FALCONS // PANTHERS OVERVIEW
We are at that point in the season, when players begin to sit out the last couple games with injuries they would play through if their team were still in the playoff hunt. In this game, it will be Cam Newton taking a seat, with Taylor Heinicke taking over for the Panthers’ offense. The visiting Falcons are also out of the playoff hunt, with this game that originally looked like a potential battle for the division title now shaping up as an afterthought outside of the fantasy community. This game opened with an Over/Under of 50.5, with the Panthers favored by 3.5 points. Once the news of Newton’s absence emerged, the Over/Under plunged to 43.5, with the Falcons becoming 3.5 point favorites. The Falcons’ Vegas-implied total (23.5) remained unchanged, while the Panthers fell from 27.0 to 20.0.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
Carolina has continued to play stout defense after the catch, with only four teams in the NFL allowing a lower YAC/R rate this year — but they have otherwise been attackable, boosting the league-average aDOT by 4.8% and the league-average catch rate by 2.8%, leading to a number 23 ranking in yards allowed per pass attempt. The last time these teams met, the Panthers held Julio Jones to a disappointing 5-64-0 line (nine targets) in Atlanta, though this team has struggled all year to contain big-bodied, alpha-like receivers with downfield roles, recently giving up lines of:
:: 5-101-0 (six targets) — Chris Godwin
:: 4-103-1 (five targets) — David Moore
:: 8-113-1 (15 targets) — Kenny Golladay
:: 3-90-1 (five targets) — JuJu Smith-Schuster
:: 7-88-1 (10 targets) — Alshon Jeffery
Julio has at least eight targets in all but one game this year, and he is up to a respectable 12 red zone targets on the season, with six total touchdowns. He leads the NFL in receiving yards, air yards, percentage share of team air yards, and targets per game. As long as he is good to go this week after being limited in practice with a hip injury, he will again be the primary piece through which this passing attack attempts to flow.
The Panthers’ greatest weakness on defense has been slot receivers, though usage has been a greater detriment to the production of Mohamed Sanu than matchup, with five games already this year of four or fewer targets (including his first game against the Panthers in Week 2). Sanu’s limited downfield role makes it very difficult for him to hit for a big game. He’ll need a touchdown or a broken play in order to matter on this slate.
Joining Sanu with a backseat role in this offense is Calvin Ridley, who has topped six targets only four times all season, and who has topped 50 yards only five times. With only seven red zone targets on the year (and eight touchdowns from an early-season binge of long-range scoring), he has been perpetually overpriced since the start of the year — though he does maintain “do it all on his own” upside with the ball in his hands. Against a Carolina defense that allows downfield passing but tackles well after the catch, it is Julio — with the largest downfield role on this team — who sets up best; but there is an outside chance that one of these other pass catchers matters.
This attack wraps up with Austin Hooper, who has topped five targets only five times this year, but who has a solid matchup against a Panthers team that has allowed the most tight end touchdowns in the league. Increasing risk on Hooper are a pair of lower-body injuries that held him to only 51% of the Falcons’ snaps last week, with only 21 of a possible 41 pass routes run.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
With Tevin Coleman sure to be gone from Atlanta as a free agent next year, he made himself a bit of extra money on Sunday with his 11-145-1 line on the ground — though that may not be enough for the Falcons to turn over the reins to this backfield with Ito Smith now on Injured Reserve, as Dan Quinn has already talked up his desire to see more of number four back Brian Hill. Even in his Week 15 explosion, Coleman split snaps with Smith almost down the middle (34 to 29), in what has become the norm for this unit under Steve Sarkisian. There is an outside chance Coleman gets the bulk of the touches this week, but signals out of Atlanta tell us our best bet is to view this as a “bet on monster efficiency” backfield, with neither guy projecting to see more than 12 to 14 touches.
The matchup is not good against a Carolina defense that ranks 11th in yards allowed per carry and second in adjusted line yards on defense — though this team has struggled at times this year against stretch runs, which is where Coleman beat them last time around for a 16-107-0 line in Week 2. Consider him a low-floor, solid-ceiling play this week who will likely need a spike in workload in order to be effective, but who does have an outside shot at a spike in workload, and also has an outside shot at a couple long runs on the touches he sees. Hill is a “guess and hope” play behind Coleman, with a likely range of seven to 12 touches flowing his way.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
This week, 25-year-old Taylor Heinicke will make his first career start for the Panthers, against an Atlanta defense that has allowed the third highest catch rate in the NFL. The Falcons rank 21st in yards allowed per pass attempt, and only three teams have allowed more passing touchdowns.
Heinicke is a non-prospect, but he’s also likely a non-awful quarterback. He spent multiple years with Norv Turner in Minnesota and knows this offense well, and with Cam unable to practice most days lately, Heinicke also has plenty of first team reps under his belt that will come in handy for this first start. Carolina wide receivers have talked up Heinicke’s arm, grasp of the offense, and mobility, with Jarius Wright even going so far as to say that defenders have told the Panthers’ pass catchers that they’re not afraid of the deep ball with Cam under center, and that this will now change. This is a good first matchup for Heinicke against a Falcons defense that rarely does much to confuse quarterbacks — instead aiming to play assignment-strong defense that will make it easier for Heinicke to make reads and decisions. In this spot, we should expect the Panthers to lean on Christian McCaffrey even more than normal — but a chunk of this usage/production will likely come through the air. There is a non-zero chance that Heinicke puts up useful, minimum-priced production this week.
Breaking down target distributions for this team with Cam under center is a wasted effort with the quarterback change — with our best bet being our understanding of Norv Turner and what he will likely look to do in this spot. Turner has long been a proponent of a vertical-oriented attack, though this year he has tried to sharpen Cam’s game by focusing on underneath throws (early on, out of design; later in the year, out of necessity). With McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Curtis Samuel all elite after-catch threats, we should expect some underneath targets designed to get these guys in space, and we should expect a few downfield shots mixed in throughout this game to keep the Falcons’ defense honest. Downfield shots are likeliest to go to Moore and Samuel as well. Last week, Devin Funchess played only 11 snaps, with Samuel (94.8%) and Moore (98.3%) functioning as near every-down players. It won’t be surprising if we see another limited, 30-attempt game from this offense — and it also won’t be surprising if a decent chunk of these looks go to CMC — so volume is not assured on these two young stars; but each guy has the YAC ability to potentially matter on this slate.
Behind these two, Wright will continue operating in an underneath role — requiring a touchdown to hit. Ian Thomas will continue to be volume-or-touchdown reliant for notable production.
PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
Christian McCaffrey is one of the only non-quarterbacks/non-linemen in the NFL functioning as a true and legitimate every-down player — and with Heinicke under center, opportunities will be heightened for the Panthers to lean on their star back against a Falcons defense that has once again allowed the most catches and the most receiving yards to the running back position. This defense does not adjust their scheme to account for strong pass-catching backs — instead opting to allow these backs to stand wide open underneath for dump-offs, assuming they can tackle these backs after the catch. When these teams last met, CMC was targeted 15 times, hauling in 14 catches for 102 yards. Passing volume and sustained drives may be tougher for the Panthers to come by this week, likely putting such a lofty target total out of reach — but McCaffrey should again be the focal point of this offense, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to pile up floor and ceiling in this spot.
The Falcons’ offense has been difficult to truly rely on lately, but Matt Ryan and Julio Jones both stand out as solid options on this slate with top-of-the-weekend upside, while the running backs and the ancillary pieces on this squad can all be considered as guess-and-hope upside plays in tourneys who can be bet on with varying degrees of confidence.
On the other side of the ball, I feel confident in McCaffrey from a usage, floor, and ceiling standpoint this week, while I see Heinicke, Moore, and Samuel as intriguing tourney options. Heinicke in particular looks like an interesting min-priced bet if salary proves to be tight this week, as his weaponry and the likely game flow in this spot should allow him to post a serviceable score at worst, while he will certainly have opportunities to put up a starting-caliber score for far less than a starting-caliber score would typically cost.