Evan Silva


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Matchups: Capitulating Cards

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The 2010 Rams and Cardinals have flip-flopped roles in the NFC West. Whereas St. Louis pulled up the division rear and lacked stretch-run motivation in 2009, Ken Whisenhunt's club has replaced Steve Spagnuolo's as the league's worst division's worst team, and definitely the worst to watch.

At least the Rams had an excuse last year -- they lacked talent. The Cardinals don't lack talent.

They've just given up.

As ESPN's Jon Gruden noted during Monday night's Cards-Niners broadcast, Arizona's defense couldn't stop the run with three nose tackles on field. First-round pick Dan Williams (6'3/330), Gabe Watson (6'4/330), and Alan Branch (6'5/340) were gashed for 136 yards and a touchdown by 31-year-old Brian Westbrook, who entered the game with five rushing attempts on the season and leg joints so shot that he barely found a taker on the 2010 free agent market. 49ers stalwart left tackle Joe Staley was inactive, and center David Baas suffered a concussion during the game.

Cardinals defenders didn't play to the whistle. ESPN's Merril Hoge observed Arizona's outside linebackers "getting out of their stance and just putting their hands up like they were trying to knock (the football) down," with zero effort on the pass rush. Even on the offensive side, quarterback Derek Anderson and guard Deuce Lutui were caught laughing on the sideline.

The end result? A sixth straight loss. It's almost hard to fathom a coach like Whisenhunt losing his team, but defensive coordinator Bill Davis has definitely lost his defense.

The Cardinals now play on a short week against a Rams team just beginning to hit its stride. A healthy Danario Alexander has added a new dimension to St. Louis' passing offense, providing big-play ability, a deep threat, and physical run-after-catch skills. Sam Bradford doesn't miss, and his offensive line is as injury-free as it's been all season.

The Rams, in theory, could gut Arizona's No. 31 run defense with Steven Jackson. But St. Louis' rushing offense has been a weak link for much of the season. The Rams rank 20th in rushing offense, and are tied for third to last in the NFC in yards-per-carry average. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's decision to run on seven of the Rams' final nine offensive snaps of last week's game nearly cost his team a win. The seven rushing attempts gained a pathetic 11 yards.

Bradford has surpassed Jackson as the Rams' best offensive player.

Starting a rookie quarterback (Bradford) or receiver (Alexander) in a fantasy week as important as this isn't typically recommended, and isn't an approach to be taken by owners with established studs. But if you're struggling at QB or WR3, you could do a lot worse than Bradford or Alexander in an indoor game against a defense that ranks 25th against the pass, generates little-to-no pressure, and appears to have rolled over.

1:00PM ET Games

Jacksonville @ Tennessee

In a quarterback-driven league, offenses tend to shut down when they don't pose any semblance of a passing-game threat. It's exactly what happened to the Titans in Week 12. Chris Johnson was the biggest loser, finishing with career lows in carries (7) and rushing yards (5) as the Titans fell behind 14-0 with five minutes left in the first half and were dominated 40:20 in time of possession. 38-year-old quarterbacks coming off leg muscle injuries don't typically light up the box score, but Kerry Collins' return will give defenses a lot more to think about than Rusty Smith did. Johnson will remain the focal point of Tennessee's game plan against a Jaguars defense that ranks 20th against the run and has given up the second most rushing touchdowns in the AFC. Jack Del Rio's team was gutted for 177 total yards and a 5.91 YPC average by Giants backs last week.

Whether or not Randy Moss still possesses elite talent remains up for debate, but anyone who's caught his first three games as a Titan would agree that he's not giving enough effort. He didn't even jump for a fourth-quarter touchdown opportunity on a slightly high pass against the Texans, and is now averaging 1.3 catches for 16.3 yards with Tennessee. (And the Titans have lost all three contests.) The Jags' pass defense presents a favorable matchup, but we said the same about Washington and Houston. Moss is barely worth a roster spot. ... Collins' return may help Nate Washington and Bo Scaife, but competitive owners should be able to do better. Even on far fewer snaps, Danario Alexander is a better option than Washington. Scaife isn't on the radar.

Maurice Jones-Drew leads the league with 120.3 rushing yards per game in the last month, and two of his last three opponents boast top-ten run defenses. He's matchup proof, although MJD won't have to be against the Titans. Tennessee's front four has fallen apart recently due to numerous injuries, allowing Redskins and Texans backs to pile up 293 rushing yards in the last two games. With David Garrard struggling again, Jones-Drew is a safe bet to be Jacksonville's offensive focal point Sunday. ... Marcedes Lewis had a slow Week 12 (3/36/0), but you're not going to find many healthy tight ends on pace for 12 touchdowns floating around fantasy football. Only the Texans and Panthers have given up more yards to tight ends than the Titans this year.

Garrard went on a tear in Weeks 4-10, but the streakiest passer in football has gone back in the gutter in his last two games, completing just 57.9 percent of his throws (he's at 66.3 for the season) with a 2:6 touchdown pass-to-turnover ratio. He's not a QB1 option against a Titans pass defense that has piled up 15 INTs while allowing just 14 TDs, and permits a measly 6.7 yards per attempt. Tennessee is also tied for second in the league in sacks. ... Back to being equally mediocre WR3 bets, Mike Sims-Walker and Mike Thomas aren't intriguing plays in this difficult matchup. Sims-Walker is still battling through a high ankle sprain, and will square off mostly with Titans RCB Cortland Finnegan. In Week 6, Finnegan held MSW to 16 yards on two catches.

Washington @ NY Giants

The Giants created a healthy, competitive situation at tailback by "demoting" Ahmad Bradshaw for Brandon Jacobs prior to Week 12. After the two combined for 170 total yards against a Jaguars defense that held Peyton Hillis to a season-low 2.29 yards per carry in the previous week, coach Tom Coughlin stated that Bradshaw remains "very much in the hunt" for the first-team role. In other words, the two backs are still battling for the job. Both Bradshaw and Jacobs will be safe bets for 15-plus touches against a Washington defense that ranks 26th against the run and gives up a league-high 4.89 yards per carry. Down three of their top four wideouts, the G-Men are clearly targeting a run-heavy approach. Running backs received 28 touches in New York's Week 12 win over Jacksonville, while Eli Manning threw 24 passes to tie for his fewest of the season.

Despite the volume reduction, Manning atoned with his seventh straight multi-touchdown game and a season-high 9.42 yards-per-attempt average. He's going to beat up on poor secondaries regardless of the altered offense. The Skins are 29th in pass defense and appear likely to be without both top cover corner Carlos Rogers (hamstrings) and SS LaRon Landry (Achilles). Eli's upside is curtailed, but he's still a quality QB1. ... Owners fooled into jumping on the Derek Hagan hype train are hopefully off by now. Hagan started at flanker, but had 21 yards on four targets last week. ... Mario Manningham (3/61/1) and Kevin Boss (3/74/1) will be the top bets for receiving yards and scores in New York's pass-catching corps until Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith return. Boss' passing-game role has clearly expanded. He saw a team-high eight targets last week.

The Giants have given up the fewest fantasy points to tight ends in the NFC, which is cause for concern for Chris Cooley. Though his touchdown total is highly disappointing, Cooley has stayed consistent and ranks ninth at his position in scoring. The matchup is difficult, but Cooley is an every-week starter in a horribly down year for tight ends. You'd have to have a truly awesome alternative to bench him. ... It's fair to wonder if Santana Moss' hamstring and knee woes affected him in a favorable matchup with the Vikings last week that produced just five catches for 40 yards. Moss did play a full host of snaps; the Skins just didn't possess the ball much. Perhaps he isn't a confident WR2 this week, but he's a must-start WR3. Where else are the passes going to go?

Donovan McNabb ranks 20th among quarterbacks in fantasy points and hasn't even capitalized on favorable matchups this season. He's probably on most waiver wires at this point, and isn't an option against the Giants' No. 1 pass defense. ... James Davis and Keiland Williams will share the Redskins' backfield against New York's top-ten run defense in an obvious situation to avoid. Coach Mike Shanahan clearly has no faith in Williams, whose poor instincts and tendency to run into the back of his blockers make the rookie an unnatural fit for Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. Davis has looked good in practice and preseason, but routinely flops in real games. The Skins have to be praying that Ryan Torain (hamstring) returns for Week 14 against Tampa.

San Francisco @ Green Bay

The Packers made good on their vow to use more five-receiver sets in Week 12. Aaron Rodgers, who's begged for the run-and-shoot all year, capitalized on the quarterback-friendly system with season highs in passing and rushing yards. Rodgers has overtaken Philip Rivers as the No. 1 fantasy QB, and is likely to remain the top performer the rest of the way. ... James Jones is averaging four receptions for 64 yards with two TDs in five games since Donald Driver's Week 6 quad injury. Driver has a scoreless 57 yards on six catches in his last four appearances. Even Jordy Nelson has put up better numbers than Driver, who was safe to drop several weeks ago.

The 49ers are far better at stopping the run than the pass, so the pass-first Packers will pose a severe mismatch. With clear skies in the Lambeau forecast, expect fireworks from Rodgers & Co. ... Jones played a season-high 72.1 percent of the offensive snaps in the new formation last week. He's the Packers' second best bet for receiving yards and scores. ... Greg Jennings is averaging over six catches for 107 yards with six touchdowns in his last six games. Behind Dwayne Bowe, you couldn't name a hotter fantasy wideout. ... Regressing sharply since a flash-in-the-pan Weeks 5-7 stretch, Brandon Jackson is averaging 2.90 YPC in his last four games and has been yanked off goal-line duty. He's a very poor option against the 49ers' No. 8 run defense.

With Frank Gore done for the year, the 49ers will turn to a committee backfield. Though Brian Westbrook had the "hot hand" in Week 12 and received 23 touches to Anthony Dixon's 15, Dixon was first off the bench immediately following Gore's injury and executed for the 49ers' lone goal-line score after three Westbrook runs down to Arizona's one-yard line. Mike Singletary's staff is well aware that a 31-year-old with chronic history of knee and ankle issues is a poor bet to hold up on feature back carries. Westbrook may be the best bet for total yards in Week 13, but Dixon is a stronger choice for touchdowns and sustained value down the stretch. Underrated in the passing game with impressively quick feet for a big man, Dixon will have the workload all to himself once Westbrook goes down again. In my opinion, Dixon should've been this week's top waiver pickup.

Troy Smith is 3-1 as a starter, but hasn't helped Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis much. The coaching staff simply gives Smith no leeway, as he's averaged 25.3 pass attempts in four starts. Not even Monday night's first-quarter 38-yard missile to Crabtree in the back of the end zone earned Smith more rope; two possessions later the 49ers were handing off to Westbrook on third-and-eight. Singletary's ultra-conservative mission is killing Crabtree and Davis' upsides. ... A bum ankle has plenty to do with it, but Davis is averaging two catches for 31.5 yards with no TDs dating back to Week 7. It's not crazy to sit him if you have quality alternatives. ... Crabtree has at least stayed afloat with five touchdowns in his last seven games. The 49ers move him all around the formation, so Crabtree should not be locked into coverage with shutdown RCB Tramon Williams.

Buffalo @ Minnesota

Fred Jackson's mid-to-late season surge conjures up memories of his 2009 campaign, when "F-Jax" emerged from a committee with Marshawn Lynch to pile up an average of 115 total yards in the final six games. This year, Jackson has a whopping six TDs in his last four efforts, to go with 462 total yards in his last three. C.J. Spiller's return and a matchup with Minnesota's top-five run defense are concerns, but Jackson posted 22.3 fantasy points against Pittsburgh's No. 1 unit last week, and in all likelihood Spiller will focus on bringing back punts. It's not going to be easy to bench one of the league's hottest running backs in what could quietly turn into a shootout. ... Lee Evans has a great on-paper matchup with the Vikings' RCB combo of Asher Allen and rookie Chris Cook, but is difficult to trust with an average of two catches per game in the last month.

Ryan Fitzpatrick has rediscovered a hot hand with five touchdowns and 581 yards in his last two games, numbers that would improve to six and 621 had Steve Johnson not dropped a perfectly placed, would-be game-winning bomb in the back of the Pittsburgh end zone last week. Playing indoors certainly doesn't hurt Fitzpatrick's chances of a big game, and nor does a below-average Vikings pass defense that is easily beaten at whatever area of the secondary LCB/slot corner Antoine Winfield isn't occupying. ... The Bills will spread out Minnesota's defense, forcing Winfield inside to cover Donald Jones or David Nelson. Johnson ranked second in the NFL last week in targets (only Dwayne Bowe had more) and should be played with plenty of confidence as a WR2.

It should come as no surprise that a team with a struggling quarterback and a defensive-minded interim coach has gone run heavy. Despite Adrian Peterson's first-half, game-ending ankle injury in Week 12, the Vikings stayed with the ground attack en route to a 38:23 run-to-pass ratio. With Peterson fully expected to play against Buffalo -- and Toby Gerhart having proved his mettle as a more than adequate fill-in, a similar approach is highly likely against Buffalo's No. 32 run defense. ... I could go on and on about Brett Favre's favorable matchup, but he's simply not playing well or throwing enough in the revised offense to be a quality play outside of two-quarterback leagues.

Visanthe Shiancoe (3/54/0), Percy Harvin (5/32/0), and Sidney Rice (1/20/0) all had slow games in Leslie Frazier's debut. All have good matchups, but none sticks out as an elite play with the pass attempts in decline. Rice is inferior to Harvin, with whom Favre clearly has better chemistry. Favre hit on all five of his targets to Harvin last week. ... Meanwhile, Rice has hauled in just four of his 14 targets from Favre since returning two games ago. We'd like to see a better rapport before recommending Rice. It doesn't help that Rice continues to miss practice as a "precaution." When are the two supposed to get on the same page? ... As for Shiancoe, only the Texans defend tight ends more poorly than the Bills, who've allowed a league-high eight touchdowns to the position.

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

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