The Falcons and Bucs “have nothing to play for,” but both teams have been playing their proverbial tails off lately. Injured superstars may be held out (i.e., Chris Godwin), but the players who play will be playing the same as any other week. The Bucs are trying to build something here, and the Falcons are trying to save their coach’s job with a 6-2 finish to the year.
The Matchup ::
- The last time the Buccaneers allowed a quarterback to pass for 300 yards was seven games ago, on November 10; since then, they have held Drew Brees (228), Matt Ryan (271), Gardner Minshew + Nick Foles (240), Jacoby Brissett (251), David Blough (260), and Deshaun Watson (184) to 271 or fewer yards (Note :: we’re cheating a little bit here, as Matt Schaub added 55 yards on nine attempts in the game in which Ryan threw for 271 — though it also took 55 attempts for these two to combine for 326 yards)
- In the Bucs’ last five games, they have allowed four passing touchdowns while picking off six passes
- On the year, the Bucs are shaving 3% off the league-average catch rate and 12% off the league-average YAC/R, while ranking 15th in opponent passer rating and 14th in yards allowed per pass attempt; so much for that “embarrassing // awful // pathetic” secondary we read about seemingly everywhere else
- As noted throughout the season :: the Bucs have not been smashed by wideouts because they are bad, but rather, because they are merely average, and their run defense is incredible (while their offense puts up points in a hurry) — forcing opponents to throw at the highest rate in the NFL
- The Falcons rank first in the NFL in pass play rate, and since losing Calvin Ridley they have decided to pour volume into the lap of Julio Jones, feeding him 35 targets over the last two weeks
- Julio needs 84 yards to extend his record of most consecutive 1400-yard seasons, and to tie Jerry Rice for most 1400-yard seasons in history, while the Falcons have nothing to play for beyond pride and records
- The Falcons are 5-2 in their last seven games, including wins over the Saints and 49ers
- The Falcons’ only losses in this stretch came at the hands of the Saints and Bucs
- Across these seven games, the Falcons have allowed seven passing touchdowns while picking off eight passes
- Three of those passing touchdowns were tossed by Jameis
- Without Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in Week 16, Breshad Perriman played 70/73 snaps and saw 12 targets
- Perriman — whose career had spiraled into disappointment before the last couple weeks due primarily to his inability to run anything but go routes — saw only four of his 12 targets on routes that required him to “break”
- The Falcons shave 10% off the league-average aDOT (third best mark in the league) and try to capitalize on forcing receivers to “run routes” in the shorter areas of the field
- Justin Watson also played 70 snaps last week and saw 10 targets, going 5-43-1 while operating as the primary “route runner” option
- Behind Perriman and Watson, Ishmael Hyman played 43 snaps but saw only three targets
- Cameron Brate saw five targets, and O.J. Howard saw seven
- The Falcons have ranked middle-of-the-pack this year in catches, yards, and touchdowns allowed to both wide receivers and tight ends
The Game ::
The notes laid out above — regarding the improved state of each of these defenses — need to be weighed when considering expectations on individual players in this game; but the approach for each of these teams should be about as straightforward as it gets, with the Falcons ranking first in the NFL in pass play rate, the Bucs ranking seventh, and both defenses easier to attack through the air than on the ground (as we are well aware by this point in the year: the Bucs rank first in DVOA against the run, but rank 12th against the pass, while the Falcons rank 14th against the run and 26th against the pass). Atlanta also ranks sixth in pace of play while the Bucs rank seventh, and both teams also rank top 10 in opponent pace of play. We lose 1:57 from standard game expectations for these two when we combine their average time of possession, as each team does a solid job controlling the clock — but with both teams ranked top four in plays per game, we should still have plenty of opportunity for plays to pile up on both sides in this spot.
When plays pile up for the Falcons, Julio Jones is likely to be the overwhelming focal point, while Austin Hooper should function as the clear number two option in this passing attack. This group will be rounded out with Russell Gage (six targets in each of the last two games, and three carries added from there) and Devonta Freeman (target counts the last two weeks of 3 // 10), with all other wide receivers having been ignored behind this group since Calvin Ridley went down.
When plays pile up for the Bucs, it will be Breshad Perriman and Justin Watson soaking up most of the action through the air, with O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate mixed in behind these two, and with Ronald Jones (recent touch counts of 15 // 12 // 17) and Peyton Barber (13 // 12 // 5) continuing to split touches with no clear rhyme or rhythm to the weeks in which a Jones Touch Spike emerges.
On the Falcons’ side, then :: Julio is a near lock for 10+ targets and for solid production, with the big question being whether or not he can post a score that justifies his price tag. We should expect the Bucs to try to force the Falcons to win elsewhere, and given that they have risen all the way to 12th in DVOA against the pass at this point (and given that everyone thinks this is the worst pass defense in the history of the league — and that ownership on Julio is almost guaranteed to be high as a result), we have an interesting setup, as Julio needs quite a few points in order to justify his price tag, and it’s totally possible for him to have heavy volume and a solid real-life game without actually being worth a roster spot at his salary. Julio is a matchup-busting talent (and again: this is the rare setup in which we can expect the Falcons to actually feed their best weapon the volume he deserves), but the matchup/pricing elements should be weighed as well when you are making your decisions around this spot. Volume is your friend here, and is the main thing you are betting on with Julio. Hooper should be in line for eight or nine looks of his own with potential for a small rise from there, while the Bucs’ expected focus on Julio could keep the matchup fairly winnable for the Falcons’ stud tight end. Gage is a short-area piece who will need a broken play or a couple scores in order to really pop off, while Freeman will need to do his damage against a Tampa defense that is not only elite against running backs on the ground, but is also elite against them through the air.
On the Bucs’ side :: Perriman should continue to be fed volume as a fairly one-dimensional threat, which will make this a spot in which his skill set and usage will have to win against a defense that is specifically designed to slow players with his skill set and usage. This closes off some of his paths to slate-breaking upside — though the targets are still likely to be there, making him a risk/reward bet in this spot. Watson is likely to pile up volume as well in a matchup that sets up better for his role in this offense, with a touchdown likely required for him to truly make a difference on this slate, but with the risk of betting on a backup being the only major floor concern. Howard — as always — cannot be relied on for locked-in production, but he is a monster with the ball in his hands, and he is used in more of a downfield role than his tight end counterpart, giving him plenty of upside to go with the risk inherent in absorbing this play on your roster, while Brate is a hope-for-touchdown bet, with anything over that a bonus. In the backfield, of course, Barber is more of a drain on Jones’ value than he is an actual, viable option, while Jones himself is a volatile, hope-to-guess-right play. The matchup tilts away from the backfield in this spot, but that doesn’t mean that Jones can’t hit for a couple touchdowns or for solid production on heavy volume in this spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Given the way pricing and matchup tilt, I expect to focus more heavily on Hooper and Watson than on Julio and Perriman — and given that ownership is likelier to tilt toward the latter two, I may even increase my tourney exposure on the first two a bit more to take advantage of the gap that would show up in value between those sides in this spot if we were able to play out this slate a hundred times. Naturally, I won’t be surprised to find myself with some “hedge” exposure on Julio and Perriman if I end up heavy enough on Hooper/Watson, but if targeting first place in a tourney, the lower ownership on the guys who low-key have a better shot at providing sturdy point-per-dollar production make “group one” more appealing to me.
With the way this game sets up (fast pace; lots of passing expected; two teams with downfield mindsets and approaches), I also won’t be surprised to find myself branching out beyond that group — likely in the form of some game stacks that bet on the passing attacks (with both quarterbacks likely mixed into my rosters, and with guys like Howard, Gage, and possibly even Jones mixed in for the potential “game environment” upside). With the improvements these defenses have made throughout the second half of the season, I see more cause for caution on this game than most will likely see — but that doesn’t change the explosive components available here, and doesn’t change the fact that this game still has one of the better shots on the slate of turning into a true barn-burner. In order to account for that heightened risk, I’ll likely try to “isolate” this game (outside of Watson and possibly Hooper — both of whom I will likely find myself gravitating toward even outside of “game environment” bets on this spot) — still giving myself exposure to this game on my builds, but doing so with rosters dedicated to bets on this game, rather than doing so by spreading out my exposure to this game across a broad range of builds.