Evan Silva


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Matchups: MJD's Warning Signs

Friday, October 22, 2010

Just the No. 17 overall fantasy back through six games, Maurice Jones-Drew's struggles date back to midway through the 2009 season. MJD's decline began when he racked up carry totals of 33, 29, 24, and 25 between Weeks 6 and 11. He appeared on the injury report with a knee ailment throughout this period, often missing or being "limited" in practices. Jones-Drew went on to average 3.71 yards per carry in the final seven games after averaging 5.09 in the first nine.

During the 2010 preseason, the Jags vehemently denied a report that Jones-Drew had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery. Perhaps word leaked out because the medical staff recommended the scope, but coaches opted to let Jones-Drew play through the injury rather than miss games. (The Giants and Bears did similar things with Brandon Jacobs and Matt Forte last season.)

Jones-Drew might've benefited from the repair. He's looked thoroughly lethargic this season, rarely breaking into the open field and averaging 3.89 yards per carry despite one of the softest rushing schedules in football: Just 2-of-6 Jags opponents have ranked better than 22nd against the run. On his last 262 carries, Jones-Drew is averaging 3.79 yards per carry. On some teams, this could get a veteran running back benched in favor of a promising youngster like Deji Karim.

MJD now squares off with a Chiefs defense that ranks fifth against the run and allows the sixth fewest yards per carry in the league (3.7). You can't bench him in a standard, 12-team league. Just don't be surprised as Karim (20 touches since Week 4) continues to eat into his workload.

1:00PM ET Games

Cleveland @ New Orleans

Robert Meachem started the season slow after missing almost all of camp due to toe surgery, but things are looking up. The 2007 first-round pick's snap count has risen in five straight weeks, and his production has followed suit. He's racked up eight catches for 128 yards and two scores in his last two, and in Week 6 Meachem saw more playing time than both Devery Henderson and Lance Moore for the first time this year. Meachem's breakout is coming, and a date with beleaguered Browns LCB Eric Wright could provide it. Wright has surrendered five TD passes in his last four games, as well as an average of 98 yards per contest. Meachem normally lines up as the Saints' RWR, so he should square off with Wright for most of Sunday. The best thing about Meachem is that he doesn't waste chances: he has one drop in his last 24 games. Start him as a high-upside WR3. ... Henderson (catch-less Week 6) and hit-or-miss slot man Moore are far less appetizing.

Drew Brees is catching fire with five touchdowns in his last two games and nine in his last four. The 21st-ranked Browns pass defense has served up 8.0 yards per throw (third most in football) and 11 passing TDs (fourth most). ... Even with Pierre Thomas out, Ladell Betts' game-blowing lost fumble and interception-causing drop in Week 5 earned him a place behind both Chris Ivory and Julius Jones last Sunday. Betts isn't worth a roster spot. ... Behind Thomas, Ivory is easily the group's most natural runner, and showed his tackle-breaking explosiveness with 175 yards on 16 Week 6 touches while also drawing the start. Flukily defending the run well early this year, the Browns have tanked since losing DE Robaire Smith (back) for the season. Steelers and Falcons backs have gashed them for 293 total yards and a touchdown in the last two weeks. Assuming Thomas is out again, Ivory should have no trouble knifing through another defense.

Just as he did at Texas, Colt McCoy made heavy use of inside/underneath targets in last week's debut. Highly impressive in his ability to withstand pressure and fit passes into small windows, McCoy completed 14 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown to slot men and tight ends. According to Pro Football Focus, McCoy intended 21-of-33 attempts within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. With Mohamed Massaquoi and Joshua Cribbs (concussions) both likely out for Week 7, Ben Watson will continue to be McCoy's go-to guy. Watson led Cleveland in targets, catches, and yards in McCoy's first start, also scoring the team's lone touchdown. He would've topped 100 yards had a perfectly-placed McCoy pass not slipped through Watson's hands in traffic during the first quarter. Tight end-desperate owners should start Watson this week while working on a trade for Owen Daniels, who should come cheaply on his bye after a sluggish start.

Peyton Hillis went predictably scoreless for the first time this season in an impossible Week 6 matchup with Pittsburgh's NFL-best run defense. There was still silver lining. He didn't aggravate his quadricep injury, still managed 90 total yards, and watched as newly acquired Mike Bell hurt his own cause with two plodding carries for three yards. New Orleans' run defense rank got a huge lift from Tampa's inept backfield last Sunday, but it's simply not built to stop rushing attacks. Expect another Hillis-heavy game plan. The power runner saw increased practice reps this week -- indicating improving health -- and won't come off the field if the Browns fall behind. Bell is a huge liability as a receiver and pass blocker, so Hillis will remain the feature back if New Orleans kills Cleveland with the pass and the Browns resort to a two-minute offense earlier than planned.

Pittsburgh @ Miami

This game might normally project as Week 7's most physical, but thanks to the NFL's enhanced illegal hit enforcement, Steelers and Fins defenders may be on their heels a bit more than usual. Take some of the fight out of Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and Chad Henne should be able to complete passes to Brandon Marshall at will against a poor Pittsburgh secondary that relies on up-front pressure just to look passable. Marshall ranks fourth in the NFL in targets and is averaging 94 yards a game. ... As hinted at in the above matchup breakdown, Pittsburgh has had recent trouble covering the middle of the field, which is where Dolphins slot man Davone Bess does his damage. Bess' inability to make plays downfield is a major deterrent to his start-ability in non-PPR leagues, but in PPR you could do a lot worse than a guy averaging seven catches for 73 yards per game with two touchdowns in his last three outings.

On the other hand, Miami's running game is best left avoided. The Steelers continue to stonewall opposing rushers, permitting a league-low 2.7 yards per carry and 63.6 rushing yards per week. If the Dolphins move the ball consistently, the statistics say it will be because of their passing game. ... Plenty of deep league owners will be desperate enough to start a Fins running back, of course, and Ronnie Brown is their best bet. Brown handled the football 20 times compared to Ricky Williams' 14 in Week 6. For the season, Ronnie is averaging 15.4 touches per game to Ricky's 12.2. Either way, neither Dolphins ball carrier is likely to best 4.0 yards per tote this week.

The outlook for Pittsburgh's offense as a whole is soaring with Ben Roethlisberger returning from a three-touchdown, 257-yard 2010 debut. After attempting just 11 passes in the first half of last week's drubbing of Cleveland, the Steelers opened the playbook and let Big Ben explode for two touchdowns and 177 yards in the final two quarters. Roethlisberger was literally un-sackable. An every-week starter again, Big Ben now squares off with a Miami defense that was pummeled for 313 passing yards by Green Bay in Week 6, with Aaron Rodgers accounting for two touchdowns and averaging 17.4 yards per completion. ... Rashard Mendenhall, who racked up 30 touches in Roethlisberger's first game of the season, will benefit as teams put fewer defenders in the box and Pittsburgh moves the ball more consistently. The Dolphins rank 16th against the run.

Hines Ward had five catches for 54 yards and a TD against Cleveland, pacing Pittsburgh with nine targets. Unfortunately, he's likely to draw Dolphins shutdown LCB Vontae Davis for much of this one. He's only a WR3. ... Mike Wallace has a significantly better matchup with struggling RCB Jason Allen. "60 minutes" showed Fitzgerald-esque body control on his 29-yard Week 6 score and offers second-half explosion potential. ... Heath Miller's 50 yards against the Browns were his most this season, and his 14-yard touchdown grab marked the first time he's scored. His arrow is pointing up, but not quite to the extent of Wallace. Miller saw just four targets in Big Ben's debut, and is used most extensively as a blocker to help Pittsburgh's struggling line in pass protection. The Dolphins also haven't allowed a tight end to top 33 yards in their last two games.

Washington @ Chicago

Chris Wesseling has called Ryan Torain a recommended sell-high. Forward-planning owners may want to wait for a Week 8 date with Detroit before executing the move, but it's good advice. Torain's 100-rushing yard, two-touchdown effort last Sunday was a fantasy-week winner, but the performance included a sack surrendered in blitz pickup, plenty of yardage left on the field with Torain trying to bounce runs outside, and occurred against Indy's No. 27 run defense. Combine the first two factors with Torain's injury history and Mike Shanahan's notorious knack for yanking running backs without notice, and it's not a healthy fantasy situation. Nor would be starting Torain against a Chicago defense that ranks third against the run. With WLB Lance Briggs (ankle) also due back, the Bears are likely to shut down Washington's running game on Sunday.

It's getting cold in Chicago, but the Skins are likely to lean on the pass. The Bears rank second to last in sacks among teams that have played six games, and their pass defense (particularly RCB Charles Tillman) fell apart in Week 6, serving up Big Mike Williams' career day (10/120) and Matt Hasselbeck's season-best fantasy effort. Santana Moss has a good matchup no matter which Bears corner he faces, and No. 7 fantasy TE Chris Cooley is a starter if he plays. If Cooley (concussion) doesn't, athletic backup Fred Davis would be just as usable. With Cooley out in 2009, Davis was the No. 6 overall fantasy tight end over the season's final six weeks. ... Anthony Armstrong has supplanted Joey Galloway as Moss' starting bookend, but it's too bold to start him. The Bears' zone defense is built to limit big plays, and Armstrong is a rotating deep threat.

UPDATE: Cooley is expected to start and play a full complement of snaps Sunday.

Currently the No. 18 fantasy QB, Jay Cutler has cut down his interceptions (6:3 TD-to-INT ratio), but it hasn't made enough of a difference. His 23 sacks taken lead the NFL -- despite a missed game -- and Cutler has just one touchdown pass since Week 2. We'd love to call a matchup with Washington's NFC-worst pass defense a remedy for Cutler's production, but Chicago's line play is so bad that we couldn't do it with any confidence. Use him at your own risk. ... Johnny Knox remains an every-week WR3. Over the last three games in which Cutler has played four quarters, Knox is averaging five catches for 100 yards per game and an otherworldly 23.07 yards per reception. Simply put, Knox is a playmaker. He'll square off with Redskins RCB Carlos Rogers in this one. The Colts tagged Rogers for eight catches, 65 yards, and a touchdown in Week 6.

Greg Olsen is catch-less in back-to-back games. He's waiver material. ... Devin Hester belongs there too, having topped 26 yards once in six weeks. ... Fantasy leaguers who've owned Mike Martz backs in the past know what Matt Forte owners are experiencing. Forte had 24 touches in Week 5, then 11 in Week 6. You can't bench Forte against a Redskins club that gives up the sixth-highest yards-per-carry average in football (4.7), but the inconsistent workloads will continue. It's at least good news that Forte is getting all of the carries deep in the red zone in spite of his short-yardage struggles. He scored from six yards out on Chicago's opening drive last weekend.

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Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
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