Five In Depth:
1. Roethlisberger vs. Bengals. I'm significantly higher on each QB in the Pittsburgh Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals game this weekend than any of my ESPN.com co-rankers. While the rest of the gang views Ben Roethlisberger as barely a fantasy starter, I have him at No. 5 on my list, and while everyone else has Andy Dalton outside their top 20 signal-callers, I have him No. 16. What gives?
I don't see how you sit Big Ben right now. His past couple games have been on national TV, so I'm assuming most of you have seen what I've seen: The Steelers are pass-happy. Roethlisberger has slung it 126 times in his past three games. Here's how that stacks up with the rest of the league; check out the completion percentage and yards-at-the-catch average for each high-volume guy in that span:
Yes, obviously Aaron Rodgers is doing more with fewer attempts than Big Ben is. But I daresay nobody has given you the combination of attempts, accuracy and downfield attitude that Roethlisberger has in the past three weeks. Meanwhile, I know the Bengals' D is an impressive sixth in preventing opposing QBs from scoring fantasy points for the season, but in their past couple games, versus the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, opponents have made big plays via the pass. I'm thinking of Tarvaris Jackson in a two-minute drill before halftime completing shots to Ben Obomanu and Doug Baldwin and Matt Hasselbeck doing the same thing play after play (albeit in a blowout loss) to Jared Cook. Overall, in their past couple games, the Bengals have allowed an average of 323.5 pass yards and are 25th in yards-at-the-catch average against, at 7.1. With the way Big Ben is slinging it, this matchup doesn't scare me much.
2. Dalton vs. Steelers. Obviously, I'm not willing to go so far out on a limb for Dalton. I rank him as roughly a league-average fantasy QB, someone you can't feel great about starting in a 10-team league but who's more interesting in a deeper league or a two-QB scoring setup. I know what my co-rankers are thinking. This is the first really huge game of Dalton's NFL life, and the first time he's facing the Steelers D. Dick LeBeau will send the kitchen sink after this kid, confuse him and force him into the kind of mistakes that Dalton hasn't been making eight games into his pro career. I understand this logic. It's held true enough times in the past that it certainly wouldn't be an upset if Dalton struggles.
But I don't think he will. I know that QB Rating has fallen on hard times as a statistic, and rightly so. But while its absolute numbers tend to be rather nonsensical, I do think it at least works as a very general, relative tool that lets us know whether a guy is playing well or not. Here are the top 10 in QB Rating in 2010 when an opponent blitzes:
First of all, it's like I always say: You can't blitz Alex Smith and live to tell about it. But second of all, how about that rookie? These numbers jibe with what I see from Dalton anecdotally. In general, he doesn't seem to get flustered or happy-footed with pressure in his face. He is a pure West Coast, progression QB. Jay Gruden's system is bang, bang, bang, make your reads, throw with accuracy. Dalton's 6.6 yards per attempt rank 26th in the NFL, which means his upside is always likely to be capped. And yeah, of course, in the cauldron of his first truly big game, the kid could spit the bit. But just as I don't fear the Bengals' D for Big Ben, I'm not freaked out about the Steelers' pass defense; it has allowed 17, 15 and 14 fantasy points to opposing QBs the past three weeks, respectively (that's Kevin Kolb, Tom Brady and Joe Flacco, incidentally). Ryan Clark may be a big hitter but he's a coverage liability at free safety, and William Gay is routinely beatable at left corner. I'm definitely not shying away from using A.J. Green, and I expect Dalton to acquit himself passably well.
3. Fred Jackson's bad day. Jackson hadn't scored single-digit fantasy points all season and hadn't failed to eclipse 100 yards rushing since Oct. 2, so let's not go overboard. It's not like Jackson will suddenly be a fantasy pariah because the New York Jets "held" him to 120 yards from scrimmage. But I will say there was a difference in the Buffalo Bills' offense in Week 9. After almost a half-season of finding creases and turning them into big gains (Jackson is tied for seventh in the NFL in rushes that have gone for 10 yards or more), Jackson found that the door was most appreciably closed for him Sunday. His 23-yard scamper came at the start of a garbage-time drive with the Jets playing back; he really had no other runs of great impact in that game. The Jets haven't been poor stopping opposing rushers over the past month, but they've fallen short of elite. So what gave?
I'll posit that it could've been the offensive line. Starting left tackle Demetrius Bell has missed four straight games, and his backup, Chris Hairston, has a high ankle sprain and has missed two straight. That placed starting left guard Andy Levitre at left tackle, and the Jets noticed. You saw pressure coming from Ryan Fitzpatrick's blind side throughout the day, and the only time Jackson seemed to get anything going on the ground (save that long garbage-time run, which did come behind Levitre) was when he went right. That's in stark contrast to Jackson's season numbers, which illustrate that going left has been a major part of his arsenal:
It was one game. The Jets played well. Jackson has been phenomenal, and phenomenally consistent. But there's reason for a moment's hesitation here, and at least a reason to take notice of how Jackson plays this week against a Dallas Cowboys defense that's been lit up by LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch the past two games. Don't sit Freddy. Don't even think about it. But let's see if Levitre struggles against DeMarcus Ware, and if substitute left guard Chad Rinehart holds up. That Bills O-line is still far shy of elite, and its lack of health has definitely impacted Fitzpatrick's decline over the past three or four games.
4. Now that we all seem to agree Jeremy Maclin is The Man [e] I'm a stubborn little fantasy analyst. Way back in May, I argued vociferously that I wasn't concerned about DeSean Jackson's lack of receptions; he's the fastest player in football, I argued, and has shown through the past two seasons that he can catch around 60 balls and still be fantasy nitroglycerin. Whoops. Jackson currently ranks tied for 27th among fantasy WRs and could put his postgame excuses on an infinite loop. Yeah, yeah, the defense kept a safety over the top. Yeah, yeah, they won't let you get open deep. This was all true last season, too, when Jackson scored six times and averaged a ridiculous 22.5 yards per reception (while missing most of three games). Since he torched the 49ers for gains of 61, 45, 29 and 19 back in Week 4, D-Jax has only two plays of over 20 yards. What's changed?
I don't have a great answer for you. Michael Vick isn't chucking it deep with the same frequency as last season, but I don't exactly know why. In fact, as Brent Celek has suddenly been rediscovered in the passing game over the past three weeks, Jackson seems even more marginalized (though he did have eight targets -- of which he caught only two -- Monday night). I'm going to fall back on something you already know. Jackson is the ultimate one-trick pony. He's a deep threat, and when the deep ball isn't working, he's lost. If you expect him to run a bunch of short outs and crosses to get untracked, well, it's not going to happen. There has been much speculation that after suffering a concussion on a nasty hit over the middle from Dunta Robinson last season, Jackson is gun-shy, or that he's simply being a "good businessman," since he's looking for a new contract and knows he's likelier to get it if he's upright. Watching him short-arm that crossing pattern from Vick versus the Chicago Bears on Monday night in a big spot (combined with a couple drops and a lost fumble) makes you wonder.
So until we see the "old" Action Jackson, it's time to rank Maclin higher. But is that a reason to put him inside the top 10 fantasy receivers? A couple of my ESPN brethren believe it is. I'm not so sure, and I'll tell you why. On another squad, Maclin would be a No. 1 fantasy receiver. He has got better top-end speed than you think, he has become a solid route-runner after playing in the read/react spread at Missouri, and he's a strong red zone threat. But when Jackson is out there, you know which Eagles receiver is going downtown. It's left to Maclin to play the possession-receiver's role, despite the fact that he's well suited to "do it all." Compare the two players:
Maclin has more fantasy points than Jackson in five of eight games this year, but he has only topped 11 fantasy points once, with a 29-point effort in Week 2 against the Falcons. (By contrast, Jackson has topped 11 points three times but has four points or fewer in his other five games.) It's not outside the realm of possibility that Maclin can give you a three-TD day. But it's not likely. He's solid, he's steady, and if Jackson leaves town, he's a candidate to be a top-five WR. For now, though, I mark him down as a No. 2 fantasy wideout.
5. Your weekly Chris Johnson update. I don't like doing this. I'd rather write about another topic. But if there's a single player I get asked about most on a weekly basis, it's CJ0K, and it's not even close. So I did my due diligence. I went back and watched every carry and catch that Johnson produced against the Bengals last week. And rather than get accused of summarizing and losing the essence of his performance, I'm going to transcribe my notes on each CJ touch from Week 9:
• An up-the-gut plunge on which Johnson displayed a bit of the old lateral quickness, making a subtle side-to-side move that made (admittedly bad) Bengals safety Reggie Nelson look foolish. A gain of 20.
• A tricky screen to the right where Matt Hasselbeck faked an inside handoff to Ahmard Hall and took a few bootleg steps, and flipped Johnson a short little pass. Nobody was near CJ and he sprinted up the sideline for 21. You probably could've gotten 15.
• A sprint draw right where Johnson looked sharp getting around the edge for 5, but it was called back because of offsetting penalties.
• A simple halfback lead where Johnson seemed to make no effort to avoid the swarming Cincy linebackers and just kind of crumpled in the middle of the field after gaining 2. This is the prototypical run that's frustrated Titans observers all year.
• A pitch to the right where CJ again showed a little hop in his step and got to the edge quick, but the blocking wasn't there and he was limited to 3 yards.
• A draw play that was beautifully blocked and horribly defended so that Johnson got to the defense's second level without doing anything special. But then he laid a CJ2K-esque move on Manny Lawson (admittedly a pretty big guy) that left Lawson clutching for his jock. It went for 18 yards and was my favorite run of the day for the old Johnson.
• Stuffed at the Bengals' 10 for no gain, definitely a failure of the O-line.
• A horrible, horrible effort from the Bengals 8 where he was supposed to sprint left or cut back hard to the middle, but he did neither, just sort of meandering and letting the defense get its hands on him. A loss of 3.
• A misdirection pitch to the left where CJ showed all the same evasiveness we remember: He made Nate Clements (who had fallen down and just gotten back up) look stuck-in-the-mud trying to tackle him. A gain of 12.
• A stuff for zero gain. Not Johnson's fault. Followed by a 4-yard gain on third-and-1 that was called back because of holding.
• Back-to-back carries, one a simple lead where Johnson again looked indecisive and couldn't cut out of a defensive tackle's way, getting only 1 yard, and a second where he was blown up on the right side, once again looking awful and indecisive and losing 2 yards (the second was called back by offensive holding).
• A cutback run deep in his own territory, which wasn't badly executed but didn't have the same zip you're used to seeing from him. Went for 6 yards.
• Stuffed for no gain because of poor line play, followed by a run to the left where he simply was tripped up by a lucky tackler, a gain of 2.
• A try at cutting back from the middle to the right, but Chris Crocker was sitting right there waiting for him, unblocked. No gain, and not CJ's fault.
• Back-to-back catches, which were Johnson's final touches of the game, early in the fourth quarter. The first went for 17 yards but was completely open and didn't require anything special. The second saw Johnson split wide right and catch an open little stop route, but he couldn't escape a linebacker's tackle.
Sorry to be exhaustive, but this is the best, most unvarnished truth I can provide in text form. By my count, I saw five plays where Johnson flashed his old ability, four plays where he showed the problematic running we've been complaining about for weeks and then a bunch of relatively neutral touches. I must say: That's a better ratio than in his past couple games. This fact, coupled with CJ's matchup against a beatable Carolina Panthers defense, gets Johnson back up to 11th on my RB list this week. There's hope.
Five In Brief:
6. Josh McDaniels loves Brandon Lloyd. I still question the worth of a then-winless team dealing even a sixth-round pick for Lloyd when he's a free agent at the end of the season. I suppose if Lloyd winds up re-signing in St. Louis because of a comfort level he establishes in November and December, it will have been worth it. But I have to admit: Since he has been with the Rams, Lloyd has been a target monster. He may "only" have 17 grabs for 207 yards and a score since reuniting with McDaniels, but he has an NFL-high 38 targets, too. Sure, a 44.7 percent target-conversion rate pretty much stinks and speaks to a) Lloyd getting comfortable and b) A.J. Feeley playing a couple games. But Lloyd is getting so much work that he's more fantasy factor than hindrance right now. He'll play the Seattle Seahawks twice and Arizona Cardinals once between Weeks 11 and 14. Yum. (Unfortunately, he gets the Bengals, Steelers and San Francisco 49ers in the season's final three games. Yuck.)
7. Can you start Ben Tate in a standard league? Arian Foster returned to full strength in Week 4. In the six Houston Texans games since, Tate missed one because of injury and was fantasy poison in three others, never getting double-digit touches or exceeding 42 yards. But in those other two games, he had one effort where he toted it 15 times for 104 yards (Week 7 versus the Tennessee Titans) and another where he had 12 carries for 115 yards and a score (Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns). My personal tendency is to assess Tate as too risky to start at your flex position in a 10-team league. With middling, less-talented players such as Maurice Morris and Chris Ogbonnaya (who I ranked in the two slots ahead of Tate this week), at least you can be relatively certain that they'll get double-digit looks. Tate could easily give you five carries for 32 yards. Of course, in what looks like a sweet matchup against a weak Tampa Bay Buccaneers run defense that just signed Albert Haynesworth out of desperation, one could argue that the Texans will be ahead and will give Foster a rest, leading to enough looks for Tate. I understand that argument. In deeper leagues, I'm OK rolling the dice. But let's just say I'm not yet convinced we're at a DeAnglo Williams/Jonathan Stewart circa 2008 type of situation.
8. If the Packers had a No. 7 wideout, would you start him? Aaron Rodgers is on such a roll, the instinct is to play anyone associated with the Green Bay Packers' pass offense. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson look like every-week plays in standard 10-team leagues. Jermichael Finley looked uncoverable versus the San Diego Chargers last week. The only guy who inspires any sort of question is James Jones. His top-line numbers look spectacular; he has found the end zone in four of the Pack's past five games, which has suddenly installed him as the No. 12 WR in fantasy during that span. But if you look at our ranks, you'll see nobody but me ranked Jones higher than 46th, while I put him 33rd. Am I really that big of a sucker? After all, a wise fantasy owner doesn't chase TDs, and Jones has seen more than four targets in a game just once in that five-contest extravaganza. Jones has only 17 targets in this time span (four of which went for scores), while Jennings has 40, Finley has 26 and Nelson has 23. I understand the skepticism. And yet, as a No. 3 wideout solution in a deeper league, I still think I'm OK using Jones. No, I don't think it's likely that he'll have one catch on one target for one TD again this year (he's already done it twice). I just happen to think it's not likely he'll only have one target many more times. Against the Minnesota Vikings a few weeks back, Jones had four catches on four looks. Against the Atlanta Falcons before that, he had five catches on seven looks. It's not a fait accompli that Rodgers' fourth-best aerial weapon will sink back down to his lower limits. In a deeper league, I just want a piece of the presumptive MVP's weaponry.
9. Why am I so low on the Giants D? You'll see a wide range for the G-Men in our ranks this week, from No. 4 way down to No. 23. I'm the low man, and I'll tell you why. In part, it's because I think Frank Gore is healthy and will have a good time running against this unit. I wrote about this New York Giants run defense a couple weeks ago, and my opinion hasn't changed. But even more importantly, we have to change the mindset that makes us believe that the 49ers' offense is a good matchup for an opposing fantasy defense. I wrote about how consistent and mistake-free the 49ers have been last week, and all they did in Week 9 was permit the Redskins' D to score four fantasy points: One turnover, two sacks, no defensive TDs, 19 scoreboard points and 326 total net yards. Alex Smith is asked to do nothing special, having exceeded 201 yards passing once in nine contests, and he's riding a Brady-esque two picks all season. I know the Giants lead the NFL in sacks with 28 and that they've produced 18 turnovers. But to me, it'll be an upset if they make the conservative Niners change course. It's possible. Eli Manning could get hot and score a bunch of points, forcing Smith to come out of his shell. But no team has been able to do that to the 49ers yet.
10. Have the Chicago Bears found a solution for Matt Forte being Matt Forte? Back in '09, coming off a scintillating rookie year, Forte had 16 carries inside an opponent's 5. He converted two of them for scores. In '10, coming off a disappointing sophomore campaign, Forte had 10 such carries, and converted one of them. It should be little wonder then that the Bears signed Marion Barber this summer. Barber has lost any acceleration or wiggle he ever had, but one thing he can still do is mash. So far in '11, Forte has only three carries inside an opponent's 5, and he's scored on none of them. In only five games, Barber has five such carries and scored on three of them. For whatever reason, Forte can do just about everything else on a football field. I don't happen to have tape from his rookie year lying around my house, but if I did and could compare it to his tape this season, I think you'd see a significantly faster, significantly stronger player four years into his NFL career. But in short yardage, the dude simply has the instincts of a three-toed sloth. Forte leads all running backs both in total yards from scrimmage and receiving yards and is thus fifth in fantasy points among all RBs, despite registering only three TDs all season. Unfortunately for his fantasy owners, it doesn't seem likely Forte will be picking up any shorties any time soon. That'll be Barber's job.
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com..