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.
Denver at Atlanta (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Broncos…
The Broncos are one of many teams we have to monitor for COVID-19 issues — GM John Elway and CEO Joe Ellis tested positive for the virus, but as of now it doesn’t appear that any players have tested positive.
The Broncos did have to cancel practice, though, and coach Vic Fangio addressed the situation.
““There’s always concern, but the thing I really feel good about is that none of the positive tests that we’ve had have originated from this building,” Fangio said on Wednesday. “It’s all happened in the guys or the coaches’ daily lives outside the building where they get it. So, I actually feel better when everybody’s here than I do when they’re not here. We’ve done a good job of keeping this building clean.”
One thing that did pop up this week is that RB Phillip Lindsay is dealing with a foot injury and would have been out of practice had the Broncos actually practiced on Wednesday. According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, Lindsay “jammed some toes,” which is of course notable because Lindsay missed time earlier this season with turf toe. Pelissero adds that there is optimism Lindsay will play, but keep in mind Melvin Gordon was used as the hurry-up back last week against the Chargers in the Broncos’ comeback victory.
By the way, from my personal observation, I don’t think there’s a player that beat writers in Denver love more than Lindsay. And Falcons coach Raheem Morris agrees — according to the Denver Post, Morris believes Lindsay’s 55-yard TD run with the Broncos down 24-3 last week was the spark of the comeback.
“When I say, ‘[he’s the] heartbeat of the team,’ I mean kind of the ‘juice guy.’ When he does have a carry, it’s meaningful,” Morris said this week. “The way he runs the ball with passion, you can feel it — it oozes off [the] tape.”
The cancellation of some practice time this week because of COVID-19 is continuing to affect a young offense that needs a lot of reps together, writes The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider.
The Broncos are expected to get one of QB Drew Lock’s favorite targets — WR Tim Patrick — back from a hamstring injury this week.
What They’re Saying About the Falcons…
The Falcons have rallied a bit and played better football of late, following the firing of coach Dan Quinn, but that doesn’t mean everybody is happy. DE Takk McKinley went on a Twitter tirade about still being in Atlanta following the trade deadline, apparently after having asked for a trade two years in a row. McKinley is currently not playing because of a groin issue.
Coach Raheem Morris is sick of it.
“Takk will definitely be held accountable for his actions and everything that goes along with it,” Morris told reporters on Wednesday. “That’s with missing whatever he missed today and all of the things he’s missed in the past, so you definitely have to go through the issues and go through all of the stuff you have to deal with and you have to deal with that as an organization.”
Morris has called some of McKinley’s issues “immaturity.”
“When he’s playing football and he’s playing at a high level, man he’s a great person to be around,” Morris said. “When he’s in this mold right now where he doesn’t want to talk and he shies away from personal interactions and contact? That’s a problem.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta does have some key injuries, but there appears to be some good news. WR Calvin Ridley is dealing with a mid-foot sprain suffered last Thursday, but Morris said Ridley received “exciting results” from a doctor’s visit and his calling Ridley “day-to-day.” So there looks like a chance he can play this weekend against Denver. WR Russell Gage is also dealing with shoulder and knee issues but should play. It could be a good matchup for the WRs here (including Julio Jones, obviously) — the Broncos will not have CB AJ Bouye (concussion).
One area the Falcons have seen consistent improvement is in the run game, as QB Matt Ryan said this week.
“I think they’ve gotten better as a unit in the first half of the season, certainly in the run game,” Ryan said. “I thought we ran the football effectively the last handful of weeks against some stout front sevens and teams that play the run well.”
I’m not sure I necessarily buy that — RB Todd Gurley has averaged under 3.0 YPC in three consecutive games, and doesn’t look like he has much lateral agility at all. Meanwhile, Brian Hill showed some burst last week against the Panthers, carrying 11 times for 55 yards.
“I thought he ran the ball hard, no question about it. He’s a guy that he’s got great speed and explosiveness when he gets through the line. Our offensive line did a nice job of opening up some holes for him and I thought Brian ran the ball very effectively for us,” Ryan said after last Thursday’s game. “I thought our offensive line wore them down throughout the game and Todd and Brian just finishing runs the way that they do made it tough on them there at the end of the game.”
According to SIS, Gurley has produced a positive result on just 34.7% of runs, 6th-worst among players with 50 or more rushes, and 3rd-worst among players with 100 or more rushes. Hill, meanwhile, is at 41.7%. Both numbers are low, but you wonder if Hill could get a little more work going forward.
Linday and Gordon are both RB2s, with Gordin a slight edge in PPR. Lock is a low-end streamer, and Patrick is back on the WR3 radar given the good matchup, but I don’t think Lock has played very well.
I would be skeptical that Ridley — who didn’t practice all week — will be playing this week, though it’s obviously a good sign that he isn’t on IR at the moment. Julio is maybe the WR1 this week with Bouye out, and Gage is a reasonable WR3. In the backfield, I’m keeping an eye on Hill, with Gurley an RB2. Hill is just a prayer play until we see a more consistent role.
Seattle at Buffalo (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Seahawks…
You might remember Buffalo’s tactic against Kansas City a couple of weeks ago — the Bills played two deep safeties much of the game, and wanted to prevent Patrick Mahomes from being able to go over the top.
The numbers align with Buffalo’s strategy in that game, and perhaps others. According to SIS, Buffalo has allowed just 44 completions of 15 or more air yards the last two seasons, which is the fewest in the NFL. That’s less than 2 per game. Meanwhile, QB Russell Wilson averages 7 completions per game of 15 or more air yards. Something’s gotta give.
While it’s notable that Russ can probably throw deep against anyone, this might be more of a Tyler Lockett game than a DK Metcalf game — Lockett has 48 targets on throws of under 15 air yards, compared to 36 for Metcalf. Not to mention, of course, the greater likelihood top CB Tre’Davious White shadows Metcalf.
Obviously, when the Bills employed that deep-safety strategy against the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago, Clyde Edwards-Helaire took advantage and ran all over them. With the Seahawks down RB Chris Carson (foot) and Carlos Hyde (hamstring), we’ll see if the Seahawks take a similar approach. Last week, DeeJay Dallas played 79% of the snaps and scored twice last week in their absence. For what it’s worth, Dallas graded out better as a receiver than as a runner last week, per PFF.
The Bills have a major problem spot at LB, though, with Tremaine Edmunds (knee) and Matt Milano (pec) both not playing at 100%, especially Milano. Milano won’t play this week, while Edmunds will.
What They’re Saying About the Bills…
WR Stefon Diggs is good in basically every aspect of the game. He’s especially good against man coverage concepts, but he can carve up zone as well. According to SIS, the Seahawks play 82% zone, 2nd-most in the NFL. Diggs is top-five among all NFL WRs with 42 targets and 30 catches against zone. The Seahawks have allowed 30 more completions and 200 more receiving yards to opposing WRs than the next-highest team.
And Diggs, of course, has a role that’s just expanding. While he ran almost the same number of routes in the first four weeks of the season as the last four (135 to 134), his usage has increased — 26% targets per route run (Weeks 1-4) to 32% (Weeks 5-8), and a 24% target share (Weeks 1-4) to 34% (Weeks 5-8). Obviously, QB Josh Allen is becoming more comfortable with him, but this also coincides with WR John Brown being banged up. (Brown is still dinged — he played through a knee injury last week but missed some practice time this week.)
Of course, the Bills are going to be facing a much more challenging Seahawk defense this week — though top CB Shaquill Griffin (concussion) is out, the Seahawks traded for DE Carlos Dunlap, who is going to be making his debut, and S Jamal Adams should return from a lengthy absence with a groin injury. The Seahawks are generating pressure on just 31.8% of dropbacks (8th-lowest in the NFL), and their pass defense is allowing a 7th-highest 7.98 YPA against (SIS). Obviously, Dunlap and Adams will help with that.
I posted here a couple of weeks back about the Bills’ surprising lack of a run game, something Sal Maiorana of the Democrat & Chronicle had been, well, chronicling for weeks. Well, Maiorana was impressed with what he saw last week against the Patriots, and so were the Bills, with both Devin Singletary and Zack Moss eating up chunks of yardage while getting 14 carries a piece.
Where did the Bills place the blame? Well, the offensive line took it, according to Maiorana.
“At some point, enough is enough,” LT Dion Dawkins said. “We wanted to set our running backs free. And I’m just happy to say that we’re blessed enough that we went out there and we did it. We just kept it personal that we were going to run the ball today.”
FootballOutsiders agrees with the Bills’ assessment of their run blocking — they rank 23rd in adjusted line yards (run blocking metric). And things could get tougher this week, though, with starting C Mitch Morse out of practice this week with his fifth documented concussion, which is extremely disturbing.
You’re playing Lockett and Metcalf every week, but if forced to choose between the two this week, I’d take Lockett. Dallas is a high-end RB2.
Diggs is in play for perhaps the top WR spot this week, while Brown is a low-end WR3 given his injuries. Our Adam Caplan continues to insist the Bills love Moss, and I think he’s on the RB2 radar, with Singletary a FLEX.
Baltimore at Indianapolis (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Ravens…
There’s little doubt that Raven QB Lamar Jackson is playing far below the MVP benchmark he set for himself last year. So what exactly is causing it?
Well, a lot of things, but mostly, Jackson doesn’t seem comfortable and is making rookie mistakes with his decision-making, The Athletic’s Mark Bullock writes in an extensive all-22 breakdown of Jackson’s 4-turnover disaster against the Steelers last week.
Bullock also notes that the Ravens’ protection must get better… which is going to be problematic with LT Ronnie Stanley (ankle) going down for the season. RG Tyre Phillips (ankle) will miss at least three games. On top of everything else in the passing game, WR Marquise Brown is clearly frustrated with his lack of targets, given his not-so-subtle subtweet from last Sunday. (The tweet has since been deleted.)
Coach John Harbaugh said he texted Brown about the tweet, which is why the tweet was deleted.
“I don’t disagree with the fact that if he’s saying he’s a soldier. But I promise you, we’re trying to use all of our guys; he knows that. [He’s] probably a little frustrated, but he’s not a selfish guy,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t believe he is for one second. If he was, he wouldn’t play as hard as he did or be the good guy that he is around the building every single day. So, I have a lot of trust in him, and the fact that he took it down, I appreciated that.”
One thing I’d really like to see, especially with RB Mark Ingram nursing an ankle injury, would be a bigger endorsement of rookie JK Dobbins, who continues to make explosive plays every time he touches the ball. Dobbins played a career-high 66% of the snaps last week, but Harbaugh didn’t exactly give a colorful answer when asked about him this week.
“J.K. wasn’t anything surprising to us; he’s going to play well. All of our backs are excellent backs. They all make plays. They all run well when they go out there,” Harbaugh said. “We kind of expected him to play well, just like we do the other guys to play well when they go in there.”
Ingram is doubtful this week.
What They’re Saying About the Colts…
The biggest story for the Colts this week is the backfield, where Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins all split time in last week’s victory over the Lions. But only one player — Taylor — was ineffective.
The Indy Star writes about Taylor’s struggles, citing a lack of decisiveness as a huge factor.
From Joel Erickson’s piece:
“For the season, Taylor typically spends about 2.89 seconds behind the line of scrimmage. That number jumped to 3.13 at Ford Field, not only higher than usual but much higher than Wilkins (2.59 seconds). Spending time behind the line of scrimmage doesn’t have to be a death knell — Mack averaged 3.09 during his 1,000-yard 2019 campaign — but the veteran clearly had a knack for knowing when more patience was called for to set up blocks versus when it was time to hit the hole. Taylor struggled to strike that balance Sunday, spending more time running east-west than north-south than any other back in the league, per Next Gen Stats.”
Meanwhile, Taylor (ankle) and Wilkins (groin) were both limited in practice on Wednesday.
Obviously, this game is massively challenging for the Ravens’ defense with so many players on the COVID-19 list — five LBs (most notably rookie Patrick Queen) and three DBs (most notably stud slot CB Marlon Humphrey). Other starters on the list are S DeShon Elliott, OLB Matthew Judon, and LB LJ Fort, though Judon has already been activated.
Humphrey is out because he tested positive, and the rest were deemed close contacts. It’s possible the Ravens get the negative-testing contacts back this weekend, but Humphrey won’t play. Indy’s primary slot receiver (211 routes, per PFF) is Zach Pascal.
The Colts likely won’t have WR TY Hilton (groin - doubtful). Hilton seemed optimistic on Thursday, but he didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday, and given his lack of production this year, I’m not sure I’d anticipate wanting to put him in a lineup on Sunday even if he were on track to play.
Meanwhile, Colt QB Philip Rivers is expected to see quite a bit of the blitz from DC Wink Martindale. Baltimore blitzes at a 44.9% rate, highest in the NFL (PFR).
“He never lets you settle in. That’s for sure. That’s the first thing that jumps off the tape, is, ‘Man, there are guys coming from everywhere.’ They fly to the ball and there are balls on the ground. They do an unbelievable job of stripping and getting takeaways. It’s exciting, it’s a lot of fun,” Rivers told reporters this week. “There’s an element of the back and forth that’s like: ‘Oh they are going to do this. We have to counter that. They are going to counter this.’ You kind of feel that throughout the game. It just never allows you to get comfortable.”
Rivers, of course, has long been thought of as one of the NFL’s best QBs against the blitz, and he’s being pressured on just 14.6% of dropbacks this year, down 6 percentage points from last year.
Colt TE Mo Alie-Cox (knee) was downgraded to “out” for Thursday’s practice, which is never a good sign, even though he was back on Friday. There could be more work coming for wildcat specialist Trey Burton.
Lamar isn’t benchable, but he’s simply not a high-end QB1 right now with this tough matchup. I think Hollywood is merely a WR3, and in the backfield, Dobbins is an upside RB2 with Edwards a FLEX.
I think all of Indy’s backs are just FLEX plays right now. It’s a tough spot for their WRs, though Pascal could be a very intriguing WR3/cheap DFS play.
Houston at Jacksonville (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Texans…
The Texans weren’t able — or were unwilling — to move WR Will Fuller before the trade deadline, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for fantasy. Fuller posted 4/58/1 against the Jags a few weeks ago, and there’s reason to expect a big game again.
Why? QB Deshaun Watson has been excellent from clean pockets this year, averaging a league-high 9.3 YPA when not pressured. Per SIS, the Jaguars generate pressure on just 23% of opponent dropbacks, the lowest rate in the NFL. Obviously, this is good news for Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb as well.
Cobb sat out earlier this week with an illness, by the way.
The Texans signed Josh McCown off the Eagles practice squad. Coach Romeo Crennel implied it might have something to do with the Texans’ COVID cases and the fact that cases are rising around the country.
“He’s an excellent third option for us. We didn’t have a quarterback on the practice squad,” Crennel said. “Basically, when you look at the situations that are going on around the league and basically on this team, when you lose a player, and knock wood and thank goodness it hasn’t been a quarterback. But just in case, if we lose a quarterback to the virus, now then we have a proven, experienced guy in the on-deck circle or in the bullpen so that we can pull from that guy. He has a tremendous amount of experience.”
McCown doesn’t have to travel much to get to the Texans — he’s been living in the Houston area and just participating virtually in Eagles meetings, essentially as an extra coach. He will be coaching for a long time in the NFL.
What They’re Saying About the Jaguars…
Obviously, the story for the Jaguars this week is QB Jake Luton, a rookie out of Oregon State, starting for the injured Gardner Minshew (thumb). And Minshew might not get his job back.
John Oehser of the Jags’ official website noted Luton’s arm strength and expects the Jaguars will get vertical more with him as QB — Minshew averaged a mediocre 7.5 aDOT so far this year.
That will make WR DJ Chark happy. A couple weeks ago, Chark quite obviously indicated he didn’t feel the receivers were getting enough production. “I feel like we was open,” he said.
By the way, our Greg Cosell identified Luton as one of his favorite sleeper QB prospects from this 2020 NFL Draft class.
“Luton is an intriguing prospect: he profiles as a pocket QB who has excellent size and a strong enough arm to make all the necessary throws plus more than functional movement ability. Luton has the skill set and traits to play in a well-schemed pass offense that features both conventional and shotgun play action. He would fit very nicely in a Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan offense with its emphasis on conventional play action and the intermediate pass game where pure arm strength is not a required attribute. Luton was very efficient in the quick play-action game, which is now a staple in the NFL. What consistently stood out was Luton was comfortable in the pocket and he was consistently precise with his ball placement - Luton has a lot to work with and could develop into an NFL starter with the right coaching and system. I could see Luton executing the Rams offense in much the same way as Jared Goff,” Cosell writes for our draft guide.
Luton will also have a little easier go against an already mediocre Texan pass rush. Both OLBs Whitney Mercilus (close contact) and Jacob Martin (COVID positive) will miss this game on the COVID-19 list.
I love the entire Houston passing game this week. Watson (QB1), Fuller (WR1), Cooks (WR2), and Cobb (WR3).
I think I’ll fire up Chark as a WR2. The narrative is there, and though we’re going in blind on Luton, Chark was clearly frustrated with the offense with Minshew.
Carolina at Kansas City (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Panthers…
There’s obviously a huge sigh of relief coming from Carolina with RB Christian McCaffrey scheduled to be activated off of IR and play following a six-game absence with a high-ankle sprain. Mike Davis filled in admirably, but started to slow down a bit in recent weeks.
Coach Matt Rhule said McCaffrey looked “fresh and fast” in practice. CBS’ Jason LaCanfora said he hasn’t “heard anything about a pitch count,” so the assumption would be the Panthers took it easy and plan to have CMC operate as their bell cow against the Chiefs.
One player the Panthers have been getting the ball to more has been WR Curtis Samuel, who was the subject of trade rumors but the Panthers held onto him. When healthy this season, Samuel has at least 6 opportunities (carries plus targets) in every game so far this year, including at least one rush attempt in every game. He has a rush TD in back-to-back weeks.
Samuel was clearly misused last year as a simple deep threat. That’s not been the case this year, with Joe Brady getting him the ball in creative ways, and he’s been extremely reliable on third downs.
Check out this stat from The Athletic’s Joseph Person.
“One of the more common sights from the Panthers’ 2019 season was Samuel running open down the sideline, only to have Kyle Allen fail to connect with him. Samuel’s catch percentage of 51.4 (54 receptions on 105 targets) was the fifth-lowest in the league among receivers with at least 50 targets. (Tellingly, former Panthers slot receiver Jarius Wright had the second-lowest catch percentage at 48.3.)
But Samuel has turned that stat around dramatically this year with Bridgewater. Among wideouts with at least 20 receptions, Samuel ranks second behind Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin (86.2 percent) with an 85.3 catch percentage (29 receptions on 34 targets).”
Clearly, the marriage of Samuel, Bridgewater, and Brady is working.
The Chiefs have a situation brewing with DT Chris Jones, who was placed on the COVID-19 list on Thursday. If he can’t go, it would be good news for CMC and Teddy Bridgewater, but Jones seems to still have a chance to go — he was identified as a high-risk contact, but didn’t test positive. If he continues to test negative through the weekend, he’ll play.
What They’re Saying About the Chiefs…
I’m going to try not to read too much into the Jets’ backfield breakdown over the last two weeks since Le’Veon Bell joined the fold, because the Chiefs viewed the Jets last week — correctly, I might add — as a “pass funnel” defense and Patrick Mahomes chucked 5 TDs.
But since Bell signed on, Clyde Edwards-Helaire has seen his backfield snap share fall from 67% without Bell to 50% with Bell, his RB route share fall from 62% to 50%, his RB target share fall from 67% to 54%, and most alarmingly, his RB carry share fall from 80% to 39% (SIS). But again, given the lopsidedness of last week’s game, it’s probably not something to read into too much.
Edwards-Helaire addressed the split and acknowledged it’s a little bit more difficult to settle into a comfort zone.
“Ultimately, the advantage is fresh legs and being able to always be fresh on the field when you’re in. As far as being a running back, a disadvantage I’d probably just say is groove,” Edwards-Helaire told reporters this week. “That’s probably with every back. Finding a groove to get in. Getting in when a person’s number is called.”
The Panthers could be without starting S Jeremy Chinn, one of the league’s top rookies, this week as he nurses a knee injury. The bad news is that coach Matt Rhule suggested it’s related to an injury Chinn had in college.
The Chiefs might have WR Sammy Watkins (hamstring) back from a multi-game absence this week, which could be bad news for Mecole Hardman, who has settled into a groove here, as Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star writes.
CMC is an RB1. Davis is a handcuff hold. I think Samuel is a WR3.
I kind of like CEH as a pivot play if you want to get really wacky at RB this week given how many chalky great matchups there are. He is an RB2 and Bell a FLEX. Even if Watkins goes, I prefer Hardman given he’s had some better games lately.
Detroit at Minnesota (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Lions…
Well, obviously the story of the week for the Lions is the fact that QB Matthew Stafford is on the COVID-19 list. Stafford’s wife told reporters that Stafford himself hasn’t tested positive, but did come in close contact with someone who has. ESPN’s Adam Schefter said Stafford can play this week if he tests negative leading up to gameday, so obviously we can’t be 100% sure of anything.
What I do know is that the Lions are probably going to give 25 carries to Adrian Peterson this week, because it’s a revenge game and the Lions have force-fed Peterson the ball to their own detriment all season long. That problem will already get bigger with Kenny Golladay (hip) out and will explode if Chase Daniel has to start for Stafford.
Peterson acknowledged this week getting cut from the Vikings in 2017 still leaves “a sour taste.”
What They’re Saying About the Vikings…
Viking coach Mike Zimmer told reporters this week that the Vikings want to build their foundation on the run, which is of course absurdly obvious to anyone who has ever watched a Zimmer-coached team. And to Zimmer’s credit, the Vikings’ offensive line and RB Dalvin Cook were awesome last week.
But QB Kirk Cousins and this passing game have been excellent against man coverage dating back to 2019, as Cousins averages 9.4 YPA vs. man over the span, best in the NFL. According to SIS, the Lions play man 51% of the time, 2nd-most in the NFL this year, though their rates have fallen significantly from the beginning of the season. Cousins is especially effective vs. Cover 1, with 9.8 YPA and 14 TD to 0 INT. Cover 1 is the man scheme the Lions play the most.
Last year, Cousins threw for 580 yards with 5 TD and 0 INT in two games against Detroit. Perhaps this is the week they abandon their man coverage altogether, given how badly Philip Rivers torched them last week.
Meanwhile, rookie WR Justin Jefferson averages an NFL-best 17.1 yards per target against man coverage. So yes, the Vikings may want to be a run-first team, but there are plenty of opportunities for them to have success here.
However, though the Lions put pass rusher Trey Flowers on short-term IR with a wrist injury, they have another revenge game on the defensive side of the football. Everson Griffen, a former Viking acquired from the Cowboys last week, will make his Detroit debut. In regards to his departure from Minnesota, he is sick of it.
He had significant problems with Zimmer merely referring to Griffen as a “good” player and not a “great” one.
The Lions offense obviously takes a massive hit if Stafford can’t play, but there seems to be an optimism he will. He’s a fringe QB1 with no Golladay, while Marvin Jones is a WR2. Peterson is merely a narrative FLEX.
The Lions are shrinking the number of man snaps they play (for good reason), but I still kind of like Cousins and Jefferson as sneaky plays this week. Jefferson is a high-end WR3 and you have to play Adam Thielen.
Chicago at Tennessee (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Bears…
If there were ever thoughts about the Bears going back to Mitchell Trubisky in their QB spot, those thoughts are now over. After Trubisky played one snap in a Taysom Hill-style Wildcat package against the Saints last week (a ludicrous proposition as it is), Trubisky suffered a shoulder injury that will cost him at least a week or so. This is Nick Foles’ job, and while Foles has by no means been great, he’s been better in recent weeks.
The Bears, of course, are one of the many teams around the NFL affected by COVID-19. C Cody Whitehair is positive for the virus, two days after RT Jason Spriggs tested positive. And Spriggs was already filling in for RT Bobby Massie, who went down with a knee injury last week and is on IR. Whitehair was already unlikely to play with a calf injury.
The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain projected the line in front of Foles for this game, and it includes rookie Arlington Hambright at left guard. Yes, it’s the most spectacular name in the NFL.
The offensive line has been a big problem for the Bears this year, and it will be very difficult to keep Titan star DT Jeffery Simmons out of the backfield and out of RB David Montgomery’s face.
Of course, Simmons might be the only Titan defender even meeting expectations this year. Check out this response to a question long-time beatwriter Paul Kuharsky asked Mike Vrabel about his underachieving defense. The Titans did try to purge some of those underachievers, releasing EDGE Vic Beasley this past week. DE Jadeveon Clowney, the Titans’ prized off-season addition, has been sitting out of practice all week with a knee injury. He is questionable.
With the Bears’ weakness up front, if there were ever a week for Tennessee’s pass rush to get going, this is it — according to SIS, only the Jaguars have pressured on a lower rate of dropbacks than the Titans (30.9%).
Will WR Allen Robinson catch a shadow from CB Malcolm Butler, who shadowed AJ Green last week? Butler did a good job on Green, but the fact remains that, per SIS, he’s been the single most-targeted CB in the NFL (56).
By the way, could the Bears benefit from a little better field position this week? The Titans won’t have punter Brett Kern, one of the best in the business, because of an injury.
What They’re Saying About the Titans…
The story of the game for the Bears is going to be obvious — what can they do to limit Derrick Henry? By FootballOutsiders DVOA, the Bears’ defense has been good, which the numbers back up — they’re 5th in pass defense DVOA and 11th in run defense DVOA.
That run defense number isn’t bad, by any stretch, but The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain points out a huge problem with Henry. Fishbain writes:
“The Bears are right in the middle of the league in rushing yards allowed per game (120) and 15th in yards allowed per carry (4.30). But like the rest of their defense, the Bears are best against the run in special situations — they’ve allowed first downs on 34.9 percent of third-down runs (second). In the red zone, opponents are averaging only 2.21 yards per carry against the Bears, seventh-lowest.
One problem? Explosive gains. The Bears have already allowed 30 runs of 10 or more yards to running backs this season, exceeding their total from 2018 (23) and 2019 (27). Henry has 17 such runs this season.”
The Bears won’t have NT John Jenkins (ankle), which is another huge feather in Henry’s cap.
The Titans held out WR AJ Brown (knee) of Thursday practice again, but that’s become a formality for them to rest Brown. They give him a day off between Wednesday and Friday practices to manage the injury. They won’t have WR Adam Humphries (concussion) after a scary hit last week, so Brown and the surging Corey Davis will be important yet again.
Montgomery is an RB2 and Robinson a WR2.
Henry is in play as the RB1 this week. Brown is a WR2 and Davis a WR3.
NY Giants at Washington (Sun, 1 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Giants…
The Giants are a goddamn mess, and part of that is a disgruntled WR Golden Tate. Tate “liked” some tweets critical of the Giants and his role, and coach Joe Judge said Tate could be disciplined this week, including not playing.
There are a couple stories that permeated Judge and OC Jason Garrett’s press conferences this week.
The biggest one, outside of the possible discipline for Tate, has been Daniel Jones’ penchant for turnovers. He has an interception, a lost fumble, or both in every game this year, and a lot of it is his refusal to give up on a play. It’s a mental block we’re seeing with Eagle QB Carson Wentz, too.
“I think that’s the nature of most quarterbacks. Quarterbacks who are worth their salt have a playmaking instinct in them. They want the ball in their hands and they want to be the guy who’s guiding the offense but making an impact on what goes on on the field. I would say every quarterback I’ve been around who’s been a really good player has that same instinct,” Garrett said. “Over time, you learn through experience what plays you simply have to fold on, and you have to get the ball out of your hand and live for another day. Whether it’s punting on the drive or just simply going to second and 10, I think that’s an important thing to understand.”
Judge and Garrett also talked the development of rookie LT Andrew Thomas, whom observers and coaches believe just played the best game of his career last week against the Buccaneers.
Thomas has blown 27 blocks according to SIS, 9 more than the next-worst player, but he held Washington DE Chase Young without a sack in their last meeting.
A big loss for Washington’s defense is S Landon Collins, who tore his Achilles prior to the bye week, and that will open the middle of the field for TE Evan Engram.
The Giants got RB Devonta Freeman (ankle) back in practice this week but he won’t play on Sunday, which opens things up for Wayne Gallman to continue leading a backfield committee.
What They’re Saying About the Football Team…
The talk out of Washington all week has been about momentum, after the Team smoked hated Dallas in its last game before the Week 8 bye, as The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker writes.
One of the major areas where the Team made an improvement was along the offensive line, with the Team believing it put its best game together up front. That’s important, because coming out of the bye, they’re not going to have LT Geron Christian (knee), but Cornelius Lucas did a good job filling in before the bye.
While Washington also is unlikely to have WR Dontrelle Inman (hamstring), who is listed as doubtful, but WR Steven Sims (toe) should be back off of IR, though the Team has until this weekend to activate him.
Last time out, Giants top CB James Bradberry didn’t shadow WR Terry McLaurin, and McLaurin had a solid day against the Giants (7/74 on 12 targets). Bradberry has selectively shadowed this year, and you wonder if they’ll have him do it this week against McLaurin.
With the potential for discipline with Tate, I like Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton as WR3s. No Freeman is good news for Gallman as a low-end RB2.
I’m still rolling with McLaurin as a WR2.
Las Vegas at LA Chargers (Sun, 4:05 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Raiders…
There doesn’t appear to be a reason to worry about the status of RB Josh Jacobs, who has had a knee injury for weeks but was downgraded to no practice on Thursday with an illness. Perhaps the Raiders are just being cautious given what has happened to RT Trent Brown, who is now on the COVID list for the second time this year, following a mishap with a pregame IV last week.
The Raiders have been fined $500,000 and stripped of a sixth-round pick for COVID protocol violations, so they obviously now have every reason to be more cautious (not that they shouldn’t have been in the first place).
Anyway, as the Las Vegas Sun writes, this is a great week for Jacobs to build momentum off his 31-carry performance against the Browns last week. The Chargers’ run defense is 27th in YPC allowed (4.7), but is actually 15th in FootballOutsiders DVOA, so it’s a good but not great matchup.
One of the reasons the Raiders have been relying so much on Jacobs of late is because their WR position has been so banged up. They could get a big piece of it back this week with rookie Bryan Edwards (ankle) looking to return.
“He’s had a really good two days of practice. No noticeable limp, so we feel good about him and how he’s looked here the last couple days,” OC Greg Olson said this week. “He’s been in [wide receivers coach] Edgar [Bennett]’s meeting rooms and he’s stayed with it in terms of the mental part of getting ready for games. We’re excited to have him back on the field today and yesterday.”
The Raiders entire offense would get a boost if DE Joey Bosa (concussion) can’t play for the Chargers. Bosa is doubtful. And CB Casey Hayward sat out of practice for non-injury reasons on Friday and is listed as questionable.
What They’re Saying About the Chargers…
The story for the Chargers all season long has been QB Justin Herbert, and I wouldn’t expect that to change. However, one thing that needs to be monitored is a throwing shoulder issue which popped up on the injury report on Thursday.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden has a theory on why guys like Herbert and Joe Burrow are having immediate success in the NFL, as opposed to the challenges rookie QBs used to face.
“I think, No. 1, they’ve been given opportunities to do it early in their career. The old school method was to let them sit for a year and watch. I think that’s part of the reason,” Gruden told reporters on Wednesday. “Secondly, a lot of these guys are very talented. They’re way further along throwing the football, understanding how to attack defenses. They do it year-round. A lot of these guys have their own private, quarterback coach. So, they’re further along, I think, in terms of training and in terms of the overall passing game nowadays as opposed to 20, 25 years ago.”
One thing that has impressed Herbert’s teammates, beyond his playing clean football, is how he bounces back when he doesn’t play clean football, writes the LA Times. Herbert had a big statistical game in Week 8 despite throwing a pick on his first throw.
One of the biggest surprises of the Chargers’ Week 8 game was how the backfield split up between Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley, and out-of-nowhere Troymaine Pope.
Kelley, a rookie, fumbled in back-to-back games in Weeks 3 and 4, and since then he has only 97 yards on 39 carries (2.49 YPC). Coach Anthony Lynn decided to give the journeyman Pope a shot last week, and he came through with a huge 10/67 rushing and 5/28 receiving line.
The Chargers are insisting that Kelley is still in the rotation, and he’s going to get a shot this week with Pope (concussion) doubtful.
Jacobs is back on the RB1 radar. I’m keeping an eye on Edwards, though he’s not playable. If Hayward can’t go, I really like Henry Ruggs as a WR3 this week.
Herbert remains a QB1. I absolutely love Jackson this week and think he’s a borderline RB1, with Kelley a deep FLEX.
Miami at Arizona (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Dolphins…
The Dolphins are yet another team with a COVID-19 situation. An assistant coach tested positive for the virus, causing them to have to change practice plans on Friday and contact trace. So keep an eye out here.
Obviously, the story on field for Miami is QB Tua Tagovailoa starting over Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tua won his first start last week against the Rams last week, but it was largely on the strength of his defense — the Dolphins were the first team since Rex Grossman’s Bears in 2006 to win a game by 10 or more points with 150 or fewer yards of offense.
And how about this report from Adam Schefter — given the Dolphins’ load of picks this off-season, they’re not ruling out “Josh Rosening” Tua (as a smart organization should do). Tua wasn’t particularly impressive in his first start, but he didn’t need to be, and we obviously have a long way to go to evaluate him. But just keep that in the back of your mind if he struggles down the stretch.
It will be a tough go of it for Tua in the backfield this week, though, as the Dolphins had to put Myles Gaskin (knee) on IR and won’t have Matt Breida (hamstring) either. It’s why the Dolphins traded for DeAndre Washington this week, but Washington won’t have enough time to pass COVID protocols. Patrick Laird has an ankle injury.
So Miami will roll with Jordan Howard (under 1.0 YPC this year) and Salvon Ahmed in the backfield, and maybe some FB Chandler Cox. Maybe Malcolm Perry can get some run as well. (Lynn Bowden was placed on the COVID list on Friday).
This is what Dolphin beat writer Cameron Wolfe wrote on Twitter:
“Since I figure it'll be asked, my early guess is Jordan Howard starts/gets early down responsibilities with Patrick Laird getting 3rd down/receiving RB role. Salvon Ahmed is an unknown because he's a UDFA rookie who hasn't been active in a game yet but he may get some burn too.”
What They’re Saying About the Cardinals…
Obviously, no one is sitting QB Kyler Murray, who is fantasy’s overall QB1 right now, but you saw the havoc that Brian Flores’ defense can wreak on an opposing QB last week, when Jared Goff turned the ball over four times.
And though Murray has had many big games this year, there have been times he’s struggled mightily as a passer. And this could be one of those weeks, given his performance under pressure. According to SIS, Murray has averaged 5.3 YPA with 6 TD and 8 INT when under pressure in his career, vs. 7.5 YPA with 27 TD and 11 INT when not pressured. Miami’s defense, meanwhile, generates pressure at a 42% clip, 2nd-highest in the NFL.
Murray isn’t likely to have RB Kenyan Drake (ankle) behind him this week, which makes this an RB1 game for Chase Edmonds against Miami’s run-funnel defense — according to FootballOutsiders DVOA, Miami has the league’s 3rd-best pass defense and worst run defense.
Miami is an ugly fantasy team this week. I think DeVante Parker is a WR3, and Howard is a prayer RB FLEX.
Murray is still a QB1, but the matchup scares me. I love Edmonds, though. Everything is lining up for him to have a huge week.
Pittsburgh at Dallas (Sun, 4:25 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Steelers…
Well, quite frankly, not much is being said about the Steelers this week, given they’re expected to roll over a Cowboys team that hasn’t named a starting QB for the week.
And if they’re expected to run over this team, that could mean a lot of James Conner, whom coach Mike Tomlin said is running with some authority this year.
“You know, physical confrontation is a part of his play. I don’t think he is avoiding that. I know I appreciate that element of his play. He’s really finding his rhythm,” Tomlin said. “He’s utilizing all of the tools and developing skills that are going to make him a complete back down the stretch for us. I like the overall trajectory of his play.”
However, we could expect to see some Benny Snell this week — Tomlin mentioned they wanted to get him and rookie Anthony McFarland more work last week against the Ravens, but time of possession was an issue. Could Pittsburgh maybe give those guys some work in a blowout here, to try to avoid a key guy like Conner taking too many hits? We’ll see.
By the way, WR Diontae Johnson isn’t on the injury report for anything this week, in case you want to use him.
What They’re Saying About the Cowboys…
I mean, the Cowboys don’t even have their QB picked out for this week. Rookie Ben DiNucci was clearly overmatched last week against the Eagles, so either Cooper Rush or Garrett Gilbert will make his first career start against this Steelers defense. Good luck.
One player who isn’t 100% is Ezekiel Elliott, who is dealing with a hamstring injury and the Cowboys aren’t sure exactly how much he’s going to be able to do. And beyond Elliott’s struggles, one of the biggest reason for his mediocre fantasy production? He has zero carries in the fourth quarter with a lead. The Cowboys have run exactly one play with a fourth quarter lead this year. I don’t anticipate they’ll have one in this game.
If you’re looking for a bright spot for someone here, you can maybe look in the direction of CeeDee Lamb — the Steelers are listing slot CB Mike Hilton (shoulder) as doubtful.
Start your Steelers, but anticipate they might not play in the fourth quarter.
Zeke is just a FLEX this week. Tony Pollard is on the RB2 radar if Zeke doesn’t go. Lamb is my favorite of the Cowboy WRs but they’re all WR3s.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay (Sun, 8:20 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Saints…
Injuries are the story for the Saints at this point. While WRs Marquez Callaway (ankle) and Michael Thomas (ankle, hamstring) are working their way back to availability for this week, QB Drew Brees has merely been working on the side this week with a right shoulder injury (obviously, he’s had problems with that before).
All three are expected to play (Brees and Thomas are “game-day” calls, per Sean Payton, but the Brees shoulder injury doesn’t exactly exude confidence when he’s averaging 5.6 air yards per throw this year, lowest among any QB with 100 or more throws (SIS). At least that should benefit Thomas.
Obviously, those are all important players for the Saints, but RB Alvin Kamara is tasked with facing one of the NFL’s best run defenses (3rd in FootballOutsiders DVOA) in Tampa, though Wayne Gallman surprisingly had a strong game against the Bucs last week.
Kamara credits their back seven (LBs and DBs) for what makes the Bucs so tough.
"I think the fact that what makes them a good run defense is their back end. They've got an active back end that's pretty smart and plays the ball well, and it's pretty disciplined,” he told reporters this week. “So that gives their front the ability to go ahead and kind of cut it loose and be able to play and feel good about rushing and kind of stunting up front end. And making some moves up front to disrupt the run, because they know in the back end they're covered. So they do a plethora of things that allow them to be able to be good against the run.”
Kamara has dealt with a foot injury this week but it’s nothing to worry about. He had just 12 carries for 16 yards against the Bucs in Week 1, but he added 5/51 receiving and scored twice.
What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…
There’s one story here, let’s be frank — Antonio Brown.
With Brown in the fold and Chris Godwin (finger) expected to play this week, QB Tom Brady has perhaps the NFL’s best set of WRs. Of course, we can’t expect coach Bruce Arians to clarify exactly how much Brown is going to play this week — “it could be 10 plays, it could be 35 plays,” Arians said. “I wouldn’t anticipate 60 plays, for sure, but we’ll just see how it goes,” Arians concluded, but if Brown takes one to the house on his first possession? Whew.
Brown said this week that he’s remorseful for his actions and thankful for his new opportunity, but we’ll obviously have to wait and see on that. But it’s clear he has a fan in Brady who lobbied for him after they played just one game together in New England last year.
I thought this was pretty enlightening work from The Athletic’s Mike Sando — he talked to NFL coaches and executives who detailed why Brown’s tenure with the Bucs might be different than his tenure with the Steelers, Raiders, and Pats. It boils down to Brown needing the Bucs way more than the Bucs need him, so I think it’s OK to be somewhat optimistic.
Arians said this week that WR Mike Evans is getting close to being healthy, but it’s problematic for him that he now has to share work with Godwin and Brown. Injuries may have been a factor, but Evans has averaged 20.1 FPG without Godwin and 7.3 FPG with Godwin this year. Yikes.
The Bucs run game with Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette will be an afterthought with all the Brown hooplah this week, but it gets easier for them with the Saints putting DT Sheldon Rankins (knee) on IR. The Bucs won’t have G Ali Marpet (concussion), however.
I think you have to play Thomas if he goes as expected. Brees is a low-end QB1, while Kamara is always in your lineup. Callaway is a WR3.
If I’m ranking Tampa WRs, I think both Evans and Godwin are WR2s, with Brown a WR3. Brady is obviously a hammer QB1. I prefer Fournette at RB to Jones in a potential shootout.
New England at NY Jets (Mon, 8:15 PM)
What They’re Saying About the Patriots…
I’m not sure there’s a person on earth interested in this game for fantasy, but it’s worth pointing out that Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes correctly identified the Jets as a pass-funnel defense last week.
That’s bad news for New England, which can’t be competitive without running the ball, but the Jets’ “pass funnel” involves a significant amount of zone coverage, per SIS. Over the last four weeks, the Jets are playing 86% zone coverage, 2nd-most in the NFL. And of the 30 teams that play zone more than half the time, their 9.4 YPA allowed is the most.
That’s a consolation for QB Cam Newton, who averages 8.9 YPA vs. zone and a pathetic 5.6 YPA vs. man (which makes sense, because he doesn’t have any receivers who can get open against man, especially on the perimeter).
That calls to mind an assessment former Patriot Christian Fauria had about WR N’Keal Harry a few weeks ago. Fauria called Harry “the worst route runner in the history of the world” on his WEEI radio show. Yikes. If you’re using anyone from this passing game — and it is a good matchup — it should be Jakobi Meyers.
Meanwhile, the Pats have opened Sony Michel’s window to be activated from IR as he returns from a quad injury. Joy, another back in the rotation on a bad offensive team!
What They’re Saying About the Jets…
I thought this quote from Patriots RB Damien Harris on getting to play against one of his idols, Frank Gore was really cool. Thanks to Doug Kyed for the transcript.
Other than that, QB Sam Darnold (shoulder) and WR Jamison Crowder (groin) both suited up in a limited fashion on Friday. Yay?
I’m exhausted after this week, finishing out my column with the Jets is the last straw.
Do we really have to watch this game?
I can’t believe it, but Meyers may be my favorite play of the whole game. You can’t rely on Crowder with this being a Monday nighter, as Darnold is hurt and Crowder had a setback late last week.