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.
Tennessee at Baltimore (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Titans…
One of the big issues for the Titans of late is the lack of production down the field in the passing game for QB Ryan Tannehill, as our Greg Cosell points out in his Week 10 Film Room notes from Tennessee’s loss to Indy:
“The Titans continued to produce no big plays in the passing game. It has been an issue in recent weeks. The Titans are a shot-play offense. They do not feature a well-coordinated and well-integrated immediate and vertical passing game that stands on its own.”
One of those reasons, perhaps most significantly, is the offensive line, which Cosell said continues to struggle following the loss of LT Taylor Lewan:
“Overall the Titans OL had issues throughout the game in pass protection. Tannehill took too many shots in this game.”
With all the Titans’ struggles on the offensive line, it’s notable that first-round pick OT Isaiah Wilson, who was drafted to ostensibly replace RT Jack Conklin, has yet to make his NFL debut. Could that be coming soon? The Tennessean examines:
“it seems the Titans’ first-round pick is inching closer to his first game in uniform after a disastrous first few months in Nashville that included two stints on the COVID-19/reserve list and an arrest on a DUI charge in September.
“(He’s) continuing to work, continuing to develop,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said of Wilson, a Georgia product who has strung together a few straight weeks of practicing. He practiced again Wednesday.
Since losing Lewan, the Titans offense has been noticeably less potent. They are completing just 56.0% of their passes without him after completing 69.9% with him earlier this season.”
We’ll see if Wilson can help matters if and when he gets in the lineup, but it’s so obvious that Lewan’s loss has been massive and has limited what Tennessee can do. To boot, the Titans won’t have LG Rodger Saffold (ankle), after he left early last week.
One thing that will help matters for Tennessee — Raven DLs Calais Campbell (calf) and Brandon Williams (ankle) being injured. Both look like longshots to play (doubtful). The Patriots were able to run all over the Ravens last week after Williams went out early, and Derrick Henry should have plenty of room to run in the interior. At the very least, the Ravens are expected to have LB LJ Fort (finger) back in the lineup, though Fort is listed as questionable. Raven CB Jimmy Smith is also questionable with an ankle injury.
The Baltimore Sun’s Childs Walker points out that the Ravens have allowed nearly twice the rushing yards per game the last four seasons when Williams doesn’t play.
The Titans will continue to be without slot WR Adam Humphries (concussion).
What They’re Saying About the Ravens…
How did the Patriots slow down the Ravens’ run game last week, and what might teams have been doing all year to keep this offense contained? Filter everything to the middle of the field and prevent QB Lamar Jackson from getting to the perimeter and creating explosive plays.
Our Greg Cosell saw this approach on film in his Week 10 Film Room notes, and it makes me wonder if the Titans will attempt something similar this week, given it’s the opposite of how most teams played last year — using base personnel and heavy boxes.
“The Patriots seemed to take the tactical approach that they would play with a light box, defending the run game from the outside in with safeties Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips.
My sense watching the tape was the Patriots believed they could control the interior of the Ravens OL with their DL and they structured their defense accordingly. They did not load the box. Jackson had no explosive runs in the game, He never cleared the edge and the Ravens OL did not create space inside.”
One big loss for the Ravens that might go unnoticed, especially given how they’ve already struggled this year, is blocking TE Nick Boyle, who is out for the year with a knee injury. The Athletic’s Mark Bullock knows how big a loss it is, however, and he made some suggestions as to how the Ravens might replace him. At minimum, the Titans will be down a key edge defender in Jadeveon Clowney (knee).
Not that it matters for fantasy after he played just two snaps last week, but OC Greg Roman thinks WR Dez Bryant could become a bigger factor down the stretch.
The Titan passing game is really struggling right now, so Tannehill is a low-end starter. However, I think Henry is one of my favorite plays on the slate this week given the Ravens’ injuries up front.
We know what the Raven offense is right now, and it’s not pretty. Lamar is a QB1, but it’s like pulling teeth with him this year. Dez is only rosterable in the deepest of leagues.
Detroit at Carolina (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Lions…
This game could be a mess on both sides of the football with all the injuries. The big ones for the Lions are QB Matthew Stafford, who has a ligament injury in his throwing thumb and has been limited in practice this week. His top target, WR Kenny Golladay, is out with a hip injury that cost him last week. At least we knew about those.
But the Lions added young breakout RB D’Andre Swift to the injury report on Thursday with a concussion, and a midweek downgrade with a concussion is bad news for his availability for Sunday. Did he suffer the injury in Wednesday’s practice (in a low-contact situation)? Did he have late-developing symptoms?
ESPN’s Mike Rothstein provided some context with this interaction on Twitter, and the answer is still “we don’t know,” but don’t expect Matt Patricia to provide answers. Whatever the case, Swift didn’t pass the protocol, and it it’ll be Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson in the backfield this week.
Hell, even Peterson knows what a loss Swift is. He apparently told coaches last week they should have committed to the rookie sooner.
WR Danny Amendola (hip) didn’t practice either on Thursday, which could mean a metric ton of targets this week for WR Marvin Jones and TE TJ Hockenson (the latter of whom had his worst statistical day of the season last week as he played through a toe injury). Great googly moogly.
What They’re Saying About the Panthers…
Only one team in the NFL plays more Cover 1 (42%) than Detroit does, and Panther WR Robby Anderson has absolutely thrived against Cover 1. He has 28 targets against the coverage, with a league-high 11.7 yards per target, per SIS. DJ Moore has 21 targets against Cover 1, to boot.
The problem for the Panthers this week is they’re unlikely to have QB Teddy Bridgewater (MCL) for this game. According to NFL Network, the Panthers have been splitting reps between former XFL star (and former Temple player under Matt Rhule) PJ Walker and second-year man Will Grier. Neither player has anywhere close to the ball-distributor traits of Bridgewater, which could make this a low-volume passing attack.
According to The Athletic’s Joseph Person, Rhule still isn’t letting on which QB will start. For this week, that doesn’t really matter, per Person, because the Panthers truly view Bridgewater as their QB of the present and future. They’ll be cautious with him… even if he still has an outside shot of starting.
“Teddy’s greatest gift, in terms of playing quarterback, is his pocket movement and awareness and ability to hang in there,” Rhule said, via Person. “So for him to play, he has to have that.”
The Panthers have been cautious with another franchise player this year, RB Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey will miss his second straight game this week with his shoulder injury, after having missed six games earlier this year with a high ankle sprain.
This is a brutal game to get a read on. The Lions should get the ball to Jones and Hockenson, and Peterson is a low-end RB2. Kerryon is a FLEX at best.
I think the entire Panther offense takes a major hit if Teddy can’t play, because his ball-distributing traits make this thing work.
Philadelphia at Cleveland (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Eagles…
The question might be more “what aren’t people saying about the Eagles?” There seems to be a false dichotomy in Philadelphia media that there are people either fully blaming QB Carson Wentz for the Eagles’ struggles, or people who are fully absolving Wentz of the Eagles’ struggles, putting it all on Doug Pederson or Howie Roseman.
From my observations, this simply isn’t true. I don’t think there’s a person on earth — least of all Wentz or Pederson — who would argue Wentz is playing well. But I think it’s fair to point out that there’s a lack of creativity or structure to this offense that is just destined to fail in today’s NFL. As our Greg Cosell points out in his Week 10 Film Room notes:
“What continued to stand out was the Eagles are very limited in how they challenge defenses, with very few route combinations that attack and break down zone coverage. Their pass game is basic in regards to route concepts and therefore not tactically difficult to defend.
Wentz is absolutely missing too many routine throws by NFL standards (and that must change) but he is not getting any help from the overall offensive approach, route concepts, and play design.”
The numbers bear out one thing that was evident to me watching the tape from last week — the Eagles got into constant third-and-long situations, and their pass-game concepts in those situations were basic deep isolation routes with low probabilities of success. According to Next Gen Stats, Wentz is 2nd in the NFL with 9.3 air yards per pass attempt, but has a league-high 9 INT on downfield passes.
Meanwhile, he’s had generally more success getting the ball out quickly, with a 70.5% completion rate when getting the ball out in under 2.5 seconds. That’s probably something the Eagles will want to do against the Browns even though Myles Garrett (COVID) is out, since they pressure QBs on 27.6% of dropbacks, 8th-most in the NFL (NGS). The Eagles have allowed the most sacks in the NFL (35).
Maybe the Eagles will get the ball out quicker this week when Zach Ertz — designated to return off IR with a high ankle sprain — is able to play. There’s a 21-day window for the Eagles to put Ertz on the active roster, and Pederson said this week that Ertz probably won’t be ready to go until at least next week.
I suppose the unanswerable question is how much Wentz is to blame for the basic play concepts. Is he audibling to these basic plays at the line? Is Pederson too scared to call “creative” plays for Wentz? Whatever the case, this is a situation where both QB and coaching are feeding off of each other, and basically giving each other food poisoning. The offensive line, isn’t helping either, by the way, as Wentz got awful guard play against the Giants’ strong interior pass rush last week. (He, at least, should have LG Isaac Seumalo activated off of IR this week.)
One thing the Eagles should do? Give the ball to Miles Sanders, who ran as decisively last week as he ever has, according to Cosell. And per Next Gen Stats, Sanders is one of three RBs in this game to rank in the top 10 of the rush yards over expected metric. Not only have the Eagles’ pass game concepts been utter trash, but their lack of commitment to Sanders last week when he was eating up chunks of yardage against the Giants was baffling.
How uncommitted are the Eagles to Sanders despite his success? Well, historically uncommitted. Per NFL Research, Sanders is the first RB with 80 or more rush yards on 15 or fewer carries in three consecutive games since Brandon Jacobs did so for the Giants in 2010. No RB in NFL history has done so in four straight games. The Eagles’ run play percentage of 36.3% is 30th in the NFL.
Of course, the Eagles are bringing in former Eagle and recently released Dolphin Jordan Howard and signing him to the practice squad, which would give them an opportunity to commit to Sanders even less. Howard’s been awful this year, but was very good prior to getting a shoulder injury in Philly last year.
Eagles WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Fellow WR Deontay Burnett and RB Corey Clement, along with DE Vinny Curry, were deemed close contacts and were also put on the COVID-19 list.
What They’re Saying About the Browns…
This week, Eagle DC Jim Schwartz called Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt the best two running backs the Eagles have faced this year. He confirmed he didn’t mean the best tandem, but the best individual running backs. That’s high praise, and it’s likely also keeping Schwartz up at night, because his high-priced interior defensive line and awful LB corps has really struggled to stop the run this year.
The Eagles are 26th — 7th-most — in rush YPG allowed (133.0). The Browns are 4th in the NFL with 159.0 rush YPG, and keep in mind that includes Chubb missing four games with a knee injury (the Browns are averaging 209.8 rush YPG with Chubb, and 95.5 without him). The Eagles, per NFL Research, have also allowed the most 20+-yard runs in the NFL, while the Browns have the 3rd-most such runs in the league this year. Yikes.
This is rare for the Eagles under Schwartz, as they’ve typically stopped the run well. But they’ve allowed 14 rushing TD already this year, after allowing just 13 all of last season.
How rare is what the Browns are doing? Well, per NFL Research, exceptionally rare. The Browns have two RBs averaging 70.0 or more rush YPG. That hasn’t happened over a full season since 2009, when both the Panthers (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) and Dolphins (Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams) had elite RB duos that accomplished the feat.
Of course, the Browns need to run it so much because QB Baker Mayfield has overall struggled this year. So why don’t the Browns and coach Kevin Stefanski run more hurry-up, in which Mayfield performs better and seems more comfortable? The Athletic’s Zac Jackson tried to rationalize that this week.
“I agree that Mayfield does seem comfortable when they play with purposeful tempo, as that’s the kind of system he played in from ninth grade through college. But I think the easy answer here is that the last two weeks, the weather made everything hell on quarterbacks, and it’s not something I’d rule out in the right circumstances the rest of the season.
Most importantly, the Browns finally have a coach who has a feel for the game and a commitment to playing to his team’s strengths. Crazy, right? So I think the Browns will continue to use the run to drive everything, and I think there’s a risk with pushing this awful defense back on the field more than it needs to be out there. But I think both Stefanski and Mayfield feel good about needing to use some version of the hurry-up when the Browns need to — or even as a bit of a change-up — the rest of the way. They can go with a bit of hurry-up and still use the run.”
Browns RT Jack Conklin, LS Charley Hughlett, and K Cody Parkey were all added to the COVID-19 list this week, but none have tested positive — all were close contacts of a non-staff member and none have tested positive to date, so all three could be available for Sunday.
I wish I could have any feel for this Eagle offense, but Pederson and Wentz look completely out of sync right now. Play Wentz at your own risk, though the matchup is a lot juicier with Garrett out. Sanders is an RB1.
I am playing both Chubb (RB1) and Hunt (high-end RB2) this week. For all the Eagles’ struggles offensively, it’s overshadowing how many times Jim Schwartz’s high-priced defense has no-showed this year.
New England at Houston (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Patriots…
The Patriots, as our Greg Cosell pointed out, have been a very heavy “21” personnel team the last two games, in which they’ve run the ball extremely well. FB Jakob Johnson played 56% of the offensive snaps against the Jets two weeks ago, and then 64% against the Ravens last week. We simply don’t see fullbacks play those kinds of snap shares often in today’s NFL.
This has benefitted RB Damien Harris, who has seen 76 of his 85 carries come out of 21 personnel. All 22 of his carries against the Ravens came out of 21 personnel.
Cosell, who admittedly liked Harris a lot coming out of Alabama, has been impressed with what he’s seen on film. “Harris is an urgent decisive competitive naturally powerful downhill runner who keeps his feet churning, but he is more than a power back,” he writes in his Week 10 Film Notes. “He has light feet with burst, and enough bounce to get outside.”
One thing that stood out this week: QB Cam Newton essentially said he felt foggy mentally when returning from COVID-19. While there is absolutely nothing prolific about the Patriots’ passing game in any way, shape, or form, the numbers do seem to indicate that might be true. Cam accounted for just 1 TD (rushing), plus had 5 INT and 2 fumbles, in his first two games back after testing positive for the virus. In the three games since, he has accounted for 5 TD (4 rushing, 1 passing), with 0 INT and 1 fumble. So while this offense is by no means explosive, Cam is taking care of the ball.
What They’re Saying About the Texans…
One of the most frustrating things about the Texans the last two years is how little they’ve thrown to their running backs despite having excellent pass-catching backs on their roster. Now, that’s obviously blame to lay at the feet of Bill O’Brien, who clearly overpaid for both David Johnson and Duke Johnson, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating for fantasy.
As The Athletic’s Aaron Reiss points out, the Texans ranked last in RB targets in 2018. They now rank 25th despite having two strong pass-catching backs on the roster. The reason is obvious — Deshaun Watson just doesn’t like checking the ball down.
He might have to do that more this week, though, as Patriot CB Stephon Gilmore (knee) said he is feeling better after sitting out last week’s game against the Ravens and the two games previous. It’s worth noting that last year Texan WR Will Fuller had just 1 catch for 8 yards on 2 targets against Gilmore and the Pats — obviously, DeAndre Hopkins was in town, so it’s not a perfect analog, but Fuller could draw even more attention this week. (It is, of course, a Brandin Cooks revenge game.)
Something potentially problematic with the Texans — the left side of the offensive line. LT Laremy Tunsil (illness) and LG Senio Kelemete (concussion) are both listed as questionable for this tilt.
Cam is a viable QB1 this week given the Texans’ weak defense. Harris is a strong RB2.
I wish I could trust Dukie more, but he’s simply an RB2 with Deshaun’s unwillingness to check the ball down. Watson is a low-end QB1 with Fuller — a WR3 — perhaps catching a Gilmore shadow this week. You can talk me into Cooks as a strong WR2 in a revenge game.
Pittsburgh at Jacksonville (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Steelers…
Per NFL Research, Steeler WR Chase Claypool is the first WR since the 1970 merger to score 9 TD in his first nine career games. Pretty impressive!
Claypool and the Steelers’ WRs already have one of the best matchups in the NFL this week, but it’s about to get even easier with CB CJ Henderson going on IR with a groin injury. The Jaguars’ rookie CB has shown so much promise this year, but he’s also dealt with injuries that have made his campaign a little rockier. He might be shut down for the year now.
The Steelers’ run game is still a big part of the discourse because, well, we need something to nitpick about a 9-0 football team. Still, this is simply something we’re not used to seeing from Pittsburgh — the complete lack of yardage gained on the ground. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac examines what’s wrong.
It was never more obvious that something is amiss than last week against the Bengals. Dulac writes:
“Against one of the worst rush defenses in the league, the Steelers managed just 44 yards on 20 running plays in Sunday’s 36-10 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game in which Ben Roethlisberger attempted 46 passes despite never trailing.
Of that, 20 yards came on four runs by Benny Snell on the final possession and another 16 came on a run by James Conner. The Steelers had seven runs for zero or negative yards against a team that was allowing an average of 133.1 yards rushing per game.
Maybe more disturbing is that it was the third game in a row the Steelers failed to rush for more than 48 yards — the first time since Chuck Noll became coach in 1969 they failed to run for at least 50 yards in three consecutive games. And two of those were against defenses who ranked in the bottom fifth of the league versus the run.”
According to FootballOutsiders DVOA, the Jaguars’ run defense is 20th-best in the NFL, just one spot ahead of Cincy. Conner has been feeling the heat this week, with some fans calling for more snaps for rookie RB Anthony McFarland, though coach Mike Tomlin affirmed his belief in Conner this week.
What They’re Saying About the Jaguars…
The Jaguars are 10-point underdogs to Pittsburgh, which you would think is good news for WR DJ Chark and Keelan Cole (Laviska Shenault is not expected to play with a hamstring injury).
The bad news is that they’re playing a sixth-round rookie QB in Jake Luton, because Gardner Minshew (thumb) still isn’t ready. And Luton, as you might expect for a late-round rookie, has struggled under pressure. Pittsburgh pressures opposing QBs on a league-high 45% of dropbacks, per SIS. And while under pressure, Luton is averaging just 4.4 YPA with 0 TD, 2 INT, and 5 sacks taken. When kept clean, Luton has averaged 7.3 YPA with 2 TD passes, 0 INT, and 0 sacks taken. In fact, Luton has made just 7 on-target throws when under pressure — the same exact number of times he’s either been sacked on thrown a pick in those situations. Yikes.
The Jaguars limited RB James Robinson in practice on Thursday because of a shoulder injury. He’s back to being a full participant and should play this week against Pittsburgh, barring something crazy.
Start everyone in the Steelers’ passing game. If Conner doesn’t get it done this week, I have no idea when he will. Of course, I said that last week too, and he was terrible. He’s an RB2.
Jacksonville has three viable fantasy plays — DJ Chark (WR2), Cole (WR3), and Robinson (RB1). It’s a bad matchup for Robinson, but I just don’t see a pathway to sitting him for most season-long teams.
Atlanta at New Orleans (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Falcons…
The Falcons are hoping to get WR Calvin Ridley (foot) back this week, coming out of the bye. Ridley has been limited at practice this week.
The Athletic’s Tori McElhaney writes that she “fully expect[s] to see” Ridley against the Saints this weekend. McElhaney notes that Ridley felt he could play two weeks ago before the bye against the Broncos, but coach Raheem Morris wasn’t having any of it. The patience seems to have paid off — Ridley doesn’t even have an injury designation this weekend and will play against the Saints.
While almost all the discourse this week around the Saints is about the Taysom Hill situation, NOLA.com’s Luke Johnson profiled the Saints’ defense, which has allowed just 13 points per game over the last three weeks after struggling immensely early. But Johnson also acknowledges that in that three-game stretch, they’ve played only one good offense — the Bucs. Of course, the Saints dominated them, but the Falcons provide a unique challenge.
“The rival Atlanta Falcons have been one of the NFL’s better offenses this season, ranking No. 5 in total offense (396.8 yards per game). They’ve turned it up a notch lately, with quarterback Matt Ryan averaging 318.5 yards passing per game with a 111.3 passer rating in four games since Raheem Morris took over as the interim head coach.
It seems reasonable to assume the Saints defense feels pressure to continue its recent hot streak, especially considering the team may be without quarterback Drew Brees for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’d be a source of pride to prove to everyone the team can win with its defense.”
It goes without saying, but this isn’t the same kind of easy matchup the Saints were a few weeks ago.
The Saints top CB Marshon Lattimore (abdomen) has been limited in practice this week, but there’s no indication he won’t go. He is officially listed as questionable.
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
I wrote a lot of this — and there was a lot to write — before it was announced on Friday that Taysom Hill was expected to start at quarterback for the Saints, over Jameis Winston. We got a notion early in the week that the Saints truly did view this as a competition — the Saints apparently want Winston and Hill to compete to potentially replace Brees in the future (2021?). Hill has been around longer, so he got the first-team reps in practice this week. But he’s thrown 20 passes — including playoffs — in four NFL seasons. There is a lot of projection here.
It would have been interesting to see what the Saints did with their offense if Jameis was the starter. Winston is a far more aggressive thrower than Drew Brees, it goes without saying. It’s obvious they’ll have to change it for Hill.
In 2019, Winston threw a deep pass (15 or more air yards) a league-high 102 times, per SIS. That was 1 out of every 6 pass attempts. Brees has thrown a deep ball just 1 of every 37 attempts this year. It’s hard to look to last year when Brees was hurt and the Saints had Teddy Bridgewater at QB, because Bridgewater and Brees are stylistically similar. There are few QBs more opposite of Brees than Winston… and Hill is one of them.
The matchup suggests the Saints should have Taysom let ‘er rip — Atlanta has seen teams throw a league-high 50 deep balls against them for a league-high 23 deep completions, at a league-high 14% deep-ball rate (1 of 7, in other words). Last week, our Greg Cosell said the first thing he noticed on film this week was how much stronger Jameis’ arm is than Brees’. The same almost certainly goes for Hill. Will the Saints take advantage of that with a week to gameplan?
Obviously, we’re in uncharted territory here. We’ve been writing all week about Jameis starting at QB, and the Saints pulled the rug out from under us. They also are, apparently, not including any packages for Winston. If we’re to believe what the media, this is Taysom’s game. We’ll see what happens in the future if he struggles, but this week, it looks like Hill is the guy.
The Falcons have been prepping for Hill anyway, according to The Athletic.
““You’ve got to be very disciplined in your rush lanes,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “You can’t get this guy scrambling all over the field on you. You have to be very cognizant of keeping him in the pocket and forcing him to throw from there. Then, when he does scramble, you have to have guys account for him. Other than that, from a coverage perspective, you don’t change much from quarterback to quarterback.”
We also have to keep an eye on the status of RB Alvin Kamara, who was downgraded midweek with a foot injury. He had issues with it a couple of weeks ago and still played, as ESPN’s Mike Triplett points out, but it certainly doesn’t give us a warm and fuzzy feeling. Kamara says he’s going to play.
We’re thrilled to get Ridley back for fantasy. Play him as a WR1.
As for New Orleans, the Hill situation is a monster. He’s a viable QB1 (remember, even Tim Tebow was a good fantasy QB), but on sites where he is TE-eligible (FanDuel, ESPN) he is an absolute must-play. He does hurt Michael Thomas, though. He’s thrown 20 passes in the NFL, and there’s no reason to anticipate he will be a high-volume thrower in his first career start.
Cincinnati at Washington (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Bengals…
The Bengals will once again be without RB Joe Mixon (foot) this week. Mixon injured his foot in Week 6 against the Colts, finished the game despite being hurt, has essentially been called a variation of “day-to-day” or “week-to-week” since, and hasn’t gotten in a single practice. More Giovani Bernard time.
Emerging star rookie WR Tee Higgins also didn’t practice on Thursday, with an illness, but returned to the field on Friday. For obvious reasons, we’ve been seeing more players missing practice with illnesses this season than in years past, as teams are being extra cautious given the pandemic.
Washington’s front seven is still going to pose a problem for the Bengals even with all the injuries the Team has had, and one of the goals for HC Zac Taylor for the final seven weeks of the season should be to figure out their offensive line so they can carry evaluations into the off-season, The Athletic’s Jay Morrison writes.
“The Bengals have started five offensive line combinations in nine games, and it’s about to be six in 10.
That has mostly been due to injury, not indecision. But with the constant shuffling, questions have arisen as backups have performed well and newcomers have arrived.
Taylor has talked about the need for continuity in terms of putting the team in the best position to win games. But it also will be important in plotting the path forward at what could be the most important position.
Whatever happens between now and Jan. 3, the offensive line is going to be the main focus heading into the spring with free agency and the draft. There are a lot of questions about the direction of the franchise. And before the Bengals decide what they need, they have to figure out what they have.”
The Bengals appear to have their QB in Joe Burrow and a significant number of the skill players around him to support him. Protecting him must be Priority #1 this off-season.
What They’re Saying About the Football Team…
We’ve written a ton about Washington RB JD McKissic of late, because his numbers recently — at least in terms of usage — are utterly stupid. McKissic leads all players in expected fantasy points the last two weeks. QB Alex Smith never met a checkdown he didn’t like, and McKissic has been the roaring beneficiary of that, as he’s seen 29 targets over the last two games, including 15 against the Lions in Week 10.
While McKissic’s receiving ability is part of the reason he plays so many snaps, it’d be foolish to say he’s a more gifted receiver than Antonio Gibson, who was a WR in college. What McKissic does do, however, is protect the QB better than Gibson — the rookie Gibson blew the protection that got Kyle Allen hurt two weeks ago. And with Smith back there, the Team is going to place a premium on pass protection. That’s why McKissic has out-snapped Gibson 102 to 11 on third downs under Smith.
Per SIS, McKissic has a 32% target share with Smith at QB, well ahead of Terry McLaurin (18%) and Gibson (7%). Over the last two weeks, McKissic has run more routes than every RB by 24, and only Davante Adams (44%) has seen a target on a higher percentage of routes than McKissic (42%).
The Team put T Geron Christian on IR with a knee injury that’s been bothering him for weeks. That’s bad news for Washington, which also is expected to be without LT Cornelius Lucas (ankle) for a week or more. It’s all the more reason they’ll have McKissic back there protecting.
Keep rolling with Gio as an RB2. At least this isn’t the apocalyptically bad matchup he had last week against Pittsburgh. There is no reason to think Higgins won’t play, and he’s been returning WR2 value.
As for Washington, Smith is a viable streamer this week, and both of his running backs are RB2s.
Miami at Denver (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Dolphins…
It’s clear that veteran OC Chan Gailey is really helping out rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, as our Greg Cosell pointed out in his Week 10 Film Notes. Cosell writes:
“Again what you saw with Tagovailoa was timing and rhythm throws where he planted his back foot and delivered, and play-action boot. OC Gailey is doing a masterful job with route concepts versus anticipated coverages, allowing Tagovailoa to be decisive with his reads and throws.
Gailey is playing beautifully to Tagovailoa’s traits as a QB: he is running a highly schemed pass game with defined reads and throws. Tagovailoa is a ball distributor, not a late-in-the-down, drive-the-ball velocity thrower.”
Cosell notes that Gailey is calling a lot of first-read throws with Tua, which is leading to some forced throws, but that’s to be expected with a rookie QB.
Cosell also offered his evaluation of RB Salvon Ahmed, who has been a bit of a revelation for Miami, allowing them to move on from free agent bust Jordan Howard. Cosell calls Ahmed a “straight-line speed back who can fit in a schemed run game just like the Dolphins run. He is not overly shifty or elusive.” But the Dolphins are doing some cool stuff with the zone run game, including using WR/RB/QB Malcolm Perry (who was an option QB at Navy) to influence the defense, opening holes for the decisive Ahmed to run through.
Of course, we don’t know how much Ahmed will be relied upon this week, with RB Matt Breida expected to return from a hamstring injury.
What They’re Saying About the Broncos…
The Broncos have had one of the worst fantasy offenses in recent weeks, with the exception of a couple of fourth-quarter comeback chances, because QB Drew Lock has been turning the ball over at a prodigious rate — he has 10 INT in his last five games, and even if he plays this week he’ll be playing hurt with a rib injury (he and Brett Rypien have been splitting QB reps in practice). He is questionable, as is TE Noah Fant (also a rib injury).
He’s playing a Miami team tied for #2 in the NFL with 1.7 takeaways per game, by the way. At least Lock acknowledges he’s realizing when he makes a bad decision, with a pretty amusing quote from Thursday: "Half the time, when the ball leaves your hand, you're like, 'Oh, that's not going to be a good one.'" That backs up the tape, Drew. As our Greg Cosell wrote this week about Lock’s performance against the Raiders last week:
“Two things stood out with Lock: he is still a loose and undisciplined with his lower body mechanics not consistently setting with a firm base, and he needs to get quicker with his elimination and isolation to get the ball to the right receiver at the right time.
There is something there with Lock. Consecutive plays late in the 2nd quarter speak to his learning curve and inconsistency with elimination and isolation.”
Cosell described one play in which he locked on too long to his primary read and didn’t make it to an open WR Jerry Jeudy on the backside. But on the next play, he came off Jeudy quickly when the coverage dictated it, and then he delivered a 27-yard strike to KJ Hamler on the backside.
Lock is developing, but he’s working through a lot of issues, and will the Broncos think patience will pay off?
This is a horrible fantasy game. The only Dolphins I’d consider for my lineups are DeVante Parker as a WR3, Ahmed as a FLEX, and TE Mike Gesicki as a low-end TE1.
For Denver, this is a brutal matchup for the struggling Lock, as Brian Flores will dial up all kinds of pressure to get into his face and force turnovers.
NY Jets at LA Chargers (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Jets…
Jet QB Joe Flacco will start yet again this week, with Sam Darnold (shoulder) hopefully making enough progress to be ready for Week 12.
Of course, this is yet another lost season for Darnold, who is almost certain to be replaced with a high draft pick in 2021. Someone who has been through this already, Mark Sanchez, sees the writing on the wall for Darnold with the Jets.
The Jets will have to face off against a Charger defense that will have DE Joey Bosa (concussion) back after a multi-game absence this week.
What They’re Saying About the Chargers…
It was a tough go of it last week for rookie Charger QB Justin Herbert and the LA passing game against the Dolphins’ top-level defense, but they get a much softer draw this week against the Jets and their pass-funnel defense. The numbers speak for themselves.
Per SIS, the Jets have played the most zone coverage in the NFL over the last five weeks (84%). And against zone, there are few players more dominant than WR Keenan Allen. He ranks #2 in the NFL with a 28% target share against zone coverage, and has more targets (86) than Hunter Henry (48) and Mike Williams (35) combined, so expect Allen to get peppered with targets this week.
For perhaps the first time in his career last week, Herbert “struggled” against Miami, with Brian Flores’ defense showing him a lot of different looks and late movement. Gregg Williams is a good defensive coordinator, so I’m sure he’ll try, but I’m just not sure he has the talent to do what Miami did last week.
With CB Bless Austin (neck) going for an MRI this week and Brian Poole (shoulder) out for the year following surgery, the Jets are down to five healthy CBs, three of whom are rookies.
The Jets have two viable fantasy players, both WR3s — Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder. I guess RB LaMical Perine is a desperation FLEX.
I love Herbert in a bounceback spot this week, with a big game for Allen to boot. Hopefully coach Anthony Lynn sees the Jets for what they are — a pass-funnel defense.
Green Bay at Indianapolis (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Packers…
This is an awesome tidbit from NFL Research. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating (116.4), while the Colts allow the lowest passer rating of any defense this year (78.4). It’s the 12th such meeting since 2000, and the QB with the league-highest passer rating is 10-1 straight up in those matchups.
Of course, it would help Rodgers if he has WR Davante Adams, who has been limited this week with an ankle injury suffered in last week’s victory over the Jaguars. Adams has told the media this week he plans to play, and certainly he doesn’t need to practice to be ready for gameday, but players are always more optimistic about their injuries than training staffs and coaching staffs are.
He was downgraded to “did not practice” on Thursday, and given how conservative the Packers were earlier this year with Aaron Jones’ calf injury — Jones himself admitted he was frustrated the Packers didn’t let him play — this wasn’t the best sign for Adams’ availability. Nonetheless, coach Matt LaFleur said on Friday he expects Adams to play, and he doesn’t have an injury designation.
It appears that Allen Lazard (core) will be a game-time decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects Marquez Valdes-Scantling who had done nothing for about a month since Lazard went down before having two huge games the last two weeks.
Rodgers and LaFleur have seen a different MVS in recent weeks, according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky.
What They’re Saying About the Colts…
As I’ve mentioned multiple times in this column this year, the Packers have been one of the worst-tackling teams in the NFL, an assertion that SIS backs up. According to their advanced stats, the Packers have had a tackle broken or missed on 13.5% of their attempts this year, behind only the Falcons in terms of ineptitude in that department.
Well, that’s not good when you’re facing a jitterbug RB who is hot right now: Nyheim Hines. Hines has scored multiple TDs in two of his last three games, and Aaron Nagler, the founder of CheeseheadTV who typically shoots pretty damn straight on the Packers, thinks he could be a massive problem for Green Bay.
One player who might not be a huge issue for the Packers is rookie WR Michael Pittman. Pittman had a breakout game last week with over 100 yards receiving against the Titans, but the Colts’ predominant “X” WR might draw tough coverage from Packer top CB Jaire Alexander, who has practiced in full this week and is looking primed to return from a concussion. Of course, Packer DC Mike Pettine could choose to put Alexander on TY Hilton, who claims he’s getting more attention from defenses this year, but in my eyes that would be a big mistake. Pittman is the more dangerous receiver.
Rodgers is a low-end QB1. Fortunately, he will have Adams this week. MVS is a WR3, though I’d be a little more cautious on him if Lazard plays.
I like Hines as an RB2 this week, and the only Colt RB I’d play with any sort of confidence. Pittman is a WR3 because he could potentially catch a shadow from Alexander.
Dallas at Minnesota (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Cowboys…
The Cowboys are getting QB Andy Dalton back from concussion protocol and the COVID list this week, and it appears they’ll give him the start over Garrett Gilbert. However, Dalton said COVID “hit me hard” and he’s still fighting to get back his sense of taste and smell.
Neither Cowboy QB is really in the consideration for fantasy right now. The guy I’m interested in is WR CeeDee Lamb, who gets to go up a Viking defense that’s allowed a league-high 12 TD to slot receivers this season. With Dalton at QB, per SIS, Lamb and Amari Cooper are tied with a 22% target share with Dalton at QB, compared to just 12% for Michael Gallup.
Obviously, nobody expected the Cowboy passing game to be a juggernaut after QB Dak Prescott and a bunch of offensive linemen went down, as qualified a backup QB as Dalton is. But the big issue we’re seeing from Dallas is what the hell is going on with RB Ezekiel Elliott, who is in the midst of what is by far the worst season of his career so far. As Bob Sturm of The Athletic points out, the Cowboys chose Zeke as their face of the franchise, and he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain so far.
“[I]t is very difficult to find a way to suggest Elliott is the best running back in football. It is very difficult to suggest he is a top-five running back in football,” Sturm writes. “And the more you dig, the more you wonder where he ranks.”
Sturm does not believe the Cowboys should keep Elliott past the 2021 season. He writes:
“The Cowboys are already pot-committed to Elliott’s money being fully guaranteed in 2021. In five months, they also must decide whether to commit to all of 2022 as well, at another million dollars per game. So here’s the real question: If he is no longer breaking big plays — and there are very few cases of players actually getting more explosive with age and high mileage — should the Cowboys seriously consider turning down his March 2021 activator and playing with $24 million in dead money (split into two seasons) to get out of another doubling-down of his contract in 2022?
I believe the Cowboys’ realization that they have already made one mistake, and possibly two, should not turn into three by pretending this situation doesn’t exist. The sooner they address this situation, the sooner they can build their roster in the proper, modern way. They may have to do something they seldom do around here: Own a mistake and move on.”
If Elliott wants to be paid the full value of his monster contract, it would be high time he starts carrying the Cowboys now. The Cowboys are not a Super Bowl team, but they can be more competitive if Zeke starts playing at a high level. But with Elliott dealing with some hamstring problems and the Cowboys getting youngster Tony Pollard more snaps of late, is he even going to get the opportunity?
What They’re Saying About the Vikings…
There’s been a lot of hype for rookie WR Justin Jefferson so far this year, and for good reason — he’s been the top-ranked WR (not just rookie… the top-ranked WR) in four individual weeks so far, per PFF grading.
But Jefferson has also started to notice that his opponents are taking notice. He told ESPN’s Courtney Cronin this week that he basically realized how good a season he’s having when Green Bay top CB Jaire Alexander was giving him the shadow treatment.
“You start realizing, you start making those plays and the top corners that you watched for a long time start following you around the field,” Jefferson said. Obviously, he won’t have that problem with the Cowboys’ woeful defense this week, and Dallas just put talented rookie CB Trevon Diggs (foot) on IR. The question for Jefferson and Adam Thielen, of course, is just how much the Vikings will have to throw it this week with Minnesota touchdown favorites at home.
The Vikings’ run game could take a big hit this week, though, with FB CJ Ham going on the COVID-19 list. There is no indication yet as to whether Ham tested positive or is merely a close contact, but this could be a decent blow to RB Dalvin Cook if Ham can’t go.
I’m not playing Dalton, but I can see the appeal in Lamb and Cooper as WR2s this week against Minnesota. Zeke is a high-end RB2, while Pollard is a FLEX option.
Because the matchup is so glorious, I’m playing Jefferson and Thielen, though I understand the risks of streaming Kirk Cousins this week with the Vikings big home favorites.
Kansas City at Las Vegas (Sun, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Chiefs…
Obviously, the big story for the Chiefs’ offense this week is that virtually the entire Raiders starting defense is on the COVID-19 list because of close contact with DE Clelin Ferrell, who tested positive for the virus. As with all contact-tracing cases, these players have a chance to play on Sunday if they continue to test negative, but it’s a story that must continue to be monitored.
The Chiefs have utterly abandoned the run game since Le’Veon Bell arrived in town, and frankly, when you have Patrick Mahomes, you can afford to do that!
But that’s no solace to Clyde Edwards-Helaire owners, who have seen his production dip not just because of Bell’s presence, but because of the Chiefs’ playcalling in general. However, this could be an interesting week for him in the passing game. Per SIS, the Raiders have seen 24% of targets against them go to RBs, more than any team in the NFL. And since Bell arrived in town, CEH is outpacing him in routes run (32 to 22) and targets (12 to 4).
Of course, the Raiders did a phenomenal job on Mahomes in the last meeting between these two teams, which was the only loss of the season for Kansas City. They held Mahomes to season-worsts in passer rating (83.5) and completion percentage (51.2%). They also pressured him a season-high 16 times, per Next Gen Stats, and Mahomes threw his only interception of the year when under pressure (23 TD, 0 INT when not).
Chief coach Andy Reid is 18-3 after the bye, and as NFL Research points out, this is the third straight year the poor Raiders are drawing the Chiefs after their bye week. The Chiefs scored exactly 40 points in that situation in each of the last two years.
Chief WR Sammy Watkins — expected to return this week from a hamstring injury — picked up a calf injury in practice this week. He’s questionable. Mecole Hardman is still on the COVID-19 list, so this could be a big week for Demarcus Robinson.
What They’re Saying About the Raiders…
The Raiders will have a big boost on the offensive line this week with LT Kolton Miller (ankle) having no injury designation after missing multiple games.
Miller and the Raider OL will continue to be important this week. While QB Derek Carr threw 31 passes — for 341 yards and 3 TD — against the Chiefs in the Raiders’ upset victory in Week 5, the run game has been the catalyst for the Raiders’ current three-game win streak.
Carr has now thrown 25 or fewer passes in three straight games, in each of which the Raiders ran the ball more than they threw it. And our Greg Cosell has been impressed with the Raiders’ commitment to the run on film, with both Josh Jacobs and Devontae Booker. He wrote this week about the Raiders’ domination of the Broncos:
“Jacobs continued to show a complete skill set as a runner. He can run inside effectively working in confined space with lateral quickness, natural power and strong finishing traits, and he can bounce to the outside and clear the perimeter.
What consistently stood out throughout the game was the Raiders stayed patient with the run game out of base personnel. The Raiders finished the game with 11 consecutive runs, not counting the Carr kneel down. All but one came out of base personnel. Overall this was a dominant run game performance by the Raiders OL. They had many snaps in which they dominated the point of attack.”
Why is this important? Well, the Chiefs have the NFL’s third-worst run defense by FootballOutsiders DVOA. While Carr is likely to have to air it out a little bit more to hang with Kansas City, the run game should continue to be a major focus for the Raiders.
Obviously, keep an eye on the Raiders’ defense. You’re starting your Chiefs, but it’d raise the ceilings of guys like CEH, Bell, and Robinson if the Raiders are missing a bunch of guys. Keep an eye on the status of Watkins and Hardman, as well, because that could dictate a lot of fantasy FLEX value.
For the Raiders, I think Carr is a mediocre streaming QB, but I love Jacobs this week.
LA Rams at Tampa Bay (Mon, 8:15 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Rams…
As our Greg Cosell pointed out, the Rams and coach Sean McVay used no-huddle selectively last week against the Seahawks to define the defenses and keep it “static” for QB Jared Goff. While the Buc defense is a much different beast than Seattle’s, you have to think that will be a tactic McVay uses this week.
The Rams also got to more play action against the Seahawks. Goff went 10/15 passing for 122 yards and took a sack, but it was a bit more play action than we’ve seen from the Rams so far this year.
What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…
Last week against the Seahawks, the Rams pretty much shadowed DK Metcalf with Jalen Ramsey. Will they do the same this week against the Bucs? It seems unlikely, since the Bucs move their WRs all around.
Since Antonio Brown’s arrival, Mike Evans has played 40 of his 107 snaps in the slot. Chris Godwin has played 74 of his 119 snaps in the slot. But Brown has played just 9 of his 83 snaps in the slot (PFF). Ramsey lined up on Metcalf last week when Metcalf aligned outside, usually as the boundary X. So if there’s a shadow situation here — which I view as unlikely — it would probably be on Brown, since he’s been in the slot the least of the Big Three WRs.
One thing I wonder if the Bucs will try a little bit more in this game — empty sets. They came out with empty sets early against the Panthers, as our Greg Cosell pointed out, but didn’t really do much after early success. QB Tom Brady went 5/6 for 50 yards and a TD to TE Cameron Brate out of empty sets last week. On the year, per SIS, Brady is 12/20 for 115 yards with 4 TD and 0 INT out of empty… only Ben Roethlisberger (5) has more TD out of empty.
More sets that benefitted Brady last week against the Panthers were multi-TE sets, including sets with 3 TE. Brady went 10/12 for 110 yards and 3 TD out of multi-TE sets last week. Per SIS, Brady has thrown 14 TD to 2 INT with multiple TEs on the field this year, taking only 1 sack. He has 23 TD and 7 INT total, while having been sacked 14 times total. Brady has thrown just 24.4% of his passes out of multi-TE sets, but has thrown 60.9% of his touchdowns out of that alignment (the Bucs use it in the red zone more, obviously).
If it seems like Brady is missing more throws this year, by the way, it might be because of the style he’s playing. As Cosell points out, coach Bruce Arians is stretching the field far more than Brady is used to, running more intermediate and deep concepts with the talented receivers the Bucs have, as opposed to the “chemistry-driven” option routes that Brady ran with the Patriots.
The Bucs are expected to get LG Ali Marpet back from a concussion this week. With Marpet out, Ryan Jensen moved from C to LG, and AQ Shipley played C last week. Presumably, Marpet’s return will shift the quality Jensen back to the middle.
I hate this Rams offense, I’ll be honest. They move the ball, but they have too many players involved after they were such a fantasy dream for years under McVay. Goff is a low-end QB1.
It’s not a great matchup for Brady and company, but he and all his receivers came through last week. We’ve seen them in one great game and one awful one, so it’s still hard to get a read on them for fantasy in general.