Wednesday, September 28, 2011

WEEK 3 -- T&R (thoughts and revelations)

Some things are coming to light as we progress to the quarter mark of the NFL season this week. First thing that is becoming glaringly clear to me – if you’re not a multi-faceted running back then you are a slight hindrance to your team. This season, the ball is being thrown more and more, and teams that have only a one-trick pony in their backfield are at a decided disadvantage. Think about the Atlanta Falcons, who have a strong runner in Michael Turner. Yet no one is concerned when Turner is in the backfield that Matt Ryan will be throwing to him, after all, for his career Michael Turner has 38 receptions.  Another team that comes to mind is the Bengals and their top man Cedric Benson.  Benson has 95 receptions in his seven years, and while he’s seen more pass attempts come his way as a Bengal, he’s still not something defenses will worry about in terms of being anything more than a fly on the passing play’s wall. It also works in reverse. Tim Hightower is one heck of a pass-catching RB, but as time has revealed, his yards per carry drops precipitously the more carries he makes. Other teams are forced to employ a two-back system when they find a less adroit runner. See the Giants and their tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw for example.  Though Jacobs has generally averaged tremendous YPC numbers, most of the carries are deferred to Bradshaw because of Bradshaw's multi-dimensional capability.

Here's my thoughts and revelations about the NFL games Week 3.

Bill's defense couldn't stymie the Bills


It just goes to show Bill Belichick can coach his way into a close game in nearly any situation, but that when your defense is this bad, you can’t simply out-offense your way to a victory. I have to admit I didn’t see Tom Brady throwing another four touchdowns this week. However, he has struggled at times at Rich stadium, and while you can make a case for one tipped interception being a fluke, four total interceptions say something else.  The Bills figured something out at halftime and stymied the Patriots into just 10 points in the final two quarters of play.  Wes Welker has returned to perfect health and is easily on pace for another 100 reception season (he has 31 in just three games).  Last week, I wrote about Fred Jackson playing the best football of his career. He keeps getting better. Jackson figured in for 161 yards of total offense and a touchdown. He’s facing Cincy, Philly and the Giants in the next three weeks with only Cincy being a top rushing defense. However, the Bengals offense is so inept that you can expect the Bills to rule time of possession and have their offense on the field a majority of the game.


This one was a sleeper, and not surprisingly so. Frank Gore’s run totals are now alarming. The San Francisco offensive line has allowed eight TFL (tackles for loss) each game they’ve played in. This could be a huge measuring stick as to why Gore has managed just 2.5 yards per carry. Fantasy wise, he’s a near disaster for even a second round pick, adding a big donut-hole in the receptions category this week. Kendall Hunter received his first carries since Week 1, and though his YPC wasn’t much better, he managed a red zone touchdown for the Niners. He also added two receptions, and for Gore owners, grabbing Hunter as a handcuff is getting to the crucial stage. For the Bengals, they were 1-for-10 on third down conversions, something their defense simply can’t overcome. Andre Caldwell led all Bengals receivers with six receptions on 12 targets for 53 yards. Jermaine Gresham, the second year tight end out of Oklahoma, added another four receptions and is averaging four per game. Jerome Simpson played, but more likely he was there to finish off some other business post game.


I had mentioned I was unsettled by Chad Henne’s abysmal 53 percent completion rate. That kind of number does not usually translate into 400 yard days. However, it is true that Chad Henne is not the worry for the 0-3 Dolphins. The supposedly improving defense has been a disaster during crucial situations, the biggest of which occurred during Cleveland’s final drive to win the game. With the ball on the 27-yard line and the Browns facing a third and ten, Jason Taylor jumped off sides, reducing the play to third and five. What would have been an incompletion was turned into a 14-yard completion to Evan Moore, and on the next play Colt McCoy hit Mohamed Massaquoi for the game winning touchdown. According to Pro Football Weekly, the Dolphins are ranked 29th in terms of defensive efficiency. Brian Hartline added another four receptions to give him 10 catches, 170 yards and a touch for the year. However, I was more inclined to view him as a serviceable WR3 before Daniel Thomas starting running the football. For the second straight game Thomas averaged over four yards per carry, and gave the Dolphins some much needed balance. Reggie Bush owners are facing the law of diminishing returns moving forward. Colt McCoy still occasionally looks like a deer in headlights, and is blessed with some incredibly athletic, albeit banged up, receivers. Just pray Joshua Cribbs and Massaquoi continue to take the pain.


A veteran quarterback can make a huge difference, particularly when he’s got some time to pass. The decaying offensive line of Seattle obscured Matt Hasselbeck’s still relevant talents the last few years, and even with a floundering Chris Johnson in the backfield, Hasselbeck has shown he still can be relevant, even for fantasy players. I have to admit that I am stunned at Johnson’s inept performance against Denver. Some are saying he’s still getting into ‘contact’ shape. This is starting to sound like just a bad excuse for someone who was more worried about his contract than he was football. His chance to right the ship comes this week in Cleveland, but ESPN’s KC Joyner stated outright he’s done with him. I’m inclined to disagree. First, who are you getting at this point in return for him as a number one pick? Second, whether the offensive line is faltering on the rush at present doesn’t mean they won’t gel as we get into the season. Most new lines take some time to get it together, particularly under a new offensive coordinator. I’m giving him another week. At this time last year Brandon Lloyd had 14 receptions for 339 yards and a score. At present, he has just 10 receptions, 127 yards and zero touchdowns. It’s a big reason they’re 1-2. Denver also really needs injury-prone Knowshon Moreno back in a hurry, as they have no threat in the backfield in Willis McGahee. However, Eric Decker is making his case to supersede diminutive Eddie Royal as he and Kyle Orton have developed a nice chemistry. Decker led all Broncos receivers with seven receptions on 12 targets for 47 yards.


Michael Vick is starting to prove the theory once again that taking a quarterback, even one as great as an athlete as he is, as your first pick in fantasy is dangerous. Quarterback this year is turning out to be particularly deep, not to mention the barely six-foot tall, 215 pound QB takes so many hits, including one that left him hurt again on Sunday with a swollen right hand. Those hits are taking a toll on his psyche, as seen by his post-game rant and his numbers. Vick has returned to completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes. He’s hanging in the pocket more, but with this beat up offensive line of the Eagles, he’s suffering for it. Three possessions in the red zone resulted in Vick fumbling the snap, throwing an interception and a field goal. Thus, Philly was 1-for-5 in total red zone trips. And while the Eagles offense was 7-for-15 on third down, the Eagles longest pass play from scrimmage was 24 yards against a beat up Giants secondary. This is not a good sign for Vick owners. The true highlight for the Eagles this season is the further development of LeSean McCoy, who I believe is the most complete NFL running back period. He’s got an amazing burst, great hands, can block and brings it to the table every week. He may not be as explosive as Darren McFadden, but he doesn’t have a line that’s doing as solid for him up front either. This was only the second time in his career he had over 20 carries in a game. On the flip side, Eli Manning may have had his most complete game as a quarterback. He garnered a 145.7 QB rating. He has just one game higher than that in his career and that was back 2009 against Oakland, but in that game he through just ten passes, completing eight of them for a total of 173 yards and two for scores. Not exactly a game where the Giants were QB dependent. Victor Cruz had a game to remember and is showing the flash of greatness that appeared during the 2010 pre-season before he was lost for the year. The undrafted free agent out of UMASS had three receptions for 110 yards and two scores. He made the Eagles secondary look foolish on both of them, including one where he got position on and yanked away a Manning toss from all-pro corner Nnamdi Asomugha.


The difference between Minnesota and the Lions this game was the eight points they lost with truly inefficient play calling in the red zone their first two drives. Adrian Peterson had all of two carries in their first two appearances inside the red zone and both trips resulted in field goals. Had Minnesota punched it in even once they likely hold on to the victory. However, nothing can be taken away from the Lions and Calvin Johnson, who though he grabbed two more TDs, made no catch bigger than his over the shoulder falling grab in overtime. Brandon Pettigrew provided only his second NFL game with over 100 receiving yards, and Nate Burleson, a fantasy favorite from some experts this week, disappeared. Even with Jahvid Best unable to rush for more than 1.2 per carry, a rate that may actually be lower than return on investment for Jamaal Charles this year, Matthew Stafford was able to turn things around in the second half where they scored on five of their last six drives.  As long as he's healthy, this offense will always be a threat, no matter how many points they're down.


I mentioned last week that Lance Moore could easily steal a bunch of targets from Drew Brees against Houston and sure enough, Moore took in all nine of his targets for 88 yards and a score. Jimmy Graham was also a solid TE choice with his four receptions on eight targets for 100 yards and a TD.  Mark Ingram had a better day as he went nine rushes for 38 yards and a nifty-shifty TD run. He's got great balance when he can get a head of steam going. However, it is Darren Sproles making the biggest impact in this backfield, particularly from a fantasy standpoint. The most targeted running back in the NFL is a tie between Sproles and Chicago's Matt Forte. Sproles has just one less reception with 21, tied with of all people the resurging Earnest Graham. For Houston, FB James Casey now has defensive coordinators' attention as a possible weapon for Matt Schaub. While it's not something any fantasy owner should leap on, his five receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown can't be ignored. His eight total receptions for the year ties his career high. Now that Steve Slaton has been released, there's a little more breathing room in the Houston backfield, which is good news for Tate owners, as Arian Foster is going to attempt to play this week. Houston was 1-for-5 in the red zone, and that's not how you beat a team like the Saints.  Though Ben Tate was averaging well over four yards a carry, Houston opted to throw a majority of the time inside the 20. The result was an Owen Daniels score but not much else. Daniels is starting to look like the top ten tight end he was in 2009 when he tore his ACL.


Jacksonville never had a red zone possession and was 3-for-14 on third down. Maurice Jones-Drew churned out 24 carries for 122 yards, a 5.1 per touch clip. It's hard to judge this game because of the monsoon-like conditions that plagued a good part of it, but Marcedes Lewis was a non-factor, something you'd expect to change going forward, especially with a rookie QB under center. I'm sticking with my sell high theory on Steve Smith, and this game and the muddy conditions didn't help accentuate Smith's downfield speed. At least he was targeted seven times, even if he only did get two of them. Greg Olsen led all Carolina receivers with 10 targets, 57 yards and a touchdown. Expect a different game this week in Chicago, one that should truly test Cam Newton. Carolina's running game has been almost a non-factor, something that I'd also expect to change moving forward. One post-script: I'm not jumping off the Brandon LeFell bandwagon just yet. The weather here made throwing the ball of no desire to either team.


If you read my blog this week, you know where I stand on the status of the Jets offense and Mark Sanchez. It will further come to fruition this week when the Jets travel to Baltimore. Shonn Greene continues to sputter while LaDainian Tomlinson looks the best he has in three years. Tomlinson managed 6.3 yards per carry, while Greene again struggled with under four. At least Greene caught all seven of his targets for 47 yards, but it was Tomlinson on the receiving end of a Mark Sanchez touchdown toss when it mattered. He garnered 106 receiving yards on the day. I never would have pegged Darren McFadden going off for 170 yards against this Jet defense. Admittedly, I said he'd factor but didn't expect he'd be the factor. However, Denarius Moore's reverse for a touchdown really unraveled the Jets for good.  Moore, if healthy, could be a future star, and would be someone I'd be interested in if I was in a keeper league. Chaz Schilens continues to make his presence known as he hauled in all four of his passes for 31 yards. The former seventh round pick has been injury-plagued for most of his career, but at 6'4" 225, I disagree that Schilens will vanish at the return of Louis Murphy and/or Jacoby Ford. He's had better hands than Murphy, and has better size than both.


This is what always bothers me about Ray Rice. Maybe I'm swayed a bit by the fact I owned Rice before in fantasy and found myself underwhelmed, or maybe it's the odd game-planning by John Harbaugh, but it seems that in games where Rice should dominate he almost never does. He was running well – eight carries for 79 yards – yet only got those eight carries. He caught five balls for 83 yards. But for some reason, Harbaugh ran the ball only 17 times intentionally against the leagues worst rushing defense. Some might call that being unpredictable. Others like myself call it stupid.  Either way, no one pegged rookie Torrey Smith as the game-breaker here. Five receptions, 152 yards and three touchdowns is a stat line everyone's likely to remember, until he disappears into the unpredictable void that is the Ravens passing game. Joe Flacco looked like an all-star for the second time in three games. His line was 27-of-48 for 389 yards and three scores. For the Rams, they are reeling without Steven Jackson at full strength. Even at half strength he was able to manage 5.8 yards per carry against Baltimore in his four carries for 23 yards. They also pine for the sure-handed Danny Amendola as dropped balls continue to plague this team.


To me, Philip Rivers is one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league. Rivers threw for 266 yards and two interceptions against a reeling Kansas City team who is trying to prevent themselves from becoming dubbed the NFL's first minor league franchise. KC has yielded eight passing touchdowns, worst in the league, and is giving up an average pass play of over eight yards. Perhaps San Diego's slow starts the last couple of years are not so much a factor of problematic running game, but of an inconsistent QB who is supposed to carry this offense on his shoulders. See last year's hug hiccup loss to Seattle in Week 3, where Rivers put up a gaudy 455 yards, but only after his team was down 17-0 after a ridiculously bad first half; Or the Week 1 loss to Kansas City, where the offense vanished in the fourth quarter; Or the Week 6 game in St. Louis, where the team managed a field goal the entire first half.  Sure, the defense is half to blame as well, but these are games that elite quarterbacks don't vanish in.  He does vanish, and San Diego has barely escaped games with Minnesota where Donovan McNabb managed 39 yards passing, and now Kansas City, where penalties and sloppy play kept the Chiefs around long enough to make this game a close one. Ironically Rivers completes 72 percent of his passes in losses versus 66 percent in victories. So perhaps he's better playing from behind when defenses play prevent. Regardless, the loss of Antonio Gates is going to make Vincent Jackson the target of every secondary, meaning Malcom Floyd has a lot more value now. The bright spot is Ryan Mathews, who is suddenly running with vigor and is seeing the field much better. The fact that Mathews can now run and catch (see my intro.) will cut into Mike Tolbert's numbers, even though Tolbert does have decent hands. Kansas City did as I predicted and gave Dexter McCluster his share of carries, and he didn't let anyone down. He managed five yards per carry including a 16-yard burst. He also added five grabs for 17 yards. Stick with him, especially in PPR leagues.


That had to be the strangest kickoff return in the history of football. I'm not sure how the entire special teams unit didn't follow the ball but instead followed the majority of their teammates. Just shows that the sheep follow the heard even if they're going off a cliff. Ryan Grant ran particularly well, even after the Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a knee injury. Bulaga is likely to miss this week with a knee sprain, but it didn't slow the Packers running game against the Bears, and I'll be just as optimistic against the Broncos this week. Chicago's biggest problem is still Matt Forte. He can't run. He can catch and run, but he can't run, and the difference is an inability to use play action well against strong run defenses. Roy Williams is just a mess in terms of holding onto the football. He had at least two crucial drops, including a touchdown that Cutler put right between the numbers. The Bears can ill afford any receivers dropping the rock. Dane Sanzenbacher has become a Jay Cutler favorite in crucial yardage situations, even though he too lost a possible touchdown pass. He hauled in one though, and had a few other third down catches. He's a sharp route runner, and though he's too small to make a huge impact week to week for fantasy owners, he's scrappy and has good hands. In deep leagues, he's a guy to eye for a flex play as a fill-in during the bye weeks.


I hate Arizona on the road, and they didn't fail expectations here. However, much of this loss can be placed on the fact Beanie Wells was a scratch with his hamstring. Wells has scored a touchdown in each of his two starts and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry this season. Not having him in the backfield made for a long day for Kevin Kolb, as Alfonso Smith and Chester Taylor just couldn't get it done. Sidney Rice made his first appearance this season and showed he is going to be important for Seattle to compete. No Seattle receiver had managed a 100-yard game this season. Rice had eight catches for 109 yards. He'll also help Marshawn Lynch owners as safeties will have to respect Rice as a downfield threat.


I'm officially worried about the Falcons. This does not look like the team we were expecting. Their defense yielded 77 points through three games, but the offense has managed a woeful 60. For a team that added Julio Jones as a complimentary receiver to Roddy White, and still has a viable tight end in Tony Gonzalez, the passing offense is only managing 6.9 per attempt. The loss of Jerious Norwood might not have meant a lot to fantasy owners, but Jason Snelling is the same type of one-trick pony Michael Turner is, and it has me wondering if defenses are able to focus more on the wide outs knowing that they have less to worry about with these two. Jacquizz Rodgers saw three receptions the first week and two last week, and it's very possible the tiny scat-back out Oregon State will continue to be added as another threat in the backfield. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay continues to do just enough to win ball games. The defense is probably a bit underrated, and but offensively they're in the bottom third in both rushing and passing. Josh Freeman hasn't been terrible but in the fourth quarter this year, Freeman's QB rating which averages 60.6 for the first three quarters, elevates to a 94.2. He has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and has thrown both his touchdowns in the final 15 minutes. In other words, don't panic when your TB receivers haven't delivered after three quarters of play.


This was truly ugly. I can say that as Pittsburgh is probably the most careless team with the football I have seen this year. While the style that Ben Roethlisberger plays certainly exposes himself to more possible turnovers, Big Ben has accounted for eight turnovers in three games. There's almost no way to win football games turning the ball over that much, yet the Steelers are still 2-1. As ugly as things have been, the team's defense does appear to be shaping up a bit. Granted their last two opponents have been Seattle and Indy, but the Steelers are still holding opposing runners to an average of 3.3 per carry. The Steelers pass defense has given up a league minimum 462 passing yards through three games, making them best currently. However, they've also faced Tarvaris Jackson and a combination of Kerry Collins/Curtis Painter. They'll be tested by the Houston offense for certain, and when you consider Joseph Addai did manage over five yards per carry against the Steelers front seven, they may be hard pressed to stop Houston in any capacity. For Indy, the greatest disservice done to anyone on the team was done to Curtis Painter. Sure, he's played badly in the pre-season, and he never did look like the cure should the Peyton Manning disease strike. But then why on earth did you not only keep him, but place him as your second stringer. The Colts signing Kerry Collins was understandable, but Collins had less than three weeks to learn the offense. Painter should have at least been given those first three weeks of experience to get some service under his belt and play at game speed. I understand hindsight is 20-20, but at 0-3, did Kerry Collins make any difference for you? Painter has lost valuable game time and now that Collins has suffered a concussion, Painter subs in at a time things are much more dire as one of two more losses mean this team has no shot this year. Indy fans won't breath any easier knowing they've lost two more defensive starters in Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt – both done for the season. I wouldn't let go of Reggie Wayne or Dallas Clark in fantasy, but your expectations are sinking about as fast as the Lusitania right about now.


Worries about Felix Jones will be tapered at least a week after Jones went off for 14 carries and 115 yards, an 8.2 yards per carry average. He also caught three balls for 40 yards. Tony Romo gets either great kudos or a quick brain scan for playing just eight days after he broke several ribs and punctured his lung. It wasn't a great game for Romo, but all things considered he led his team on six field goal scoring drives, and one with the game in question in the fourth quarter. Dez Bryant returned to the field and grabbed four balls for 67 yards. The Dallas defense certainly bent, but hardly broke as they yielded one touchdown all night. Tim Hightower continues to prove to me that he's still at best a pass catching back, and those who were high on Roy Helu, which I still couldn't believe I was hearing from some of the guys at ESPN, were quickly brought back to earth. This is still a Mike Shanahan team and at most Helu will be part of a platoon. His five carries for 15 yards was nothing to write home about. The best thing I saw in Monday night's game was how confident Rex Grossman looked. In Chicago, Grossman seemed to rarely plant his feet, constantly throwing off his back foot, as if the game was just too fast for him. What I saw Monday night was a different Grossman. No, he wasn't brilliant, but he was confident and looked the part of a leader. Winning in Dallas would have a been a huge deal, but the key will be winning the second game in Washington.