Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Eminem Quotation Machine" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film, and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way you'll never miss a show! And while you're at it, follow me on Twitter at @CHarrisESPN. All right, let's get to today's topics:
Four In Depth:
1. What the heck happened to Robert Griffin III last week? Things were looking so good for RG III. In his first four games, he'd only run out of the read-option four times total. Then in Weeks 6 and 7 against the Cowboys and Chicago Bears, he kept the ball on option looks 12 times, including eight against the Bears. And he looked terrific doing it. I featured him in my Fantasy Underground: Film Room segment. The world was his oyster. Then he went to Denver last week and it all went to the dogs. Not only did RG III have five runs for seven yards and just keep it once on zone reads, he also went 15 of 30 for 132 passing yards, a TD and two picks, plus suffered three sacks and he left the game early after getting his other knee dinged up. It was a three-fantasy-point afternoon that had his owners (and me!) scratching their heads.
On film, he looked just as gnarly as those numbers would indicate. Despite the Washington Redskins holding a third-quarter lead, there was really no point at which Griffin was in control. His downfield throwing continues to be scattershot. He didn't escape anyone when he scrambled. And while the Skins ran the read-option a number of times, RG III kept handing it off despite the fact that there were at least a few runs where the defensive end was cheating toward Alfred Morris or Roy Helu, and Griffin looked like he could've kept it and had hearty gains. It was strange. I honestly don't have an explanation for why RG III would go through the motions of sticking the ball into his RB's tummy while only keeping it once. In that respect, all his owners can really do is hope it was an aberration, that no problems have cropped up with his rehabbed ACL, and that as early as Week 9 against the San Diego Chargers, he'll go back to being a running threat.
As for his tosses, there was a common misconception that RG III was a terrific downfield thrower in his rookie season, and he did make some fine long plays. But he also tied Christian Ponder for 27th in attempts that traveled 20 or more air yards. Here in '13, he's thrown it deep more (he's currently tied for 14th in such attempts), but he's 6 of 29 on those tosses with a QBR of -- get this -- 4.7. (That's not a misprint.) Clearly Griffin has more than enough wing to make any throw on the field. But his decision making has been suspect. I'm not sure what he was doing throwing to Aldrick Robinson deep into double-coverage early last Sunday, but he's lucky it wasn't picked. And his late-over-the-middle, fallaway toss in the second quarter definitely should've been intercepted, and is the kind of pass for which Blaine Gabbert is rightly criticized. Everyone has a bad game, and the Denver Broncos are tough. But it was a discouraging effort, a week after the sun finally seemed to be shining on Griffin. Hopefully he finds the sledding easier in Week 9, or a re-evaluation will be due.
2. VBD at the (roughly) halfway mark. How historic has Peyton Manning's season been so far? Well, despite the fact that I think he's played below average (at least for him) in each of his past two contests (which could be related to his ankle injuries), Manning is on pace to be fantasy's MVP, which is quite a difficult task for a quarterback to pull off in Value-Based Drafting terms. In fact, since 2001, only Tom Brady in '07 has done so, and Manning is on pace to shatter Tom Terrific's NFL-record 50 TDs from that magical season. Peyton could still easily be passed by one of the top running backs, but through eight weeks, he's the man:
Jimmy Graham is still hanging in there, justifying his second-round selection (heck, at this point, he should've been a first-rounder), but if you're a Graham owner -- as I am -- you know there's a big-time risk in Graham's foot limiting him to 17 snaps in Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills. The most valuable position in fantasy, through the VBD lens at least, continues to be RB, with seven in the top 10 and 11 in the top 20. However, as is always the case, if you invested a first-round pick in the wrong potential superstar RB, you suffered the consequences. Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and Doug Martin have been major problems (though I give Rice and Spiller a chance to recoup some of their losses in the second half). The big shocker here is certainly Knowshon Moreno, whom most observers -- myself included -- had relegated to third string or possibly the scrap heap this summer. I wouldn't say Moreno is great. But he's in the right place at the right time, playing with the right QB.
3. Defensive units who have improved. My defensive metrics -- which measure how far above or below a player's average a defense is able to hold that player -- try to be as schedule-neutral as possible and isolate who's playing well and not so well against run or passing games. When I see interesting data in these metrics, I check the film to find the source. Here are four units I think have legitimately improved, and become tougher matchups for opposing offenses:
St. Louis Rams run defense. It was eye-catching to see that the Rams, who spent the early part of the season allowing DeMarco Murray, Frank Gore and Arian Foster to run all over them, stood up to DeAngelo Williams and Marshawn Lynch over the past two weeks. The leading culprit is Robert Quinn, who obviously made his biggest splash rushing the passer against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night, but who also did yeoman's work stopping the run, especially against the Carolina Panthers in Week 7. No longer does this unit look like the league's worst in terms of stopping the run; Chris Johnson is still probably a fantasy starter this week, but I'll be interested to see the results.
Detroit Lions run defense. After an inconsistent first month during which the Lions' vaunted defensive line offered inconsistent discipline -- Ndamukong Suh is clearly most interested in getting to the passer, but when he's focused on it, he can be a studly run defender, too -- things here have improved, too. Rookie Ziggy Ansah has been part of the reason; he's got four sacks but has disappeared getting after the QB at times, yet he made big run-stuffing plays Week 6 versus the Cleveland Browns and last week versus the Dallas Cowboys.
Washington Redskins against opposing QBs. Remember the Skins' opening night versus Michael Vick, and the historic day they allowed Aaron Rodgers the following week? Things have gotten better, Brandon Meriwether's thuggish safety play notwithstanding. Listen, it wasn't encouraging to watch Josh McCown do business against them in Week 7, but in the games before (Dallas) and after (Denver), corners DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson held their own, and Hall has made some plays. I don't fear this group, but I no longer consider them ultra-juicy. (That distinction is left for the Redskins' run defense.)
Green Bay Packers versus opposing WRs. It seems like a long time ago that the Pack got eviscerated by Anquan Boldin (remember that?). Despite a raft of injuries on all three levels of Green Bay's defense, we've seen Josh Gordon and Torrey Smith stay awfully quiet against them in the past month. (The Lions didn't have Calvin Johnson active when they played the Packers.) Sam Shields has been solid, and it's good news that Tramon Williams maybe had his best game of the year last week against the Minnesota Vikings. But the best news may actually be that Nick Perry has flashed as a situational pass rusher the past two weeks, something we just haven't seen before from the second-year linebacker.
4. Is it officially the Harry Douglas show in Atlanta? You could immediately tell that the Atlanta Falcons regretted not targeting Douglas in the first quarter last week against the Arizona Cardinals, because on their first two plays of the second quarter, they threw Douglas one WR screen on the left side, then turned around and ran the exact same play to the other side. And then just to cap things off, two plays later they did it again, back to the left. Those three plays only went for 17 yards, but definitely got Douglas involved.
Now, the first time Matt Ryan threw it to Douglas more than about three yards from the line of scrimmage came in desperation mode at the end of the first half, down 21-6. The next time Douglas got a deeper ball was down 27-6 as Tyrann Mathieu sat on a short route and Ryan popped it deep over his head. Of his 18 targets, Douglas saw exactly five travel more than seven air yards, and while he caught two of them, two were intercepted. This was pure dink-and-dunk stuff.
Listen, 18 targets are 18 targets. It's a massive workload, tied for the third-most in a game for the entire season. So it's absolutely worthwhile to consider starting Douglas this week, even against a tough Carolina Panthers defense. But this is decidedly not the same role made famous by Julio Jones and Roddy White. It's more like a Wes Welker role, except Douglas doesn't have Welker's crazy quickness. He's not always running out of the slot, but he is usually running some delayed short cross, serving as a safety valve when Ryan can't find someone else further downfield. It can be valuable, especially in a PPR league. I have Douglas ranked 14th among WRs in this heavily bye-depleted week. But don't be fooled into believing Douglas is ready to be Julio or Roddy, and if Roddy ever comes back to full health this year, he'll be the more valuable fantasy commodity by a wide margin.
Three In Brief:
5. Why you're allowed to be skeptical of Tony Romo ... and keep starting him. Color me generally unimpressed with Romo's tape lately. He worked his way up to 20 fantasy points versus the Lions last week, which makes the bottom line look respectable, but for three quarters he was merely so-so, a description that goes a long way toward classifying much of his season. Obviously it's not fair to remove his crazy 506-yard effort against the Broncos a month ago, but realize he's followed it up with 170, 317 and 206 passing yards in his past three games. Honestly, it's Terrance Williams making unexpectedly big plays despite running an ultra-limited route tree that's saved Romo's bacon, but when a QB has eclipsed 20 fantasy points exactly once all season (albeit by 20!), you're allowed to be suspicious. But then you look at the Cowboys' schedule, and you start feeling better. Romo gets the Vikings this week, then follows it up like this: @NO, bye, @NYG, OAK, @CHI, GB, @WAS, PHI. I did just get through telling you I think the Redskins and Packers have been better on the back end, but really, there's no defense here you should outright fear. I do not believe Romo finishes the season as a top-five fantasy QB. But he feels like just about a lock to finish top 10.
6. Fred Jackson's star may be setting. After Field and I recorded Thursday's podcast, in which we debated the "sell-high" merits of Mr. Jackson, the Bills strongly indicated that C.J. Spiller will return from his ankle injury and play in Week 9 in a rough matchup against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. I still would probably prefer to start Jackson over Spiller this week, if only because I don't trust that Spiller's ankle is going to look fully healed yet. But as I've said several times over the past couple weeks, when Spiller is healthy, he becomes a second-half breakout candidate. I don't believe Jackson goes away. He's a nice player who has kept his fantasy value buoyant with some short TDs over the past month. But the chunk gains we saw in September have waned, because frankly that's not the kind of player he is. All this is to say: I think the peak of Jackson's value could be right this moment. No, we're not going to see Spiller getting so many carries he'll puke. But the Bills have to get the ball into their best player's hands, if that best player is close to 100 percent. I'd imagine that within a week or two, I'm going to be ranking Spiller ahead of Jackson once again.
7. Giovani Bernard is awesome. Listen, touchdowns come and touchdowns go. But anyone who watched Thursday night's Cincinnati Bengals national TV game now knows what Cincy fans and tape-watchers have known since opening day: Bernard is a stud. He's not big and he's not the NFL's fastest RB, but he's above average at absolutely everything and his change-of-direction is flat-out dirty. His second TD run against the Miami Dolphins, during which he wove through the entire defense, is simply a run that most players aren't capable of. I understand why Cincy keeps BenJarvus Green-Ellis around; He's solid in blitz pickup, he's a veteran presence, and he'll reliably get you what's blocked. But the Law Firm is touching the ball too much. And trust me, I was saying this before Thursday night. There's no excuse for Gio getting fewer than 15 touches in a game, as he did both in Weeks 7 and 8. There's a reason Bernard was a flag player of mine this summer, and there's a reason Field and I both called him our rookie of the year way back in September. Even coming off the meager workloads in his past two games, I rated Gio No. 21 among RBs, and he has to be a No. 2 RB or flex in every league every single week. Provided the rib injury he apparently suffered in the fourth quarter Thursday isn't serious, hopefully the Bengals will tilt the workload balance further in Bernard's favor in the second half.