FALCONS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
The Steelers have been a shootout machine this year, with only six teams allowing more points per game, and with only nine teams scoring more points per game. The Falcons are one of the six teams allowing more points per game, and they are one of the offenses scoring more points per game. The Steelers have been middle of the pack on a per-drive basis, but Atlanta ranks top five in yards, points, and efficiency per drive, while their defense ranks bottom five in all three categories. Pittsburgh’s defense has matched their offense, showing league-average results on a per-drive basis.
Upside is elevated for each side with the Steelers playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the league, and with the Falcons ranking 10th. Pittsburgh ranks third in passing play percentage, while Atlanta ranks 12th, and each team is comfortable attacking downfield, with Matt Ryan actually ranking sixth in the league in average intended air yards.
This spot will not sneak by anyone, but with pricing elevated across the board on these offenses, we’ll dig in and get a feel for where the production in this game is likeliest to flow.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
Matt Ryan has returned to the form that made him the NFL MVP a couple years ago, ranking near the top of the league in every important quarterback category. The key has been a unit that has attacked defenses downfield with Julio Jones, while using him to draw attention away from Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley underneath.
In spite of his strict “no touchdown” rule, Julio has been one of the top players in the NFL to date — leading the league in both receiving yards and percentage share of team air yards, while ranking an impressive eighth in the league in average depth of target. The big question for Julio this week will be how the Steelers elect to play this matchup. After their man-zone concepts with a single-high safety have gotten blown up through the early part of the season, Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin shook things up in the second half last week by going with more two-deep safety looks. The problem with the Steelers’ typical look is that they have been getting no pass rush, which is allowing receivers to get open deep — a perfect setup for Julio. If the Steelers continue with their two-deep look in order to force short passes, Julio’s upside will take a bit of a hit. Either way, the Steelers are going to continue struggling until they can figure out a way to get pressure on the quarterback (and if they start blitzing more this week — even using the unique blitzes Butler has in his back pocket — Matt Ryan has the ability to react accordingly and burn the blitz). Julio has been used at all levels of the field this year, with two to four deep shots per game and the rest of his targets coming at all levels within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage. He has target counts on the year of 19, nine, six, and 12, and he should be in line for heavy targets once again. Who knows — maybe he can even get a touchdown. (It would be nice if he were not tied with Sanu for third on the team in red zone targets…behind Ridley and Austin Hooper.)
Mohamed Sanu broke out last week for his first 100-yard game since 2014. Obviously, this cannot be considered the norm, and he should return to the underneath role that yielded yardage totals of 18, 19, and 36 yards the first three weeks of the year. Same as last week, you can at least make a case for targeting a cheap receiver in a likely shootout. Sanu is going to score around four or five touchdowns this year, so he brings upside to the table in that department as well.
This passing attack has especially transformed with the addition of Calvin Ridley, who is showing tremendous feel for the field and excellent chops as a route runner. Ridley continued to play limited snaps (54.3% of the team’s snaps last week), though he did run only six fewer pass routes than Sanu and seven fewer than Julio. He has recent target counts of only five, eight, and six, and is now priced up for his recent production; but he should be in the six-to-eight target range once again in this spot, and he has obvious upside on these looks. Mathematically, the likeliest outcome is a zero touchdown game after an unsustainable run of six touchdowns the last three weeks — but in the small sample size of a single week, there is no reason Ridley cannot hit again.
The emergence of Ridley has rendered Austin Hooper an afterthought. Hooper has topped 24 yards only once this year, and he saw two targets last week in a great tight end matchup. His red zone usage is going to lead to a few spiked games, but they will be impossible to predict.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
Pittsburgh has allowed middling production against the run, ranking 17th in DVOA and 19th in yards allowed per carry. Of greater concern than the matchup is the return of Devonta Freeman, who should shift this backfield back to its 65/35 split. Most games, this backfield should yield around 16 touches to Freeman and around 11 to Tevin Coleman — with only three or four receptions divided between the two. This split may tilt toward Coleman a bit more this week, given that this is Freeman’s first game back, but with each guy priced close to clear starters on all three sites, it will be difficult to get excited. If taking a tourney shot, each guy carries upside — with Freeman’s chances of hitting higher, but with question marks on his workload in his first game back.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
The Steelers have continued to abandon the run early and often — and while you could theorize that this is because they continue to fall behind early, there are two counterpoints worth considering: 1) they have been pass-dominant lately from the start of games, and 2) even if they would happily turn back to the run if given a chance, this is likely to be another spot in which pass-heavy makes the most sense. Through four games, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown the ball 41, 60, 38, and 47 times.
While Atlanta has played good pass defense on the back end — with Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant holding their own as best they can — this defense is suffering over the middle from the losses of starters Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen, and they are failing to get any significant pass rush, ranking 27th so far in adjusted sack rate. With the Falcons now losing the pass rushing presence of Grady Jarrett, they are in even more trouble than before. Dan Quinn already plays a fairly straightforward scheme that relies on speed to keep the ball in front and swarm to the ball after the catch, and it is unlikely he gets too creative with his pass rush looks in this spot, as doing so would open up this defense to even more breakdowns on the back end. This defense relies on a hybrid Cover 3 and man coverage look most of the time — which not only sets up well for Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but also makes it easy for Randy Fichtner to scheme an effective attack. A.B. and JuJu will join Julio Jones and probably Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs as the most appealing wide receiver plays on the slate.
A.B. has target counts on the year of 16, 17, nine, and 11 — and if the Steelers are content to load up on short-area targets, he should be able to eat in this spot. Only four teams have faced a lower aDOT than the Falcons on the year, but they have been perfectly average at stopping receivers after the catch, and only three teams have allowed a higher catch rate.
After seeing only eight targets in Week 1, JuJu has seen target counts of 19, 11, and 11 — matching or out-targeting A.B. in every one of those games. A.B. has an aDOT of 10.4 and has vacuumed up 37.4% of the Steelers’ air yards, while JuJu has an aDOT of 8.0 and has seen 26.4% of the team’s air yards. As noted last week: each of these guys sees his route tree change a bit from week to week, depending on how the Steelers want to attack a particular defense; the closest comp for “the way to attack Atlanta” right now is the Bucs — another team that forces a short aDOT and tackles fine after the catch, but that does everything else poorly. JuJu caught six passes within three yards of the line of scrimmage against Tampa a couple weeks ago and finished with a line of 9-116-0.
Behind A.B. and JuJu, James Washington has seen target counts of five, two, and four since taking over the “Martavis Bryant role” in Week 2. He has continued to play heavy snaps, and is obviously a candidate for a splash play — but his floor remains low outside of that.
Vance McDonald ran 32 of a possible 50 pass routes last week (compared to only 13 for Jesse James). The Steelers like to run their routes at levels — allowing Roethlisberger to read downfield first, and to check to a lower level in the same line of sight if nothing is open downfield. Oftentimes, McDonald is that underneath read, which could lead to a couple extra looks against a Falcons team that defends well downfield. McDonald has target counts the last two weeks of five and five, and another five to seven looks is not out of the question in what should be a pass-heavy attack.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
As we hypothesized in this space last week: the Steelers abandoned the run early and used James Conner as an afterthought in the passing attack — giving him only nine carries and three receptions. The receptions did come on seven targets, so there was upside for a lot more aerial production than he turned in; but since his 36-touch game in Week 1, he now has touch counts of 13, 20, and 12, and his price has not been adjusted down on any of the three major sites to account for his change in role. Conner does have a respectable two targets inside the 10 and three carries inside the five; but he’ll need a touchdown-heavy game or a spike in volume in order to justify his salary. View him as a low-floor, high-ceiling guy this week — against a defense that can be attacked on the ground…but in a game that will likely lead to the Steelers leaning on the pass once again, either by necessity or design.
Quietly helping to fill the Le’Veon Bell role is wide receiver Ryan Switzer — who I am listing here because of the way the Steelers are using him, often lining him up in the backfield before motioning him into the slot, or lining him up in the slot to run the short-area routes that Bell ran in the past. Switzer played 20 snaps last week (up from seven the week before), and he hauled in seven catches for 32 yards on seven looks. He’s a thin play, of course; but with thin value this week, there is a chance Switzer could hit pay dirt and fill out a tourney roster nicely while making room for an extra high-priced guy up top.
There are no real secrets in this game. Both quarterbacks jump to the top of the pile, while Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, and JuJu Smith-Schuster join a small pool of “high-floor, week-winning-upside” plays.
Behind these primary pass catchers, Vance McDonald and Calvin Ridley offer a moderate floor and a high ceiling, while guys like James Washington, Mohamed Sanu, Austin Hooper, and Ryan Switzer are part of the “could be worth it in tourneys” discussion.
I’m not high on either backfield, but James Conner obviously has the potential to spike suddenly if the heavy work returns in this spot. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both iffy-volume plays, but either guy could post a couple long runs or a two-touchdown game.