Last week, the Dolphins were coming off their first win of the season, and the Colts (a team that was 5-3, but would have been 7-1 with just a couple “missed kicks” turned into “made kicks”) were coming off a heartbreaking loss. We said in this space that we should expect the Colts to show up fully focused and ready to play as a result of these circumstances — and the Colts proceeded to remind us that anything can happen in the NFL, as Brian Hoyer played like Brock Osweiler and the undermanned Colts gave the Dolphins their second win of the year. All of which has nothing to do with this game, of course; but with the Falcons coming off an unexpected win on the road against one of the best teams in football and the Panthers coming off a heartbreaking loss at Lambeau, we should still keep in mind that anything is on the table. And while the Falcons have not been improving throughout the year the way the Dolphins have, they do have a group of players that genuinely love their coach (there was speculation a few weeks ago that Dan Quinn had lost the locker room — but that never made a ton of sense given the kind of coach he is and the admiration so many of these players have professed to have for him as a man // coach // “leader” // rah-rah-brotherhood-cheerleader // etc.); and although their season is obviously over, they will be looking to post another upset against another division rival.
One of the issues that plagued the Saints last week was their dependence on “drives” in order to score. The only player in the NFL with a shorter average intended air yards than Drew Brees is Teddy Bridgewater — and in spite of Michael Thomas hauling in 13 catches last week, not a single one of his targets came more than 17 yards downfield (with most of his looks coming much closer to the line of scrimmage than that). With the Saints unable to get much of anything going with Alvin Kamara (and unwilling to throw to anyone but Thomas // Kamara // Jared Cook), the Falcons were able to stop New Orleans drives before they reached the end zone — forcing four punts and three field goal attempts.
No matter how we break things down, of course, the Saints are a better all-around offense than the Panthers, and “if the Falcons could do that to New Orleans, they can certainly do the same thing to Carolina.” But given the larger sample size (the Falcons rank 31st in drive success rate allowed and have forced the second fewest punts per game), it is overwhelmingly the “likeliest scenario” that last week’s game will prove to be a one-week blip, and that the Falcons will go back to being one of the more attackable teams in football. This defense ranks 30th in DVOA (10th against the run; 31st against the pass), and only three teams (Giants // Dolphins // Bucs) are allowing more points per game.
The matchup is “worst” for Christian McCaffrey, with the Falcons (as noted above) ranked 10th in DVOA against the run and allowing only 3.92 yards per carry to running backs. Notable stat lines against them on the ground have been there, but only one has been smash-level, with carry/yardage/touchdown marks allowed of 21-111-2 to Dalvin Cook // 16-74-1 to Marlon Mack // 27-100-0 to Derrick Henry // 20-90-1 to Chris Carson. The Falcons have also, surprisingly, allowed the fourth fewest receiving yards to running backs (though this is more a function of wide receivers having an easy time against them than it is of any great prowess at stopping pass-catching backs; from both a personnel and scheme standpoint, this is still largely the same defense that has ranked bottom 10 in receiving yards allowed to running backs for five consecutive seasons). On a per-touch basis, the matchup isn’t “tremendous” for McCaffrey; but we can also keep in mind that CMC has 25+ touches in all but two games this season (one vs the Bucs; one vs the 49ers), and while the yardage has been fantastic, CMC’s biggest value is coming from his 14 touchdowns — an area where he should still have opportunities this week.
In the pass game, the Panthers have a leg up on the Saints in that they are willing to attack downfield (since their bye in Week 7, Curtis Samuel has six targets of 20+ yards and D.J. Moore has six targets of 30+ yards; Kyle Allen’s average intended air yards of 9.1 is also nearly three yards higher than Brees’ mark of 6.3), with this offense looking more and more like the all-levels attack that Norv Turner built around the strengths of Cam Newton.
Moore now has recent target counts of 8 // 10 // 9 // 10 // 11, and while the field thinks of him as the shorter-aDOT guy in this offense, that has changed coming out of the bye. He paid off last week as one of our favorite plays with a 9-120-0 line at low ownership; and while he’s still (remarkably) sitting on zero targets inside the 10, he sets up well for catches and yardage in this spot.
Samuel has recent target counts of 6 // 11 // 6 // 8, and his edge in aDOT is fading with Moore now being used downfield as well, leaving him as the lower-target compliment in this attack. Samuel does have four targets inside the 10 (and five touchdowns on the year, to only one for Moore), and his speed will have a chance to play in this spot. As we all surely recall by this point: the Falcons aim to force shorter-area throws (they’re shaving 7.5% off the league-average aDOT), and most of their big games allowed have come from a high catch rate and YAC; but any way you slice it, the matchup is favorable, and both guys will have a shot at taking advantage.
This brings us to the final piece of this passing attack: Greg Olsen, whose targets have been annoyingly unpredictable this year (2 // 7 // 2 // 6 // 10 across his last five games). Olsen’s targets have tended to spike in favorable matchups, and while the Falcons rank middle of the pack in production allowed to tight ends this year, they are non-threatening from a matchup perspective.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons have an interesting setup in that they rank first in pass play rate (as noted throughout the year: this has been more about the Falcons choosing to not run behind their 26th-ranked offensive line (adjusted line yards) than it has been about them playing from behind), but they enter a matchup against a Panthers team that ranks 32nd in DVOA against the run compared to third against the pass. With Devonta Freeman set to miss and Ito Smith on I.R., there is no guarantee that Atlanta attacks heavily on the ground with Brian Hill (nor is there any guarantee that game flow will tilt toward a run-heavy approach), but Hill should be able to see at least 14 carries, with clear upside for 18 to 20 if he’s able to hold off timeshare threats Qadree Ollison and Kenjon Barner. Hill is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry this year, but he also ran 10 pass routes last week (two targets) and he carries a solid touch floor in this spot.
When the Falcons take to the air, the matchup shifts quite a bit depending on whether or not James Bradberry plays; but since he was a game-time decision last week, it’s fair at the front end of this week to assume he’ll make it back in time for this game. D.J. Chark and Chris Godwin (twice) are the only wide receivers who have topped 100 yards against the Panthers with Bradberry on the field — but even more importantly, the Panthers have allowed only five touchdowns to wide receivers (fifth fewest in the league). Touchdowns continue to be an issue for Julio in this offense (he is averaging 0.38 per game over the last three and a half seasons — which does not compare favorably to other top wideouts, with Hopkins averaging 0.57, Michael Thomas averaging 0.48, and Davante averaging 0.69, just to name a few), which should be kept in mind against Julio’s salary. Julio can literally win in any matchup, but he’ll almost certainly need scores in order to truly pop off for a monster game. His last four stat lines against the Panthers have been 4-28-1 // 5-64-0 // 5-80-0 // 6-118-0.
Behind Julio, Austin Hooper (sprained MCL) is likely to leave behind 7.4 targets per game, without a capable pass-catching tight end to fill in for him. These things are never apples-to-apples (the Falcons could run the ball a bit more, and the targets could be spread out so much that there isn’t a notable bump on any individual player), but the Panthers play at a top five pace and are allowing the fourth most opponent plays per game; and if Bradberry plays and is able to keep Julio from one of his monster-target games, this primarily leaves Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, and the running backs to soak up the extra looks. The Falcons ended up going run-heavy with a lead in both of their games against Carolina last year, so it’s tough to get a feel for how Ridley might be used if Bradberry slows Julio and Hooper is out; but a rise on his 6.2 targets per game is likely. Gage should also see a rise in short-area looks (nine and five targets the last two weeks) if Hooper leaves behind his outlet role. Kenjon Barner should play on obvious passing downs to steal some work (Hill has only eight targets in his career, compared to 59 carries — so while this doesn’t mean he won’t see pass game involvement, it does indicate he’s unlikely to be schemed many aerial looks), but on first and second down in particular, Gage and Ridley could see a bit of a boost.
JM’s Interpretation ::
There is plenty to like on the Panthers’ side (unsurprising, given the matchup and the 27.5 Vegas-implied team total), with a narrow distribution of touches on an offense that should score points. CMC enters this week with the highest raw projection on the slate, and on a fairly weak RB week (from a price-considered standpoint, especially), he’s very much in play. The matchup is slightly below-average if we isolate it from game environment; but with two fast-paced teams (the Falcons also rank top eight in pace) and scoring opportunities sure to be there, he maintains the same high floor/ceiling he always has. Moore is a solid play yet again — and while he’ll need some touchdown luck to pay off in a big way, his locked-in targets and new downfield role still give him plenty of paths to upside. Samuel is also a threat for a big play and/or a score, and can be kept in mind in this spot. (The same goes for Olsen — though I’ll hope to hunt for less guesswork-driven tight end plays than this. Olsen has ceiling in tourneys, but is an iffy piece from a floor perspective. Of course…I imagine some sharper large-field tourney players will add Olsen to their tourney list for exactly that reason.)
On the Falcons’ side, Hill is interesting from a “role” perspective even if the likeliest scenario has him falling shy of a standout game, while Julio is a “can hit in any matchup” piece if you want to chase in tourneys. Gage is worth keeping in mind for the short-area role and the savings he provides (with a broken play or an unpredictable touchdown providing paths to price-considered ceiling), while Ridley is an interesting tourney piece as well. Nothing on this side of the ball pops off the page (there’s a reason the Falcons have a Vegas-implied total of 22.0), but there are a number of guys who are certainly in the mix.