Evan Silva

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Matchups: Ridley Me This

Saturday, September 08, 2012



Carolina @ Tampa Bay

I stated in the St. Louis-Detroit rundown that Matthew Stafford is the best quarterback play in the league this week. Cam Newton might have something to say about that. Newton chewed up the Bucs and spit them out last year, in two games accounting for a whopping eight touchdowns (four pass, four rush) and 9.87 yards-per-attempt average. Aside from two promising draft picks and a coaching staff change, I don't see many reasons to believe the Bucs' defense will be able to stop Cam in 2012. Greg Schiano has already admitted they're just hoping to contain him. ... The Bucs under Raheem Morris used Aqib Talib to shadow No. 1 receivers, and he often held his own against Steve Smith. But Tampa Bay paid new RCB Eric Wright enough money (five years, $38 million) this offseason that Schiano's staff may cease the approach. Smith has always run the majority of his perimeter pass patterns against right cornerbacks, and that's Wright's side of the field. Smith could single-handedly take this game over if he matches up with burnable Wright.

Brandon LaFell offers breakout appeal as a newly-anointed every-down receiver in an explosive, vertical passing attack. I thought he looked like a fairly average talent during my offseason game study, though, and am not quite bullish on the third-year wideout. In this particular matchup, LaFell still makes for an adequate WR3. ... Coach Ron Rivera talked up Greg Olsen as being on par with the Grahams and Gronkowskis of the NFL during one training-camp interview. Olsen has never and will never be as red-zone dominant as Gronk, and doesn't create nearly as many mismatch issues as Graham. I like Olsen as a TE2 with mid-range to low-end TE1 upside, but doubt he'll push for elite fantasy production. Look for Olsen to match up often with rookies Mark Barron and Lavonte David in this game. ... We'll know more about Jonathan Stewart's ankle after Friday's practice, but as of this writing he appears unlikely to play. The Bucs have ranked 28th or worse against the run three straight years, and appear poised to again field one of the NFL's most porous defenses up front. DeAngelo Williams will be a shoo-in top-15 running back option if Stewart sits out this game.

Friday Evening Update: Stewart missed a third straight practice Friday. Although he's plenty versed in the offense, players that get in zero practice time rarely play on game day. Look for Mike Tolbert to step in as a powerful change-of-pace option while Williams assumes true feature back duties. The matchup is right and Carolina should score enough points that Williams is now a borderline RB1. Expect no fewer than 17 touches.

Coming off a season in which he took major steps backward, Josh Freeman did nothing to allay fears about his going-forward effectiveness with a thoroughly inefficient August. He completed under 53 percent of his preseason throws and averaged a pathetic 4.8 yards per pass attempt, showing chemistry only with Vincent Jackson in an otherwise uninspiring pass-catching corps. Freeman's inaccuracy was a major 2011 issue, and it looked worse this summer. Tampa beat writers expect Freeman to start slow. It's a safe bet as Schiano leans on a run-first approach. ... The Bucs' offense figures to feature Jackson and Doug Martin while Mike Williams, Dallas Clark, and LeGarrette Blount play complementary, support-type roles. Martin earned the every-down back job by running circles around Blount in camp practices and preseason games. He's a strong RB2 against Carolina's annually weak run defense. Defenses will probably scheme to take away V-Jax this year, but he should be open plenty against a defense similarly vulnerable to the pass.

Score Prediction: Panthers 28, Bucs 17

Sunday Night Football

Pittsburgh @ Denver

I don't expect Rashard Mendenhall (knee) to play despite Mike Tomlin's early-week optimism, but I wouldn't invest in Pittsburgh's backfield Sunday night regardless. Isaac Redman is a poor man's Tim Hightower now trying to play through groin, ankle, and hip injuries. Passing-down work will be divvied up amongst Redman, Baron Batch, and rookie scatback Chris Rainey. Early downs figure to be shared by Redman and Jonathan Dwyer. Fantasy owners love to complain about Redskins running backs, but this backfield is arguably more muddled and will become more so once Mendenhall returns. Although he's merely a low-end flex option, my pick would be Dwyer if you're desperate to start a Steelers back in this game. I wouldn't be surprised if Redman owners end up dropping him in a week or two. ... Heath Miller started three preseason games in Todd Haley's new offense and was targeted twice, securing both for 15 yards. Haley has overseen five offenses in his coaching career, and the best line produced by a tight end during that span was Tony Moeaki's 47/556/3 in 2010. Moeaki finished as the No. 20 fantasy tight end. I'm not optimistic about Miller this season.

If the Broncos defend Mike Wallace as they did in January's playoffs, he will match up early and often with shutdown CB Champ Bailey. Wallace found the end zone in that game on a fluky one-yard rushing score, but was limited to three catches for 26 yards on a whopping ten targets. If you want to wait a week to start Wallace after his month-long holdout, now is the time. ... Antonio Brown outproduced Wallace down last season's stretch because he saw friendlier coverage looks, got open more regularly due to superior versatility, and is plenty talented in his own right. Having already mastered Haley's system -- 11 preseason grabs for 204 yards and three TDs -- Brown is the heavy favorite to lead Pittsburgh in receiving Sunday night. I think he's a borderline WR1. ... Ben Roethlisberger was picked as a QB2 in most fantasy drafts and is best viewed in that same light for Week 1. I think he offers more upside than meets the eye over the course of the season, though, particularly if Haley opens things up. Big Ben can be as productive as the playcalling lets him be. ... Emmanuel Sanders would require a Wallace or Brown injury to become a consistent fantasy producer, but he's another factor working in Roethlisberger's fantasy favor. Sanders, in fact, led the Steelers with 81 yards on six catches in the aforementioned playoff game at Denver.

I should have gotten this out of the way before: I think the Steelers will go to Mile High and whip the Broncos in prime time. Pittsburgh will control this game offensively and defensively. Denver lacks up-front protection to repel LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and Brett Keisel's rush, and nobody runs on a Dick LeBeau defense. A low-scoring projection for Denver's offense can be used effectively as a tiebreaker for fantasy football lineup decisions. ... Willis McGahee has faced the Steelers' 3-4 four times over the past two seasons and managed a pathetic 111 yards with one touchdown on 44 carries (2.52 YPC). I will like McGahee when he plays the San Diego and Oaklands of the AFC West. I'm not starting him against a defense that will eliminate him.

I'm not starting Peyton Manning, either. His final ADP was QB9, suggesting most fantasy owners view him as a back-end QB1. Back-end QB1s are generally bench material versus elite defenses, and that's precisely what Manning will face on Sunday night. I want to see a 36-year-old coming off four neck surgeries play well in a tough matchup before I declare him start-worthy in tough matchups. ... Eric Decker is Denver's top fantasy bet after showing the best preseason chemistry with Manning among Broncos pass catchers. ... Manning attempted 42 passes in August. His target distribution: Decker 7, Lance Ball 7, Demaryius Thomas 7, Brandon Stokley 7, Jacob Tamme 7, Joel Dreessen 6, McGahee 1. ... Ball's heavy first-team involvement is a reminder that he's well out in front of rookie Ronnie Hillman in the battle for snaps behind McGahee. Hillman is also behind Knowshon Moreno. ... I'm a huge believer in Thomas' big-play ability. He is a beast after the catch. I don't think he'll start as fast as Decker, but I'd play Thomas confidently as a WR2/3. ... Stokley and Dreessen's August targets suggest Tamme may have to share the right to be Manning's third passing-game option, behind Thomas and Decker. I wouldn't feel good about Tamme as a TE1 beyond perhaps PPR leagues.

Score Prediction: Steelers 24, Broncos 13

Monday Night Football

Cincinnati @ Baltimore

If preseason games were any indication -- and in-the-know Baltimore people say they were -- the Ravens are turning to the no-huddle as their base offense. Joe Flacco was terrific in the up-tempo attack this August, completing 71.7 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one pick. "Defenses have gotten so complicated," Flacco told SI.com's Peter King. "When you slow it down and get into a huddle before every play, you're playing into their hands, allowing them to dictate the tempo of the game. This way, we take control of the game." Flacco loves the revised offense, and he is capable of starting fast in a favorable Monday night matchup. Cincinnati's defense looks brutal in the back end, with first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick out after two knee injuries and coverage liability Taylor Mays starting at strong safety. Washed-up veterans Nate Clements and Terence Newman are being counted on for major roles. The Bengals' best defensive back is Leon Hall, and he is coming off a ruptured Achilles'. Expect the Ravens to have lots of passing success in Week 1.

Although the new offense could eventually breathe life into TEs Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, neither is start-able in Week 1 after Pitta missed most of camp with a broken hand, and Dickson a subluxed shoulder. ... Look Torrey Smith's way for Monday night passing-game points. He showed greatly improved intermediate route-running chops in August, creating separation at every level of the defense and along the sideline. In less than three preseason quarters, Smith dressed down the Falcons and Jaguars' first-team defenses for 11 catches and 146 yards. Hall sticks to one side of the field, and the Bengals' other corners lack foot speed to run with Baltimore's emerging No. 1 receiver. ... Anquan Boldin's third straight late-season fade may begin earlier this year going on age 32, but he still has fresh legs in late summer and early fall and is a solid bet for a red-zone touchdown on Monday night. ... Ray Rice has faced the Bengals eight times in his career. He's rung up 681 yards on 139 carries (4.90 YPC) and seven touchdowns while averaging nearly 120 all-purpose yards per game. There's every reason to think Rice is set up for another big effort.

I saw some offseason hype on the 2012 Bengals after last year's team played above its head, at least for the first few games. Let's hit that with a fire extinguisher. Cincinnati started 6-2 against the league's softest first-half schedule before playing like the bad team everyone expected in the final eight weeks. In the last nine, Andy Dalton managed just seven touchdowns and turned the ball over a dozen times, as his talent limitations were exposed facing halfway decent defenses. The Bengals are going to be worse on offense this year. They lost two starting linemen (LG Travelle Wharton, C Kyle Cook) to injured reserve during the preseason, and first-round RG Kevin Zeitler was up and down. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a downgrade from Cedric Benson, lacking any hint of elusiveness or big-play ability. They're also downgrading at No. 2 receiver, going from Jerome Simpson to a rotation of Brandon Tate and Armon Binns. Rookie Mohamed Sanu is buried on the depth chart.

Although Baltimore's defense can't possibly be as good minus difference-making RE/OLB Terrell Suggs (Achilles'), this unit is still capable of shutting down running games and making life difficult against the pass. The only Bengals skill-position player worth a Week 1 fantasy start is A.J. Green, who figures to be a target monster because Cincinnati basically has no one else. Jermaine Gresham missed much of camp with a knee injury, and the issues up front can be easily exposed by Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, Arthur Jones, Pernell McPhee, and Paul Kruger. I like the Ravens to manhandle the Bengals in this game. I'm not sure Cincinnati can even make it close.

Score Prediction: Ravens 21, Bengals 10

San Diego @ Oakland

Philip Rivers has an impressive statistical track record over six seasons as an NFL starter, but I wondered aloud this offseason whether we might have seen the best of him, and I continue to worry that may be the case. The indefinite absence of LT Jared Gaither is a major concern, and clearly not one the Chargers prepared for seeing as their fallback plan is undrafted rookie Mike Harris. Norv Turner's offense is vertical in nature, requiring some semblance of sustained pass protection to execute. Recall that Gaither started the final five games of last season after being claimed off waivers in late November. Rivers' stats with Gaither on his blindside: 110-of-163 (67.5 percent) for 1,413 yards (8.67 YPA), 11 touchdowns, and three picks. Rivers' stats pre-Gaither: 256-of-419 (61.1 percent) for 3,211 yards (7.66 YPA), 16:17 TD-to-INT ratio. I'm very concerned about this passing offense. ... Until defenses decide to begin eliminating him with bracket coverage, Antonio Gates should be the one constant in Rivers' 2012 pass-catching corps. Gates has a touchdown in three of his past four meetings with the Raiders. In Week 17 last year, Gates ripped Oakland for 106 yards and a score on five catches. I expect a big game on Monday night.

Robert Meachem showed little chemistry with Rivers in camp and preseason games, finishing August with one catch for seven yards. While Oakland won't field an intimidating pass defense this year, I want to see Meachem put something acceptable in a box score before starting him. ... Malcom Floyd is the stronger bet Monday night if you're dying to start a Chargers wideout. Floyd should spend most of this game in burnable RCB Shawntae Spencer's coverage, and has no "rapport" concerns with his quarterback. ... Ronnie Brown is expected to be San Diego's lead back until Ryan Mathews returns from his fractured collarbone, which figures to happen in Week 2 or 3. San Diego played its starters in the preseason finale, so I went back and watched that game to take notes for this column. The Chargers' first-team offense played 15 snaps, and Brown was in on 14 of them. Jackie Battle -- not Curtis Brinkley -- looked like the No. 2. Brown showed very little as a rusher and receiver, but he should be on the field quite a bit against Oakland and is a legit threat for 20 touches. He's worth flex consideration. ... Eddie Royal annually garners offseason buzz from media types, but he hasn't been a fantasy asset in four seasons. Now the No. 4 option at best in a sputtering passing offense, it's hard to imagine Royal recapturing rookie-year form.

One aspect of Oakland's new offense that Darren McFadden owners will quickly come to enjoy is playcaller Greg Knapp's passion for running the football relentlessly. Among this generation's run-heaviest minds, Knapp's offenses have finished in the league's top five in rushing attempts seven times in his nine years as a coordinator. He worked on Houston's staff last season, and they tied for the NFL lead in carries. San Diego's front seven has improved, but it may not matter when perhaps the league's most gifted runner south of Minnesota is handling the rock 30 times a game. McFadden is the best fantasy bet in both Monday night matchups. ... Aside from Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland's pass game is best left avoided in Week 1. Carson Palmer struggled all preseason in Knapp's new offense. Rod Streater's outlook is dependent on Denarius Moore's (hamstring) availability, and Moore looks like a true game-time decision. Jacoby Ford (foot) almost certainly won't play. Heyward-Bey is the only intriguing receiver gamble. He racked up 130 yards and a touchdown on nine catches against a similar-looking Chargers secondary in Week 17 last year.

Friday Evening Update: Moore put on a show during Friday's practice and now appears set to play Monday night, barring a setback over the next two days. I like this news for the Week 1 outlook of Oakland's offense, as well as my final-score prediction. I'd still play it cautiously with Moore and put him on a "prove-it" week. If he has a big night, great. We'll know to start him next week.

Score Prediction: Raiders 23, Chargers 20



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



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