FALCONS // PACKERS OVERVIEW
When the schedule-makers set up this late-season clash, they surely assumed it would carry heavy playoff implications. Instead, this game features a 4-8 team traveling to take on a 4-7-1 team that just fired its head coach.
There are some things to like about this game. It projects to be played in cold (but not bone-chilling cold), sunny weather, with a Falcons offense that ranks 10th in yards per game (even after their drubbing at the hands of the Ravens last week) and a Falcons defense that is allowing the seventh most yards per game in the league. Dan Quinn always finds a way to keep his team motivated, and the Packers will be playing with extra motivation this week. The season for both of these teams has been disappointing enough that “shootout” is not a foregone conclusion — but there is a good chance we see some strong DFS scores emerge from this spot. Vegas opened this game with an Over/Under of 48.0, and it was quickly bet up to 49.0. The Packers are hovering as just-under-touchdown favorites.
PACKERS PASS OFFENSE
When Jeff Driskel took over as the quarterback of the Bengals, he and Bengals OC Bill Lazor both talked about how they were already equipped to work together because they communicate so much throughout the week. One example Lazor gave was the way he asks each quarterback on the team to give him a list of the plays they like the most each week, so that he can get a feel over time for what each quarterback is most comfortable with.
Other teams set up similar communication patterns between their quarterbacks and their play-caller. Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady are known to text throughout the week with play ideas and concepts for that week. Drew Brees and Sean Payton meet each Saturday night to talk over the plays they like the most for that week — and they have a rule that the play won’t be run unless both of them feel comfortable with it.
Former Packers receiver James Jones had an interesting bit of insight this week in talking about the relationship Mike McCarthy had with Aaron Rodgers — saying, essentially, that because McCarthy was the head coach, he was not always with the offense. As such, the players would communicate with Joe Philbin what plays they liked and what plays they didn’t — but even though this information would get relayed to McCarthy, it wouldn’t always show up in the play-calling (presumably because it simply was not at the front of McCarthy’s mind; that is to say, it’s not as if McCarthy was (intentionally) sabotaging the offense — but this lack of communication presented issues).
This is likely the biggest impact of the McCarthy firing, as the Packers will still be using the same playbook, and they will still have the same players on the field. One of those “players on the field” will still be Aaron Rodgers (it’s not difficult to imagine he’ll be fired up to prove a point in this spot), so if the communication improves, it’s not crazy to think we see an improved unit on the field this week.
The matchup, as you know by now, could not be much better. Atlanta has been completely mediocre against the pass this year, allowing a 5.5% increase on the league-average catch rate and ranking 23rd in yards allowed per pass attempt.
The Falcons rank middle of the pack in yards and receptions allowed to wide receivers, but only three teams have allowed more passing touchdowns than the Falcons this year — drawing our attention to Davante Adams, who leads the NFL in red zone targets and ranks second in receiving touchdowns. Adams has seen seven or more targets in every game this year, and he has double-digit looks in half his games. This is a good matchup — against a defense that typically focuses on assignments over opponent-specific game plans, allowing alpha receivers to be schemed as many targets as the offense wants. Adams will run most of his routes at Robert Alford, who has struggled this season to the tune of a 138.6 quarterback rating allowed.
This defense is most attackable over the short middle, where Randall Cobb runs the majority of his routes. Cobb is a low-upside bet with all the underneath targets he sees (across his last five games, he has 20 catches for only 141 total yards — which is, incredibly, one fewer yard than he had in Week 1 alone). If you want to bet on an outlier scenario, his short looks can occasionally turn into big gains.
This wide receiver unit wraps up with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has stumbled lately to only four catches on 12 targets (across his last three games), totaling only 30 yards in this stretch. MVS does still carry sneaky upside now that he has kicked to the perimeter with Cobb back on the field. He went only 2-19-0 last week on seven targets, but the previous time he played heavy perimeter snaps was Week 9 vs the Patriots, when he went 3-101-0 on six targets. He’s a low-floor, high-ceiling play.
Jimmy Graham saw 11 targets last week, just two weeks removed from a two-week stretch of one-target games. Most weeks, Graham has been involved — though he has rarely flashed for yardage upside, making him a bet-on-touchdown play. With Davante Adams hogging the end zone work, Graham has only two touchdowns all season. Working in his favor is a matchup against a Falcons team that has been middling against tight ends.
PACKERS RUN OFFENSE
One of the most obvious coaching mistakes from Mike McCarthy was his puzzling usage of Aaron Jones, who closed out his time with McCarthy seeing 39 snaps and 15 touches in a home loss to the 2-9 Cardinals…while plodding teammate Jamaal Williams somehow played 38 snaps and touched the ball 11 times. As of this writeup, I have seen no reports to indicate that Jones will see a spike in playing time, but I’ll be viewing this as a fairly safe bet this week. Not every running back has the incredible conditioning of a guy like Christian McCaffrey (who has literally played every snap recently for the Panthers), but at least 70% of the snaps should be here for Jones, who will have a shot to push for 17+ carries while adding looks in the pass game. Jones has recent target counts of 4 // 5 // 6 // 5 // 4. The Falcons have faced the most targets and allowed the most catches to running backs, while allowing the third most receiving yards and the 11th most rushing yards. Only six teams have allowed more touchdowns to running backs. On a per-touch basis, Jones’ red zone role has been on par with guys like Todd Gurley and recent-weeks Christian McCaffrey. There is obvious guesswork on the workload for this play, but Jones has spiked-week upside in this spot.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
Although Green Bay invites opponents to run the ball (and has faced the fifth highest rush play rate in the NFL), the Falcons have been the third pass-heaviest offense in the league this year as they have realized that they have no hope of producing consistent yardage on the ground. Before last week’s game (in which the Falcons ran only 45 plays vs Baltimore), Matt Ryan had thrown the ball (starting from Week 4) the following number of times :: 39 // 38 // 41 // 39 // 38 // 52 // 34 // 47. A pass-leaning game plan is the likeliest approach here.
The Packers have been attackable through the air with quality receivers, allowing 70+ yards to Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Tyler Lockett, Josh Gordon, Julian Edelman, Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Kenny Golladay. Outside of their games against the Vikings (who have dominated this secondary twice), the Packers have done a good job limiting catch rate — but wideouts are piling up enough downfield receptions to make consistent box score dents against them. Coming off a 2-18-0 game in a dispiriting home loss to the Ravens, Julio Jones enters a strong bounce-back spot. He and Ryan would benefit from playing this game at home in the dome, but the opportunities will still be there for him to hit.
Behind Julio — who ranks third in the NFL in targets per game and first in the league in percentage share of team air yards — this passing attack has been a whack-a-mole unit, with Calvin Ridley topping five targets only once in his last four games, and with Mohamed Sanu going for 21 or fewer receiving yards as many times this year (three) as he has managed to go over 56 receiving yards. Austin Hooper rounds out this attack with the occasional blowup in his back pocket, but with six consecutive games of 56 or fewer receiving yards. The Packers have been solid against tight ends this year, allowing the fifth fewest receptions to the position.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
The Packers are middling against the run — allowing 4.6 yards per carry — though volume in this split backfield is a bigger concern than matchup. Across the last six Falcons games, Tevin Coleman has averaged 9.5 carries and 2.8 receptions per game. Coleman has seven touchdowns on the year, but outside of a blowup game in Week 9 (two touchdowns // 156 total yards vs Washington), these touchdowns have barely even made his lines serviceable. It’s not crazy to bet on Coleman seeing a heavier workload after being “accidentally” out-carried by Ito Smith last week — and if he sees 14 to 17 touches, it’s not crazy to think he could rip off a big play to go with a potential score — but these bets would come with the low floor that Coleman has shown all year.
I’m actually somewhat excited about the Packers’ offense in this one — with acknowledgement that this is still something of a high-variance play. (It is no guarantee that this offense suddenly clicks just because a new guy is calling the same plays. The matchup does help, though; and it’s fair to assume Rodgers will be able to somewhat rally the troops.) I don’t think I would feel comfortable betting on MVS in anything but large-field tourneys, and Cobb is not really my style of play (with all the ultra-short looks), but I like Rodgers, and I really like Adams. In the backfield, Jones’ price on all three sites is a bit close to the top players on the slate — but if his usage is in line with those guys (22 to 25 touches), he’s actually not far off in projections in this spot. His price point (and his price-considered disappointment last week) will likely pull attention away from him, making him an intriguing tourney piece.
Temperatures on Sunday in Green Bay currently call for a high of 26; and while Matt Ryan was a finalist for the Heisman while playing for Boston College, he has played most of his games across the last 10 years in the domes and warm-weather environments of the NFC South. We would prefer this team indoors, on turf, making Ryan more “speculative for upside” than central piece this week — but I cannot imagine that many people will be thinking about Ryan, and he does have some of the highest upside in football if this game turns into a shootout. He’s an interesting piece in tourneys.
Julio is an interesting piece in all formats for his locked-in targets and the consistency and upside he carries. His red zone role, as always, is a concern, but he can rip off chunk gains with the best of them, and his floor in this matchup should be respectable (something like 6-90-0 if things go even just somewhat according to plan).
With volume on the rest of this passing attack so scattershot, I likely won’t go beyond Julio, but all three of Sanu // Ridley // Hooper are theoretically viable in large-field tourneys for their upside. The backfield will almost certainly be off-limits for me. Coleman is explosive enough to rip off a big run, but he hasn’t topped 13 carries since Week 4, and he hasn’t topped 16 carries all season.