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 stats to back up narratives and 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.
Houston at Detroit (Thanksgiving, 12:30 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Texans…
The Texans aren’t going to have WR Randall Cobb (toe) against the Lions and probably beyond with what is being called a potentially “season-ending” injury (he is expected to head to IR). Cobb’s injury allowed Keke Coutee — remember him? — to make an impact, catching his first 2 passes since Week 2 and scoring his first TD since 2018 last week against the Patriots.
Coutee had a fumble on his final catch in Week 2, returned for a touchdown by the Ravens, and it made him a permanent resident in Bill O’Brien’s doghouse. But Romeo Crennel has emptied out the doghouse, and now Coutee has to play. With Cobb and Kenny Stills (leg) both out on Thanksgiving, Coutee might have to play more than the 57% of the snaps he played last week. On the year, 80.6% of Coutee’s snaps have come from the slot (PFF), and on the year, the Lions have allowed 103 receptions to slot receivers, 8th-most in the NFL (SIS).
But one area the Houston Chronicle was particularly impressed with the Texans was at the tight end position, where Jordan Akins (5/83 on 6 targets), Darren Fells (2/29 on 2 targets), and Pharaoh Brown (2/22 on 3 targets) combined for 9/134 receiving on 11 targets, accounting for 39% of QB Deshaun Watson’s 344 yards last week.
As for Watson, he’s not going to get MVP buzz because the Texans are 3-7, but our Greg Cosell pointed out a couple of weeks ago that he thinks Watson is playing the best football of his career, and The Athletic’s Aaron Reiss believes Watson’s 2020 season is going to attract elite coaching and GM candidates to Houston.
“Houston’s much-maligned defense came up big Sunday, limiting the run-oriented Patriots to just 3.6 yards per carry, but the star of the game was Watson, who put together arguably his best performance in an individually brilliant season. He was 28-of-37 passing for 344 yards (9.3 YPA) and two touchdowns — good enough for the second-best successful play rate of his career (72.1%).
The stats are even more impressive when considering how terrible the Texans were on the ground. Running backs Duke Johnson and CJ Prosise ran for 19 yards on 13 attempts, the worst performance by Texans backs this season in terms of both total rushing yards and yards per carry (1.5). Watson’s six scrambles for 36 yards were the team’s only functioning rushing attack.
In total, the quarterback accounted for 380 of the team’s 399 net yards and all three of Houston’s touchdowns. None of Houston’s 14 handoffs to running backs qualified as a successful play, based on down and distance.”
Meanwhile, Next Gen Stats notes that Watson has been under pressure less and less, which will help matters. Only three teams pressure the QB on a fewer percentage of dropbacks (30.8%) than the Lions do this year. The Patriots, whom the Texans stymied last week, are 11th in the NFL in that category, per SIS.
As for Dukie, the Lions are giving up the most FPG to RBs this year in PPR formats… can we trust him?
What They’re Saying About the Lions…
I mean, what is there to say about the Lions? They had to play with a shell of an offense last week in the nadir of the Matt Patricia era, getting shut out by the Panthers, who were starting a backup QB making his first NFL start.
As longtime beat man Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press points out, the Lions have gotten worse pretty much across the board under Patricia, after the controversial decision to fire Jim Caldwell.
“Currently, they rank 25th in total offense, 29th in rushing offense, 15th in passing offense and 23rd in scoring offense.
In Caldwell's last season of 2017, the Lions ranked ninth, 32nd, sixth and seventh in the same categories.
Defensively, the Lions rank 25th against the pass, 30th against the run, 27th in yards allowed and tied for 28th in points allowed. Under Caldwell, they were 27th, 18th, 27th and 21st.”
Yes, Patricia is a defensive guy and his defenses have been pretty pathetic, but as the Freep writes, when a team gets shut out, that’s on the quarterback and offensive coordinator. Matthew Stafford has an excuse — he’s playing through a throwing hand injury. OC Darrell Bevell also has an excuse — he’s playing without his best weapons at RB (D’Andre Swift) and WR (Kenny Golladay).
Yes, the Lions lacked creativity without Swift in the lineup, but keep in kind this is the same coaching staff that took until Week 10 to even give Swift a prominent role in the offense, something even Adrian Peterson said should have been done weeks ago.
Golladay (hip) is practicing on a limited basis this week but is still out, and there’s a chance Swift passes concussion protocol before Thursday (he’s questionable), but this is a broken team with a broken coaching staff and an injured quarterback. Danny Amendola (hip) is out too. Happy Thanksgiving, Detroit!
Obviously, Watson is a slam-dunk play this week, but don’t discount Coutee and Akins if you’re dumpster diving (or digging for cheap DFS plays). I’m also willing to give Dukie one more week given this matchup.
Washington at Dallas (Thanksgiving, 4:30 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Football Team…
Given the absolute disaster that is the NFC East, the Team has a realistic shot to win the division. Heck, you can make an easy argument that Washington’s defense is the best individual unit in the entire division, which is reason enough to potentially bet on the Team.
But I thought this column from the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga about seeing the forest through the trees was enlightening, because coach Ron Rivera is indeed making decisions based on winning the division — that’s why Alex Smith is playing, and to Smith’s credit, he’s playing pretty well.
But, Svrluga writes, this is still a rebuilding project.
“What to do: try to beat Dallas — which like Washington is 3-7 and trailing first-place Philadelphia by just half a game — on Thanksgiving. What not to do: allow the regression of everyone in the division to provide a false sense of Washington’s progress.
Washington is close to the top of the division standings. It is not close to being what Rivera said he’s here to build, which is a consistent winner — not week-to-week, but year-to-year.
What would an NFC East crown with, say, a 6-10 record mean? Certainly not the kind of celebration that makes fans proud to hang a banner and look optimistically toward the playoffs, right? And not an accomplishment that gives the feeling that the 2021 season will be markedly better.”
I think you can make a strong argument — and this is what Rivera is leaning into — that winning a division, even a legendarily bad division, is the catalyst for the type of culture change that he wants and needs. But Washington still needs a long-term QB (Dwayne Haskins isn’t that guy, whether Rivera should have benched him or not), and the offense needs plenty of parts to catch up to the defense.
Anyway, two of those pieces on offense — RB Antonio Gibson and WR Terry McLaurin — were listed as non-participants in practice on Monday with ankle injuries. McLaurin got in a full practice on Wednesday and is listed as questionable, while Gibson has no injury status for the game. It appears that both will go.
Washington K Dustin Hopkins (groin) didn’t practice all week and is questionable. The Team has Kaare Vedvik on the practice squad if Hopkins can’t kick.
What They’re Saying About the Cowboys…
The Cowboys cancelled all team activities on Thursday for an awful situation — strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul experienced a medical emergency at the Cowboys’ practice facility and was rushed to the hospital, and he’s fighting for his life. It’s heartbreaking news in a terrible year and my thoughts are with Paul’s family and the entire Cowboys’ organization. It is obviously going to be tough for Paul’s team to play on Thanksgiving with him weighing heavily on their minds.
Apparently one of the biggest things that helped the Cowboys win last week against Minnesota was the performance of coach Mike McCarthy. That’s not something that should be a controversial statement — he is, after all, an NFL head coach and critical to his team’s success (or lack thereof). But it was McCarthy’s methods that week that got a ton of buzz in the press. Channeling the physical comedian Gallagher, McCarthy and the Cowboys chose to smash watermelons with sledgehammers in their Saturday team meeting. Seriously.
Dalton performed the way the Cowboys expected when they made him their backup QB this off-season, taking advantage of the Cowboys’ wealth of skill-position talent. It’s given some life to the fantasy options here, across the board — RB Ezekiel Elliott had his best game of the season, while WRs Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb made plays.
However, that might not have been possible without Martin — one of the best guards in the NFL — kicking out to right tackle to try to stabilize the offensive line. He was spectacular.
“But [Week 11] was a reminder of what present-tense Zeke can be like, with ferocity and punishment and a very productive day including a rare touchdown pass reception showcasing [OC] Kellen Moore’s ingenuity.
For me, all of this demonstrates the beautiful work Martin did at right tackle, a place he has never started in the NFL. He pitched a complete shutout against any Vikings edge, not allowing a pressure, sack, QB hit or a penalty. It was enough to make some wonder whether Martin should keep that spot for the future or perhaps become Tyron Smith’s successor out on the left flank. Either way, allow the man who just turned 30 on Friday to be properly celebrated.”
A strong offensive line and a strong backup QB like Dalton might not make the Cowboys good, but they should be able to produce numbers. And the line, against Washington’s front seven, might be the most important part of this Thanksgiving Day game.
Washington S Deshazor Everett (ankle) is out for this game, which could help matters on the back end (maybe TE Dalton Schultz?).
Dallas K Greg Zuerlein (back) was limited in practice all week and is questionable for Thursday. The Cowboys do not have a kicker on their practice squad, so it looks like Zuerlein is expected to go.
This game is projected to be close enough that both Gibson and JD McKissic can profile as RB2s. Smith is a viable QB streamer, but really only if McLaurin is able to play.
For Dallas, Dalton and Martin have raised the ceiling of this offense. Zeke is a borderline RB1, both Cooper and Lamb are WR2s, and even Schultz has a positive matchup.