Wild Card Vantage Points

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Wild Card Vantage Points

I’m continuing the Vantage Points column — in which I examine press conferences and excellent articles from talented beat writers who cover their teams every day — through the 2020-21 NFL Playoffs. The idea is to potentially come up with some actionable fantasy info that might not be obvious at first glance, but also to tell some cool stories about these teams.

I will publish this column each Friday during the playoffs.

All times are Eastern.

Indianapolis at Buffalo (Sat, 1:05 PM)

What They’re Saying About the Colts…

There’s no secret that the Colts’ offense relies on the run game and RB Jonathan Taylor, who got off to a slow start this year but over the last seven games averages 105.9 rush yards per game, and his 741 total rushing yards are behind only Derrick Henry over that span. His explosive plays — 25 runs of 10 or more yards and 6 runs of 20 or more yards — are also behind only Henry.

The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn writes that the Colts’ run game “is the type of running game that gave the Bills problems earlier in the year, but they’ve been much better at defending the run lately.”

Buffalo’s run defense is clearly more susceptible than its pass defense. Per Football Outsiders, Buffalo ranks 17th in run defense DVOA, so basically middle of the pack. They’re 8th in pass defense DVOA. The Bills finished 16th in fantasy points allowed to RBs, and were pretty consistent in that throughout the year. But through Week 6, after Clyde Edwards-Helaire (another rookie) crushed them for 161 yards (against designed light boxes, to be fair), the Bills had given up 131.3 yards per game on the ground, 8th-most in the NFL (they finished 16th in that department). Getting healthier at the LB position has helped — as Fairburn writes, the return of Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds back, the Bills have done a good job containing RBs as receivers.

That should be helpful against Nyheim Hines. Fairburn writes:

“Three running backs were able to hurt the Bills as receivers this season. They allowed 11 catches for 85 yards to Austin Ekeler and five catches for 58 yards to James White. Myles Gaskin, in two meetings with the Bills, had 10 catches for 93 yards. The Bills allowed two receiving touchdowns to running backs all season. One was to 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the other was to Malcolm Perry in the second half of the blowout Week 17 win.”

Fairburn points out the obvious, but says WR TY Hilton is “the most likely candidate” to catch a shadow from Bills’ top CB Tre’Davious White.

The big concern for the Colts offensively is their line, which is playing without LT Anthony Castonzo, who could no longer play on an ankle that needed surgical repair. Starting in his place is unretired veteran Jared Veldheer, who started just days after signing with the Colts last week and, as The Athletic’s Zak Keefer writes, didn’t allow a sack and was a key component in Taylor’s 253 rushing yards against the Jags.

It’s a testament to how well Veldheer played given he literally had to be coached between plays by LG Quenton Nelson last week.

Veldheer will be key again, of course — The Buffalo NewsVic Carucci said pressuring Rivers, which is easier said than done given how quickly he gets rid of the football (2.52 seconds, 5th-fastest in the NFL per Next Gen Stats), is the key to a Buffalo win.

What They’re Saying About the Bills…

Bills WR Stefon Diggs is dealing with an oblique injury this week and is a new addition to the injury report. But both he and coach Sean McDermott say he’s fine to play against Indy. He is officially listed as questionable, however.

Presuming he plays, Diggs will be on the receiving end, as he was 127 times this season, of passes from QB Josh Allen. Allen’s improvement in accuracy this season was staggering, as he managed to complete 69.2% of his passes, something I doubt even his most ardent supporters would have expected from Allen.

Accuracy is one trait, as our Greg Cosell has noted multiple times, that very rarely improves significantly in the NFL. Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News talked with Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, who wasn’t a big Allen fan in the past, and Aikman agreed with that assessment of accuracy.

““I was accurate as a passer and I just I feel you either have an ability to put a ball where you want to or you don't,” Aikman told Carucci. “And that was a real concern, I guess, of Josh coming out. Heck, I saw him miss 10-yard throws. And not even close. And you'd say, ‘Wow!’”

Allen used coaching, technology, and everybody’s favorite sport-to-sport analogy — golf — to help him.

Carucci writes:

After completing only 52.2% of his passes in a forgettable performance in the Bills’ wild-card playoff loss at Houston, Allen and his coaches knew there was plenty of work to be done. Even in an offseason when the pandemic wiped out practices at team facilities, he managed to invest enough time on his own, including his annual sessions in Southern California with personal quarterback coach Jordan Palmer, to sufficiently address his throwing mechanics.

One component of his work with Palmer was having his mechanics digitally mapped, a process that allowed Allen to better understand how throwing motion correlates to accuracy and power. As he explained early last month while appearing on "The Pat McAfee Show," the mapping showed “what was firing … (it is supposed to be) my hips, then my torso, then your elbow and your hand firing. But my hand and elbow were firing near before my hips were. I wasn’t really incorporating any part of my legs in my motion.”

“Being able to add my hips and make that as consistent as possible and try to slow everything else down up top and use my hand as the leverage for the speed and the accuracy has changed a lot of things,” Allen said. “The accuracy has gone up, but it’s actually added some mph to my throwing power, too. It’s been a pretty cool process. … It was like a wake-up call. It was like, ‘OK, maybe I should try to incorporate a few clubs into my bag and try to hit that 60 degrees.’ It’s funny that I use golf as that metaphor because I’ve actually learned a lot of my throwing from my swing in golf.”

Meanwhile, former NFL MVP Rich Gannon believes Allen is also helped by greater mental understanding of the offense and what OC Brian Daboll is bringing to the table as a playcaller. Gannon said Allen is throwing with more anticipation.

“I think he's got a better understanding of the why. Why is Daboll calling this particular play in this situation in the game, the down and distance and score? Because he's expecting blitz or he's expecting two-deep coverage or he's expecting man-to-man,” Gannon told Carucci. “All those things begin to factor into your ability to be more accurate, because you're more decisive, you have better anticipation.”

Anybody who is interested in how QBs can improve needs to read Carucci’s full piece. It’s fascinating, and if Allen can learn these things, it stands to reason others can too.

The Colts will get a boost with S Khari Willis (concussion) clearing protocol and being able to play. But their best defensive player — DT DeForest Buckner (ankle) — is questionable, though expected to go. CB Rock Ya-Sin (concussion) will not play, which is a huge boost to the Bills’ passing game, which could also be without WR Cole Beasley (knee - questionable). The Bills could also activate the recently signed Kenny Stills, which allows the Bills to spread the Colts out and basically dictate a zone coverage concept, as our Greg Cosell mentioned this week.

Buckner being out, of course, would help both Allen and the Bills’ run game.

Anyway, this team is having fun right now. And it should be.

LA Rams at Seattle (Sat, 4:40 PM)

What They’re Saying About the Rams…

The Rams might not have QB Jared Goff (thumb surgery) on Saturday, and it’s pretty telling about Goff’s performance this year — and, frankly, overall against Seattle — that The Athletic’s Jordan Rodrigue isn’t sure starting backup John Wolford would be much of a downgrade in this particular matchup given Goff isn’t likely to be 100%. (Goff is officially listed as questionable.)

“If he does play, Goff’s advantage might lie in his familiarity with the Seahawks and his experience in the postseason. But fundamentally speaking, he has been turning the ball over a ton (he is responsible for 20 of the Rams’ 25 turnovers this season), and we don’t know how healthy his thumb will be by Saturday,” Rodrigue writes. “If his thumb factors into the equation, it’s not much of a net disadvantage to start John Wolford instead, whereas if Goff is healthy, it might be.”

In the same piece, Seahawks beat reporter Michael-Shawn Dugar (a regular in this column who does great work) notes that the Seahawks’ defenders — including LB Bobby Wagner — expect Sean McVay to call multiple QB designed runs for Wolford, something he rarely does with the immobile Goff.

Early in the week, the Seahawks insinuated that S Jamal Adams (shoulder) would be a game-time decision, but Adams told reporters this week that he’s going to play, and he wasn’t given a game designation on the final Seattle injury report. So he’s going to go for sure. That’s bad news for whoever suits up at QB.

The good news for the Rams is that LT Andrew Whitworth (knee) has been activated off of I and will play. So will RB Cam Akers (ankle), who doesn’t have a game designation.

“He’s got that look in his eye,” McVay said about Whitworth.

What They’re Saying About the Seahawks…

The Seahawk offense is broken, but I thought this stat (and anecdote) from SBNation blog Field Gulls was fascinating. In short, don’t expect the run game to bail the Seahawks out of their slump.

Field Gulls points out that the Rams have allowed just 35 runs of 10 or more yards this season, 3rd-fewest in the NFL. And the blog also notes that the Seahawks have struggled to run the ball during the postseason pretty much annually at this point. That, of course, does need to be taken into context given how injured their backfield has been in recent years. Remember that they had to sign Marshawn Lynch out of retirement last year because Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny were both injured. Carson, of course, is dealing with a foot injury this week, and it’s hindered his production of late, though he, Penny, and Carlos Hyde (illness) are all ready to go for the Wild Card round.

Of course, the passing game might not help much either. In two games with the Rams this year, WR DK Metcalf has just 8 catches for 87 yards while being primarily shadowed by Jalen Ramsey — just one of those catches came on Ramsey (the Seahawks tried to get him away from Ramsey more in Week 16). Metcalf has eight individual games this season with more yardage than his combined two games against the Rams. Meanwhile, in the three games played against Los Angeles since they acquired Ramsey from Jacksonville, QB Russell Wilson has thrown just 1 TD pass.

That’s why Michael-Shawn Dugar predicts a strong game for Tyler Lockett this week. He writes:

“He and Wison really just ate San Francisco up underneath, with Lockett averaging just 7.1 air yards per target. The only way to throw against the Rams is to catch them making a mistake on a deep ball or to try to grind it out underneath, and Seattle is likely going to roll with the latter. That said, if Seattle does connect on any deep shots, I think Lockett would be the recipient; he got open for a long ball in Week 16 that Wilson just overthrew.”

However, it’s not just this matchup that is concerning for the pass game. On our Matchup Points livestream this week, our Greg Cosell argued that Wilson might be playing the worst football of his entire career. Teams are playing Cover 2 and taking away big plays — Metcalf hasn’t had a reception of 20 or more yards in four games. And that’s what Wilson is as a quarterback — he’s a big play guy who isn’t making big plays.

“He’s very, very indecisive [right now],” Cosell said. He thinks the Seahawks are caught between two philosophies — they wanted to “let Russ cook” this year, and it was working for two months, but now Wilson isn’t playing well and they’re struggling to do what they did earlier this season and what they did in past years under Pete Carroll with the run game.

I think it’s worth noting that both Rodrigue and Dugar in the piece linked above think 17 points will win this game. That could signal a huge DFS and “one-and-done” shyaway.

Tampa Bay at Washington (Sat, 8:15 PM)

What They’re Saying About the Buccaneers…

The big story for the Bucs is obviously the status of WR Mike Evans (knee), who avoided a serious injury last week when trying to catch a touchdown pass against Atlanta and hyperextended his knee. Evans is a true game-time decision, per coach Bruce Arians. With his comments, Arians also seemed to indicate that the Bucs won’t rush Evans back onto the field — they want him healthy.

“We’re not putting him out there to limp on one leg, so if he’s playing, he’s good to go,” Arians said. Obviously, if Evans can’t go, that’s a boost to Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Scotty Miller, who was the first receiver Arians mentioned when asked about the depth behind Evans.

But one guy who is really ready to roll — and has been healthy all season — is TE Rob Gronkowski. Anecdotally, I can’t remember the last time Gronk was this healthy. And according to Arians, neither can Gronk.

“I think he was kind of shocked he didn’t have any injuries – it’s been a long time since he played 16 [games],” Arians said. “We did our best to make sure he got through this season ready to roll in the playoffs”

There’s no secret as to what the Team needs to do if it’s going to beat the Bucs on Saturday night: pressure QB Tom Brady. One of the angles being pushed this week is how DE Chase Young told reporters at the Combine before his rookie campaign that Brady was the QB he was most anxious to hit. He reiterated that — in good humor — coming off the field after last week’s win in Philadelphia.

“I think we’re going up against one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced all year, a team that’s got five first-round picks on the D-line,” Brady said, via Greg Auman of The Athletic. “Just a real tremendous group. They put pressure on the quarterback almost every play, so we’ve got to step up to that challenge. Hopefully, we’re ready to meet it. It’s going to be a big test for us, but I certainly love going to battle with those guys up front.”

But Auman also notes how the Bucs are peaking at the right time. Arians was asked if he thinks his team can average 40 points per game in the playoffs, and he didn’t shut it down. He was right not to do so. Per Auman:

“Consider the last two and a half games alone, from 31 points in the second half in rallying from 17 down to beat the Falcons in Week 15, to a 47-7 rout of the Lions, to a 44-27 win against the Falcons on Sunday. In those 30 possessions, the Bucs have 16 touchdowns and four field goals, with more end-of-game kneeldowns (three) than punts (two), turnovers (one) or turnovers on downs (one).”

As for Young, there’s no hate from the Bucs, but Arians essentially told him to “be careful what you wish for.” Our Greg Cosell said on our Matchup Points livestream this week that he believes Arians will trust his talented but erratic offensive line at the beginning of this game and try to protect with five, since he trusts the way Brady is throwing the ball right now. Arians will want to attack aggressively and build a lead, with the assumption that the Team can’t come back from a deficit. It’s a fun chess match.

What They’re Saying About the Football Team…

The Team is one of two squads on Saturday — joining the Rams — with its starting quarterback listed as questionable. QB Alex Smith, who didn’t look close to 100% with a calf injury against Philly last week, is no guarantee to play. If he can’t start, the more mobile Taylor Heinecke will.

If Thursday’s practice — the final practice for the Team this week — is any indication, Heinecke will start, as he took the majority of practice reps, according to coach Ron Rivera.

Smith is a true game-time decision — on Friday, ESPN’s John Keim reported he was feeling pretty good but will need to test matters before kickoff.

The important thing for Heinecke or Smith is having WR Terry McLaurin, who was active last week and though he wasn’t 100%, scored a TD against Philadelphia last week. The Bucs are listing CB Carlton Davis as a game-time decision with a groin injury, but our Adam Caplan said the Bucs expect him to go.

Baltimore at Tennessee (Sun, 1:05 PM)

What They’re Saying About the Ravens…

A month ago, the Ravens looked like a shell of the highly efficient offense they ran in 2019, when QB Lamar Jackson took home the MVP award. But after a fantastic month of December, we’re now evaluating a Raven offense that looks better and is peaking at the right time.

The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec wrote a fantastic breakdown of the Ravens’ resurgence that is a must-read for anyone interested in this matchup. Joshua Harris, Lamar’s personal QB coach, told Zrebiec about the things they’ve been working on. He placed blame on Jackson’s early-season struggles on the lack of a full off-season — the initial plan was to expand what Jackson did in the passing game. But, Zrebiec writes, that Harris and Jackson were only able to do a fraction of the work they wanted to do. “10 percent,” Harris estimated.

The issues were evident once Jackson and OC Greg Roman tried to expand the passing game. Zrebiec writes:

Jackson started out hot, but the offense struggled to keep the momentum. The offense lagged woefully behind the Kansas CIty Chiefs in a Week 3 loss and more ominous signs popped up on a weekly basis. Jackson appeared to be pressing, forcing the ball downfield and not attacking running lanes. Even his outside runs were getting snuffed out.

The offensive problems went beyond him. The offensive line was getting overrun at times and the offseason retirement of right guard Marshal Yanda proved difficult to overcome. A young receiving corps was struggling to get separation. Roman seemed conflicted between sticking to the team’s run-heavy approach and trying to develop a more explosive downfield passing attack. Defenses continued to throw out unique looks against the Ravens and they seemed to be on their heels constantly trying to adjust.

I loved this quote for ESPN analyst Brian Griese.

“The beginning part of the year, to me, it looked like, not just Lamar, but the play calling, the offense, everybody was trying to prove that Lamar Jackson could function and win games from the pocket,” Griese said. “It seemed like that was a point of emphasis for everybody. What we saw coming out of that hiatus for him when he was sick was a guy who just got back to playing loose and excited and instinctive. Listen, if the play is there down the field, pull the trigger by all means and make the play. But if it’s not, be who you are.”

Meanwhile, our Greg Cosell noted this from Jackson’s Week 17 game against Cincy — the Raven OL is less athletic, leading to some offensive changes. He writes: “Without Yanda (retirement) and Ronnie Stanley (hurt earlier this season), It’s bigger and not as athletic. That’s part of the reason for the increase in gap scheme concepts in the run game.”

Cosell also notes that part of the reason for Lamar’s late surge has been his excellence in the red zone, with Roman using Jackson’s legs as a defensive influencer, and Lamar making second-reaction plays with both his arm and legs.

Jackson could get a boost in the passing game if WR Willie Snead (ankle) can play this week after missing Week 17 against the Bengals. However, one player the Titans didn’t have in their overtime win against the Ravens in November — before Jackson’s resurgence — was CB Adoree Jackson, who has played three games at the end of the year as he returns from a serious knee injury. The speedy Jackson vs. Marquise Brown is a hell of a matchup to watch in this one, presuming Jackson can play (he’s been limited in practice).

That said, starting LB Jayon Brown went down on a cut block he considered dirty in this matchup in November, and that’s a huge advantage for the Ravens’ run game. The Titans gave up the 7th-most FPG (25.9) to RBs this season, but since Brown went down, that’s gone up by nearly a full point per game in the last six weeks. That now coincides with the Ravens figuring out their run game, by focusing on JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards.

The Ravens, meanwhile, are as healthy as possible this week.

What They’re Saying About the Titans…

This is one of the underrated rivalries in the NFL right now. The Titans are going for their third win over the Ravens in a calendar year, including the massive upset in the playoffs last season. There was a “barking” incident before the game in November, and coaches John Harbaugh and Mike Vrabel have exchanged some words.

The Titans are a typically “boring” team to write about for this column because they’re so much the same team for fantasy every week. It’s certainly consequential that LG Rodger Saffold limped off the field last week with an ankle injury and has missed multiple practices this week. Saffold said he’ll play, but he’ll clearly be limited, which would hurt their run game. That’s especially significant, since the Titans had to put Saffold’s backup, Aaron Brewer, on the COVID-19 list.

I thought what The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec said about the last contest between these two teams was fascinating. He wrote that he’s looking forward to the matchup on the perimeter with the Ravens’ CBs and Titan WRs AJ Brown and Corey Davis. Those two, not RB Derrick Henry, were the two biggest factors in the Titans’ win.

“In that November meeting, the Ravens actually did a solid job containing Henry for three quarters. However, Davis and Brown both hurt them, combining for nine catches for 175 yards and a touchdown. The strength of the Ravens’ defense is in their cornerback group,” Zrebiec writes.

I thought that was fascinating, because our Greg Cosell noted on our Matchup Points livestream that in the November matchup, the Titans ran multiple TE sets and occasional sets with a fullback to keep the Ravens’ defense in base personnel. That’s not something that Raven DC Wink Martindale is necessarily comfortable with. Will Martindale sacrifice some bigger Henry runs early in the game to potentially limit the passing game? As Zrebiec noted, Henry was contained for three quarters, but simply wore the defense out.

Cosell also noted that Titans passing down back Jeremy McNichols struggled with blitz pickup in Week 11 between these two teams, so expect Martindale to bring pressure if and when McNichols is in the game.

The Titans could get slot WR Adam Humphries back from a concussion this week. He’s been on IR.

Chicago at New Orleans (Sun, 4:40 PM)

What They’re Saying About the Bears…

I don’t think there’s anything really profound to say about the Bears — there’s really two players who matter for fantasy in WR Allen Robinson and RB David Montgomey, and you expect the Bears to go to both of them. (Though, obviously, in playoff fantasy leagues, we have to focus on some deeper players.)

I turned to The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain for his analysis of what the Bears might do, and as expected, he did a really good job breaking this down.

First of all, he expects the Bears to try to pound the rock and keep the ball away from Drew Brees and company. He pointed out a fascinating stat — the Saints have allowed five players (in four games) go for 75 or more rushing yards against them this year. The Saints are 1-3 in those games, with their only win coming against the Bears in November — Montgomery went for 89 yards in that game in Nick Foles’ second-to-last start.

Fishbain also noted that Robinson had a solid game against CB Marshon Lattimore, catching 6 passes for 87 yards and a TD in that matchup.

The problem for the Bears’ offense? Fishbain thinks QB Mitchell Trubisky will have to try to take some shots down the field to keep the defense honest, but it’s not looking good for WR Darnell Mooney (ankle) to play. He’s by far the Bears’ best deep threat.

If Mooney can’t go, Fishbain writes, it’s a potential week to use WR Anthony Miller. Mooney is officially listed as questionable but hasn’t practiced all week.

The new-look offense has meant a decrease in Miller’s snaps, as Javon Wims has been on the field more in a blocking role.

The Nov. 1 game against the Saints was Miller’s best of the season (eight catches for 73 yards).

“I think Anthony’s play speed, I thought showed up,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “I thought he did a nice job working, even against tight coverage he separated and won on the inside, he won crossing the field.”

Miller has never turned into the consistent, week-in, week-out performer the Bears hoped, but he’s got a chance to make his mark in a playoff game if he can do what he does best — win in man coverage.

“The Saints play a lot of man, so that created a lot of opportunities for me and the guys to run basically any route we could to get open,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the same this game. I believe they’re top-five in the league playing man coverage, so I expect to have a fun game.”

Our guy Greg Cosell thinks the Bears need to keep the Saints off balance by using designed runs with Trubisky. One thing that helps the Bears this week is that Saint DL Trey Hendrickson, downgraded midweek with a neck injury, will NOT play. Hendrickson is #2 in the NFL in sacks. So the Bears could score some points in this one.

What They’re Saying About the Saints…

The Saints are 10-point favorites at home, and though there is no official confirmation to this point, RB Alvin Kamara (COVID-19) tweeted out this week the he will “See y’all Sunday,” which clearly seems to indicate he plans on playing.

Kamara had 163 yards from scrimmage against the Bears in November, including 96 receiving yards, and that was with LB Roquan Smith. Smith is listed as questionable with an elbow injury suffered in Week 17, which would be a horrible loss against the Saints’ top weapon. In the piece linked above, Kevin Fishbain of The Athletic wonders if Bear DC Chuck Pagano will choose to play with a “big dime” package with an extra safety on the field to try to contain Kamara if Smith is out. (He didn’t practice all week.)

Smith being out would also a piece of good news for TE Jared Cook. Fishbain writes:

As we’ve pointed out each week, the Bears haven’t done a great job covering tight ends all season long. Eight have had 50 receiving yards or more in a game. They’ve given up 12 touchdown passes to tight ends. Without Smith in the linebacking corps, that takes out one of the options the Bears have in coverage.

The Saints and Bears are getting a little healthier in the passing game otherwise. WR Michael Thomas (high ankle) seems to have a good chance to be activated off IR this week, while Bear CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) has a shot to be back as well. However, slot CB Buster Skrine (concussion) still isn’t passing the protocol, which is a huge concern.

Saint QB Taysom Hill (concussion) is back to practicing in full this week.

As The Athletic’s Larry Holder points out, the Saints didn’t have Thomas (suspension), Emmmanuel Sanders (COVID-19), or Marquez Callaway (hurt) the last time they played Chicago.

By the way, even if Kamara can’t go, Latavius Murray has been activated off the COVID list.

Cleveland at Pittsburgh (Sun, 8:15 PM)

What They’re Saying About the Browns…

I mean, what is there to say about the Browns? They didn’t have a single practice this week until Friday because of the continued COVID outbreak in their facility that has now rendered HC Kevin Stefanski, among others, unavailable for their first playoff game in 18 years.

With Stefanski out, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will act as head coach on Sunday night against Pittsburgh, with his focus on game, clock, and team management. Priefer has done this before, serving as head coach for one game with the Vikings in 2016 when Mike Zimmer had a medical emergency. But this is a different beast beyond it just being a playoff game.

OC Alex Van Pelt, who has previous playcalling experience, will call the plays.

The Athletic’s Zac Jackson writes:

Stefanski didn’t announce until just before the season opener that he would call the plays. Van Pelt coordinated a lot of the play calling during training camp, and he did it before in a one-year stint as the offensive coordinator in Buffalo. Van Pelt then went on to be the quarterbacks coach in Green Bay and Cincinnati and has that same title here, which means he has always been a part of the communication with both Stefanski and Baker Mayfield.

“Alex has been a huge part of our offense’s success,” Stefanski said. “He is a huge part of play calling. I may be the one sending it in there, but there is a ton of dialogue occurring between me and the rest of the offensive staff. He knows the things that we believe in. He knows how we play. He spends every waking moment with the quarterback, which is important when you are talking about trying to get him in a rhythm, comfort level and those types of things. I have a ton of confidence in AVP’s ability to get the job done.”

A big problem for Van Pelt is that it would be easy to just come out and run the ball with Nick Chubb, but the Browns will be down LG Joel Bitonio, an utterly massive loss against this Steeler front and DT Cam Heyward. Unfortunately, they’re also down rookie G Nick Harris, who has made multiple starts in the place of RG Wyatt Teller when Teller was injured. Harris is on IR with a knee injury. Meanwhile, they Steelers could get LB Robert Spillane back. Perhaps the Browns will use RB Kareem Hunt more as a pass-catcher this week, as our Adam Caplan insinuated this week.

At WR, the Browns are down KhaDarel Hodge (COVID-19) and rookie Donovan Peoples-Jones (concussion) still hasn’t passed protocol. Though he was cited for drag racing this week, the Browns need Rashard Higgins. The Steelers are down top perimeter CB Joe Haden (COVID), at least.

Cleveland also has T Jack Conkin (knee/illness) and Teller (ankle) as questionable, so it’s a rough go of it.

What They’re Saying About the Steelers…

There’s one big question for Pittsburgh — are they going to throw the ball down the field?

Their comeback against the Colts two weeks ago was sparked when QB Ben Roethlisberger started to actually spread the field in the second half. WR Chase Claypool was a factor for the first time in quite some time, while Diontae Johnson and even JuJu Smith-Schuster made plays down the field.

The matchup here suggests they should — the Browns are hoping that top CB Denzel Ward can come off the COVID list, but they’re also down S Ronnie Harrison (COVID), and slot CB MJ Stewart is a huge liability. (Stewart is also questionable for this game with a calf injury).

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger still has to deal with DE Myles Garrett (questionable with a shoulder injury but fully expected to play), but Olivier Vernon (Achilles) is out for the year and Pittsburgh can focus more on keeping Garrett out of Ben’s lap.

If you want a potential boost for the Steelers’ run game, the Browns have LB Malcolm Smith still on the COVID list, while DT Sheldon Richardson is questionable with a neck injury.

It looks like Steeler PK Chris Boswell (groin) will kick this week.

Joe Dolan, a professional in the fantasy football industry for over a decade, is the managing editor of Fantasy Points. He specializes in balancing analytics and unique observation with his personality and conversational tone in his writing, podcasting, and radio work.

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