds up with Nick Chubb and the Cleveland rushing attack, vs an Atlanta team that ranks 29th in fewest yards allowed per carry, in spite of a long run allowed of only 35 yards (i.e., the production against Atlanta has been steady and consistent — as evidenced by this team ranking 30th in adjusted line yards on defense). As noted earlier: teams typically attack Atlanta through the air, but Chubb is being clearly leaned on as the featured back, with recent carry counts of 18 // 18 // 22. Twenty touches is a safe bet in this spot. Because Chubb has only three total receptions (six targets) through these three starts, he needs to score touchdowns in order to pay off — giving him a lower floor than we would love. But he does carry upside against this defense.
I wanted to really like Julio in this spot, in the same way I really liked him last week, though this aggressive Cleveland defense provides a less appealing spot than what Julio had last week against the Redskins. Catch volume is a big part of Julio’s value, making a matchup against Cleveland (second lowest catch rate allowed) a less-than-ideal spot. This is not a terrifying draw for Julio, but it is a bit below-average, making him a “bet on talent and workload” play, rather than a guy to automatically lock-and-load in place.
This is an above-average spot for another long score from Ridley — but he costs more than his workload warrants, making him a low-floor, solid-ceiling play at his price, rather than a “safety with upside” option.
Because the Falcons’ offense has the ability to pile up points, I’ll also have moderate interest in Matt Ryan and Tevin Coleman in tourneys, though neither guy stands out in this spot (for Ryan, because of the matchup; for Coleman, because of the spotty usage through the air).
On the Browns, Mayfield is the play I like the most, as I expect the Browns’ passing attack to pile up yards, but I don’t feel confident that I can pinpoint any individual pass catcher likely to contribute a large chunk of those yards. I could see taking a shot on Njoku or Duke in tourneys, and even Landry is a respectable play on the bet that perhaps he sees a bit more downfield work this week. Obviously, none of these guys stand out as locked-in options.
The same goes for Chubb, as a true yardage-and-touchdown guy. He may hit for a touchdown or two in this spot — but if he doesn’t, he’ll be hurting your team. If you want to go to him, you can be encouraged by the fact that the Browns remained dedicated to the run last week even after falling behind. I expect Chubb to get his 20 touches here, removing “workload” from the pile of concerns for me. The big concern is simply that he can return pretty disappointing results if he fails to reach the end zone.