Welcome to Vantage Points, a column I will be writing weekly during the NFL season as a window into every game of the week. With access limited more than ever this year and with no preseason games for us to put our own eyes on, I have the utmost respect for sportswriters covering the NFL on a daily basis, giving us a window into what these teams might look like and where their strengths and weaknesses — beyond the obvious — lie.
The purpose of this column is to highlight the work of those writers, but to also turn some of their observations into actionable fantasy advice. The goal isn’t just to highlight obvious angles, but perhaps some of the lower-end ones that could lead to fantasy advantages. I’m also taking advantage of watching press conferences and reading transcripts from coaches and players, as well as using the NFL’s Next Gen Stats info to look for fantasy-relevant angles. I’ll also cover notable injuries.
I will publish this column twice weekly — on Wednesdays to preview the Thursday night game, and on Fridays to preview the Sunday slate.
All times are Eastern.
Atlanta at Carolina (Thu, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Falcons…
I think everyone knows that the Panthers’ defense is not good. The Panthers know it, that’s why they spent all of their draft picks on that side of the football. But it was exposed even further last Sunday against the Saints, as it surrendered 12 of 14 third-down conversions.
One of the big reasons? Starting CB Rasul Douglas missed the game while on the COVID list (where he remains). One of his replacements, Eli Apple, was so bad playing 40% of the defensive snaps that the Panthers cut him this week. So this has the chance to be an excellent game for QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones (who has killed the Panthers in his career), and WR Calvin Ridley.
It could also be a big week for TE Hayden Hurst. Hurst said last week that he and Ryan are starting to get on the same page, which Ryan confirmed this week.
“I think Hayden’s role is going to continue to increase. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable in the offense. I think he did a great job for us [Sunday],” Ryan said this week. “I think with the number of guys that we have that are capable of making big plays, each week is going to be a little different and the ball is going to find different guys depending on how a team chooses to play us.”
Ryan also mentioned how playing on Thursday is going to be good for getting the taste of last week’s ridiculous defeat out of the Falcons’ mouths.
“Playing on Thursday night makes you get out of the funk that you’re in after a tough loss,” Ryan told reporters. “So, I think getting back into a gameplan quickly, talking with coaches this morning, starting to make plans for Thursday night kind of helps.”
Sometimes we have to remember how tough the guys playing this game are, and The Athletic’s Tori McElhaney is calling attention to the toughness of WR Russell Gage, who was wrapped up gruesomely on a tackle last week and managed to return to the game despite a leg injury. He’s a huge part of what they do, Ridley said, because he knows how to exploit the situation when one of the big two is doubled.
Julio, by the way, was removed from the injury report as he deals with a hip ailment. He will be playing on Thursday night.
What They’re Saying About the Panthers…
We’ve been waiting for this for weeks, but the Panthers have finally opened the window for RB Christian McCaffrey (high ankle) to return from IR, as he returned to practice on Tuesday and his 21-day window to return from IR was activated. Coach Matt Rhule told reporters that he is “hopeful” McCaffrey will be able to play Thursday night after missing five games with the injury.
The Panthers’ social media team has been doing its part to build up McCaffrey’s return, and even backup RB Mike Davis, who has filled in admirably, expressed his excitement. But it should go without saying that the Panthers, who have run a sensible ship under coach Matt Rhule, aren’t going to rush things here. It’s possible they choose to get McCaffrey a couple of practices this week and bring him back after the “mini-bye” in Week 9 against Kansas City.
The Panthers haven’t activated CMC as of publication. They have until Thursday at 4 PM Eastern to do so.
The Athletic’s Joseph Person argues that the prudent thing to do is to sit McCaffrey one more week. “I know he wants to play, but I also know he’s a process guy and understands we can’t shortcut the process,” Rhule said.
One thing that may affect the Panthers’ decision to play McCaffrey: injuries along the offensive line. LT Russell Okung (calf) appears unlikely to go (he’s doubtful), and RG John Miller (ankle) looks like a game-time decision (he didn’t play against the Saints last week). Miller’s absence could be a big one against Falcon DT Grady Jarrett, who has been just as disruptive a pass rusher as ever, but is more mediocre as a run defender (though, as a 3-technique, that’s not really his game).
One thing that hurt Carolina’s offense last week against the Saints was, incidentally, the defense. According to the Charlotte Observer’s Alaina Getzenberg, the Panthers ran just 43 plays last week, second-fewest in the history of the franchise. Rhule has the Panthers playing slowly as is to hide the defense — according to Football Outsiders, they are the 4th-slowest team in the NFL in pace of play. But the defense simply couldn’t get off the field, giving up 12 of 14 third-down attempts.
Anyway, I’ve mentioned in this column quite a bit this year about how much success Teddy Bridgewater has had throwing to the middle of the field — he’s been on target on 84.9% of his throws in that area, 9th-best in the NFL (SIS). The Falcons have struggled badly in this area, giving up the 7th-highest YPA (8.63) and 4th-most YPG (166.43) on throws across the middle this year.
Falcons coach Raheem Morris noticed the problems against the Lions, especially late. “You expect some completions in zone, but we have to do a better job with those deeper developed routes behind us,” Morris said. It was an area the Panthers exploited in Week 5’s matchup — WR Robby Anderson had 8/112 receiving on 12 targets, and 8 of those targets were across the middle (including 2 drops, per SIS).
This is a “start ‘em all” game for me — despite this being a 23-16 slog last time out, Ryan and company have played better since Julio has returned from injury, and Julio’s presence is so big given his history of absolutely torching Carolina.
Even on the Panthers’ side, I’m starting ‘em if I got ‘em. I’m using Teddy as a fill-in for Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson this week, and I like DJ Moore and Anderson as WR2s.
If CMC doesn’t go, Davis is an RB1. If he does, you have to play CMC, and Davis is a FLEX option at best.