Tennessee @ Pittsburgh
It's too early to say that Chris Johnson's season has officially turned a corner, but there's little doubt it's headed in that direction. CJ2K made a dangerously sharp cut to juke Browns WLB Chris Gocong on an early 25-yard run, and finished Week 4 with 11 gains of five or more yards against a Cleveland defense that entered the game permitting just 3.98 YPC. (Johnson's was 4.39.) Johnson entered the game with just 13 plays of five or more yards on the season. His previous game-high was six five-plus plays. A beat-up, underperforming Pittsburgh defense is next on the slate. In the past two weeks, the Steelers have allowed Joseph Addai, Arian Foster, and Ben Tate to pile up two rushing scores and 261 yards on 49 carries (5.33 average). They'll also be without LE Aaron Smith (foot) and OLB James Harrison (fractured orbital bone). Meanwhile, Johnson gets back FB Ahmard Hall from suspension to replace fill-in Quinn Johnson, whom Pro Football Focus rated as the league's worst lead blocker in the first four games. Still yet to hit a truly long run -- the aforementioned 25-yarder is Johnson's best of the season to date -- CJ2K should confidently be in lineups this week.
Jared Cook turned a short pass into an 80-yard touchdown in Week 4 at Cleveland, but his game was discouraging long term. Despite Kenny Britt's year-ending injury, Cook played a season-low 22 snaps (44%), seeing six targets and securing two. I'd love to see what Cook could do as a full-time player, but Titans OC Chris Palmer refuses to make him one. Cook is averaging an unbearable 3.25 targets per game. .... The Steelers used usual RCB Ike Taylor as a true shadow corner on Andre Johnson last week, and Taylor maintained good coverage until Johnson's game-ending hamstring tear. Look for Nate Washington to get similar treatment from Pittsburgh. The Titans don't have another established receiver threat. ... As expected, Damian Williams started over Lavelle Hawkins in Week 4, although they each finished with four targets. Washington remains the best receiver bet in Tennessee. Williams is a distant second, just ahead of Hawkins. ... Matt Hasselbeck deserves heaps of credit for starting the season in such fine form; he's currently the eighth-ranked fantasy quarterback. But Hasselbeck is going to come crashing back to earth in a hurry, and it's a good bet that the fall will begin Sunday against Pittsburgh's No. 1 pass defense. Four of Hasselbeck's next five opponents are top-ten teams against the pass. Sell him high now.
The Steelers' O-Line isn't giving its skill players a prayer, which makes third-and-long situations common and impossible, and prevents Ben Roethlisberger from finding an in-game rhythm. Now battling a sprained left foot in addition to his previously cracked right foot, Big Ben is hard to trust even as bye-week filler against a Tennessee defense stifling passing games. The Titans have surrendered the league's second lowest yards-per-pass attempt average, racking up eight sacks in the last three weeks. LE Derrick Morgan has been an absolute nightmare for offensive lines. I wouldn't recommend starting Roethlisberger, but one stat does suggest he'll pick it up: Big Ben's 2.2 "touchdown rate" (TDs/Pass Attempts) is easily a career low and worst in the NFL. It's also prime for regression. Roethlisberger will finish better than his current No. 25 fantasy quarterback ranking suggests. ... Stay far away from Hines Ward. He played 92.1% of the Week 4 offensive snaps, but was targeted four times. Roethlisberger knows Ward isn't worth throwing to anymore. He had an ugly drop against the Texans, is on pace for 544 yards without a touchdown, and will square off with Titans shutdown slot cornerback Cortland Finnegan for large chunks of this game.
Isaac Redman is the Flavor of the Week 5, and it's hard to beat a 20-25 touch projection when you need a flex starter. Redman obviously lacks homerun speed (4.76 forty), but runs with good pad level and keeps his feet moving, both factors that help behind an embattled O-Line. He also can play on passing downs as a blocker and receiver. The question is whether the Steelers will move the football on Tennessee's top-seven defense, a unit that ranks No. 8 versus the run and is allowing 3.22 YPC. Redman probably won't hit long runs, but the possibility of a goal-line carry or two makes him intriguing. Be sure Rashard Mendenhall (hamstring) is inactive Sunday morning, and start Redman as an RB2/flex with more upside than might meet the eye. ... I'm not worried about Finnegan shutting down Mike Wallace because Finnegan lines up at right cornerback on early downs and slot corner in the nickel. He's got a set role. Wallace plays both outside spots and should see more of RCB Alterraun Verner and LCB Jason McCourty. ... Antonio Brown is playing more snaps and getting more targets than Emmanuel Sanders, making the former a better fantasy option. It's just hard to rely on situational players in fantasy leagues.
Score Prediction: Steelers 21, Titans 17
Arizona @ Minnesota
The Chiefs sold out wholeheartedly to stop the Vikings' run game in Week 4, stacking the box with eight defenders and leaving back one single-high safety on the vast majority of snaps. Donovan McNabb just barely capitalized for his best game of the year (202 yards, two touchdowns), which obviously isn't saying much. While Arizona fields a bottom-seven pass defense, McNabb must now worry about an in-game benching after an 0-4 start. He's not a standard-league option and carries risk in two-QB formats. ... After catching a 20-yard pass at Kansas City, Bernard Berrian is "up" to two receptions on 16 targets this year. The Vikings would be better off handing split end duties to Devin Aromashodu, who made an incredible diving grab for a 34-yard score in Week 4. Unfortunately, Aromashodu hasn't topped 16 snaps in any game this season. ... The Cardinals typically present a favorable matchup for tight ends, but Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph are canceling each other out in fantasy terms. They're both on pace for under 400 receiving yards.
Adrian Peterson's yards-per-carry average has dipped from 6.1 in the opener, to 4.8 in Week 2, to 4.6, and a season-low 3.5 last week. An easy-to-defend offense is curtailing his production, even if Peterson remains an elite RB1 versus Arizona. Defenses are swarming the line of scrimmage, daring McNabb, Molasses Michael Jenkins, and Wide Deceiver Berrian to beat them. The good news is "All Day" has operated as a legit every-down back (89.1% snap rate in Week 4), and Minnesota should move the ball on Arizona, setting up scoring chances. The Vikings' personnel decisions and usage are the biggest reasons why Peterson isn't a top-15 fantasy scorer through the first month. ... Percy Harvin played 42-of-64 snaps (65.6%) in Week 4, which isn't nearly enough. Harvin hasn't scored a touchdown on offense, but is averaging 97 total yards per game since Week 1. He's a solid WR3 against the Cardinals' stiff-hipped secondary. ... Jenkins' playing time is in decline (54.7 snap percentage in Week 4), and he's coming off a one-target game.
The Vikings play a ton of two-deep safety coverage, a scheme designed to limit big plays. It's not quite double teaming, however, and Minnesota was exposed for 198 yards and a score on nine catches by Chiefs outside receivers in Week 4 -- most of it via Dwayne Bowe. RCB Cedric Griffin got absolutely torched on Bowe's 52-yard touchdown, even rallying back to catch Bowe after Matt Cassel's underthrown pass, and promptly blowing the tackle. Larry Fitzgerald sees mostly right corners in coverage, so he'll face Griffin often in this game. In four career meetings with the Vikes, Fitz is averaging eight catches for 119 yards. ... Vikings top CB Antoine Winfield primarily covers the slot, so his expected absence due to a painful neck injury isn't much of a matchup boost to Fitzgerald. It does make slot receiver Early Doucet slightly more intriguing as a bye-week WR3. The Vikings' backup nickel back is burnable third-year pro Asher Allen. The problem with starting Doucet is that he's only a 45.9% player, though in Week 4 Doucet did see six targets to starter Andre Roberts' zero. The Cards need to think long and hard about replacing Roberts with Doucet.
I'd love to recommend Kevin Kolb as a sneaky QB1 because Winfield isn't expected to play, and two Cardinals wideouts have very good matchups. I just don't have faith that Kolb will have even a semi-clean pocket. LT Levi Brown is a sieve in pass protection and will face off with Vikings RE Jared Allen, who ranks second in the NFL in sacks (6.5). RT Brandon Keith aggravated a knee injury last week. Perhaps the Cardinals will stick TE Todd Heap on Brown's side to help block Allen? Whatever the case, it's hard to trust Kolb. His pocket presence remains a big issue, and Kolb only ranks 22nd in fantasy quarterback scoring. ... While the Vikings present a very difficult run defense matchup, Beanie Wells has officially entered RB1, every-week starter territory with a 5.44 yards-per-carry average and 20-touchdown pace. The Giants were supposed to be tough against the run last week, too, but Wells bum-rushed them for career highs in carries (27), rushing yards (138) and scores (3). When Wells is healthy, there aren't ten more dangerous backs in football.
Score Prediction: Vikings 24, Cardinals 20
4:05PM ET Game
Tampa Bay @ San Francisco
Playing on a short week, the Bucs transition from a home game against Indianapolis' soft front seven to a cross-country away matchup with perhaps the best defense no one is talking about. NFL Films guru Greg Cosell recently described San Francisco's front seven as a top-five unit in the league, and the stats reinforce that notion. The 49ers rank fourth against the run, surrendering just 3.52 yards per carry, and the Eagles showed their respect by calling 53 pass plays versus 13 designed runs in Week 4. The Niners are the only team left that hasn't surrendered a solitary rushing score. It's probably safe to expect a big step back from LeGarrette Blount, who will run into a brick wall more often than not Sunday. ... The Niners have held opposing starting tight ends out of the end zone altogether through four games, and to a 43.5-yard average. Kellen Winslow hasn't shown enough to qualify as a recommended bye-week fantasy play, ranking a miserable 25th in points at his position. ... Arrelious Benn had a long catch-and-run touchdown called back by penalty in Week 4, but that doesn't help fantasy owners much. Nor does his 456-yard pace.
Cover-2 defenses willing to surrender short catches underneath have brought Bucs slot receiver Preston Parker onto the fantasy radar, unfairly. Parker has preyed on soft zones, working against freelancing nickel linebackers over the middle. Unfortunately, the 49ers play man in the secondary and will have a defender actually covering Parker. Parker basically went unguarded at Minnesota in Week 2 (6-98) and versus Indy in Week 4 (5-70-1). I would not start him, and Chris Wesseling says he wouldn't, either. ... Whereas the Niners are fourth against the run, they're 27th in pass defense. The Bucs will likely have many more pass than rushing attempts on Sunday, so consider Josh Freeman a reasonable desperation, bye-week QB1 and must-start in two-QB leagues. ... The 49ers are willing to take chances deep in their back end, evidenced by DeSean Jackson's 171-yard breakout in Week 4. San Francisco also served up nine catches for 143 yards and three TDs to Miles Austin in Week 2. With the Bucs making it more of a priority to get Mike Williams the rock on drag routes and underneath stuff, plug-and-play the sophomore receiver as a WR2/3.
Entering Week 4 without a game over 24 yards, Michael Crabtree showed signs of life by beating Nnamdi Asomugha for a 38-yard catch and breaking a tackle to add seven yards to the play. He was otherwise quiet, hauling in four more passes for 30 yards and failing to find pay dirt. Crabtree is the 49ers' best fantasy receiver again, at least until Braylon Edwards comes back. But his upside is limited as the No. 2 passing-game option in a conservative offense. ... Vernon Davis has really picked it up with an eight-catch, 114-yard Week 3 game followed by 45 yards and a score at Philly. The Bucs have been stout in tight end coverage, but haven't faced one of Davis' caliber. If Aqib Talib takes Crabtree out of this game, Davis could set a new targets season-high. ... Frank Gore awoke from his slumber against a bad Eagles run defense in Week 4. This week's matchup is tougher with an improved, 11th-ranked Bucs unit on the slate, but Gore should resume his full workload after a healthier week of practice. ... Alex Smith has gotten darkhorse love in fantasy circles, but the story hasn't changed other than a renewed emphasis on limiting turnovers. His Week 4 stats were largely attributable to come-from-behind mode after San Francisco got down 26-3 early in the second half. In closer games Smith will be purely a game manager. He's a QB2.
Score Prediction: Bucs 17, 49ers 13