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 10 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 James Harrison'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