1 - Which team will out-rush the other in Browns @ Titans?
An ultra-fascinating battle between two AFC playoff contenders awaits us in Week 13.
Sure, you could have believed Tennessee would be a participant in such a contest if you were told about this game over the summer. Bet you didn’t think the Cleveland Browns would be the other team.
If the season ended today, the Titans would hold the three-seed in the AFC playoff picture and the Browns would be the fifth.
The Browns will travel to Tennessee in Week 13 to face a team with some similarities to its own operation. These two squads hold first and second place, respectively, in terms of total rushing yards this year. Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb are undeniably two of the very best backs in the NFL. They rank second and third, respectively, in yards after contact per carry this season among backs with 100-plus carries.
Oh, by the way: The Browns have another star running back in Kareem Hunt. He ranks eighth in the above metric.
These two teams have the exact same strength: Battle stations that feature dominating run games determined to plow through the competition.
On the other side of the ball, neither squad offers a defense truly equipped to slow the others’ run game down. The Titans rank 17th in run defense, per Football Outsiders and the Browns hold 10th spot. In other words, nothing to move the needle. As such, it’s pretty interesting to create a DFS lineup with Henry and Chubb going against one another in this likely run-first game while trying to go for value at other positions.
Since we can reasonably project both running games to perform well in this spot, we need to just go ahead and look at the more important portion of the offenses.
Both of these teams run their passing game in similar fashions. The quarterbacks have some of the biggest gaps in their play-action versus non-play-action efficiency and are far better on early downs (because of the play-fake influence) than third down. The problem is one quarterback is just playing much better than the other, especially when under pressure in the face of oncoming defenders.
In the passing game, Tennessee has the decided edge.
The Titans are a top-flight passing attack with Ryan Tannehill ranking fifth among passers in adjusted yards per attempt. Baker Mayfield, meanwhile, ranks 16th. The Titans have a superstar wideout in A.J. Brown, while Cleveland lost theirs a long time ago. Tannehill and the Titans have ripped through two strong defenses in the last couple of games. The Browns are thankful just to be getting mostly steady play from Mayfield for the time being.
So, fantasy managers and prognosticators shouldn’t fret much about who will establish the run most optimally in Week 13. Because the answer to that question is probably just … “Yes.”
Time is better spent dissecting how to best take advantage of the gap between these two aerial attacks.
2 - How much will the Texans miss Will Fuller?
Let’s be clear, the question is just how much because there is absolutely no doubt the Texans will miss Will Fuller.
The always gifted Fuller was both staying healthy and consistently functioning as a true No. 1 receiver this year. Fuller led the Texans in both targets (77) and air yards share (30 percent). His 12.1 average depth of target shows that he was being used as more than just a vertical threat, too. He was pacing for a 76-1,278-11 season-end stat line. This suspension is a true bummer.
Even more problematic is that the receiver depth chart is now suddenly barren. Brandin Cooks stands head and shoulders above the rest on the pecking order. With Randall Cobb on IR and after Kenny Stills’ poorly timed release, the Texans are down to embattled slot receiver Keke Coutee, 6-foot-3 rookie Isaiah Coulter and stat-less second-year receiver Steven Mitchell behind Cooks.
Cooks is a high-end No. 2 receiver who has functioned as the top receiver on a few teams’ depth charts throughout his winding career path. He makes for an excellent buy considering his likely volume boost and attachment to Deshaun Watson. The Texans quarterback is playing at an elite level despite the smoldering disaster of an organization he’s stuck with, ranking fourth in EPA per play. Since Watson looks like an elevator of talent, Coutee should at least be added in all leagues despite his Thanksgiving game disappointment.
However — to put this into brass tacks — had Fuller been a part of the mix, the Texans would have been a solid bet to straight upset the Colts and a perhaps still-hobbled Philip Rivers. Now, even with Watson, the compromised receiver corps might be so weak, saying that feels like a stretch.
3 - Are the Rams or Cardinals set up to rebound?
Two hopeful NFC West contenders are dealing with bitter losses from last week at the hands of inferior opponents. The still wildly undermanned 49ers bullied the Rams, and the Cardinals couldn’t overcome the middling Patriots.
Those two teams now walk into the ring across from each other, gloves raised, to make sure they aren’t the one who loses ground in the NFC playoff race.
The Rams are 2-2 in their last four games and it’s not hard to find the through-line in their two losses. The Miami Dolphins defense made mincemeat of Jared Goff and their passing game. Then the 49ers forced him into three turnovers and a season-low 52.9 passer rating last week. It was a performance that, for seemingly the first time, drew heavy public criticism from Sean McVay.
Arizona probably has an underrated stop unit, as many probably wouldn’t guess they rank 11th in total defensive DVOA. They also rank fourth in blitz rate at 40.7 percent – oddly enough, one spot below the Dolphins — and are top-11 in both sacks and hurries. Perhaps they are the type of havoc-wreaking defense that has foiled the Rams smoke-and-mirrors offense of late.
We know what we’re dealing with on the Los Angeles defensive side. The Rams are sixth in defensive DVOA with their strength clearly residing as a pass-stop unit. On balance, the Rams have truly been a needle-moving matchup for teams in 2020 where the Cardinals certainly have not. Stars like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey highlight the unit and both are capable of completely altering an offense’s game plan and/or player they plan to feature. That could prove problematic for Arizona.
We should expect Jalen Ramsey to track DeAndre Hopkins around the field. If he did it for DK Metcalf last month, he should do it for Hopkins. We know the Cardinals have been hit or miss when it comes to featuring a counterpunch in their passing attack beyond Hopkins. Christian Kirk has flashed at times but let the team down last month by whiffing on a potential touchdown play. He hasn’t scored or cleared 50 yards in three straight games.
Donald could also prove problematic for Arizona (obviously). Murray loves to slip up through the middle of the line when under pressure and move the offense on scrambles. That’s tough to do when Donald is the one after you and even so, we haven’t seen much of that from Murray lately. While clearly bothered by a shoulder injury, he has 46 yards rushing in the last two games combined. He’s cleared that number in seven individual games this season. It’s also coincided with him dumping the ball off to his running back Kenyan Drake more, who has nine targets the last two weeks and no more than two in any other game. If Murray is healthy — he did get in a full Thursday practice — it would alter the entire landscape of this matchup, but for now, it’s a question.
Perhaps the take here is that we should expect this game to be a bit less fantasy-friendly than we might initially think. Given how Arizona could create some chaos for LA, and the Rams have the stars to limit what the Cardinals do best, it could be a slog for both.
4 - Will the Eagles saddle up Miles Sanders to exploit Green Bay?
Frankly, it’s hard to trust the Eagles coaching staff to do anything rational, much less optimal, right now. A hideous offensive line and a quarterback playing well below expectations are certainly big issues in Philly. Yet, it’s clear at this point in the season that a packed room of offensive coaches can’t come up with anything resembling an answer to the team’s many woes.
Should they finally choose the path of least resistance, running back Miles Sanders could give the team an easy way out of putting itself into a brain pretzel this week.
The Packers’ run defense is fundamentally broken as Mike Pettine’s weekly invitation for teams to run all over them remains a problem. Green Bay allows the most receiving yards to running backs on the year, 16 total touchdowns, and a 4.7 yards per carry average. That is truly a mess.
So far, this hasn’t prevented Green Bay from sporting a record that’s good enough to hold down the second seed in the NFC. It hasn’t cost them games. And not a soul on earth should have optimism that the Eagles will be the ones to make them pay for this with a loss. However, if there was ever a spot for the Eagles to lean on the running game and try to calm down their erratic quarterback, this is it.
Miles Sanders has been a mostly frustrating proposition for fantasy managers in 2020. The injuries are one thing but he also carries an extremely high 29.6 percent drop rate (per PFF) and hasn’t approached the type of usage we saw in his first two games of the season when he averaged 28.5 opportunities per week. Still, given the matchup, this might be the week to chance his upside.
5 - Can the Falcons upset the Saints?
There truly is a part of me that believes the Falcons can beat the No. 1 seed Saints this coming week.
Atlanta is a mere three-point underdog in this game as it is, so the spread already indicates this is a closer matchup than the current trajectory of both teams would indicate.
Atlanta is 4-2 under interim head coach Raheem Morris and while their defense is certainly not fixed, it’s playing better.
It helps that last week a player like safety Keanu Neal was flying around against the Raiders. He looked like the version of himself we once knew before a multitude of injuries seemed to sap his speed. Neal being on the field and close to his previous first-round pick form is huge.
Overall, the team ranks 15th in weighted DVOA defensively, which accounts for more recent performances. Stunningly, the Falcons have recorded the third-most hurries and fourth-most pressures in 2020. Morris might not end up the head coach of this team in the long run, but with their salary cap situation looking hellacious in 2021, it’s not out of the question the Falcons try to squeeze one more mini-run out of this veteran team. At the very least, you can’t deny that Morris has the team playing their best ball of the season, and that performance should earn him consideration for the gig.
As for this week, it’s tough to get the strong start Taysom Hill enjoyed against Atlanta out of your head when projecting this upset. Especially if the Falcons’ offense is once again without Julio Jones, the odds get lighter. Nevertheless, the Saints and Hill looked truly lacking as a competent passing offense in Denver last week, and through the air and down the field is how you want to attack Atlanta. Hill might not find the easiest road in his third start and the final score may be, at best, closer than New Orleans would like to see it.