The glowing reports from the Falcons’ offseason (“Devonta Freeman looks quicker and more powerful than before!” // “the offensive line is really coming together!” // “the defense looks fast and instinctive!”) have all turned sour through the first three weeks of the season, with this team lacking discipline, missing assignments, over-pursuing, and generally getting outmaneuvered at just about every turn.
“Outmaneuvered” has been the biggest issue to date, with Dan Quinn’s “rah-rah brotherhood!” approach being put to the test against a sharp all-around coach in Mike Zimmer and two of the greatest out-maneuverers in the NFL in Doug Pederson and Frank Reich. The gauntlet doesn’t let up, either, as the Falcons welcome the Titans and Mike Vrabel, whose attention to detail is legendary, and who has managed to continually produce wins in spite of the Titans’ inferior on-field talent. The talent gap between these two teams is non-negligible; but the disparity in coaching has left the Falcons as only four point favorites at home.
In 2018, the Titans blitzed at the 11th highest rate in the NFL — but blitzes typically aren’t a major factor for Matt Ryan (last year: 71.4% completion rate and a 111.2 quarterback rating when not blitzed; 65.1% completion rate and a 101.3 rating when blitzed). The bigger issue for Ryan is pressure (a 116.6 rating last year when not pressured; an 86.8 rating when pressured) — and the Titans were one of the worst teams in the league at applying pressure last year, ranking 27th in pressure rate when not blitzing and 22nd when blitzing. If the Titans unleash a diet of ineffective blitzes this week, a veteran quarterback like Ryan will have decent shot at staying calm and identifying the biggest mismatch in one-on-one coverage. There should be a decent number of these one-on-one looks for Julio Jones this week (averaging 10 targets per game so far, with three targets inside the 10-yard-line).
The Titans are likeliest to be strong against tight ends in spite of their slow start this year (three touchdowns allowed to the position already — but only 109 yards), and are likeliest to be solid against running backs — but they are likely to have trouble with wide receivers against veteran quarterbacks who can read their disguises and deliver the ball to playmakers. Julio stands out for the upside in this matchup, while Calvin Ridley is an intriguing tourney piece. (Austin Hooper always has some shot at a spiked week, but after we were on him as a large-field tourney piece last week in the funnel matchup against the Colts, it feels point-chasey to jump on what will likely be an increase in ownership in a more difficult matchup.)
Devonta Freeman failed to really bust out last week in spite of playing 90% of the snaps against a Colts defense that was missing Darius Leonard. Good players don’t stay bad, so you could bet on talent in this spot, but also realize that if Ito Smith misses this week after his early concussion last week, Brian Hill (who was inactive last week) will be active to bring Freeman’s snaps back down closer to their typical range.
Atlanta’s defense had been falling apart even before the injury to one of their most versatile players in Keanu Neal, and smart coaches have had no trouble outmaneuvering them (with Frank Reich in particular putting on a clinic last week with Jacoby Brissett under center) — but in order for this to be actionable information, the Titans would need Marcus Mariota to do quite a bit more than he typically does.
The Titans rank 20th in pass play rate and would like to be running the ball even more than that (they ranked 31st last year — ahead of only the Seahawks), and there is a chance that this smaller Atlanta defense could have trouble with the size of Derrick Henry. There is no reason to bump up Henry’s projections here, and he remains touchdown-dependent, but there is not a ton to love at running back on this slate, either, making Henry a bit more appealing in tighter builds than usual.
Away from the backfield, the injury to Neal will hurt the Falcons’ tight end coverage, and the Falcons should put up at least three touchdowns in this spot (forcing the Titans to pass the ball often enough for this to matter), making this another solid spot to lean on Delanie Walker for steady production. (As always, his shot at a monster game is lower than others.)
You could also take darts on A.J. Brown or Corey Davis for a low-likelihood bet on potential slate-winning upside; but as always, the Titans’ passing attack is best treated as a “hope and pray” play rather than being relied on for bankable production.
JM’s Interpretation ::
There are a lot of games on the Week 4 slate that are not overly appealing, which is enough to keep the Falcons and their reliable offense in the conversation. Ryan and Julio are the only guys who could really approach the “tighter build” conversation — but Ridley, Hooper, and Freeman (in that order) all have a clear enough path to a big game to be kept in the large-field tournament conversation.
The only Titans I’m likely to look toward are Henry and Delanie (with Delanie likely landing in Tier 2, and with Henry obviously carrying a low-ish floor to go with his high ceiling). You could also paint a picture in which Mariota has one of his random big games chasing points — but if betting on this scenario (i.e., if rostering Mariota and effectively saying, “I think he’ll have one of the highest scores on the slate”), realize that the likeliest path to that sort of game is for the Falcons to score points, so you will want to bet on a couple of Falcons pieces on a Mariota roster as well.