FALCONS // BUCCANEERS OVERVIEW
This game will cap a disappointing season for two of the three NFC South squads that will miss the playoffs this year, with the 5-10 Buccaneers hosting the 6-9 Falcons. The Bucs opened the season with a win over the Saints (remember that?) and went 2-0 to begin the year before losing 10 of their next 13 games. The Falcons’ season has been marred by injuries, bad offensive decision-making, and four losses through the first 11 weeks of six or fewer points. Neither team has anything to play for, but we shouldn’t expect any major personnel adjustments outside of fringe-injured players potentially being given the week off. Keep in mind that both of these teams have been out of serious playoff contention for weeks now, and no major shifts should be expected to take place. With both of these teams ranked top eight in yards per game and bottom nine in yards allowed, there is opportunity for us to see something of a back-and-forth affair (their game earlier in the year was a 34-29 shootout in Atlanta). Vegas got behind this game with an Over/Under of 49.5, which was quickly bet up to 51.5. The Falcons opened as slim 1.0 point favorites and now clock in as 1.0 point underdogs.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
The Bucs fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith after their loss to the Falcons earlier in the year, and since that time they have shown improvements on defense — playing more man coverage (rather than sticking to their vanilla, ineffective zone far too often), paying closer attention to assignment-based details, and doing the main thing this particular coverage scheme requires: tackling well after the catch. On the year, the Bucs now rank top five in fewest yards allowed after the catch on a per-reception basis, and since Mark Duffner took over, they’ve been better than 10 other squads in yards allowed per pass attempt. The Bucs still allow the highest completion rate in the NFL, but since Smith was fired, teams have been attacking downfield far less often, with only 12 teams seeing fewer deep ball attempts in this span than the Bucs. As we have been hammering home across the last several weeks of action: this is still an above-average matchup, but not to such an extent that it significantly boosts expectations for opposing passing attacks.
Of course: any matchup but the most difficult is still “a good spot” for Julio Jones, who ranks top three in the NFL in targets, air yards, percentage share of team air yards, and receiving yards — with the only concern in this spot being hip and rib injuries that held him to 25 of 48 offensive snaps last week. It should be noted that the Falcons leaned heavily on two tight end sets last week and scaled back snaps for all of their wideouts, with Calvin Ridley playing only 29 snaps and Mohamed Sanu playing only 32. Keep an eye on reports this week on Julio’s health and playing-time expectations — but if he’s out there, he’s an obvious Upside option. Regardless of reports regarding his health, he’ll be at risk of seeing some limitations, which leaves him viable in tourneys only. The only true motivation for Julio in this game (beyond pride) is his league lead in receiving yards — but with a 114-yard edge on DeAndre Hopkins, his lead is likely safe without a wire-to-wire performance, introducing some risk to this spot.
Behind Julio, Ridley and Sanu have remained dart throws all season, with Ridley topping five targets only twice in his last seven games, and with Sanu working a route tree that typically leaves him on low-upside routes that require a broken play for him to hit. It’s not outside the realm of possibilities that one of these guys posts a big game, making them viable add-on pieces to an otherwise-sturdy tourney build; but each guy is best saved for mass-multi-entry play, or for game stacks that aim to capture a back-and-forth shootout in this spot. Even in a good matchup, Austin Hooper (who has seen his target counts fluctuate wildly, with quality matchups providing no volume guarantees) remains simply a bet-on-non-awful-floor // hope-for-a-big-game option.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
Tampa remains one of the better run defenses to attack — with a number 22 ranking in yards allowed per carry, and with the most running back touchdowns allowed in the NFL this year — but the Falcons’ backfield remains one of the more difficult to target, with this squad ranking third in pass play rate and remaining absolutely insistent on splitting work between two backs. Last week, it was Tevin Coleman and fourth-stringer Brian Hill, with Coleman touching the ball 10 times and Hill touching it eight. Four of Hill’s touches came after Coleman was knocked out of the game, but he mixed in from the very first drive (which was one of the only sustained drives the Falcons had all game), and if Coleman is cleared to play this week (which he currently appears on track for), we should once again expect a maddening backfield split. If Coleman misses, Jeremy Langford will step into the Number Two role while Hill will cover the One. This is a situation to avoid outside of hoping for a long play or an unpredictable volume spike.
BUCCANEERS PASS OFFENSE
On a per-pass basis, Atlanta has played fairly average pass defense all year, ranking 14th in yards allowed per pass attempt, while allowing the eighth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards. This defense continues to allow a high catch rate, but they force passes into the short areas — forcing opponents to march the length of the field rather than giving up chunk gains. This approach (as we all know quite well by this point in the season) filters plenty of targets to running backs (most RB targets faced in the league) while keeping volume to wide receivers and tight ends in the middle of the pack. Only 10 teams have allowed fewer yards to wide receivers this year than the Falcons — though with Atlanta ranked bottom three in drive success rate allowed, they have given up the third most wide receiver touchdowns.
All of this sets up poorly for targeting individual Tampa pass catchers with confidence, as the Bucs A) prefer to attack downfield (only Josh Allen has a deeper average intended air yards than Jameis this year), and B) spread around targets in the red zone (Chris Godwin has 15 red zone targets // Adam Humphries has 14 // Mike Evans has 12). This situation is further complicated by the expected health of DeSean Jackson (foot), who should be able to play this week in spite of missing a handful of snaps last week after he picked up the injury. If the Bucs hold out DJax in anticipation of cutting him loose in the offseason, it will become easier to take a shot on Godwin for his locked-in role and his upside at his still-depressed price; but if DJax plays, all bets are off.
While it is difficult to isolate a single wide receiver on the Bucs to target with confidence, there is a chance that this game turns into a shootout if both teams come to play, which introduces optimism for Jameis Winston (who can produce a high-end score without carrying a single one of his pass catchers into elite territory with him in this spread-it-out attack), and it also introduces optimism for large-field “take a shot” tourney stacks.
(NOTE: There are now whispers that Ryan Griffin could get some snaps at quarterback this week for the Bucs. This doesn’t change expectations on the Bucs’ pass catchers, as Griffin has been with the team for three years and knows the offense well, and the Bucs’ coaches like him quite a bit; but these whispers do heighten the risk on Jameis this week.)
Behind the wide receivers, Cameron Brate (no games above 36 receiving yards all season) remains a touchdown-or-bust option.
If you want to turn to narratives: Evans will have a shot to chase down the receiving yardage title with a big game if Julio misses this contest on the other side of the ball.
BUCCANEERS RUN OFFENSE
Attacking the Falcons with pass-catching running backs has been a profitable strategy all season (with this team allowing the most targets, catches, and receiving yards in the league), but this team also ranks 28th in yards allowed per carry, making them a quality matchup all the way around.
When these teams last met, Peyton Barber caught a season-high four catches (24 yards), while posting his fourth best yardage game on the ground (82 yards). Of course, those low numbers tell you a lot about his ceiling, but with 16 or more carries in five of his last six games and the eighth most red zone carries in the NFL (not a typo), he quietly carries a better price-considered floor/ceiling combo than most will notice. As a yardage-and-touchdown back, he always carries some risk of posting a dud, but he stands out as an interesting way to save salary this week.
There is also an outside chance that Jacquizz Rodgers gets involved through the air again this week (32 out of 81 snaps last week // seven targets), making him a thinner, but still-viable long-shot tourney play.
This week, I plan to build my typical one or two Main Rosters, but I also see enough paths to upside on this slate that I am toying around with the idea of a mass-multi-entry week myself — perhaps taking a rare, roster-heavy shot in the Milly Maker and other large-field tourneys. I don’t expect to find any pieces from this game on my Main Builds, as there are simply higher-floor spots than this — but this is the type of game that could yield multiple high-end scores if game flow plays out the right way, making this an interesting spot to stack in large-field builds. There are also some pieces here (Matt Ryan to Julio // Julio solo // Jameis solo // Jameis stacked one or two ways // Peyton Barber as a salary saver with 15- to 20-point upside // etc.) that are attractive for the upside outside of game stacks. If I end up with some multi-entry play, I’ll likely have a piece of this game. If both teams show up to play, it could turn into a sneaky-fun shootout in the early games on Sunday.