Carolina @ Atlanta
With Steve Smith entrenched as Cam Newton's go-to guy, there's a weekly ongoing competition of sorts for targets behind him. In Weeks 1 and 3, Greg Olsen was Cam's preferred secondary option. In Week 2 against the Saints, LaFell led the way. Both Olsen and LaFell may struggle for consistency until one clearly emerges, and I’m not so sure one will. Olsen would be a better Week 4 bet, but I wouldn't feel great about either in terms of reliability. This game's high-scoring projection (48.5 over-under) does give Olsen and LaFell plenty of individual upside. ... Newton's 2012 target distribution: Olsen 24, Smith and LaFell 18, Mike Tolbert 10, Louis Murphy 8, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart 1. ... The focal point of Carolina's vertical-based passing attack, Smith has at least 86 yards in each of the first three games and would have back-to-back-to-back 100-yard efforts if not for Giants CB Corey Webster's pass interference last Thursday. Smith will draw Falcons RCB Dunta Robinson in coverage for the majority of Sunday's snaps after burning Robinson for most of his 11 grabs and 191 yards in last year's two meetings with Atlanta. Smith is an elite receiver play in Week 4.
Williams' 3.81 YPC average accurately represents his skill level nowadays. While Williams can still motor upfield with daylight, he's lost short-area quicks and never excelled at pushing the pile. He's a pedestrian talent at this point, and we've now learned our lesson that Williams is not a strong RB2 even when Stewart misses games. His stats in two chances to be Carolina's feature back: 17 carries for 49 yards (2.88 YPC), and three catches for 28 yards. No TDs. ... Cam missed too many open throws against the Giants, and should have had at least two more picks. He let his emotions get the best of him toward the end of the game. The ten-day layoff and return of Stewart -- the real linchpin of Carolina's read-option offense -- should help Newton and the Panthers get back on track. Ultimately, though, I think how Newton responds in Atlanta to last week's adversity will steer the ship in the direction of how his season will go. We'll find out a lot about Cam Newton at the Georgia Dome. I'd definitely still start him in fantasy. ... Stewart's return from an ankle injury should breathe back life into Carolina's rushing attack. Stewart is a really strong all-purpose back and has a consistent impact on the Panthers' offense, but he's not a consistent fantasy producer due to underutilization in terms of workload. Dating back to last season, Stewart hasn't exceeded 13 touches in his last five games. He has topped 14 touches just once in his last nine. Stewart needs Williams to get injured in order to be a reliable fantasy contributor. He's a dicey flex option.
Carolina's defensive front seven was consistently blown off the ball in last Thursday's lopsided loss to the Giants. And New York's offensive line would rarely be mistaken for an overpowering run-blocking unit. The Panthers have built their defense with the old Tim Ruskell design, paying big bucks to and using high picks on linebackers while attempting to get by with mediocrity in the front and back. The results speak for themselves. Carolina's pass rush is inconsistent at best, replacement-level receivers like Ramses Barden run wide open through the secondary, and the Panthers can't stop the run. The Falcons will pour points on this whippable unit. ... While starting Michael Turner in such a favorable matchup makes sense on paper, be aware of his diminishing role. Jacquizz Rodgers led Atlanta's backfield in Week 3 snaps and received just one fewer touch. Rodgers and Turner rotated evenly when the game was in doubt, and this is likely to be a 50:50 timeshare going forward. Turner did the large majority of his damage in clock-killing blowout mode, when San Diego's defense was worn down at the end of the game. Turner and Rodgers are just flex options going forward. Be sure to sell Turner high if he scores another TD this week.
Matt Ryan ranks second to RG3 in fantasy quarterback scoring through three games. He's not slowing down, either. While Carolina's defense has allowed only three passing scores on the young year, it's served up a combined 68.5 completion rate to Josh Freeman, Eli Manning, and Drew Brees, and has been consistently burnable when offenses opt to attack it with the pass rather than run. In an offense now philosophically reliant on the pass, Ryan is destined for more success. ... Carolina is leaving sometimes-shadow corner Chris Gamble at left cornerback this year, while fifth-round rookie Josh Norman has been eaten alive on the other side. (See Barden.) Julio Jones usually squares off with right corners (Norman) as Roddy White deals with LCBs. I thought about stopping short of guaranteeing a monster game for Julio, and then I thought again. It will happen. ... I recall watching Tony Gonzalez two seasons ago and observing that he'd lost a step. I still think he plays slow. But it does not matter. Gonzo gets open at will, and Atlanta's revised offense is keeping his fantasy value elite. Gonzalez ranks second in fantasy tight end points and is an every-week starter. ... Even in Atlanta's fantasy juggernaut pass offense, Harry Douglas has been targeted nine times in three games. Leave Douglas on the wire.
Score Prediction: Falcons 30, Panthers 24
Minnesota @ Detroit
Despite a complete lack of vertical presence in Minnesota's passing game through three weeks, Christian Ponder is the No. 10 fantasy quarterback and poised to climb. During my offseason re-watching of Ponder, I recall thinking that he could solidify himself as a franchise signal caller and viable weekly fantasy option if he improved as a decision maker and completed just a few more shots downfield. Ponder has accomplished the former, turning in the most efficient early-season quarterback performances north of Atlanta. Ponder is second in the NFL in completion rate, fifth in passer rating, has accounted for five all-purpose TDs and no interceptions, and had his best game against the NFL's best defense. He's not just lighting up chumps. Already armed with over-the-middle and down-the-seam playmakers in Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph, Ponder finally has an ability to accomplish the latter with the return of deep threat Jerome Simpson from suspension. For Week 4 purposes, it certainly doesn't hurt that Ponder has a favorable matchup against a porous Lions back end in a likely shootout. With rushing stats, underrated arm strength, and a fast-improving supporting cast on his side, here are some Week 4 quarterbacks I'd strongly consider playing Ponder over: Romo, Rivers, both Mannings, Cutler, Fitzpatrick, and Schaub.
Don't be surprised if playcaller Bill Musgrave makes a concerted effort to get Simpson the football downfield Sunday just to put that vertical threat on tape and give future defensive coordinators something more to think about. Simpson is a boom-or-bust WR3. ... Ultimately, I think Simpson will settle in as largely a clear-out guy in Minnesota; a role player in the Devery Henderson/Lee Evans mold. A decoy who attracts perimeter coverage and makes life easier on Minnesota's offense down the middle. Harvin and Rudolph are the skill-position studs to whom Musgrave will continue to scheme to get the rock. ... Harvin leads the league in receptions, and including rushing attempts is on pace for 187 touches. Regardless of PPR or non, Harvin gives you a weekly fantasy advantage and the touchdowns will come. Start him every single week. ... Through three games, the Lions' defense has allowed 18 catches for 246 yards and three touchdowns to opposing tight ends. That's an average weekly stat line of 6/82/1. Start Rudolph. ... Fantasy owners are an impetuous bunch. And when their guys aren't scoring TDs, they get impulsive. Adrian Peterson is running as well as any back in football, but he hasn't found pay dirt since the opener. Put in a trade offer to the Peterson owner in your league before Sunday's kick. You might just come away with a steal.
I've been skeptical of Mikel Leshoure coming off his 2011 Achilles' tendon tear, and I think the jury remains out despite his 100-yard, one-touchdown debut. After watching the Titans-Lions tape, I saw a grinder whose most common run picked up three yards and a cloud of dust. Leshoure exhibited no big-play ability and needed 26 carries to arrive at the century mark, averaging under four yards a pop against a weak Titans run defense missing its middle linebacker. Leshoure's strength is pad level; he runs low to the ground for a big man and gets what's blocked. He also played extensively on passing downs. I expect Leshoure to be a volume-dependent fantasy back, and coming off that Achilles' I'm not sure he'll hold up to the volume. I envision him struggling against the Vikings' top-12 run defense. ... Because Leshoure is a downhill runner who packs some power and can move the chains, I do believe he'll have a positive impact on Detroit's play-action passing game. The Lions showed signs of taking advantage of it at Tennessee, and will almost certainly look to against a Vikings secondary that just lost a starting safety (Mistral Raymond) to a significant ankle injury. Expect a big game off the deep ball from Calvin Johnson. Although the deceptive Lions initially tried pushing him as a game-time decision, Matthew Stafford (hip) is going to play and needs to be in fantasy lineups indoors against Minnesota's below-average pass defense.
Friday Update: Leshoure was limited in practice with a groin ailment each day this week and is questionable on the injury report. While the beat writers in Detroit expect Leshoure to start against the Vikings, it's not uncommon for players coming off Achilles' tears to battle ongoing lower-body injuries soon after their return. Leshoure also dealt with an ankle injury in spring practices and a bum hamstring throughout camp. Keep an eye on the injury because it could develop into a long-range concern. While I'd anticipate him playing, Leshoure is a shaky Week 4 fantasy bet, in my opinion. He's got an injury, and he needs to get the ball a lot to accrue worthwhile production.
I keyed in on two Lions in Detroit-Tennessee: Leshoure on run plays and Brandon Pettigrew when Stafford went to pass. Pettigrew's textbook route is a 5-7 yard buttonhook post-up. He is not a seam stretcher. Pettigrew is a checkdown option if Stafford finds no one open downfield. Ignore if you don't pick up on this right away, but his pass-game usage reminds me of Chase Coffman at Missouri. Pettigrew lacks athleticism and produces only because he plays in a pass-heavy spread offense. I saw him drop two balls and lose a fumble against the Titans. He gained 61 yards on 12 targets. Start Pettigrew against the Vikings if it makes you happy, but watching him play makes me want to throw up a little. ... Joique Bell got late-game carries ahead of him, but I'm not so sure Bell has passed Kevin Smith on the depth chart. (Leshoure has, obviously.) Smith opened Week 3 as Detroit's third-down back. I'd hang onto Smith in fantasy leagues because I'm not convinced Leshoure's health will hold up. ... Stafford's target distribution on the year: Calvin 27, Pettigrew 25, Nate Burleson 21, Titus Young 12, Tony Scheffler 11, Smith 9, Bell 5, Leshoure 3. ... Burleson was held to 25 yards or fewer in each of his 2011 meetings with Minnesota, which isn't a surprise because he plays in the slot and so does Vikings top CB Antoine Winfield. ... Although Young's Week 3 touchdown came on a somewhat fluky 46-yard Hail Mary from backup QB Shaun Hill, making a huge crunch-time play like that can only help his standing in the coaches' eyes. His snaps were already surging; Young played 89-of-96 (92.7 percent) downs in Nashville. He's definitely worth a look as a WR3.
Score Prediction: Lions 34, Vikings 30
San Diego @ Kansas City
The Chargers desperately need LT Jared Gaither. A week after the bottom nearly fell out against Titans RE Kamerion Wimbley, undrafted rookie fill-in Mike Harris was routinely blown off the ball and simply ran around by Falcons RE John Abraham, who had Philip Rivers running for his life in Week 3. Snatching a 20-0 halftime lead, Atlanta's pass rush teed off on Rivers and torpedoed San Diego's passing game. Chiefs OLBs Tamba Hali and smoking-hot Justin Houston are capable of doing the same to Harris and annual protection liability RT Jeromey Clary. Rivers' long-range outlook brightens with Gaither returning to the practice field, but he needs to get to next week healthy first. Rivers would be on my fantasy bench in Week 4. ... Ryan Mathews is a guy I'd be trying to trade for before Sunday. Although falling behind big early limited his workload, and he showed rust on an early-game fumble, Mathews looked terrific against the Falcons. Mathews made explosive lateral cuts, ran through would-be tacklers, and rocketed into alleys as if he were shot from a cannon. Mathews is back, and Gaither's return will help him in the long run, too. Go get Mathews before it's too late, and start him if you've got him. Kansas City's run defense ranks 22nd in the NFL through three games. The Chiefs are serving up in excess of 4.7 yards per carry.
Friday Update: I wanted to address A.J. Smith's interview with the top columnist in town regarding Mathews' fumble, conveniently two days before the game. It's an obvious motivational tactic by Smith, who is Mathews' biggest supporter in the building after discarding hometown hero LaDainian Tomlinson and subsequently trading a boatload of picks to draft Mathews three Aprils ago. Smith is invested, and his primary concern is seeing to it that Mathews succeeds. He also took no steps to secure a competitive backup running back in the offseason. Smith is no dummy; San Diego's passing game is bordering on dysfunctional and the club badly needs its running game to step up. Mathews isn't in any danger of losing his job. Start him against Kansas City.
Kansas City has allowed a touchdown to a tight end in three consecutive games. While many a fantasy owner has expressed early-season concern with Antonio Gates, I think he'll be fine. He got dinged up in Week 1, was a last-minute scratch in Week 2, and in Week 3 no one in San Diego's passing offense produced. In Gates' last three meetings with K.C., he has 16 catches for 267 yards and three TDs. The protection is still a concern -- at least until Gaither comes back -- but I'd roll out Gates in Week 4 unless I had a Martellus Bennett or Kyle Rudolph. ... Malcom Floyd got open regularly against Falcons RCB Dunta Robinson in Week 3 but had an ugly drop and was simply missed by Rivers on multiple occasions as pressure forced him to throw off his back foot. This week, I like Floyd's chances of getting open against Chiefs RCB Stanford Routt. Whether Rivers gets time to accurately deliver passes is another issue entirely. ... Look for LCB Brandon Flowers to swallow up Robert Meachem, who's yet to clear 50 yards as a Bolt and is just a WR5. ... Though long an offseason puff-piece all star, Eddie Royal is nowhere near as spectacular in real life or fantasy. He's been targeted eight times on the season, reeling in six for a mere 29 yards.
While San Diego's run defense has continued to be largely formidable, the back end was badly exposed by Matt Ryan in Week 3. Ryan completed 30-of-40 passes for 275 yards and three TDs, shredding RCB Antoine Cason and slot CB Marcus Gilchrist. The No. 8 fantasy wideout thus far, Dwayne Bowe knows this group well. He's also sure to benefit from the reemergence of Jamaal Charles, whose decisive, game-breaking running will open up Kansas City's play-action passing game. ... Slot receiver Dexter McCluster's elbow injury appeared more severe at New Orleans than it apparently proved to be. He practiced on a limited basis this week and is questionable for Sunday. With just eight touches for 65 total yards, a lost fumble, and no touchdowns in his last two games, however, McCluster is fantasy bench material, no matter how favorable this matchup. ... Jon Baldwin is a guy to watch. Per Pro Football Focus, Baldwin's snaps played have goosed from 22 in Week 1 to 39 in Week 2 to 61 in Week 3. Kansas City's passing game may never prove voluminous enough to support more than Bowe as a consistent fantasy scorer, but Baldwin could develop into a viable bye-week WR3 if he continues to get enough playing time. He possesses big-play ability and could be another beneficiary of play-action game improvement.
Friday Update: Bowe is listed as questionable on the Week 4 injury report with a groin ailment. The injury occurred on Thursday and Bowe bounced back to practice on a limited basis Friday, which should bode well for his chances of playing against San Diego. Check back Sunday morning, but signs point toward Bowe getting the start in a favorable matchup.
Just as some prognosticators were leaving him for dead, Jamaal Charles graciously reminded us all that he's a top-five running talent at New Orleans. After viewing Chiefs-Saints, I'm going to say Charles is 95-98 percent back from his ACL. His feet are as fast as ever, he got skinny through tight spaces, he spotted cutback lanes quickly and knifed through them, and he accelerated on a dime. If we're picking nits, I think 2010 Charles blows past SS Roman Harper with more of a second gear on his third-quarter 91-yard score. Straight-line long speed is overrated anyway, though. I charted parts of the game, and found it notable that Charles played on five of Kansas City's first six third-down snaps, before Peyton Hillis' injury. Shaun Draughn handled some later passing downs, but the Chiefs are obviously willing to use Charles as a three-down workhorse. Hillis (ankle) doesn't look like he's returning soon, so Charles can expect monster workloads for the foreseeable future. For a special talent like Charles, matchups don't matter when he's getting the football 20-plus times a game. He's an elite fantasy commodity and locked-in RB1.
Score Prediction: Chiefs 23, Chargers 20