FALCONS // SAINTS OVERVIEW
Most people will be eating bird carcass (shoutout to Levitan for that one) and watching ‘Mouse on the Mayflower’ during the afternoon instead of tuning into the boring early games (bonus points if you remember ‘Mouse on the Mayflower’…), with their football-watching energy saved up for the exciting game on Thursday night between a Saints team scoring an unbelievable 37.8 points per game (most in the NFL) and a Falcons team allowing 27.6 points per game (fourth most in the NFL). New Orleans has tightened up on defense lately, ranking 15th in points allowed per game and allowing only the Rams to top 23 points across their last seven contests. Each of the last seven teams to play the Saints has been held below their season-long point-per-game average; but this is still an exciting matchup, as Atlanta ranks sixth in yards per game and ninth in points per game. The Falcons are the last team to have scored above their season-long point-per-game average against the Saints, when they put up 37 points at home way back in Week 3.
New Orleans has quietly been one of the slowest-paced teams in the league this year, and while I have received constant push-back since Mark Ingram returned and I started preaching that this team would be a run-heavy unit (with excuses made each week for the reasons why the Saints leaned run-heavy that time around), this team now ranks 30th in pass play rate, and Drew Brees has topped 30 pass attempts only one time since Ingram came back from suspension. The Falcons, on the other hand, rank fourth in pass play rate — and with the Saints boasting a top five run defense and regularly playing with a lead, they have faced the fourth highest pass play rate in the NFL. As long as the Saints are able to control this game, expect them to lean run-heavy while the Falcons attack through the air on the other side.
With the Falcons coming off losses to the Browns and Cowboys, and with the Saints riding a nine game win streak (including a dominant home win over the Eagles last week and a tight, exciting win over the 10-1 Rams a few weeks back), Vegas has given a major endorsement to the home team, installing them as 13-point favorites early in the week — the sort of spread that is typically only seen between truly great and truly awful teams. This game has been awarded an Over/Under of 59.5, and the nature of these offenses gives this game a clear shot at reaching that lofty mark.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
The Saints have been solid against pass-catching running backs this year — allowing the 12th fewest receiving yards to the position, and allowing only two receiving touchdowns — and they have been nails against the tight end (fifth fewest yards allowed, second fewest receptions allowed, second fewest touchdowns allowed, and an incredibly low 57.6% completion rate to a position that normally notches a higher-than-average catch rate); but the story has been different against wide receivers, where the Saints have given up the third most catches, the second most touchdowns, and the most yards in the league.
As noted last week: Matt Ryan is playing at a near-MVP level this year, notching the second highest completion rate in the NFL, the sixth highest yards per pass attempt, the third most passing yards, and an awesome 22:4 TD:INT ratio. When these teams last met, Ryan threw for 374 yards and five touchdowns — and while the Saints have tightened up since then, and this game will be on the road for Ryan rather than at home, the nature of this matchup should still lead to another strong day. The last time Ryan finished with fewer than 285 passing yards was Week 2. He has six games of 300+ yards in his last eight contests.
Ryan’s primary target this year has been Julio Jones, who not only leads the team in targets (111 — more than Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley combined), but who also ranks second in the NFL in targets per game, first in percentage share of team air yards, and first in total air yards (with a stunning 17.3% more air yards than any other player in football). The last time these teams met, Julio saw only six targets (his only game all season below nine looks), as the Saints prioritized taking him away. This is very much in the wheelhouse of the Saints’ team philosophy, but Julio still went 5-96-0 on these six looks — and in two games against the Saints last year, he saw 11 targets each time, posting lines of 5-98-0 and 7-149-0. Julio still has only six red zone targets and one red zone catch on the year (which came on a wide receiver screen), but he is up to five targets inside the 10, and in addition to his sporadic work close to the end zone, he has the ability to strike from anywhere on the field.
With the Saints prioritizing Julio last time around and erasing Austin Hooper with their sticky tight end coverage (3-23-0 on four looks), Mohamed Sanu was able to chip in a 4-36-1 line on seven targets, and Calvin Ridley disemboweled this team with a career-best 7-146-3 line that shot up his DFS price and his ownership for weeks afterward. Ridley has not topped six catches or 71 yards in any other game — and while he has four red zone scores on the year, he has done so on only five red zone targets, setting him up for regression.
The likeliest outcome in this spot is that Julio sees double-digit looks and tops 100 yards, with touchdowns spread around behind him — but Ridley’s price has finally dropped to a point where he won’t kill you if you chase his upside, and his explosive skill set gives him an outside shot at popping for another huge game. The likeliest scenario also has Sanu running possession-type routes that limit his shot at upside (he has topped 56 yards only twice this season), but every once in a while the Falcons change things up and use Sanu downfield more often than normal. This also seems like a decent spot for a Sanu-pass trick play as the Falcons pull out all the stops to try to keep their season alive against the best team in the NFC (the best team in the NFL?), giving him enough upside opportunities to be considered on the Thanksgiving slate.
Hooper rounds out this passing attack with an up-and-down role that projects to be down in this spot, though he could run into value on a broken play.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
The Falcons’ backfield has been unrosterable all season, with Tevin Coleman seeing 13 or fewer carries in six consecutive games, and with only two games all year north of three receptions, while Ito Smith has continued to siphon eight to 11 touches per game across the last four contests for the Falcons and has failed to top 64 total yards in any game this season. A bet on this backfield is a bet on a broken play or a multi-touchdown game.
No team in football has allowed more receptions to running backs than the Falcons. Only one team has allowed more receiving yards to backs. Only one team has allowed more yards per carry. And only three teams have allowed more touchdowns. When these teams played in Week 3 — with Mark Ingram still suspended — Alvin Kamara went nuclear, with 15-124-0 through the air, and with 16-66-0 on the ground.
I have gotten a kick the last couple weeks out of reading/hearing the weekly excuses for why Ingram had a good game, and for why his workload needs to be approached with caution as “Kamara is clearly the lead back at this point.” As we have noted weekly in this space, Ingram’s usage is extremely close to what he carried last year (as expected) — and as with last year (when he had only five games all season north of 14 carries), his touch total is iffy most weeks (giving him a scary floor), while his touchdown upside has made him one of the more exciting (and underpriced) plays on the slate. Through six games, snaps between Ingram and Kamara have looked like this:
Kamara — 31 // 39 // 38 // 41 // 34 // 44
Ingram — 36 // 35 // 23 // 34 // 31 // 30
Kamara has 80 carries and 25 targets in this stretch. Ingram has 79 carries and 13 targets. Each guy is seeing work in the red zone — but in keeping with the overall distribution, Kamara has the slight edge in that area as well. We noted last week that a matchup against Philly’s scary front set up Kamara to see more snaps (in the same way Kamara out-snapped Ingram 38 // 23 vs the Vikings). This week sets up for a close-to-even distribution against the Falcons’ soft front. Ingram already has nine carries inside the five-yard-line — only one fewer than Kamara has on the season. Carries project to be about equal here. Kamara will see more looks through the air.
Last week, the Eagles focused all of their attention on making life difficult on Kamara and Michael Thomas through the air, tilting coverage their way as if Brees would simply force the ball to them regardless. The Saints quickly adjusted by feeding Tre’Quan Smith a career high 13 targets (his previous highs had been 6 // 4 // 3), which he turned into 10-157-1. Expect Tre’Quan to be popular on the Thanksgiving slate, but also realize that the running backs on this team uncharacteristically saw only one target (they had seen 8 // 7 // 11 in the previous three weeks) and Thomas saw only four targets (8 // 15 // 6 in the previous three weeks). The Saints are all about identifying and attacking an opponent’s weakness — and the Falcons’ weakness is not the deep ball (they shave a respectable 4% off the league-average aDOT), but is instead short passes to wide receivers (Thomas’ forte) and passes to running backs (benefitting Kamara first and Ingram second). Expect Thomas to return to somewhere in the range of eight to 11 looks, while Kamara and Ingram should combine for another seven to 10 looks of their own. This will leave around 10 to 15 targets to be spread amongst Tre’Quan, Keith Kirkwood (two and five targets the last two weeks), Austin Carr (two targets in each of the last two games), and the three man tight end rotation of Ben Watson, Josh Hill, and Dan Arnold (five and six targets the last two games). On his possession-like aDOT of 7.9, Thomas is a safe bet for a floor of around 7-70-0, with obvious upside for more catches, more yardage, and a multi-touchdown game (only five teams have allowed more touchdowns to wide receivers than the Falcons, and only DeAndre Hopkins has more targets inside the 10-yard-line than Thomas). The rest of these guys are “hope for a broken play or a touchdown” bets.
Matt Ryan leaps off the page in this matchup — especially on this slate — as he should be able to match Brees blow for blow, and his locked-in volume raises his floor. The only concern here is the aggressive Saints defense that could funnel Ryan into a Wentz-like crater, but given how well this offense has been functioning this year through the air and how familiar Ryan is with this opponent, I won’t be viewing this as a major road block.
Ryan-to-Julio stacks should be popular, and the upside this stack carries is obviously monstrous. It will be difficult for Julio to post one of his true slate-breaking days in this spot, with the attention New Orleans is sure to place on him (and with the thrill that Steve Sarkisian gets out of using Julio as a decoy to spring other pass catchers open), but it will also be difficult for Julio to fail, as we know the Saints will be passing, and we know that Julio will be involved. For me, this offense wraps up with floor/ceiling shots on Ridley and Sanu — with Ridley the likelier bet to hit, but with both guys in play on a slate this size. The floor on these two is lower than we would love, and the ceiling is “less likely” to show itself, but with the Falcons chasing points and this team preferring to spread the ball around in scoring position, there is a better-than-normal chance of each guy posting a solid score this week.
Given the incredible efficiency of Brees this season (77% completion rate) and the incredible efficiency of Thomas (90% catch rate), each guy carries plenty of upside on their limited volume — but realize that every week, we are flooded from the outside with all the reasons why This Will Be The Week in which the Saints’ passing volume rises, and every week this proves to not be the case. As we saw with Philip Rivers and the Chargers last week: outlier spiked-volume weeks can happen for teams that prefer to lean on the run — but unless the Falcons are chasing points, the Saints should only be expected to throw about 30 to 33 times against a team they can easily dominate on the ground. Brees and Thomas are elite plays on this slate, but neither is a lock for a monster game. I like Brees and Ryan just about the same. I like Julio slightly more than Thomas, though it’s easy to make an argument the other way as well (with Julio carrying higher yardage upside, but with Thomas the likelier bet for a multi-score game).
My favorite plays on this side of the ball are in the backfield, where Kamara should touch the ball 19 to 23 times with big per-play upside, and where Ingram should soak up 14 to 16 touches of his own with big touchdown upside. Pricing (as it is prone to do on these guys) is a bit high for their actual projected volume, but this offense is so efficient, these two remain top tourney options on a slate this small. As I noted the last couple weeks: you should file away and weigh the fact that I am a big Ingram truther for as long as he is in this offense, as Payton and the Saints absolutely want to feature him alongside Kamara — and it is true that the floor is a bit low on a guy with a run-first role and only a slim shot at 20 touches; but his touchdown upside continues to make him pop, and he’s a strong piece on the small Thanksgiving slate.