The objective of this column is to appeal to readers willing to consider, more deeply, those factors that may or may not cause fantasy players to have favorable or unfavorable matchups. This article is not for the casual fantasy leaguer. It's for the owner looking to gain an extra edge.
24-plus hours per week go into formulation of the Matchups breakdown. I place an emphasis on statistics, re-watching of games, tendencies, injuries, and roster turnover, and will often refer to the analysis-based website Profootballfocus.com, which presents in-depth charting data for each player in the league, offensive and defensive.
This is the Matchups column's third year, and it received consistently positive reviews in the first two seasons. My goal is to continue to make it better and more accurate each year. For questions, arguments, and suggestions, contact me on my Twitter account, @evansilva.
1:00PM ET Games
Pittsburgh @ Baltimore
Ravens OC Cam Cameron announced in camp that Ray Rice will be his goal-line back this year, and that's going to make Rice difficult to bench even in tough matchups like this. Rice will touch the ball 20 times and probably gain between 70 and 90 total yards Sunday. With Willis McGahee vulturing all short-yardage scores last year, I recommended to sit Rice twice against the Steelers. Admittedly hampered by a season-long knee injury, Rice didn't top 50 yards or find the end zone in either game. Owners need to start Rice this week. His scoring potential has increased sizably, Rice's explosiveness has returned (preseason 4.92 YPC) along with his health, and the Ravens' run blocking is much better off with Michael Oher at right tackle and Marshal Yanda at right guard.
You wouldn't have known it from last year's second-half slump, but Anquan Boldin has plenty left in the tank. The Ravens' lack of a complementary outside threat allowed defenses to double team Boldin on virtually every snap down the stretch, particularly when Boldin was lined up in the slot. Lee Evans' addition will be a difference maker for Boldin. Keep in mind that two of Boldin's biggest games (7-68, 5-118-1) came against Pittsburgh in last year’s regular season. ... Whereas Boldin shouldn't have trouble continuing to burn slot CB William Gay and LCB Bryant McFadden, Evans will match up with physical Steelers RCB Ike Taylor. Evans might hit a big play downfield, but he's a risky WR3 in this matchup. ... The Ravens don't have a third receiver, so sure-handed TE Dennis Pitta will man the slot when Boldin and Evans line up in two wide-sets. It's good news for Joe Flacco that the Ravens have depth and versatility at tight end. Pitta isn't a fantasy option, but helps Flacco qualify as a low-end QB1 this week. The Steelers' pass defense is unimposing with OLB James Harrison running on fumes after two back surgeries.
Steelers OC Bruce Arians has spoken openly of his desire to air it out this year, and he's got weapons to spread the field following Antonio Brown's August explosion and Emmanuel Sanders' quick return from foot surgeries. Neither Brown nor Sanders has earned enough snaps in the base offense to be fantasy viable yet, but these are promising developments for Ben Roethlisberger. In last year's playoffs, Roethlisberger completed 19-of-32 passes (59.4%) for 226 yards, two TDs, and no interceptions against Baltimore. The Ravens stifle the run and are breaking in two new starting corners (Cary Williams, rookie Jimmy Smith). The best way to attack them is through the air. Expect Big Ben to approach 35 attempts as a rock-solid QB1. He's a better start than Flacco.
Mike Wallace is coming off a quiet preseason (3 catches, 19 yards), but he's a must-play against a Baltimore secondary starting as many as three new defensive backs. (SS Tom Zbikowski has been pushed by Bernard Pollard, who's a disaster in coverage.) Wallace finished as the No. 5 fantasy receiver in 2010, just his second NFL season. He'll be fine. ... Heath Miller will remain a sixth lineman this year, blocking his tail off and rarely running pass routes. He's barely on the TE2 radar. ... Rashard Mendenhall is impossible to bench because he's always such a good bet to score, but yardage expectations should be limited this week. In his three Ravens matchups last year, including playoffs, Mendenhall averaged 70 total yards. At the same time, he dropped four TDs on Baltimore and averaged 24 touches a game. ... Hines Ward offers little upside as a WR3, but he's still a better bet for receptions and targets than Brown and Sanders. You could do worse.
Score Prediction: Ravens 20, Steelers 17
Atlanta @ Chicago
Marion Barber's rejuvenated preseason (4.6 YPC) was worrisome for Matt Forte owners hoping their second-round pick would get goal-line carries in Chicago. Barber is expected to miss Week 1 with a calf injury, setting up Forte for a heavier workload. He'll play more snaps on third down, and get the carries in scoring position. Squaring off with an undersized Atlanta front four, Forte is a strong RB1 play and a solid bet for a touchdown. ... Whereas the Falcons project to get pushed around against the run, they'll be awfully difficult to throw against. RE John Abraham and LE Ray Edwards are double-digit sack threats on the edges, and both DTs (Peria Jerry, Jonathan Babineaux) can collapse the pocket on the interior. This will give a Bears offensive line that can't pass protect fits. Jay Cutler and most Chicago pass catchers should be on fantasy benches. LCB Brent Grimes and RCB Dunta Robinson quietly form one of the NFL's better cover duos outside.
The Bears' wideout with the best Week 1 matchup is Earl Bennett. Bennett is a situational, No. 3 receiver, but his primary opponent in coverage will be burnable Atlanta nickel back Chris Owens. Whereas Pro Football Focus rated both Grimes and Robinson as top-22 cover corners last season, Owens would've ranked in the 90s had he played enough snaps to qualify. A crisp route runner, Bennett will get open against him. ... Roy Williams and Devin Hester would be fourth and fifth receivers on a team that didn't base its lineup on favorites and contracts. Consider Bears wideouts non-factors until Johnny Knox overtakes Williams. Williams is the starter for now.
Chicago will continue to field one of the better defenses in football, at least until one of their aging stars gets hurt. The Bears stayed unsustainably healthy last year. 29 1/2 years old to open the season, Michael Turner is worth an RB2 start based strictly on the fact that he gets goal-line work for an offense that will move the chains. Clearly losing a step after offseason groin surgery and an NFL-leading carry total in two of the past three seasons, Turner is averaging a paltry 3.52 YPC on his last 139 rushing attempts, including playoffs and preseason. Of course, he's got seven TDs over that span. Just be aware that you'll take a gut-punch in your fantasy matchup if Turner doesn't find the end zone. He offers little yardage upside barring a monster workload and doesn't catch passes. Turner was someone to avoid in fantasy drafts outside of touchdown-heavy leagues.
Roddy White has 13 catches for 168 yards and two touchdowns in his past two meetings with the Bears. ... We covered Julio Jones' impressive preseason extensively in August. Jones and White have played on both sides of the formation, so they'll likely square off evenly with RCB Charles Tillman and LCB Tim Jennings. From a matchup perspective, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Jennings is the Bears' corner to target. Jones has seven inches and 35 pounds on him. He's a recommended WR3. ... With Turner running out of gas and Chicago returning a top-2 run defense, the Falcons may have to throw to move the sticks in this one. Matt Ryan attempted a whopping 42 first-half passes in Atlanta's third preseason game, further confirming the team's plan to throw the ball more this season. Ryan won't have 80 attempts a game in the regular season, but he could easily approach 40 against Chicago. Start 'em. ... Declining at age 35, Tony Gonzalez is a TE2. Slot receiver Harry Douglas is a WR4, but will be a fantasy starter if Jones or White goes down.
Score Prediction: Falcons 24, Bears 14
Cincinnati @ Cleveland
Bengals-Browns has Vegas' lowest Week 1 over-under at 35.5 points. You'll want to avoid this game where possible. The lone solid start on Cleveland's side is Peyton Hillis. Poised for a monster workload to open the season, Hillis will dominate early-down carries ahead of Montario Hardesty, and take on increased passing-down snaps following Brandon Jackson's year-ending toe injury. It's still fair to be concerned with Hillis' ability to sustain effectiveness and health on so many carries with a contact-inviting run style. On the bright side, it doesn't hurt that the Bengals' defense looks less stout following run-stuffing WLB Keith Rivers' (elbow) placement on PUP and undersized DT Geno Atkins' rise to the starting lineup.
Colt McCoy finished preseason 28-of-46 (60.9%) for 320 yards (7.0 YPA), four touchdowns, and one pick. The completion rate and perhaps the yards-per-attempt can carry over into real games, but the TD ratio won't. As much as McCoy's stock has risen since camp opened, he's just a QB2. The Bengals' pass defense will at least be league average with a formidable pass rush (Carlos Dunlap, Atkins, Michael Johnson) and solid corner play (Leon Hall, Nate Clements). ... Mohamed Massaquoi is listed as the Browns' flanker, but it wouldn't be surprising to see a five-way rotation of Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Greg Little, slot man Jordan Norwood, and Joshua Cribbs. Avoid Cleveland wideouts until some semblance of playing time is established. ... Evan Moore is the Browns' tight end to own, but he and Ben Watson could just as easily cancel each other out. It's a week to wait on Cleveland pass catchers, see how they're used, and perhaps start one in Week 2.
I mentioned that this game projects as the lowest scoring of Week 1. Like on Cleveland's side, there is only one surefire fantasy starter for Cincinnati. Cedric Benson, fresh out of jail, will be the centerpiece of the Bengals' offense and is in line for upwards of 25 carries. Throughout the preseason new OC Jay Gruden emphasized power-I formations -- prehistoric football. It's a power-running team that won't even attempt to spread out defenses. Benson's recent yards-per-carry averages indicate he's lost a step, and the loss of mauling RG Bobbie Williams to a four-game suspension certainly won't help. That said, the workload supports Benson as an RB2, and he has a good matchup against a Cleveland defense breaking in three first-time starters in the front four.
Perhaps a basic offense is the right approach with the Bengals' bevy of first-year starters, rookie QB, and scheme change. We'll take it, because it makes matchups easy to predict. A.J. Green is the Z receiver on virtually all snaps, lining up on the offensive right side. He'll meet most often with LCB Joe Haden. "He lines up to my side a lot, so it should be like the good old days," confirmed Haden this week. Haden, who flashed shutdown potential as a rookie, held Green to a scoreless 50 yards on three catches the last time they met. (Georgia-Florida watchers know A.J. struggled to get open in that game.) Green will make some big plays this year, but he's a dicey WR3. ... One preseason observation that surprised me was Jermaine Gresham's usage as strictly an old-school, in-line tight end. He mostly blocks and never lines up in the slot or out wide. ... X wideout Jerome Simpson is the third or fourth (also Jordan Shipley) option in a putrid passing attack. Move along.
Score Prediction: Browns 17, Bengals 7
Indianapolis @ Houston
"I can't imagine trying to learn something as complicated as this (offense) in a short period of time," were C Jeff Saturday's comments this week when asked about Kerry Collins' readiness for the opener. Peyton Manning (neck) is out indefinitely, and Indy's offensive philosophy will shift dramatically. Top-five in pass attempts for each of the past three years, the Colts will strive for balance on offense, evidenced by this week's addition of lead blocker Chris Gronkowski (the Colts never used fullbacks before), and keeping four tailbacks on the 53-man roster. It's a bad situation all around. The Colts were built to throw first, second, and third, and run the ball as a change of pace. Joseph Addai's strengths are blitz pickup and receiving, and the line won't open holes. Even if this were a favorable matchup -- it isn't -- Addai would be a low-end RB2. ... Look for Delone Carter in change-up situations, getting 8-10 carries. He needs to be effective on limited early-season opportunities to earn a bigger role. My guess is Addai is still the favorite for goal-line work.
This would be a favorable passing-game matchup if it were still last year. Unfortunately for Colts skill players, it isn't. You didn't draft Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark in the early rounds to sit them in Week 1, but Wayne is much more WR3 than WR1, and Clark drops to the 8-12 range among tight ends. Yes, it's that bad. The Colts won't throw nearly as much, and when they do, execution will dip significantly. ... The Texans' defense is a highly recommended play. Chris Wesseling ranked them in the top six for Week 1 starts, and I agree. ... In his lone preseason appearance, Collins went 5-of-10 for 45 yards, took a sack, and lost a fumble. He's not ready to play in this offense. The Colts didn't even let him work with the first-team skill players. ... With the focus now on running the ball, one of the Colts' pass catchers is going to get weeded out of the offense in favor of a blocker, probably TE Brody Eldridge. My early guess is slot receiver Austin Collie (Indy can't go four wide anymore), but it could just as easily be flanker Pierre Garcon. Avoid them both.
Anything can happen in any week, but this game is a mismatch on paper. Wayne, Clark, and Collie will look much more pedestrian in a Manning-less offense; remember, even Jacob Tamme and Blair White produced at similar levels to Clark and Collie last year. Houston should dominate time of possession, leaning on the run game while remaining aggressive with the vertical pass. I could cite a bunch of stats explaining why Arian Foster (hamstring) would be a good fantasy play, but this has quickly become a situation to avoid based on late-week reports from the Houston Chronicle and Adam Schefter. Check back with Rotoworld on Sunday morning. Should Foster miss the game, Ben Tate will be a must-start RB2 in fantasy leagues. ... Owen Daniels has regained health and TE1 status. He racked up six catches for 57 yards and a touchdown in the third preseason game.
The Colts' top three corners are Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, and Justin Tryon. Lacey is the biggest of the group at 5-foot-10 and 177 pounds. It is hard to imagine these fellas stopping Andre Johnson (6'3/226). Only Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha can do that. ... The Texans have the top run-blocking offensive line in football, and the Colts one of the worst run defenses. With Johnson and Daniels hogging what figure to be limited targets in the passing game, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones are hardly worth fantasy roster spots, let alone Week 1 starts. ... The Texans are transitioning to a run-oriented offense under old line coach Rick Dennison. The team's pass attempts ranking fell dramatically last season despite having to play from behind so frequently due to a terrible defense. It will continue its freefall this year with the defense likely to improve exponentially under Wade Phillips. Matt Schaub is not a top-10 QB.
Score Prediction: Texans 27, Colts 10