Thursday Night Football
Atlanta @ Tampa Bay
Vegas Projected Score: Falcons 27.5, Bucs 24
The Bucs’ pass-funnel defense has been shredded by competent quarterbacks this season, conceding top-six fantasy weeks to Matt Ryan (QB6), Carson Palmer (QB4), and Derek Carr (QB1) while facing Case Keenum, Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch, Derek Anderson, and Colin Kaepernick in their other four games. At the root of Tampa Bay’s pass-defense woes is an inability to generate pressure, ranking 20th in the NFL in sacks (15) and 31st in quarterback hits (28). The Bucs are 19th in pass-defense DVOA. A top-16 fantasy passer in 8-of-8 games and a top-10 finisher in 6-of-8, Ryan is a high-floor, high-ceiling QB1 play in this matchup. Tampa Bay’s secondary is especially vulnerable in the downfield passing game, having conceded the NFL’s fourth most pass plays of 20-plus yards (29) and second most of 40-plus (9). Red-hot Ryan leads the league in both 20-plus-yard completions (34) and 40-plus-yard completions (12). … Tampa Bay is typically much stouter against the run, but it did yield a combined 21-114-0 (5.43 YPC) rushing line to Raiders running backs last week and on the season ranks a middling 16th in run-defense DVOA. Falcons backs combined for 157 total yards when these teams played in Week 1. Devonta Freeman logged 73% of Atlanta’s Week 8 offensive snaps in the absence of Tevin Coleman (hamstring), handling 15 touches but losing only 7 to Terron Ward and scoring twice from the five-yard line and in. Freeman leads all NFL running backs in red-zone targets (11) this season and ranks No. 5 in red-zone carries (23). He is an easy high-end RB1 play in this potentially high-scoring Thursday night game. The Falcons' offense should smash in this spot facing a Buccaneers defense that played a week-high 94 snaps including penalties in last Sunday's loss to Oakland and is now playing on a short week.
Ryan's Weeks 1-8 targets: Julio Jones 70; Mohamed Sanu 50; Freeman 34; Jacob Tamme 31; Coleman 24; Aldrick Robinson 14; Justin Hardy and Taylor Gabriel 13; Austin Hooper 11. … Bucs rookie CB Vernon Hargreaves got eviscerated by Amari Cooper (12-173-1) last week and should be no match for Julio, whose down Week 8 game (3-29-0) could be attributed to the Packers’ two-man coverage involving a safety to cut off slant routes and dedicated double teams on obvious passing downs, most noticeably in the red zone. The fact that Sanu, Gabriel, Freeman, and Hooper all made Green Bay pay bodes well for Jones’ going-forward outlook. Despite an early-season bye, the Bucs have allowed the NFL’s third most touchdowns to opposing wide receivers (11). … Sanu (9-84-1) was the big beneficiary of Packers DC Dom Capers’ game plan to stop Julio and now has double-digit targets in two of his last three games. Sanu has topped 50 yards just twice all year, however. On paper, slot man Sanu’s matchup is attractive against Bucs slot CB Jude Adjei-Barimah, who got dusted by Seth Roberts (3-69-1) last week. Still a role player whose weekly production is dependent upon how opponents opt to defend the Falcons, Sanu is on the WR3 fringe in Week 9. … As Tamme (shoulder) left last week’s game early and did not return, third-round pick Hooper logged season highs in snap rate (73%) and targets (5) against the Packers. Hooper has been hyper efficient as a rookie, catching all 11 of his 2016 targets for 195 yards (17.7 YPR) and a touchdown. With Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed, Tyler Eifert, Zach Miller, and C.J. Fiedorowicz all on Week 9 byes, Hooper is a viable streamer against a zone-based Bucs defense that got ripped for 6-67-1 by Raiders tight ends in Week 8 and 9-181 by Greg Olsen in Week 6. Hooper and now-injured Tamme combined for a 7-65 receiving line on nine targets against Tampa Bay in Week 1.
Jameis Winston arguably has an even better TNF matchup than Ryan against a Falcons defense that has yielded top-12 fantasy quarterback finishes in 6-of-8 games and a league-high 19 touchdown passes (19) while ranking 22nd in pass-defense DVOA and allowing the league’s fifth highest passer rating (100.2). Winston was a top-five QB1 when these teams played in Week 1. Although he has not shown the stable weekly floor of Ryan, Winston’s ceiling is nearly as high. He is an upside QB1 start on Thursday night. … With Doug Martin (hamstring) and Jacquizz Rodgers (ankle) ailing, the Tampa Bay backfield will be reduced to an Antone Smith-Peyton Barber timeshare versus Atlanta. Despite rookie grinder Barber’s big rushing effort in Week 7 at San Francisco (12-84-1), Smith out-snapped Barber 32% to 4% and out-touched him 5 to 1 in last week’s loss to the Raiders. Although Barber (5’10/228) is built much more like a feature back than Smith (5’8/191), Rodgers’ build (5’6/196) didn’t dissuade Bucs coach Dirk Koetter from riding him like a workhorse. Smith has a history with Koetter from Atlanta and would be my pick to tee up in a fantasy league if forced to choose between the two. I do not pretend to know how the backfield will be distributed, of course. Both Smith and Barber are risky low-end RB2/flex options with upside in a good matchup. The Falcons are 21st in run-defense DVOA and have allowed NFC highs in catches (59) and receiving yards (475) to enemy running backs. Smith should have a sizable edge in the latter area. Whereas Barber has yet to see any passing-game involvement with the Bucs, Smith has drawn five targets over the last two games and tied Rodgers for the team lead in pass routes run (17) in last week’s loss to Oakland. PFF has charted Barber with only six routes run through three games.
Winston’s targets since Vincent Jackson went on I.R.: Mike Evans 24; Russell Shepard 9; Cameron Brate 8; Adam Humphries 7; Smith 5; Cecil Shorts 4; Rodgers 2. … Desmond Trufant did not shadow Evans (5-99-1) in Week 1, and Trufant surprisingly did not shadow Jordy Nelson (4-94-1) last week, either. While I would expect Trufant to chase Evans on Thursday night, it is obviously not a guarantee. Evans narrowly missed a long touchdown in last week’s disappointment (4-50-0) against Oakland and lost another bomb when Raiders CB D.J. Hayden blatantly held Evans deep down the middle, essentially dragging him to the ground. Evans still has double-digit targets in six straight games, while Atlanta has permitted the NFL’s fourth most completions of 20-plus yards (29) and third most touchdown passes to wide receivers (11). … Gadget-guy Shepard is listed as doubtful with a hip injury, which figures to translate to more playing time for Shorts. Shorts has played 75 snaps for the Bucs, catching 1-of-6 targets for 12 yards. It would be very Thursday Night Football-y for Shorts so suddenly break out in this game. I am kidding. Sort of. … Slot man Humphries has zero touchdowns on the season and hasn’t topped four targets since Week 3. … Brate caught a five-yard touchdown pass in last week’s loss, but his playing time fell for the fourth straight week (56%) and Brate has not exceeded five targets since Week 4. Working in Brate’s favor is this game’s shootout potential and his scoring-position usage, where Brate ranks second on the Bucs in red-zone targets (7) and first in targets inside the ten-yard line (5). The matchup is also favorable against an Atlanta defense yielding the NFL’s eighth most catches (43) and sixth most yards (492) to tight ends.
Score Prediction: Falcons 28, Bucs 21