Fantasy Football Week 8: Baltimore Ravens vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers sit/start tips for Thursday night football

Last week’s TNF was a step in the right direction for fantasy managers and regular fans. We got touchdowns, DeAndre Hopkins vindicated those who drafted him, and we even got a meme out of the night. I’m not expecting any comedic highlights on social media after tonight, but I’ll still be following the discourse as Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady face off at unexpected points in their careers.

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Baltimore’s offense can’t get things going through the air to the point where Lamar Jackson took a toss sweep for a first down in Week 7. Meanwhile, Carolina kept Brady out of the end zone for the first time this season. Father Time is undefeated, but I don’t think Brady’s cooked yet.

Let’s take a quick look at the game first before diving into the narratives surrounding the matchup.

Two teams needing a get-right night: Brady and Jackson duel to keep playoff hopes alive

Lamar Jackson, thrower of the football, is still a marvel at times:

Per PFF, he’s fourth in big-time throw rate at 5.3 percent. Jackson has it all, from aggression to touch accuracy.

And whatever problems he can’t solve with his arm, he’ll answer with his legs.

Lamar Jackson, runner of the football, averages 0.43 EPA per attempt on designed rushing plays. So, for every 2.5 rushes (roughly), he’s adding a point to Baltimore’s expected total. His efficiency on the ground is part of why the Ravens have been able to maneuver through their early-season injury minefield. Through seven weeks, they’re 11th in yards per drive. Tampa ranks 18th in rushing EPA allowed over their last three games. I expect Baltimore to test the Buccaneers’ front, but Tampa’s offense may force them to take to the air.

^^^That play above somewhat encapsulates Tampa's season. Everything sounds good on paper until one random thing screws it up. Mike Evans has two drops on the season. He and Brady have connected on that same throw many times. The fear going into tonight is Brady is cooked. It’s 2015 Peyton Manning all over again.

But I’m not so sure.

First off, run the tape back. Brady’s 39-yard attempt to Evans was on point and required a single half hitch forward from the 45-year-old quarterback to get it there. And it’s not just one throw. He’s been like this all season.

Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a fantasy legend
Maybe we should relax in thinking Tom Brady's fantasy value is done. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Brady has the same passing aDOT as Patrick Mahomes (7.8) with a higher deep-ball rate. But, of course, Mahomes wins at what happens after the catch. It helps when you have superior talent. I’ll get to Tampa’s personnel, but the playcalling is also a concern.

Their pass rate over expectation is down from 10% through Week 7 in 2021 to 6.0%, with more first-down runs. Brady’s play-action rate has dropped from 21% to 16%. There aren’t as many easy buttons, and the skill players have taken a step back. It happens, but Brady’s ready for at least one more ride.

The Ravens are bottom 10 in rushing and dropback EPA allowed and 21st in pass rush win rate. Brady should be able to manage the pocket and get the Bucs' aerial attack back online. If not, they’ll need to do some soul-searching ahead of the trade deadline.

Now, let’s see if Baltimore’s offense can rise to the challenge.

Points of Interest in TNF

The Ravens are disappointing on offense … again

The conversation around Baltimore’s offense feels like déjà vu. Stagnation hit Lamar in mid-November of 2020. We questioned the inner workings of the Ravens’ offense after an injury-riddled 2021. Yet every year, there’s a promise of change. And still, we’re left wondering how they’ll right the ship.

Don’t get me wrong. Lamar’s one of the deadliest quarterbacks with the ball in his hand. The numbers bear this out. Overall, Jackson is ninth in EPA per play. He leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards (510). His passing game and his skills on the ground put defenses in a bind for 60 minutes weekly.

They’ve tried blitzing, but it doesn’t matter. Jackson has the most passing yards and second-most touchdowns against five or more pass rushers. As a result, defenses have adjusted, forcing Baltimore into the one scenario they can’t seem to overcome.

The Ravens can’t pass in obvious passing situations.

Third-down EPA per attempt. (Photo by Chris Allen/Yahoo Sports)
Third-down EPA per attempt. (Photo by Chris Allen/Yahoo Sports)

If you look at EPA per “play,” Jackson sits in the top six. But he can’t always scamper for a first down. In pure passing situations, Jackson falls to 19th in EPA per play. He’s as efficient as Ryan Tannehill and Carson Wentz. The “Lamar, go do cool stuff” approach appears to be failing for the third consecutive year. Their moves at receiver further emphasize the problem.

I’ll be watching for any added wrinkles to their game plan tonight. I’ve got an idea of who Lamar can use to keep drives moving, but let’s talk about the Bucs’ offense first.

Tom Brady needs help

A playoff scenario for the Buccaneers was a near certainty in August. Rob Gronkowski retired, but Cameron Brate was still around, and they drafted Cade Otton. Tampa churned the backend of their wide receiver room and pulled Julio Jones and Russell Gage into the mix. Brady helped construct the passing game to withstand attrition and injuries.

However, it looks like he built it on sand at a nearby beach.

Bucs receiver production. (Photo by Chris Allen/Yahoo Sports)
Bucs receiver production. (Photo by Chris Allen/Yahoo Sports)

I only used players with more than five targets on the season, but it doesn’t change anything. Julio Jones has only made it two games. Gage is third in looks from Brady but has fewer yards than Tre’Quan Smith. Injuries have sidelined Brate, and Scotty Miller has been an afterthought. It’s placed all the focus on the starters.

There’s a reason why Mike Evans saw the life go out of the team after his early drop against the Panthers. Their margin for error is non-existent. You can see it in how Brady distributes the ball. Evans, Godwin, Gage and Leonard Fournette all hover around 40 targets. Miller is the next closest at 22. Something has got to give here.

I’ll be watching for who stands out from Tampa’s second-tier players. Otton has shown the most promise, but Brady will need more production from his entire cast to get through this rough patch.

But don’t bench these guys

I’ve been traveling for work this week and am somewhat out of the loop, but don’t worry. I kept up with the news enough to find some fringe options for tonight. Luckily, both teams have condensed offenses with limited choices.

Also, I wanted to give a quick shoutout to the Propulsion Maintenance Group at Tinker AFB. I’m fortunate enough to learn in two industries, and they’re excellent teachers. Maybe I can teach them a thing or two about fantasy football in time.

Speaking of, let’s talk about Rashod Bateman.

Rashod Bateman

Players in this section are typically waiver wire adds or third-string options. I usually wouldn’t label a player rostered in 81% of leagues as a fringe candidate. But Rashod Bateman fits into the “tough to trust” category, so I wanted to discuss his outlook for TNF.

Spoiler alert: it’s not bad.

I mean, sure. Mark Andrews hasn’t had a full practice since Week 6 and had two targets last week. There’s a straight line pointing to more work for the sophomore receiver. However, the type of work Bateman will likely see will benefit him the most.

Rashod Bateman Reception Perception 2021. (Photo by Matt Harmon/Reception Perception)
Rashod Bateman Reception Perception 2021. (Photo by Matt Harmon/Reception Perception)

Bateman’s 74th and 81st-percentile success rates against man and press coverage were a much-needed asset to the team. But his ability to win on crossing routes is particularly important to the offense. Scroll up a bit to the part where I talked about Lamar’s third-down woes. It seems like there’s a match to be made here.

Coincidentally, Bateman has the most targets in pure passing situations amongst all Ravens’ pass-catchers. Even weirder, he’s tied for second in first downs converted on those attempts. And, the cherry on top, Tampa Bay is 29th in dropback success rate allowed on third and fourth down. Bateman does best at one of the Buccaneers’ greatest weaknesses.

Total volume is a concern as the Ravens continue to revert to their 2019 ways. However, leading a team in targets and having a quarterback who’s run the ninth-most plays in an opponent’s red zone is worth a start in most leagues. Unless you’re confident in your other options, Bateman should be in your lineup tonight.

Rachaad White

Leonard Fournette’s -0.2 EPA per attempt ranks 55th out of all qualifying running backs (minimum 26 rushes). Yes, I know the threshold looks random. I’ll get to it. Meanwhile, he lacks any level of explosiveness to outweigh the inefficiency.

Rashaad Penny has the same number of carries resulting in ten or more yards (10); he hasn’t played since Week 5. Eno Benjamin has twice as many 15-yard rushes (4). Even Fournette’s pass protection was a detriment. I’m not pointing this out like I’m petitioning the coaching staff to try something new. If anything, it looks like they already are.

Rachaad White’s primarily played in the second half. He only had six carries from Weeks 1-6 in the first two quarters. Fournette’s 82.6% rushing share relegated White to “backup without contingent value” status. But we saw a shift in Week 7.

White carried 42.9% of the load on Sunday. He nearly split carries with Fournette early in the game (5 to 3) with half of the early-down work. The rookie even got short-yardage attempts and converted on half of his carries. He even earned a couple of targets.

But folks will be quick to point to a one-game sample size. OK, cool. Let’s go back to the running back efficiency ranks real quick. White sits at 25th in EPA per attempt on the season. He has accounted for more first downs per rush than his counterpart (0.31) and more missed tackles per attempt (0.12). Surprisingly enough, White’s only deficiency is his pass-game chops, with only 86 routes to Fournette’s 187.

Tampa needs more of its developmental players to take a step forward. Well, first, they could use their stars to play like contenders but ancillary personnel lending a hand works, too. Baltimore’s defense is 23rd in rushing success rate. Even if Brady and co. get back on track, White should have the opportunity to take a larger piece of the touches moving forward.

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