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.
Chicago at Atlanta (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Bears…
I’ve gotten a ton of questions on WR Allen Robinson’s lack of production so far. Is it his contract situation weighing on him? Is there something wrong with him?
I don’t think either is the problem. The problem is QB Mitchell Trubisky. According to SportsInfoSolutions, Robinson has caught just 8 of his 18 targets (44.4%)… but 100% of the targets deemed accurate. The production is going to come, and if it doesn’t, Nick Foles will.
Also not helping Robinson is how efficient the Bears have been running the football on early downs, as The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain breaks down here. Fishbain points to a game last October — the best game of RB David Montgomery’s rookie season, in which he ran for 135 yards against the Chargers — as the blueprint for what coach Matt Nagy has done with the offense this year. Our Adam Caplan said on our Matchup Points livestream that the Bears are “blown away” by what they’ve seen from Montgomery so far.
Fishbain also rightly notes that, as disastrous as Atlanta’s secondary has been this year, that DT Grady Jarrett has been a game-wrecker in the run game. Meanwhile, Chicago’s interior offensive line — as our Greg Cosell has pointed out — has played exceptionally well through two games. It’s probably the matchup that’s going to define this game.
The Falcons are really banged up defensively, for what it’s worth. S Ricardo Allen (elbow), DE Dante Fowler (ankle), and DE Takk McKinley (groin) all missed practice this week.
What They’re Saying About the Falcons…
One of the things that bugged a lot of people last year was the fact that Falcon QB Matt Ryan seemed to float too many deep passes erratically and inconsistently. But, at least anecdotally, it seems deep-ball accuracy waxes and wanes for all but the very best of them (i.e. Russell Wilson).
According to Next Gen Stats, Ryan is #1 in the NFL in every major passing category on throws of 10-plus air yards — 25/38 for 467 yards and 4 TD. Ryan’s never been this aggressive throwing the ball, averaging 9.6 air yards per attempt, a high since air yards started being tracked. Meanwhile, the top beneficiary has been WR Calvin Ridley, who leads the NFL with 17 targets, 13 receptions, 207 yards, and 3 TD on deep targets. Obviously, the Falcons’ abominable defense has something to do with this passing volume, but this is clearly a dangerous and fantasy-explosive passing attack.
Of course, there’s bad news here too — Falcon OC Dirk Koetter alluded this week that Julio Jones’ hamstring injury is more serious than he’s been saying — that was obvious to my eyes, given his 2 catches in the shootout with Dallas’ woeful secondary last week. Jones missed multiple practices this week, and Ian Rapoport stated the obvious — Julio might not play this week. He is officially
Unfortunately, the offensive line could be a problem for the Falcons this week. RT Kaleb McGary’s knee injury isn’t as serious as it looked when he was carted off the field in Week 2 — ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports it’s a minor MCL sprain. But McGary isn’t expected to play this week against Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, a lethal pass-rush duo. Mack is questionable with a knee injury, but has played through it each of the first two weeks.
You just have to suck it up and play ARob. The Falcons are giving up 17.7 FPG to outside WRs, 6th-most in the NFL.
Montgomery is someone I really like as an RB2, but this Falcon run defense simply might be better than anticipated. I just love the way Montgomery has played through two games.
Obviously, Ryan and the Falcons take a hit if Julio can’t play, but I still like firing him, Ridley, and Russell Gage up, along with TE Hayden Hurst. Ridley is a WR1, Gage a WR3, and Hurst a mid-range TE1.
LA Rams at Buffalo (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Rams…
Our Greg Cosell said all off-season that perhaps the major reason the Rams’ offense was broken in 2019 is the lack of success on play-action. Per Next Gen Stats, QB Jared Goff had the second-lowest QB rating on play-action in 2019 (84.2). He threw just 3 TD to 5 INT on play-action all season long. In 2020, he already has 2 TD on play-action (to 0 INT) and a 130.2 rating.
The Rams have also moved the pocket on play-action, which is an intriguing wrinkle in Goff’s success — Goff has a 148.3 rating outside the tackle box on play action.
Week 2 was a breakout game for second-year RB Darrell Henderson, but it had to sting for fantasy players with rookie Cam Akers. Akers got the start against Philly but had to leave with a rib injury — it’s entirely possible it would have been Akers who ended up shredding the Eagles’ hapless defense. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely Akers will play this week — coach Sean McVay said his healing is taking longer than expected.
So it’s looking like Henderson will rotate with Malcolm Brown, who is back to practice after leaving Week 2 with a finger injury.
The Rams’ run game and play-action game will benefit if Buffalo LBs Matt Milano (hamstring) and Tremaine Edmunds (shoulder) can’t play. Both missed last week against Miami and their absence was evident, with Miami TE Mike Gesicki going nuts. This would be a huge boon for TE Tyler Higbee, who ate up Philly’s awful LB corps last week. The Rams did have to put G Joseph Noteboom on IR with a calf injury, however.
Milano and Edmunds have practiced on a limited basis this week, which is at least a positive trend, but they are officially listed as questionable.
What They’re Saying About the Bills…
While QB Josh Allen’s success on deep passes has improved significantly so far in 2020 (his 22.2% completion percentage on deep balls in 2019 was the worst in the NFL, he’s at 75% so far this year), the Bills have also changed their approach with him, leading to more sustained drives and a high completion percentage (70.1%).
According to Next Gen Stats, Allen’s air yards per attempt so far this year is at 7.9, which would be by far the lowest of his career (9.4 in 2019). Allen is throwing a deep pass on only 9.9% of his attempts, so while his deep ball has been sharp, the Bills and OC Brian Daboll are being more selective with it. It has worked so far. Allen has 6 TD passes in two games — he didn’t reach that mark until Game Six in 2019.
What’s also been surprising is how much the Bills have been letting Allen throw on first down. Allen’s 41 first-down attempts rank 2nd to only Joe Burrow so far this season.
Allen may have to throw it more this week anyway — RB Zack Moss (toe) will not play this week. That opens up more opportunities for Devin Singletary. Neither Bill RB has been particularly productive this year so far, with Allen going nuts.
Keep an eye on the status of Buffalo WR John Brown (foot). This could dictate the coverage the Rams play. New Bill WR Stefon Diggs leads the NFL with 18 slot targets, and Ramsey has traveled into the slot more than you think this year — he’s been targeted 7 times on the outside and 5 times in the slot this year, per SIS.
We typically don’t overreact to LB injuries for fantasy, but I thought Cosell did a wonderful job outlining how critical the injuries of Milano and Edmunds are for Buffalo. I’d upgrade the entire Ram offense — especially Higbee — if one or both are out.
I’m treating both Henderson and Brown as FLEX plays in this backfield.
The matchup for Allen is a lot scarier than playing the Jets and Dolphins the first two weeks, but my gut tells me to expect more designed runs in this one. He’s a QB1, with Diggs as a WR2 because Ramsey can follow into the slot (it doesn’t mean he will, but he can). Brown is a WR3.
Singletary is a rock-solid RB2 this week with Moss expected to miss.
Washington at Cleveland (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Football Team…
No starting QB who has played 10 or more games since the beginning of 2019 has accounted for fewer TDs than the Team’s Dwayne Haskins (just 9 rushing and passing TDs combined). But Cleveland’s banged-up secondary has allowed 6 TD passes so far in 2020, most in the NFL.
At WR, you expect Terry McLaurin to have the toughest matchup with top CB Denzel Ward, but Ward — who has been the one healthy Brown CB this year — picked up a groin injury in practice on Thursday and didn’t practice on Friday, which calls his status for the weekend into question. He’s officially listed as “questionable,” with CB Greedy Williams (shoulder) out.
The offensive line could be a problem for Haskins this week — not only did the Team have to put RG Brandon Scherff (knee) on short-term IR, RT Morgan Moses picked up a hip injury in practice this week and is highly questionable to play against DE Myles Garrett and company, though that “company” might not include Adrian Clayborn (hip) and Olivier Vernon (abdomen). The Team made rookie Antonio Gibson their top back last week, but it’s going to be tough sledding behind what could be the league’s worst offensive line given the injuries.
WR Steven Sims (toe) has been a little dinged this week and is listed as questionable. It’s just another feather in McLaurin’s cap this week.
What They’re Saying About the Browns…
This might not be a great matchup for QB Baker Mayfield. According to Next Gen Stats, Mayfield has 3 TD and 0 INT and a 120.4 passer rating against the blitz this year, vs. 0 TD, 2 INT, and a 40.8 passer rating when not being blitzed. But Washington’s defense has blitzed at the 9th-lowest rate in the NFL so far, and its 6 sacks with a four-man rush or less leads the NFL.
Mayfield, at least, will likely have the services of new RT Jack Conklin this week. Conklin (ankle/finger) practiced in full on Thursday.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot did a great feature on Odell Beckham this week, discussing his role in the Browns’ run-heavy offense. OBJ discussed his acceptance with the fact that this is a run-heavy Browns offense and that he’s not someone who is going to put up big numbers most weeks.
The Ward injury is massive for McLaurin, who put up 100+ and a TD against Patrick Peterson and the Cards last week. He’s a slam-dunk WR1 this week.
Gibson is more of a FLEX play with the injury problems on the Team offensive line, but he was up and over 60% of the snaps last week and looked good, so I think it’s fair to consider this as his backfield for the immediate future.
I think Mayfield and Beckham can hook up for a couple of plays this week, but with the Browns TD favorites at home, I’m considering this more of a Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt game. Chubb is an RB1, and Hunt an RB2.
Tennessee at Minnesota (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Titans…
Last year in his renaissance season, Titan QB Ryan Tannehill was throwing the deep ball prodigiously — according to Next Gen Stats, he threw a deep ball (15-plus air yards) on roughly 12% of his throws, and averaged 9.6 air yards per attempt. But this year, Tannehill has thrown just 1 deep ball (an 18-yard TD to Adam Humphries) and is averaging 6.9 air yards/attempt. But statistically, the results are quite similar, with Tannehill as one of the most efficient passers in the entire NFL so far.
The Titans might be throwing the ball a little bit shorter on average because the run game with Derrick Henry hasn’t totally clicked yet — Henry leads the NFL with 56 carries, but is averaging 3.6 YPC. Still, Henry hasn’t had consecutive games below 100 rushing yards since Weeks 5-9 in 2019, which is insane in this day and age. He ran for 84 yards against Denver last week.
According to Next Gen Stats, Henry ranks last in rush yards over expectation (-70) in 2020, after leading the NFL in the same category in 2019 (+314). So something is definitely lost in translation here. Is it a blip on the radar or a cause for concern? I’ll say this, I’ll definitely be way more concerned if Henry has a stinker this week, because the Vikings suffered a massive loss in placing LB Anthony Barr on season-ending IR with a torn pectoral.
The Vikings are down two of their top four CBs in Mike Hughes (neck) and Cam Dantzler (ribs). The Titans don’t expect WR AJ Brown (knee) to play this week, so this could be another big week for Corey Davis.
What They’re Saying About the Vikings…
This might sound ass backwards, but the reason the Viking offense hasn’t looked sharp so far is because of their defense. Our Greg Cosell said it best on our Matchup Points livestream — the Vikings want to play 12 and 21 personnel as their foundational offensive attack, but they have gotten behind in games and have to play 3-WR sets out of necessity. That is simply not the way OC Gary Kubiak wants to play.
The Athletic’s Arif Hasan did a thorough breakdown of what has ailed the Vikings so far this year. His conclusions? QB Kirk Cousins has been considerably less accurate and more erratic, and the Vikings simply aren’t running a ton of plays. Obviously, even a bad offense running a lot of plays can put up fantasy production, but an offense that can’t find its rhythm and is running so few plays? Minnesota has run 96 offensive plays, by far the lowest in the NFL (next lowest has 115).
Hasan also pointed out how Cousins thrives on play-action, but situations have dictated that Minnesota just hasn’t been able to run it as much. They need their defense to step up and not dig so many holes… while you don’t need to run the ball successfully to successfully run play action, you do need the threat of the run for it to be successful. If the Vikings are in big holes, there’s no threat of the run.
Kubiak also noted that the number of plays has hurt the production of rookie WR Justin Jefferson.
I think Tannehill is a viable QB streamer this week, and I really like Davis as a WR3 against this banged-up Vikings defense. I think this will be Henry’s breakout game too, with the Vikings missing Barr for the rest of the year.
For Minnesota, they’re an easy fantasy team for the immediate future. You have to play Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen every week, and no one else is even worthy of consideration until they get their feet under them.
Las Vegas at New England (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Raiders…
If QB Derek Carr — notorious for his conservative nature — is going to air it out, this week is the week. According to Next Gen Stats, the Patriots have given up 3 TD on deep passes (20+ air yards) already this season, after giving up just 5 all of last year. Of course, Russell Wilson is the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL, and Carr notably isn’t.
Per Next Gen Stats, the Raiders are using rookie WR Henry Ruggs as a true deep threat. Carr is averaging 17.7 air yards per attempt when targeting Ruggs, and 4.6 when targeting anyone else (Ruggs has 3 deep targets, all other Raider receivers have only 1). Overall, Carr’s 6.2 air yards/attempt is 4th-lowest in the NFL. Of course, Ruggs has been limited in practice this week with knee and hamstring ailments. It appears he picked up the hamstring injury in Thursday practice, which is problematic.
If Ruggs is out, Carr’s air yards will fall even more, because they have big problems on the offensive line with T Trent Brown (calf) out and G Richie Incognito (Achilles) on IR.
Hopefully, the Raiders are just being cautious with RB Josh Jacobs (hip) and TE Darren Waller (knee) with the short week, but the fact that they have missed multiple practices this week is a concerning sign. Our Adam Caplan reports the Raiders are “optimistic,” but if neither goes, the Raiders will have a very difficult time winning this football game. They’re already very dinged up in other areas.
What They’re Saying About the Patriots…
Is Cam Newton back? Sure, you can say that. But he’s also done something no QB has ever done before, including himself. His 4 rushing TD through two weeks is the most ever by a QB in the Super Bowl era (Kyler Murray and Dak Prescott each have 3 this year, as well).
According to Next Gen Stats, the Patriots are out-Ravening Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Cam’s 11 rushes, 43 yards, 4 TD, and 8 first downs on designed QB runs are the most of any player so far this year.
Newton’s also dealing with his arm, though. His 78.3% completion on passes of 10-plus air yards is tops in the NFL. Per Next Gen Stats, WR Julian Edelman is a different player with Newton this year. Short hitch and out routes — 32.6% of Edelman’s routes with Tom Brady last year — make up just 14.6% of his routes this year. Edelman is averaging 12.3 air yards per target in 2020, up 3.1 over last year. Will it continue?
Edelman isn’t the only Pat WR making some noise — he’s noticed the development of second-year pro N’Keal Harry. “He’s doing an awesome job,” Edelman said.
The Pats will have a little bit tougher time this week with C David Andrews (thumb) not expected to play.
Obviously, everything is up in the air with the Raiders regarding the status of their top players. I’m not going to make any definitive calls here on a Friday, but if any of the big skill position players miss, I think rookie WR Bryan Edwards is in play for a WR3 or FLEX spot.
Cam is a QB1, and I absolutely love the rapport he’s shown with Edelman thus far. Edelman is a high-end WR3. Harry is on that WR3 radar as well and should be rostered in all leagues.
I want to keep an eye on the Patriots’ run game this week. If Sony Michel can’t get going, there could be a big opportunity for Damien Harris to return from IR and take over the early-down work. Remember, Harris was reportedly one of the Patriots’ best offensive players in camp.
San Francisco at NY Giants (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the 49ers…
How important is the loss of DE Nick Bosa (ACL) to the 49ers? According to Next Gen Stats, it’s massive. Without Bosa on the field since the start of the 2019 season, the Niners’ completion percentage allowed rises by 5 points (60.6% to 65.6%), their pressure rate on dropbacks falls by about 10 points (27.3% to 17.9%), and their sack rate falls by about half (9.0% to 4.9%).
The 49ers are in a rare situation — they’re playing their second consecutive road game at the same stadium after beating the Jets last week. That doesn’t make coach Kyle Shanahan happy, because he blamed the turf at MetLife Stadium for some of the 49ers’ injury woes last week. “That’s as many knee injuries and ankle stuff and people getting caught on the turf that I’ve ever been a part of,” Shanahan told reporters. “I know our players talked about it the entire game, just how sticky the turf was. I think that was the first time people played on it. That was something our guys were concerned about right away.”
Hell, 49er beat man Grant Cohn of Sports Illustrated opined this week that the oft-injured Jerick McKinnon should consider sitting out to avoid the turf. (Cohn reiterated that it is just an opinion, not McKinnon’s thought process.) McKinnon is needed this week, with Raheem Mostert (knee) and Tevin Coleman (knee) both out.
As for Shanahan, he’s very optimistic that McKinnon can handle a bigger workload. “He should get more opportunities this week and he deserves it,” Shanahan said.
For what it’s worth, the Giants players and coaches don’t seem to agree with Shanahan. “I don’t have any problems with it,” WR Golden Tate, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury, said. And our Dr. Edwin Porras said there are no studies that suggest there’s a significantly higher risk of injury on artificial turf.
Of course, I’ve already buried the lede here. The 49ers will be without QB Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle), and Nick Mullens will start. Mullens will not have TE George Kittle (knee). Mullens has a significantly higher QB rating when targeting Kittle than other receivers.
What They’re Saying About the Giants…
I don’t need to tell fantasy players how tragic the loss of RB Saquon Barkley (ACL) is. But though the importance of running backs in actual NFL football is debated endlessly, the numbers suggest Barkley’s loss is tragic for QB Daniel Jones as well. In three games without Saquon last year, Jones’ passing yards fell from 245.9 per game to 189.3, and his passer rating plummeted from 95.4 to 59.9. I don’t think Barkley is that important to Jones that he will be a sub 60-rating passer without him, but this offense clearly suffered a massive blow.
The Giants also had to put WR Sterling Shepard (turf toe) on IR, another huge blow to Jones.
For what it’s worth, the Giants’ addition of RB Devonta Freeman is expected to be pretty big for fantasy, but this Giant offensive line has been abysmal so far, opening up just 1.1 yards before contact on rushing plays, per SIS, which is tied for second-worst in the NFL. The Giants think Freeman “has some juice left,” according to HC Joe Judge. Well, that’s good, considering they just signed him!
I expect Freeman to rotate in with Dion Lewis and Wayne Gallman this week as the Giants attempt to figure out exactly how much juice he does have left. ESPN’s Jordan Raanan threw his hat into the Lewis ring, but I can’t shake the fact that Lewis has looked just awful for two-plus years.
I’m firing up McKinnon as an RB2 this week. The only 49er in the passing game I’ll consider is Jordan Reed, who scored twice last week. But Reed is no Kittle, so this is a skeleton crew that Mullens is working with.
In the Giants’ backfield, I consider Lewis and Freeman both mediocre FLEX plays until we get a better vision of what this will look like.
I’m benching Jones everywhere given the decimated nature of his weapons. But with Richard Sherman on IR, I love WR Darius Slayton this week. At least Jones should have time to throw with Nick Bosa (ACL) on IR and Dee Ford (neck) out.
Cincinnati at Philadelphia (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Bengals…
Bengal RB Joe Mixon has had a disappointing start to the year — Cincy’s offensive line has been as problematic as we feared, and Giovani Bernard isn’t going away. But though Philly’s run defense has been good the last two years, it got absolutely shredded by the Rams’ play-action heavy scheme in Week 2.
First of all, you know that head coach Zac Taylor — who comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree — will have an intimate knowledge of what worked against Philly last week. Secondly, the Eagles could be without superstar DT Fletcher Cox (oblique). Coach Doug Pederson called Cox a game-time decision.
But for as mediocre as Mixon has been this year, WR AJ Green has been worse. The question is if Green is due for major positive regression, or if he simply isn’t running the way he used to. According to SportsInfoSolutions, Green leads the NFL both in end-zone targets (7) and intended air yards (330). But he hasn’t scored a touchdown, and his completed air yards (63) ranks 51st in the NFL.
Green acknowledged the struggles this week. “I’m still rusty,” he told The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr. Though Taylor has been around for over a year, Green hasn’t played in this system, and he is placing some of the blame on being slow to pick it up.
What They’re Saying About the Eagles…
Eagle QB Carson Wentz occasionally has struggled with his mechanics throughout his career, so this isn’t the first time he’s had a bad stretch of action. But it is the first time he seems to be compounding mechanical errors with bad decision-making. Wentz had never thrown multiple interceptions in back-to-back games in his entire career before the last two weeks, and Week 2 against the Rams was Wentz’s first game without a TD pass in his last 21 regular-season starts.
Wentz’s struggles — and perhaps the playcalling struggles of coach Doug Pederson — led to Pederson getting defensive in a press conference this week. PhillyVoice’s Jimmy Kempski asked Pederson about Wentz “missing layups” (which our own Greg Cosell has noted). And Pederson reverted to the old “are you an NFL QB?” defense. Never a good look! For what it’s worth, Kempski thinks the reaction was overblown.
The good news for Wentz is he’s also never avoided being sacked in two straight games. After not being sacked against the Rams, he has as good a chance to do it again as ever before — Cincinnati has only 2 sacks on the season, tied for third-fewest in the NFL. The bad news is Wentz is now down another starting offensive lineman, with LG Isaac Seumalo (knee) going on IR, so he has to miss the next three games. The Eagles do get a boost with the Bengals star DT Geno Atkins (shoulder) out for his third straight game, and DT Mike Daniels (groin) is hurt as well.
Wentz also will be down WR Jalen Reagor, who has a torn UCL in his thumb. Reagor had surgery this week, and our Adam Caplan is reporting a six-to-eight-week timeline. It’s another massive blow for a Philly offense that has been decimated by injuries for years.
WR Alshon Jeffery (foot) is out this week, but could play as early as next week if he continues to progress well. He practiced on a limited basis this week. Meanwhile, Pederson said the Eagles will “lean on” second-year WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside more. JJAW was targeted twice last week. He dropped one and the other was picked off.
I think Mixon is a borderline RB1 this week. I know his line hasn’t played well, but the Eagle defense was flat out non-competitive last week.
I like Tyler Boyd more than AJ Green this week — the Eagles have played a ton of man so far, and Green gets the tougher matchup with top CB Darius Slay. Boyd has a tough one in the slot, in theory, with Nickell Robey-Coleman, but Cooper Kupp stole NRC’s lunch money last week.
This should be a bounce-back week for Wentz, but the entire Eagle offense is broken right now, so I’m fine benching him (I actually did in one league for Gardner Minshew, which didn’t work so well…). With Reagor out, I expect to see some shots to WR DeSean Jackson. Jackson leads all WRs in aDOT, so hopefully Wentz actually puts the ball on him accurately.
Philly will run it though. The Bengals were destroyed by the Browns on the ground last week, so this is looking like a big game for Miles Sanders, who got a career-high 27 opportunities last week. He’ll be in the mix to be the overall RB1 this week, as Philly needs to get Wentz to stop pressing.
JJAW might be the worst receiver in football.
Houston at Pittsburgh (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Texans…
The Texans are 0-2 and QB Deshaun Watson has struggled this year, with the Texans opening with an absolutely brutal stretch of games (KC, Bal, Pit). Unfortunately for Watson, this may be his toughest matchup yet.
Pittsburgh is blitzing at a blistering rate of 57.8% of dropbacks, per Next Gen Stats. That leads the NFL, as does the Steelers’ overall 45.6% pressure rate (so basically, a QB against Pittsburgh has been under pressure on one out of every two dropbacks). And Watson has been awful both under pressure (25.8 rating) and against the blitz (43.6 rating) this season.
What They’re Saying About the Steelers…
The Steelers are benefiting from a QB Ben Roethlisberger who certainly looks like he’s over the elbow injury that cost him the 2019 season, but they’re also adjusting their gameplan to perhaps prevent Roethlisberger from having to do too much with that elbow. According to Next Gen Stats, the Steelers are running a good bit of crossing routes, but are doing so at shallower depths. That means Ben is averaging 2.4 air yards/attempt on them this year as opposed to 6.6 in 2018, his last healthy season.
WR Diontae Johnson is having a massive season so far, at least in terms of usage. His 32.9% target share is 4th among all players, and his 34.9% share of intended air yards (per Next Gen Stats) leads the Steelers. Johnson has been a direct beneficiary of the Steelers’ new quick passing game approach, as his average depth of target sits at just 7.3, 51st among WRs and TEs.
It goes without saying that Johnson’s target share could rise even higher this week if JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has missed practice twice this week with a knee injury, but is expected to play on Sunday, is limited. JuJu practiced in full on Friday.
The Steelers also are in the unique position of having two different players — James Conner and Benny Snell — having run for 100 yards in a game this year, something no player has accomplished twice. The Texans have been absolutely smoked on the ground to the tune of 198 yards per game, which is second-worst in the NFL ahead of only the Lions.
It’s a miserable matchup for Watson, so I’m OK benching him if you have a decent backup. Fuller is a WR3, and I would prefer to sit Cooks this week.
I like Ben as a QB1 (I’d play him over Watson, for example), and Diontae is a high-end WR2 this week. I think JuJu is a lower-end WR2 with the risk of reinjury.
In the backfield, you have to play Conner as a borderline RB1 this week given how terrible the Texans have been against the run (though it was against Kansas City and Baltimore, two elite teams).
NY Jets at Indianapolis (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Jets…
Not only do the Jets suck, but they might be the most banged-up team in the entire NFL right now. ESPN’s Rich Cimini reports that the Jets figure to be without WR Jamison Crowder (hamstring), WR Breshad Perriman (ankle), C Connor McGovern (hamstring), and RT George Fant (concussion) this week. That’s not good news for QB Sam Darnold against a Colt defense that intercepted Kirk Cousins 3 times and sacked him for a safety last week.
The Jets gave RB Frank Gore 21 carries last week, but he gained just 63 yards (3.0 YPC). New York is expecting to work in rookie LaMical Perine and Kalen Ballage more this week with Le’Veon Bell (hamstring) still on IR. I’m interested in watching Perine, at least.
One of the players who has been a ghost for the Jets is TE Chris Herndon, who despite the Jets’ injury woes at WR, has just 7 catches for 42 yards on 11 targets. According to Warren Sharp, Herndon stayed in to block on 13 of Darnold’s 34 dropbacks last week against the 49ers. That isn’t going to cut it for fantasy.
What They’re Saying About the Colts…
With second-year WR Parris Campbell suffering a serious knee injury in Week 2, the spotlight has been on the Colts’ struggling veteran receiver, TY Hilton. Hilton has just 7 catches for 81 yards on 14 targets so far this season, and Indy desperately needs him to step up now.
QB Philip Rivers — as a good leader should — is shouldering some of that blame. “I’ve had other opportunities to throw him the ball and maybe didn’t make the throw I needed to make,” Rivers told reporters this week. “No concerns [about Hilton] whatsoever from me.”
However, it’s not a great sign that Hilton got locked down by a rookie CB (CJ Henderson) in Week 1 and couldn’t get it going against the Vikings’ miserable secondary in Week 2. It was so bad that Hilton’s grandma called him to tell him he looks like crap. Hilton took it as motivation!
TE Jack Doyle (ankle) is returning to the fold this week — he’s listed as questionable but is expected to play. I think the Colts would be foolish to take significant snaps away from Mo Alie-Cox, who had 5/111 in Doyle’s absence last week. Alie-Cox is just so much more athletic.
I want to play no one from the Jets, but I do know some folks who are playing WR Braxton Berrios in deeper leagues. I will keep an eye on Perine in the event he plays well enough to earn a role for the future.
I expect the Colts to run all over the Jets, but New York has been a pass-funnel defense. If Hilton doesn’t get it done this week, I’ll be gravely concerned. I think rookie WR Michael Pittman is in play in deeper leagues, and has a chance to earn a huge role going forward.
Doyle’s return is a blow to Alie-Cox, who is a middling TE streamer now. Hopefully, the Colts realize his athleticism is something they should feature.
Carolina at LA Chargers (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Panthers…
Yes, the biggest story this week for Carolina is the loss of RB Christian McCaffrey (high ankle sprain). But we’ve covered that exhaustively elsewhere.
One player I wanted to focus on is WR Robby Anderson, whom I wasn’t targeting in drafts this off-season but has over 100 receiving yards in each of Carolina’s first two games. Why wasn’t I targeting Anderson? Well, I thought as a deep threat, he was a bad fit for checkdown artist Teddy Bridgewater. But it’s almost like Teddy heard everything I said about their QB-WR relationship this off-season, because it sounded like he was calling me out specifically this week.
"Everyone labeled him as just a deep threat. But if you watch the tape, he's running routes, catching underneath, doing everything we've asked of him,” Bridgewater said, according to Nick Carboni of WCNC. “He's always in the right place and he's an easy target to throw to."
The numbers back up the tape that Teddy recommends you watch. According to SIS, Anderson’s 10.2 aDOT is tied for 32nd among all WRs and TEs with 10 or more targets. He’s behind even teammate DJ Moore (11.8), whom I liked this year because I figured Teddy would benefit from throwing him the ball short. Maybe Anderson is just a better receiver than we thought and is thriving in a non-Adam Gase environment.
Keep an eye on the status of T Russell Okung, who was added to the injury report on Thursday with a groin injury.
What They’re Saying About the Chargers…
What happened to Tyrod Taylor last week was awful. Taylor was dealing with some rib pain, and needed an injection to try to play through it. Unfortunately, the Chargers’ team doctor accidentally punctured his lung when administering the shot.
That meant rookie QB Justin Herbert had to make his first career start against Kansas City. He threw for 311 yards, which is the fourth-most by a rookie QB. He also has now tied Taylor for career 300-yard games (Taylor has 1 in 47 starts). Herbert was expected to be a project, but he played well in taking the defending champs to overtime. All that considered, you understand why coach Anthony Lynn has been reluctant to say Herbert is now the starter — what happened to Taylor simply isn’t fair, and it’s going to take time to process that.
The Chargers gave rookie RB Joshua Kelley 23 carries last week, and I’d expect his role to continue to be large against a weak Panther D that will be missing DT Kawann Short (foot). Justin Jackson (quad) isn’t expected to play, though he did return to practice on Friday.
I’m playing Mike Davis as a solid RB2 this week.
Anderson and Moore are both WR2s.
I expect Herbert will be a popular DFS QB and streamer against this woeful Panther defense, but Lynn and company will still want to run it. Austin Ekeler is an RB1 and Kelley a high-end FLEX this week.
Detroit at Arizona (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Lions…
Meinke pointed out that Golladay caught more 25+-yard passes than any player in the NFL last year. But without him, defenses “are legislating against” QB Matthew Stafford going deep, OC Darrell Bevell says. Stafford is attempt 20-air-yard throws at about half last year’s rate, Meinke writes, and the expected return of Golladay will open things up for WR Marvin Jones and TE TJ Hockenson. Jones’ 9.8 YPR would be by far the lowest of his career so far.
RT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who hasn’t played yet this year with a foot injury, could return to boost the Lions’ offense this week as well.
What They’re Saying About the Cardinals…
Here’s the story for the Cardinals’ offense so far. Kyler Murray has been attacking defenses all over the field. He’s throwing 26.9% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage, per Next Gen Stats. That’s the most in the NFL. His 99 yards gained on scrambles (i.e. not designed runs) leads the NFL as well. But he’s also throwing the ball deep (20 or more air yards) on 11.5% of his passes.
If you want an illustration of Murray’s arm strength, consider his numbers on “out” rotes to the sidelines — he’s 11/11 for 95 yards. 8 of those 11 completions have gone to DeAndre Hopkins.
In the piece I linked above, Kyle Meinke noted how much Aaron Rodgers picked on rookie CB Jeff Okudah last week. The Lions — who have played a ton of man coverage this year — will probably like getting veteran CB Desmond Trufant (hamstring) back this week, if he doesn’t suffer a setback. Obviously, Murray and Hopkins will test Trufant’s health and Okudah’s inexperience.
The Lions’ secondary could also benefit from WR Christian Kirk (groin) missing this game.
I’m playing Golladay as a WR2 wherever I have him, and his presence makes Stafford a borderline QB1 in a game in which the Lions will have to score to keep up.
Murray and Hopkins are lineup locks, even if Kirk misses (in Murray’s case). This should be a great week for Kenyan Drake as well. The Lions have given up the most rushing yards in football.
Tampa Bay at Denver (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…
One of the areas where the Buccaneers need to get Tom Brady going, and I expect they’ll continue to try it, is on play action. According to Next Gen Stats, Brady already has 2 INT on play-action passes this year, after throwing just 3 in 2018 and just 2 in all of 2019. Brady’s completion percentage and YPA have plummeted on play-action the last two years as well — 72% and 9.8 YPA in 2018, 60% and 7.8 YPA in 2019, and 54.5% and 6.6 YPA in 2020.
Brady will have his full complement of healthy weapons this week, of course — WR Mike Evans (hamstring) clearly looked healthier in Week 2 than in Week 1. WR Chris Godwin (concussion) will be back in Week 3 after missing Week 2. The Bucs will be without Justin Watson (shoulder), which could clear the way for rookie Tyler Johnson to make his NFL debut.
What They’re Saying About the Broncos…
Though he’s going to miss at the bare minimum of one game, the Broncos are holding out hope that QB Drew Lock (throwing shoulder) doesn’t have to miss three games, which is why they haven’t put him on IR, according to James Palmer of NFL Network.
Meanwhile, the Broncos signed Blake Bortles to back up Jeff Driskel for the time being. The Broncos were super encouraged by Driskel’s performance against a tough Steeler defense given he got no reps with the first team and didn’t have a preseason, according to The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider.
“You don’t get much — if at all — work with the 1s, and that’s the life of being a backup in the NFL,” Driskel said. “You have to be ready to go without getting those reps and everybody understands that. It’s not an excuse for not executing.”
It’s notable that Driskel is an extremely aggressive thrower — he had 404 intended air yards in Week 2, according to SIS. For comparison, Russell Wilson — the best deep-ball thrower in the league — has 407 on the entire season so far.
It’s a tough defense, but Brady is on the QB1 radar with Evans and Godwin in there and up to speed. Obviously, Evans and Godwin are in your lineups.
Driskel is an aggressive lunatic who runs, which makes him an appealing QB streamer. I have Jeudy as a WR2 and Hamler as an upside FLEX this week.
Dallas at Seattle (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Cowboys…
It could be a good week for Dallas’ rookie WR CeeDee Lamb. Lamb has played 90% of his snaps and has seen 14 of his 16 targets from the slot, according to SIS. Seattle has allowed a league-high 33 receptions to slot receivers.
There’s rarely anything interesting to say about Ezekiel Elliott for fantasy because you simply know he’s going to get the football every week, but PFF has managed to come up with an angle. Elliott has forced 12 missed tackles on 44 runs this year, which is 2nd-most in the NFL, and though it’s a small sample size, the 27.3% missed tackle rate for Elliott would be the most elusive he’s ever been in his career. But the Seahawks’ run defense hasn’t missed a single tackle in 2020 (of course, playing Todd Gurley and Sony Michel helps to contribute to that).
What They’re Saying About the Seahawks…
QB Russell Wilson has never gotten an MVP vote (seriously… not just the award, but a vote). Through two weeks, he’s likely the NFL MVP. Not only does he lead the NFL with an 82.5% completion percentage, but according to SIS, a ridiculous 93.3% of Wilson’s throws have been accurate this year, also the highest rate in the NFL.
This is a good week for Wilson to take advantage of how beautifully he’s throwing the football — the Cowboys’ secondary is just decimated. CB Anthony Brown (ribs) is on IR. CB Chidobe Awuzie (hamstring) isn’t expected to play. Wilson should have time to throw if DE DeMarcus Lawrence (knee) can’t go (that helps offset the potential loss of LT Duane Brown, who has knee and foot issues). All systems go for this Seahawk passing game.
I don’t have to say much here. This is a “start ‘em if you’ve got ‘em” game.
Green Bay at New Orleans (Sun, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Packers…
The 28.2% target share for Packer WR Davante Adams is 11th-most among WRs and TEs so far this year, but he’s in danger of missing this game with a hamstring injury. Even if he were to go, he’d have a tough matchup with CB Marshon Lattimore when lined up outside — Adams has seen 12 targets in the slot, however.
Hopefully, if Adams misses the game, QB Aaron Rodgers doesn’t change what’s been working for him this year. Rodgers has been pressured on a minimal percentage of his passes, according to Next Gen Stats — just 10.8%. And he’s taking his time in the pocket, with 89.2% of his passes coming inside the tackle box, up over 84.4% last year.
Rodgers is also throwing the ball deep — 20 or more air yards — more. He’s at 21.6% of his attempts in 2020, up from 14.8% in 2019. And he’s been better on those throws, completing 43.8% of them vs. 31% last year. So Rodgers is throwing deep more with significantly more success when doing so.
Rodgers has noted that the Packer WRs are just playing super well. Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette reports that Rodgers is seeing guys who are “college wide open,” by about five more yards than you consider “NFL wide open.”
Packer RB Aaron Jones has been a superstar so far this year — his 19.7% target share is 2nd to only his counterpart in this game (Alvin Kamara). His average depth of target of 4.8 is third among all RBs with 5 or more targets, and 1st among RBs with 10 or more targets. But the Packer line is also helping. In the run game, the Packers are generating 3.2 yards before contact, second to only the Cardinals (3.6).
Mind you that Jones is doing this while still splitting work as the “1A” to Jamaal Williams’ “1B.” It appears Williams answered the bell after the Packers took AJ Dillon in the second round in April. The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman said that both Rodgers and coach Matt LaFleur “have raved” about Williams all season.
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
I just mentioned how much more aggressive Packer QB Aaron Rodgers has been this season in comparison to last year. Well, no one would ever say Drew Brees is an overly aggressive thrower — since the NFL began tracking Next Gen Stats in 2016, Brees has never finished higher than 28th in the league in air yards per pass attempt. He finished dead last in 2017 at 6.3 per attempt, and he’s last this year, all the way down at 5.0.
But if your eyes are telling you Brees just doesn’t have the same pop in his arm, you’re probably right. According to Next Gen Stats, Brees is completing just 42.9% of his passes between 10-19 air yards, significantly down from 66.3% in 2019. His 138.3 rating on these throws was the highest in the NFL last year. It’s 45.2 this year. Obviously, missing Michael Thomas will be a big part of that decline, but Thomas’ aDOT a season ago was just 7.8 (per SIS), so there’s something else going on here.
If you have Alvin Kamara on your fantasy team, you’re happy about all this, of course. Kamara has been targeted on 39.5% of his routes this year, up from 29.3% last year. Kamara’s 25.4% target share is easily #1 among RBs this year (#2? His counterpart in this game, Aaron Jones, at 19.7%). By comparison, Christian McCaffrey saw “just” a 23.7% target share in his 116-catch 2019 campaign.
That’s good news for Kamara, because the Saints’ offensive line is generating just 1.1 yards per rush attempt before contact, which is tied with the Giants for 2nd-lowest in the NFL (per SIS).
The Adams loss is huge for Rodgers, who is more of a low-end QB1 now. I prefer Allen Lazard to Marquez Valdes-Scantling as a WR3 option because I expect Lazard to play more in the slot and avoid Lattimore.
Brees is just a mediocre fantasy option right now. I expect this game will be dominated by the RBs on both sides.
Kansas City at Baltimore (Mon, 8:15 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Chiefs…
This is overall pretty meaningless, but I still thought it amazing what the NFL research department dug up — Patrick Mahomes hasn’t thrown an INT in September since throwing one against Kansas while he was at Texas Tech in 2016. Picking off the pass was a Kansas safety named Fish Smithson. No, I wouldn’t have put this in the column if I didn’t get to write “Fish Smithson.”
This is going to be an epic battle of two sides of the football, where a strength is going against a strength. Teams don’t blitz Mahomes much, mostly because he burns the blitz. Since 2018, Mahomes has been blitzed on just 20.4% of his dropbacks, with 20 TD to 1 INT (Next Gen Stats).
WR Sammy Watkins (concussion) is still in the protocol but returned to practice on Friday, so he appears to have a chance to play on Monday night.
What They’re Saying About the Ravens…
Yes, the Ravens’ run game is the most lethal in the NFL. But they also create big plays in the passing game, and QB Lamar Jackson has been utterly lights out on them. Per Next Gen Stats, Jackson is completing 75% of his passes of 10 or more air yards, with a perfect QB rating of 158.3. That’s up from 50% and a 126.0 rating in 2019.
But the Chiefs have been excellent defending these kinds of passes, holding QBs to a minuscule 37.9% completion rate since the start of the 2019 season. Will Jackson and WR Marquise Brown be able to take advantage of a Chief secondary that’s thin at corner?