RAVENS // FALCONS OVERVIEW
If the season ended today, the Ravens — winners of two straight — would be in the playoffs with their 6-5 record, while the floundering Falcons have lost four straight and sit at 4-7 toward the tail end of a disappointing season. Injuries have made their mark on the Falcons’ season, but this year has also been marred by head-scratching coaching decisions and player deployment. The Falcons are playing for nothing but pride and 2019 at this point.
The two stories of this game are 1) Lamar Jackson on the road against a beat-up Falcons defense that ranks 31st in drive success rate allowed and 30th in opponent red zone touchdown rate, and 2) the high-powered Falcons offense (seventh in yards per game // 11th in points per game) against a Ravens defense that has been the best unit in the NFL, allowing the fewest yards per game and the fewest points per game in the league. Vegas opened this game with an aggressive Over/Under of 49.0, with the Ravens installed as three point favorites. The total was quickly bet down to 48.0, and the home team saw a big swing in their direction over the first couple days of action — moving from three point underdogs to one point favorites.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
The Falcons’ scheme has long capitalized on forcing short throws and tackling well after the catch — but with all the injuries to the Falcons’ defense this year, they have allowed opponent aDOT to rise to a league-average level, and this squad is allowing the third highest catch rate in the NFL. Add it up, and the Falcons rank 24th in yards allowed per pass attempt, and they have allowed the eighth most passing yards and the second most passing touchdowns in the league.
This matchup boost will be necessary for Lamar Jackson to find success this week if the Ravens again insist on forcing him to play like a more traditional quarterback, as he does not yet have the ability to pick apart an NFL defense or make the consistent tight-window throws that a quarterback at this level has to make. For all the fantasy world hype surrounding Jackson, he has completed only 61.4% of his passes in his two starts, with a yards per pass attempt mark of only 7.45. These games came against Cincinnati and Oakland — two of the only defenses in the NFL that are easier to attack than the Falcons. After the Ravens hammered the Bengals with zone reads in Week 11, they asked Jackson to drop back more regularly in Week 12, with 25 pass attempts (compared to 19 the week before), and with most of his 11 rush attempts coming on scrambles rather than on designed quarterback keepers. On a team that has not passed for 300 yards since Week 4 (and that has not topped 206 yards since Week 7), Jackson will likely need touchdowns and rushing yardage to have a shot at posting one of the top scores on the slate.
Jackson’s limited passing volume and low completion rate are affecting all of the pass catchers on this team — especially as 14 of his 27 completions the last two weeks have gone to tight ends and running backs. In two games since Jackson took over, John Brown has two catches on eight targets for 48 yards; Michael Crabtree has four catches on nine targets for 28 yards; Willie Snead has five catches on eight targets for 51 yards.
As for the tight ends: Nick Boyle, Maxx Williams, Hayden Hurst, and Mark Andrews all saw snaps last week, with Boyle running 16 pass routes, Andrews running nine, and Hurst running eight. (Williams run blocked on all eight of his snaps.)
Every pass catcher on this spread-the-wealth, low-volume attack would take a leap of faith to roster this week. Your best bet for useful production is a broken play or a multi-touchdown game.
RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
The Falcons have been one of the easiest teams in the NFL to attack on the ground this year — boosting the league-average yards per carry by over 17%, ranking 30th in yards allowed per carry, and allowing (as is the case every year) the most running back receptions in the league. The Falcons’ 14 touchdowns allowed to running backs are the seventh most in the NFL.
While the matchup is of very little concern for rookie Gus Edwards, his lack of pass game involvement (zero targets through two snap-heavy games) could lead to trouble as he chases upside in this spot. Edwards has run a non-awful 21 pass routes across the last two weeks, but he is out there for checkdown purposes only, and it is unlikely that he racks up more than one or two receptions even in this plus receiving draw. There also remains slim concern that Alex Collins could siphon some work on the ground if he returns to the field this week, but this is a back-burner worry, and the likeliest scenario is another 17+ carries for Gus Gus. Consider him a yardage-and-touchdown back in a plus draw for both items — introducing some floor concerns, but giving him a good chance of making those floor concerns disappear.
Behind Gus Gus, Ty Montgomery played 28 of 70 snaps last week (40%), seeing eight carries and three targets. There is a chance he rises to around five targets this week, but his carries will remain limited, requiring him to hit for a big play or a touchdown in order to post a healthy box score.
FALCONS PASS OFFENSE
The Ravens have one of the most aggressive coverage units in the NFL — playing tight to receivers, getting after the quarterback (ninth in the NFL in adjusted sack rate), and allowing the lowest catch rate in the league. This defense communicates well, rarely plays out of position, and tackles well after the catch (second lowest YAC/R rate allowed in the league) — leading to the lowest yards allowed per pass attempt in football. Only the Vikings have allowed fewer passing touchdowns than the Ravens. Only the Jaguars and Bills have allowed fewer yards.
The one thing the Falcons should have on their side is volume, as they are currently the pass-heaviest offense in the NFL. Matt Ryan has thrown 38 or more pass attempts in seven of his last eight games, and he has topped 300 passing yards in seven of his last nine games. None of those games came against a unit like this one, and Ryan has also scuffled in the scoring department lately, with two or fewer touchdown passes in four of his last five games; but in a home game with high-powered weapons, he will have an outside shot at producing elite numbers in this difficult draw.
Ryan’s primary target this year has been Julio Jones, who has only one game all season below nine targets, and who has incredibly topped 100 yards receiving in six consecutive games. Julio leads the NFL in air yards, percentage share of team air yards, and targets per game. The Ravens have not allowed a single receiver to top 91 yards against them, and only two players (Tyler Boyd in Week 2 and D.J. Moore in Week 8) have topped 80 yards. The Ravens have held Tyler Boyd (the second time around), JuJu Smith-Schuster (twice), Antonio Brown (twice), Michael Thomas, and A.J. Green under 80 receiving yards. This is a tough test for Julio — who retains his upside, but whose chances of getting there are lower than normal. The Ravens have allowed the sixth fewest pass plays of 20+ yards and the second fewest pass plays of 40+ yards.
Behind Julio, recent target counts on the Falcons look like this:
A bet on Ridley is a bet on a big play or another end zone visit. He has topped 71 receiving yards only two times this year.
A bet on Sanu is a bet on a broken play or a touchdown.
Rather quietly, the best matchup (such as it is) goes to Hooper, as the Ravens have given up the 12th most receptions and the 10th most yards to the tight end position. He’s always a low-floor bet, but he could turn into an important piece for the Falcons’ offense this week as they search for ways to move the ball.
FALCONS RUN OFFENSE
Baltimore has also been dominant on the ground this year, with only five teams allowing fewer yards per carry, and with only three teams allowing fewer touchdowns to the running back position. The Saints and Bears are the only teams that have allowed fewer rushing yards to running backs. Only five teams have allowed fewer receptions to running backs, and no team has allowed fewer receiving yards.
I won’t have any interest in the Ravens’ pass catchers beyond possibly taking a large-field tourney shot on a broken play or a deep ball going to John Brown. I’ll probably look elsewhere at quarterback as well, simply because Jackson’s chances of a big yardage game through the air — and/or of three or more touchdowns — are slimmer than other available options, and if we project him for 50 to 80 rushing yards, this isn’t quite enough to make up for the lower ceiling in other areas. I like Jackson and will certainly add him to my early-week list, but I expect to find quarterbacks I like more this week.
I’m hopeful that I will not end up on Gus Edwards in the Ravens’ backfield, as his price is creeping up for a guy with zero to minimal pass game work; but he is certainly in play this week for his “100 yards and a touchdown” potential. As long as the work is there, he will carry a non-awful floor in this matchup, as 17 or 18 carries should lead to at least 70 or 80 yards in this matchup.
On the Falcons’ side of the ball, I don’t hate the idea of taking a tourney shot on Ryan, Julio, or even Hooper, though none stand out as top plays in one of the most challenging matchups in football. Ryan and Julio are “bet on talent over matchup” plays. Hooper is a “bet on matchup filtering targets his way” play this week.