Thursday Night Football sets up as an exciting divisional rematch in the NFC South between Atlanta and Carolina. We primarily care about the fantasy football implications, but the real football implications are just as intriguing. For all of our assumptions regarding Carolina struggling this season due to a new coaching regime, new quarterback, and young defense, they’re still in the wild-card race as we head into Week 8. The Falcons are just hoping they don’t see Arthur Blank down on the sideline ahead of another loss. To kick off Week 8, I broke down the opener featuring the Falcons and Panthers along with a recap of Wednesday’s news.
Falcons-Panthers Part II
Atlanta and Carolina already met just three weeks ago in a somewhat anticlimactic contest. The game total (39) fell well short of its projected result of 53.5 and it confirmed our suspicions about Atlanta’s problems on offense. But Julio Jones doesn’t carry an injury designation so there’s some hope the game can hit the over (51.5) to start Week 8.
It may be blasphemous to designate a wide receiver as The Engine of an offense, but Jones’ three-week stretch dealing with a hamstring injury was a clear detriment to the team. In Weeks 3 through 5, Matt Ryan completed just 59.6% of his passes and threw just one touchdown in that span. His efficiency metrics plummeted while he struggled to adjust without Jones on the field as he posted an average -0.1 EPA per Play and -4.5% Completion Percentage over Expected (CPOE). With Julio back healthy, Ryan’s efficiency has improved (0.5 EPA per Play, +9.4% CPOE) which has led to him crossing the 300-yard passing yard mark for the first time since Week 1. However, Carolina’s secondary played surprisingly well. They’ve allowed the second-fewest points to opposing quarterbacks when adjusting for schedule. Justin Herbert in Week 3 is the only quarterback to pass for more than 300 yards against the Panthers and Kyler Murray and Drew Brees are the only quarterbacks to have more than one passing touchdown. Teams have found greater success on the ground starting with Josh Jacobs’ three-touchdown performance in Week 1 and ending with Alvin Kamara’s 148 scrimmage yards in Week 7. While the matchup sets up well for Todd Gurley, we’ve seen WR1s get loose against their secondary (Calvin Ridley 10-136-0 in Week 5, Keenan Allen 19-132-1 in Week 3, and Mike Evans 10-104-1 in Week 2). With Atlanta entering Week 8 above the league average in neutral passing and passing while within the 20-yard line, Ryan and his receivers should find some success against the Panthers’ defense.
Alex Smith is, and should be, the consensus Comeback Player of the Year. However, Teddy Bridgewater should at least be in the conversation. Through seven starts, Bridgewater is 12th in EPA per Dropback while maintaining a +6.0% CPOE. His aDOT is up from 6.2 in New Orleans to 6.9 and he’s largely done it through just five players. He’s either passed 300 yards or thrown for two touchdowns in three of his last four games. His primary issue, which was the case even in New Orleans, is his adjustment to pressure. Both Tampa Bay (Week 2) and Chicago (Week 6) produced enough disturbances up front to produce nine sacks in just those two games for Bridgewater’s worst fantasy finishes of the season (8.6 and 9.4 points). Luckily for him, Atlanta’s injuries have decimated their ability to mount a pass rush. In their first meeting, Bridgewater wasn’t sacked a single time and they’ve had just three sacks since then. Their secondary is in worse shape. Primary receivers have averaged 123 yards against the Falcons going all the way back to Week 2. Kenny Golladay (7-114-0) was the latest to put his stamp on Atlanta’s defense, but we’ve seen Justin Jefferson and Allen Robinson finish as WR1s while facing Atlanta. Robby Anderson and D.J. Moore both nearly tagged them for 100 yards each, but it was just Anderson to reach the century mark while Moore got the receiving touchdown (along with a passing touchdown to Mike Davis). With Bridgewater performing well as a passer and mixing in some rushing (4 attempts inside the 10-yard line since Week 4), Carolina’s offense should continue to excel even on the short week.
Points of Interest in TNF
Assuming Christian McCaffrey is activated prior to the 4 PM EST deadline, his workload will be our primary focus. Prior to his injury, McCaffrey held a 93.2% running-back rush share and a 13.6% target share. His drop in target share (23.5% in 2019) was a budding concern, but it had only been two games and he had scored four touchdowns to keep fantasy managers at ease. Mike Davis’ success throughout the majority of McCaffrey’s absence has many wondering if a timeshare is possible as 2019’s RB1 re-acclimates to the game. Otherwise, our attention will be on the primary receivers in Carolina.
D.J. Moore’s and Robby Anderson’s usage has been in flux the past three weeks. While Anderson still has the greater overall target share, their target shares and aDOTs flipped in Week 6 with Robby running the deeper routes (14.4 aDOT). Their target shares reverted back to previous weeks against the Saints giving Anderson the edge, but it was Moore scoring the only receiving touchdowns including a red zone conversion. Robby’s newfound role has been a surprise after he was miscast by Adam Gase in New York, but fantasy managers will get an island game to see the two receivers at work in primetime.
For the Falcons, we’ll be watching to see what comedy of errors will ensue for Atlanta to lose another game. While Detroit continues to thank Todd Gurley for his service, I’ll be watching the ancillary pass catchers. Julio Jones is the tide that lifts all ships. Since his return in Week 6, both Russell Gage and Hayden Hurst have seen 11 targets each for a 14% target share. While fantasy managers will expect Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley to be the headliners, Matt Ryan’s increased volume and efficiency should make the deeper plays more viable even on a short week.
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Teams Getting Healthy
Dalvin Cook returned to practice after the team’s bye. He tweaked his groin in Week 5 and the logical timetable was Week 8 given the team’s schedule week off during Week 7. In his stead, Alexander Mattison was unable to make his case to let Cook rest another week as the backup could only muster 26 yards on 10 carries in Week 6. Cook should resume his primary role as he makes strides to return to the starting lineup.
We’ll set aside the Will Fuller trade rumors for now, but the Packers are getting some help at receiver coming soon. Allen Lazard was back on the practice field just a month after his core muscle surgery. Prior to going down after their game against the Saints, Lazard was second in target share with 76.5% of his targets coming from the slot. Aaron Rodgers could use the help as Aaron Jones’ absence and Marquez Valdes-Scantling leading the team in drops has (only slightly) held the team back.
Meanwhile, John Brown has rejoined the Bills after knee and calf ailments keeping him off the field. Josh Allen’s passing stats without Brown are similar to Matt Ryan’s without Julio and Buffalo faces New England in Week 8. Allen’s completed just 48.4% of his passes for 578 yards and 3 touchdowns in three career games against the Patriots. Hopefully, with a healthy Brown and Stefon Diggs, Allen can get out of his slump.
We don’t think of the Raiders as a fun offense, but Derek Carr has had two or more touchdowns in five consecutive games. They’ve gone to eight different pass catchers (even Jason Witten!) and he’s about to get another one back in the rotation. Rookie Bryan Edwards was back at practice after injuring his ankle against the Patriots in Week 3.While he’s doubtful for their Week 8 matchup against Cleveland, he may be in line to return against the Chargers next week.
Carlos Dunlap made it clear he wanted out of Cincinnati. Early Wednesday morning the Bengals pass rusher was told to stay home while they figured out what to do. By the end of the day, they had a trade in place. Dunlap now goes to Seattle who already acquired Jamal Adams earlier this season. After suffering their first loss of the season, Dunlap would be much-needed help to a defense that’s allowed an average 479.2 yards offense through the season.
Allen Robinson entered the concussion protocol on Wednesday after being pulled from the Bears’ Monday night contest after a hard fall to the turf. We’d like to see Robinson practice in at least a limited fashion by Friday, but his status for Sunday is very much in doubt. Aaron Jones still isn’t practicing even after insisting last week that his calf injury was minor. Given the team’s conservative nature regarding injuries, Jones we’ll need to see more involvement from the star running back to have any confidence starting him against the Vikings. Michael Thomas continues to battle ankle and hamstring injuries after missing the last six weeks of action. We’re yet to receive word on Emmanuel Sanders’ status as he’s still on the reserve/COVID list since last Friday after testing positive. Andy Dalton remains in the concussion protocol after suffering a dirty hit which inexplicably didn’t result in a suspension. Dallas is now on their third quarterback with Ben DiNucci set to start against the Eagles. Mark Ingram was surprisingly absent from practice still recovering from his ankle injury suffered in Week 6. Fantasy manager are hoping his absence may condense the Ravens’ backfield, but practice reports later in the week will give us more clarity. Sam Darnold may be without both Jamison Crowder (Groin) and Breshad Perriman (Concussion) in Week 8 as neither practiced Wednesday. Austin Hooper remains out after having his appendix removed prior to the Browns’ Week 7 matchup.