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.
Indianapolis at Tennessee (Thu, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Colts…
The big story for the Colts this week, as it has been for a number of weeks, is the performance of rookie RB Jonathan Taylor, who no doubt has been a disappointment. While he got in the endzone to put the Colts up early on Baltimore last week, the first fumble of his NFL career — returned for a long touchdown — was a game-changing play from which the Colts couldn’t recover. After that, Taylor received only a single carry, which was when RB Jordan Wilkins was getting examined for an injury.
According to the Indy Star’s Joel Erickson, the RB rotation isn’t the decision of head coach Frank Reich, but rather RB coach Tom Rathman.
“There’s times where I’ll say, ‘Get Jonathan in for this play,’ or get Jordan in for this play, or get Nyheim [Hines] in for this play, but other than that, it’s Coach Rathman using his 30 years of experience coaching running backs and having a feel for his guys,” Reich said. “As far as in-game management, that’s the most efficient way for it to be done.”
Rathman is famously a stickler for ball security, and his fanatical devotion to protecting the football has led to Indianapolis fumbles dropping to a trickle in his three seasons as Colts running backs coach.
Reich talked this week about the confidence he still has in Taylor, but the numbers say otherwise — Taylor’s snaps are down to just 32.4% over the last two games for the Colts.
“I know he wants the ball 30 times a game like he got it in college, but he is willing to play the role that he is in right now and grow into it. I’m very confident it is going to work out for Jonathan in the long run,” Reich said on Tuesday.
To Taylor’s credit, he took questions on his struggles this week, and relayed some advice his RB coach at Wisconsin, John Settle, gave him.
“Coach Settle would always say, ‘Don’t count the reps, make the reps count,’” Taylor told reporters on Tuesday. “I think the biggest thing is understanding whether it’s first half, second half, whenever number 28 is called, I have to make sure I know my assignment, I know my job and I’m able to execute at a high level because the team is counting on me.”
The run game will be a huge focus this week — if you love trench play, Colt RG Quenton Nelson against Titan DT Jeffery Simmons is a premier matchup you’ll want to keep your eyes on.
The Colts are not going to have TE Jack Doyle (concussion) this week since the short week didn’t allow him to pass the protocol. But they’re expected to have WR TY Hilton (groin) back in action after missing last week against Baltimore. According to The Athletic’s Stephen Holder, Doyle’s injury means the Colts will have to have TE Mo Alie-Cox blocking more this week. It’s a Catch-22 — Alie-Cox blocking will help the run game, but hurt the passing game because he’s a big-time playmaker. (Alie-Cox is listed as questionable with a knee injury, but he practiced in full on Wednesday.)
Hilton hasn’t been good this year even when active, and it’s obvious the Colts are looking for someone who can make explosive plays on the perimeter (or, frankly, anywhere). It’s something they’ve missed with Hilton dinged and Parris Campbell (knee) on IR. Maybe second-round rookie Michael Pittman provides that spark, but The Athletic’s Stephen Holder has another name he’s watching this week — UDFA rookie WR DeMichael Harris. Harris has 7 catches over the last two games.
“Harris looks like he can be a poor man’s Campbell. He’s a potential weapon on screens and end arounds,” Holder writes. “A bit of a gimmick player who isn’t going to be a traditional receiver, but he’s got some open-field ability and the Colts are taking advantage by getting him in space.”
One thing that could help the Colts this week is that Tennessee P Brett Kern (wrist) is on IR. That should help the field position game. The Titans will have DE Jadeveon Clowney (knee) however.
What They’re Saying About the Titans…
The big talking point this week is about the Titans’ offense, because it struggled massively last week against Chicago, gaining just 228 yards from scrimmage and averaging just 4.1 yards per play.
The Titans now have a matchup with the NFL’s #1 overall defense by yardage allowed (290 YPG), and the NFL’s #3 defense in FootballOutsiders DVOA. The Colts also have FO’s #2 run defense by DVOA, which is a particularly crucial issue for the Titans given how they prefer to start their offense. (Chicago’s defense, after last week, is 4th and 7th, respectively.)
Titan reporters know well this issue for the Tennessee offense, asking coach Mike Vrabel specifically what makes Indy’s run defense so tough.
“They're active up front. They mix in movement. They mix in base. They’ll have some run pressures. They’re good tacklers,” Vrabel said on Tuesday. “The tacklers can run, they’re fast. Sometimes the movement makes it tough to get guys to the second level.”
One other huge problem is Titan LG Rodger Saffold is dealing with a shoulder injury. It’s not expected to keep him out of this game, but if he’s less than 100% against DeForest Buckner and this Colts front, that is an issue. RT Dennis Kelly (knee) is also dinged up but will play.
There is tragic news this week for the Titans, as WR Corey Davis’s older brother passed away at the age of 27 after battling a rare cancer. Titus Davis is the leading receiver in the history of Central Michigan University and had been with multiple NFL teams. My thoughts are with the Davis family.
With Davis obviously up in the air to play given his family tragedy and WR Adam Humphries (concussion) in the protocol, one player The Athletic’s Joe Rexrode thinks can benefit is TE Anthony Firkser. The Titans are also expected to be without TE MyCole Pruitt (knee).
“Firkser has worked hard on his blocking, but he’s on this team to catch the ball, and when Humphries is out he is often the first priority for [Ryan] Tannehill on quick third-and-medium throws. He usually gets good matchups and the Titans like to take advantage of them,” Rexrode writes.
I don’t want to step on Tom Brolley’s toes, but in doing the research for this game, I came to the conclusion this is a dead-nuts “under” kind of game.
I don’t feel good about anyone on Indy’s offense. I think all three RBs are RB3/FLEX types. Hilton is no more than a low-end WR3. TE Trey Burton is probably my favorite streaming play here with Doyle out, but I’m not rushing to get him in my lineup.
For Tennessee, I think WR AJ Brown is their most important player in this game and I’m expecting him to be targeted heavily. Obviously, with the family tragedy, there is a chance Davis sits out.
I think both Jonnu Smith and Firkser are viable low-end options this week.