Thursday Night Football
Arizona @ St. Louis
From a fantasy standpoint, Thursday night's Cardinals-Rams game is a difficult one to project with any kind of confidence. Our concern is with offensive skill-position players, and even this game's lone fantasy star (Larry Fitzgerald) has battled early-season inconsistency. Each team's strength is its defense. The 39-point over-under is the lowest of Week 5. I typically encourage fantasy owners to aggressively start guys in Thursday Night Football games, but you're going to need to trust your gut above all else in this one. I'd be calling this a game to avoid if it were played Sunday.
On to the nuts and bolts.
Thursday night's matchup for Ryan Williams certainly is right. St. Louis' 26th-ranked run defense is giving up 4.70 yards per carry and has permitted six rushing touchdowns in four games. The Rams are the kind of opponent that busts running back slumps. But I think there is reason to be cautious about firing up Williams as a Week 5 fantasy starter. On Monday, I went back and watched all 44 of Williams' 2012 rushing attempts. I saw a runner who struggled to stick his foot in the ground and accelerate through the hole, and who needed a lot of room to operate productively between the tackles. On runs to the perimeter, Williams was regularly beaten to the corner by slower defenders. I also saw a back who lost significant playing time to early-season healthy scratch William Powell in Arizona's no-huddle offense. (Powell played 34 snaps in Week 4 to Williams' 33.) It's pretty clear Williams is still working his way back from last August's patellar tendon tear, lacking the explosive, violent running ability he flashed as a redshirt freshman at Virginia Tech. Williams is a struggling player right now, but running backs can produce when they have running lanes. And he should have some at the Edward Jones Dome on Thursday night.
The 2012 Rams are better in the secondary, but Fitzgerald has had this team's number for nearly a decade. Fitz has 91 catches, over 1,200 yards, and 13 touchdowns in 16 career meetings with St. Louis. Rolling his past two games after a slow first two, Fitzgerald is a WR1 on Thursday night. ... Although the Week 4 line of 6-118-2 may go down as his best of the year, I am intrigued by an improved Andre Roberts. A less dynamic version of Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, Roberts can play all three receiver spots and preys on favorable coverage opposite a more dangerous teammate. The Cards are running a lot of no-huddle offense with Kevin Kolb under center, and playing a ton of three-wide sets. I expect Fitzgerald to spend most of this game in rookie RCB Janoris Jenkins' coverage, while Roberts deals with LCB Bradley Fletcher. Jenkins and Fletcher have played well early in the season, but I'd rather my fantasy receivers face them than slot CB Cortland Finnegan. ... Kolb's target distribution in three starts this season: Fitzgerald 29, Roberts 16, Early Doucet 12, Michael Floyd 10, Todd Heap 9, Rob Housler and Williams 6. ... Unless Rams coach Jeff Fisher makes a large Week 5 defensive adjustment, Doucet will match up with Finnegan on virtually all of his Thursday night snaps. Avoid. ... First-round pick Floyd's field time has gradually risen the past two games, but he's going to need Fitz or Roberts to get hurt to be a viable fantasy option.
Rams OC Brian Schottenheimer's offensive design plays to the strengths of Danny Amendola to a greater extent than any St. Louis skill-position guy. Schottenheimer has drawn up a passing game heavy on three-step drops and rollouts, maximizing Sam Bradford's athleticism and quick release while attempting to minimize the impact of the NFL's worst offensive line. Amendola spends much of his time running over the middle on slot routes, which obviously pose zero vertical threat but move the chains underneath. Amendola is heavily leaned upon in the short passing-based attack, ranking fourth in the NFL in targets. Conveniently, Arizona has had a very difficult time guarding the slot, where William Gay has been eaten alive to the point that he was benched last week against the Dolphins. This is a great matchup for Amendola. ... Bradford's target distribution on the season: Amendola 43, Brandon Gibson 19, Lance Kendricks 13, Steve Smith 11, Chris Givens 10, Steven Jackson 8, Daryl Richardson 7, Brian Quick 4. ... Gibson is St. Louis' "No. 2 receiver," and averages under 40 yards a game. Perhaps Quick will get there by season's end, but for now Amendola is the lone Rams pass catcher even worth a roster spot in fantasy leagues.
Steven Jackson's on-field performance was a lot more impressive in Week 3 than Week 2. Over his groin injury, Jackson had a renewed bounce in his step against the Seahawks and handled 19 touches. Unfortunately, that translated to only 67 total yards because St. Louis' rag-tag front five failed to generate any push versus Seattle's immovable defensive front. The sledding for S-Jax doesn't get a whole lot easier on Thursday night. Arizona is permitting just 3.64 yards per carry through four games and has allowed one rushing touchdown. The Cardinals have faced LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, Stevan Ridley, and Reggie Bush, so they're not shutting down chumps. The workload and skill level are still there for Jackson, but the matchup is daunting. He's just a flex option. I expect Amendola to be the Rams' primary means of ball movement in this game.
Score Prediction: Cardinals 17, Rams 14
Start or Sit: Cardinals - Rams
Fantasy Fix: Tiffany Simons and Matt Stroup discuss whether you should be comfortable starting Steven Jackson or Danny Amendola against Arizona. Plus, should you expect Ryan Williams to turn things around and is Andre Roberts worthy of WR3 status?
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