Thursday Night Preview: Can the Falcons Take Control of the NFC South?
The Atlanta Falcons have surged to a two-game lead in the NFC South. While that's a bit surprising, what may be more surprising is that they are facing a second-place team not named the Carolina Panthers.
In Week 1, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traveled to Atlanta and beat the Falcons on their home turf, and the Bucs are now looking for the season sweep. Per our power rankings, this is a pretty one-sided matchup. The Falcons check in as one of the league's elite (4th) while the Buccaneers are quite a bit back (27th).
Can Atlanta open up their division lead a bit, or can the Bucs claw their way back and challenge for the division title?
When looking at the quarterback position, the Falcons have a decided advantage in this one.
#Falcons QB Matt Ryan is your current odds on favorite to win the NFL MVP according to Vegas.
â€” Luke Rodgers (@thelukerodgers) October 13, 2016
Ryan has been fantastic so far in 2016. Among the 30 quarterbacks who have at least 150 drop backs, no one has been better than Ryan in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. In terms of Passing Success Rate -- the percentage of drop backs which result in a positive NEP gain -- Ryan is 3rd with a success rate of 54.5%. Clearly, he's among the league's elite passers.
Jameis Winston, meanwhile, has been far less productive. Winston checks in at 22nd in Passing NEP per drop back among passers with at least 150 drop backs and 20th in Success Rate at 45.5%.
Running Back Play
This is a tale of two very messy backfields as injuries are playing a large role for both teams.
Prior to an injury to Tevin Coleman, the Falcons sported one of the best two-headed monsters in the NFL. In terms of Rushing NEP per carry among backs with at least 50 attempts, Coleman (6th) and Devonta Freeman (7th) were among the league's elite ball carriers. And Coleman's value doesn't stop there -- he is an elite threat in the passing game, ranking tops among running backs per Receiving NEP per target. Coleman will miss Thursday night's game due to an injury, but the Falcons should still be in good hands with Freeman.
The Buccaneers backfield, meanwhile, is in disarray. With Doug Martin still not ready to come back, and Jacquizz Rodgers out with an injury, they will turn to Antone Smith and Peyton Barber Thursday night. If last week is any indication, Smith appears to be the favorite to carry workhorse duties.
Buccaneers RB snap count today: Jacquizz Rodgers 43, Antone Smith 22, Peyton Barber 3. Out of 68
â€” Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) October 30, 2016
These are two bad defensive units taking the field. The Bucs check in at 20th in our schedule-adjusted per-play rankings while the Falcons rank 26th.
Tampa Bay is far better against the run, coming in 15th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. Their pass defense, however, is pretty bad, ranking 23rd in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. The Falcons, meanwhile, are poor in both respects. Atlanta ranks 24th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back, and they are a lowly 29th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play
Both teams get to the quarterback at a decent clip. Per Football Outsiders, they rank in the middle of the league in Adjusted Sack Rate (6.2%) per drop back. If either team can differentiate themselves in getting to the quarterback, it could be the difference in Thursday night's game.
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