St. Louis @ Carolina
Playcaller Mike Shula brought back the designed quarterback run in Week 6 at Minnesota, and Carolina rolled up another convincing win. In the two games Cam Newton has been an integral part of Carolina's run game, the Panthers are undefeated with scoring results of 38-0 and 35-10. When Shula has utilized Cam like a conventional pocket passer, Carolina is 0-3 with losses to Buffalo, Arizona, and Seattle. Hopefully, Shula is beginning to get the picture. In my Going Forward Rankings, I ranked Newton under the assumption that Shula will indeed continue to use his dual-threat quarterback like a dual threat. Back at home this week, Newton is capable of dominating St. Louis' No. 22 defense if Shula plays to his strengths. ... The Rams can bring heat off the edge, but struggle in the back half due to poor safeties and up-and-down corner coverage. Noteworthy opposing wideout stat lines against St. Louis' porous secondary: Justin Blackmon 5-136-1; Cecil Shorts 5-74-1; Anquan Boldin 5-90-1; Dez Bryant 4-38-1; Julio Jones 11-182-1; Larry Fitzgerald 8-80-2; Andre Johnson 7-88. I'm well aware Steve Smith has been a box-score disappointment this season, but he's averaging nearly nine targets a game the past four weeks and has a plus Week 7 matchup. I like "89" as a high-ceiling WR3.
Newton's 2013 target distribution: Smith 43, Greg Olsen 36, Brandon LaFell 24, Ted Ginn 21, DeAngelo Williams 13, Mike Tolbert 8. ... Avoid chasing LaFell's Week 6 line (4-107-1); his 79-yard score came on a badly blown coverage by a depleted Vikings secondary. LaFell is a fantasy WR5/6. ... Olsen has blocked more than run routes in two of his last three games, which partially explains his sub-average stats. The Rams are playing better tight end coverage than expected because WLB Alec Ogletree has been an animal at the second and third levels. Olsen should still be viewed as a low-upside yet viable TE1 as Cam's No. 2 pass option in a game where Carolina projects to have passing success. ... Over its last four games, St. Louis has been gutted by Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray, Kendall Hunter, Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, and Ben Tate for a combined 600 yards and four TDs on 104 carries (5.77 YPC). Jonathan Stewart admitted Monday he still needs "a couple weeks" to get his ankle right, and will stay on PUP. Although Williams loses all goal-line work to Cam and Tolbert, he'll be a strong bet for 20 touches in a favorable matchup with the Rams. Fantasy owners need to sell Williams after this week. The next four games on Carolina's schedule will be against Tampa, Atlanta, San Francisco, and New England. Simply not scoring touchdowns, Williams won't be winning anyone 2013 fantasy football leagues.
Slowly and quietly but surely, the Rams are transitioning from an early-season passing-based offense to a team that leans on a sustaining, workmanlike run game. The focal point of St. Louis' revised approach is Zac Stacy, who's racked up 157 yards on 32 runs (4.91 YPC) the past two games while seeing his snap percentage rise from 56% to 81%. The Rams played inefficient offense before committing to the run, both in the pass game and on the ground. They now have two straight wins as the ball-control mindset limits their scuffling defense's field time. Sunday's matchup with Carolina's No. 4 run defense is inarguably imposing, but Stacy's value has risen to the point he's an every-week flex play with a mid-range RB2 ceiling. ... The Rams' running-game emphasis is rendering Tavon Austin an offensive non-factor. Austin played three snaps in Week 6 and was targeted once. Not only has Austin been a part of the problem and not solution in St. Louis -- he has six drops among a team-high 41 targets -- Austin is not an effective blocker. You can keep him reserved as a WR5, but something will have to change for Austin to be start-able in fantasy leagues. ... Sam Bradford's target distribution the past two weeks: Chris Givens 11, Lance Kendricks 8, Austin 7, Austin Pettis 6, Jared Cook 5, Brian Quick 4, Stacy 3, Daryl Richardson 1.
Carolina's top-seven pass defense is limiting enemy quarterbacks to a 4:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 75.8 rating, the eighth stingiest clip in football. The Panthers are effectively masking back-end flaws with arguably the NFL's most disruptive front seven. Bradford struggles in muddy pockets and will experience them Sunday. Despite career-best pace stats in touchdowns (35) and yards (3,819), Bradford is a low-end QB2. ... St. Louis' spread-the-wealth pass game hasn't produced a single fantasy starter from the likes of Austin, Cook, Givens, Pettis, and Kendricks. Continuing to prove his Week 1 outburst was a mirage, Cook ranks a pathetic 30th in fantasy tight end scoring over the past five weeks. He's a last-ditch TE2. ... Over his last four games, Givens has secured an anemic 10-of-25 targets for 139 yards. He has zero touchdowns on the season. ... Pettis will pay dividends if and only if he scores a red-zone TD, and will hurt you if he doesn't. He's found pay dirt in 3-of-6 games this year, but has cleared 60 yards just once. I personally wouldn't even consider him. ... Quick scored a four-yard touchdown in last week's win over Houston, but is the Rams' fourth receiver and can't be trusted in fantasy leagues. He's playing 33.2% of the snaps.
Score Prediction: Panthers 23, Rams 17
Cincinnati @ Detroit
Calvin Johnson practiced on a Wednesday this week for the first time since September, indicating he's re-approaching 100% after a bothersome knee injury. Detroit's offense was lost without him in Week 5 against the Packers, managing nine points and 286 total yards. Even with Megatron in a decoy role last week, production multiplied to 31 points and 366 yards in a challenging road test at Cleveland. Johnson's mere presence is a mammoth difference maker. Now ready to produce again, look for Matthew Stafford & Co. to re-find their groove. ... No. 4 in fantasy QB scoring, Stafford's TD-to-INT ratio in games Johnson plays this year is 9:3 with a 289-yard average. The Bengals are playing top-nine pass defense as their up-front pass rush starts to catch fire, but Stafford has established himself as an every-week QB1. ... Megatron's presence also makes Reggie Bush more dangerous as an all-purpose weapon. Coming off a 22-touch, 135-yard, one-score effort versus Cleveland's No. 7 run defense, Bush remains a top-seven RB1 against Cincy's No. 10 unit. PPR leaguers realize Bush's value, but I hope standard-league owners don't undersell him. He is and will continue to be a touch, yardage, and scoring machine. ... Joique Bell is healthy after last week's rib scare, but remains more handcuff/stash than flex play. Since Bell's Week 3 spot start against Washington, he's only averaging ten touches for 42 scoreless yards per game.
Some fantasy leaguers seem to find it fun chasing previous-week touchdowns. What isn't fun is getting goose eggs in your fantasy lineup, and that'll be the risk plug-and-play Joseph Fauria owners take in Week 7. Fauria caught three balls in last week's win over the Browns. They all went for TDs, and they were his only targets of the game. He played 24-of-76 snaps (31.6%). In my opinion, you'd have to be pretty desperate to start Fauria until he becomes a stable part of Detroit's offense. ... No longer a featured pass catcher for the Lions, Brandon Pettigrew hasn't cleared 60 yards or scored through five games this season. The Bengals are 20th in receptions allowed to tight ends, and 21st in yards. ... Special teamer Kris Durham is playing nearly 90% of the Lions' offensive snaps, but has dropped a pass in four consecutive weeks and hit 60 yards once during that span. He's just not a very good receiver. Opportunity can overcome talent in any given game, of course, and Durham has that in an explosive offense. He's a dice-roll WR3 option. ... Ryan Broyles remains a hold in Dynasty leagues, but he simply hasn't been a factor in Detroit's passing offense to this point. He's a WR5 in 12- and 14-team settings. Broyles did play 50-of-76 downs (66%) at Cleveland, but Stafford isn't looking his way. Broyles hasn't seen more than three targets in any game this year. Durham, Fauria, and Pettigrew are all better bets.
The Bengals got their passing offense rolling by changing up the formula in Week 6 at Buffalo. Relying heavily on wide receiver and tailback screens, Andy Dalton registered season highs in passing yards (337), touchdown passes (3), and YPA (8.43) in Cincinnati's 27-24 victory. This is probably not a sustainable method of generating offense, but OC Jay Gruden is grasping at straws a bit with Dalton failing to improve as an intermediate to deep thrower. Dalton remains a mid-range QB2 against a Lions pass defense limiting enemy quarterbacks to a 7:10 TD-to-INT ratio and 75.4 QB rating, the seventh lowest mark in the league. ... A.J. Green entered Week 6 as the most obvious buy-low trade target in fantasy, and emerged with a 6-103-1 line on a game-high 11 targets. Green is the No. 9 overall fantasy wideout on the season and an obvious top-five WR1 play against a Lions defense that dished out 126 yards on seven grabs to Josh Gordon last week. ... Dalton's target distribution over the last month: Green 42, Giovani Bernard 21, Mohamed Sanu 19, Jermaine Gresham 18, Tyler Eifert 17, Marvin Jones 14, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 2. ... Starting a non-running back in Cincinnati's offense behind Green is never a good idea. Sanu has been a major disappointment both in real life in fantasy, and the Bengals would probably be better off starting more-explosive Jones opposite A.J. I've noticed Sanu's snap percentages drop in each of the past three games, so perhaps the Bengals agree. Jones is still only the team's No. 3 receiver.
In order for a Cincinnati tight end to reach fantasy start-ability, one would need for the other to miss time. Gresham and Eifert continue to render each other non-factors. Eifert is 26th in fantasy tight end scoring, while Gresham is 28th. No tight end has found pay dirt on the Lions this season. ... Bernard has played more snaps and received more touches than Green-Ellis in three of Cincy's last four games. Over that span, Bernard has played 164 downs compared to Law Firm's 113, and Gio has handled the football on 66 occasions to BJGE's 53. Is Green-Ellis here to stay as an inside-the-tackles grinder and short-yardage back? Yes. Is Bernard going to continue to hover in the 14-21 touch-per-game range with big-play ability? Affirmative. Gio has settled in as strong weekly RB2, especially in PPR leagues, while Green-Ellis remains a touchdown-dependent flex play. The Lions are leaky against the run, where they rank 29th in the NFL and serve up a league-high 5.39 yards per carry. It's a great week to lean on Bernard. Because Green-Ellis is incapable of breaking long runs and isn't involved in the passing game, he'll only pay off as a flex start if he scores from a yard or two out. Those aren't the kinds of backs we like to roster in fantasy football.
Score Prediction: Lions 24, Bengals 21
4:05PM ET Game
San Francisco @ Tennessee
Predictably re-finding his rhythm with Vernon Davis' hamstring back to 100%, Colin Kaepernick has a 5:1 TD-to-INT ratio over his last three games, and totaled 270 yards with two touchdowns versus a Cardinals defense in Week 6 that eliminated Cam Newton the week before. Kap needs more rushing volume to reach his high ceiling, but he's very much back in the low-end QB1 discussion. It's worth noting the blitz-heavy Titans served up 61 yards on 10 carries to Russell Wilson last week. A man-coverage team, Tennessee is vulnerable to quarterback runs. ... The Titans are playing top-ten pass defense but can be exploited on the ground, where they rank 19th versus the run and submit 4.39 yards per carry, the ninth highest average in football. They'll also be without MLB Moise Fokou (knee) against the 49ers. Coming off a 101-yard gutting of Arizona's top-five run defense, Frank Gore has rushed for 417 yards and two touchdowns on his last 73 carries (5.71 YPC). Gore is running angry and this is a plus matchup, so get him in your fantasy lineup. ... Kap's target distribution since Davis got healthy two weeks ago: Davis 17, Anquan Boldin 14, Jon Baldwin 4, Bruce Miller 3, Kyle Williams 2, Vance McDonald and Kendall Hunter 1.
Seeing most of his targets over the middle and down the right sideline, Boldin will do battle with Titans LCB Jason McCourty on the majority of Sunday's snaps. Enjoying the finest season of his career, McCourty has allowed one touchdown pass through six games and is a top-five corner in Pro Football Focus' ratings. View Boldin as a WR3 this week. He can still get production against liability slot corner Coty Sensabaugh. ... The Niners are now employing a fantasy value-killing rotation at X receiver, where Williams started in Week 6 but only played 43 downs, whereas Baldwin came off the bench for 20 snaps. It's a fantasy situation to avoid. ... The only other Niners skill player worth fantasy discussion is Hunter, who is Gore's change-of-pace complement. Hunter should be stashed in all leagues and is a must-handcuff for Gore owners. Hunter is not a standalone flex play, however. He's averaging six touches for 23 yards per game.
With Jake Locker (hip/knee) still hobbled, Ryan Fitzpatrick will make his third straight start in a nightmare matchup with San Francisco's top-six pass defense. The Niners are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 7:8 TD-to-INT ratio, 69.9 passer rating -- third lowest in the league -- and an NFC-low 54.9 completion rate. The Titans will have trouble moving the ball both in the air and on the ground. ... Fitz's targets through two-plus games: Kendall Wright 19, Nate Washington 16, Delanie Walker 11, Chris Johnson 9, Damian Williams 8, Kenny Britt 7, Justin Hunter 4, Jackie Battle 2. ... San Francisco's defensive approach isn't dissimilar from division-foe Seattle's. The 49ers play physical press-man coverage on the perimeter and force defenses to work in toward the middle of the field, where playmaking ILBs Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman wreak havoc. The Seahawks held Titans primary outside receiver Washington to 15 yards on four Week 6 targets. He's a poor WR3 option this week. ... Although he isn't ripping off big plays and has hit pay dirt in just 1-of-6 games, Wright is playing well enough to warrant serious WR3 consideration. Wright has five-plus receptions in five consecutive weeks, playing primarily in the slot. 49ers slot CB Carlos Rogers is 32 years old and susceptible to quick-twitch opponents like Wright.
Saturday Update: NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Saturday the Titans expect hobbled Jake Locker to start instead of Fitzpatrick after Locker returned to practice on Friday. Practice observers, however, noticed Locker limping through the workout, and he's clearly still not 100%. Regardless of Tennessee's quarterback identity, this is a concerning situation for the offense. You'd have to think the Titans would go extremely run heavy if Locker does get the nod, although I'm still skeptical they would have much rushing success in a difficult matchup.
Block-first TE Walker has been a predictable box-score dud this season, and on Sunday takes on a 49ers defense allowing the seventh fewest fantasy points to tight ends. Look elsewhere. ... We had to change Johnson's nickname this past week from CJ3ypcK to CJ2ypcK because over his last three games the $56 million man is averaging 1.92 yards per carry. (So, generously, we're rounding up.) His only 2013 touchdown came on a bail-out shovel pass by Fitzpatrick under heavy pressure, and Johnson weaseled his way into the end zone from 49 yards out. The 49ers permit 3.85 YPC on the ground, so this isn't a plus matchup for CJwhateverK. With Shonn Greene finally returning from his scoped knee, it's fair to wonder if Johnson will really start losing carries. Greene is a superior between-the-tackles runner. Johnson only runs hard when he sees a clearly-blocked avenue, and sometimes doesn't even then. He is the NFL's least effective running back.
Score Prediction: 49ers 21, Titans 17
4:25PM ET Games
Houston @ Kansas City
Being a practice squad-type quarterback making your first start versus the NFL's sack leaders at Arrowhead isn't far off literally being thrown to wolves. Case Keenum will "star" in that role Sunday after failing to beat out T.J. Yates for the Texans' backup job in August. A macaroni-armed dunk and dinker with some scrambling chops, Keenum is a push-ball thrower with a low delivery. The Chiefs' fantasy defense will eat. ... Houston's only realistic method of ball movement will involve handoffs to Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Despite losing fumbles in back-to-back games, Tate surprisingly handled 13 touches in last week's loss to St. Louis, vulturing a one-yard touchdown in garbage time. In an ideal world, the Texans would probably give Foster about 25 touches and Tate ten. As Maurice Jones-Drew (15-45-0), DeMarco Murray (15-25-0), David Wilson (13-55-0), Chris Johnson (10-17-0), and Darren McFadden (16-52-0) can all attest, the Chiefs' run defense is much stouter than the current NFL rankings suggest. But Foster is a borderline RB1 and Tate is a low-end flex in this game simply because the volume should be there. Coach Gary Kubiak and OC Rick Dennison might need their heads checked if they let Keenum drop back to pass 25-plus times. The Arrowhead Stadium environment is fierce when the team is competitive, and the Chiefs don't just lead the NFL in sacks. They lead the NFL in sacks by eight.
I think Houston's likeliest means of Week 7 passing offense will come on Keenum checkdowns to Foster, and everything from a receiver/tight end standpoint is unpredictable guesswork. I know this sounds simplistic, but Andre Johnson is worth a WR3 start just because he's awesome and could get behind the defense on a play-action bomb. It isn't as if Kubiak and Dennison will stop calling plays for him. ... DeAndre Hopkins would be a far poorer bet. Just 42nd in receiver scoring through six games in the first place, it's secondary pass-game options like Hopkins who typically feel the brunt of quarterback downgrades. He could score a touchdown Sunday and still wouldn't have been the correct play in a majority of instances. ... Graham was a major disappointment in his first game as the Texans' primary tight end last week (2-25 on four targets), and the Chiefs have allowed the fewest fantasy points in the league to his position. Because Graham just isn't a great talent and his quarterback is essentially practice squad-caliber, I'd want to see some serious production from him before leaning on Graham as a TE1, even when Matt Schaub (foot) returns.
This has been discussed in the Matchups column for weeks now, but bears repeating: Houston's "No. 1 ranking" in total defense is one of the phoniest stats you'll see. The Texans have allowed the fourth most points in football and are getting gashed on the ground. Opponents aren't racking up yards against the Texans because they don't need to to beat them, be it either due to turnovers or methodical run-game success. The bottom line is that the Texans' defense is not an imposing one for fantasy matchup purposes. ... Of course, the Chiefs' offense isn't a juggernaut, either. The Vegas prognosticators know it, installing Kansas City as a mere 6.5-point favorite at home against first-time NFL quarterback Keenum. Since a fluky-hot start, Alex Smith has fallen to 18th in the fantasy QB rankings and is a low-end, low-ceiling QB2 week in and week out. He generates no big-play potential in the passing game while being protected by an elite defense and elite running back in Jamaal Charles. ... Smith's target distribution on the year: Charles 53, Donnie Avery and Dwayne Bowe 34, Dexter McCluster 26, Sean McGrath 22, Anthony Sherman 9.
It's telling Charles leads Kansas City in targets, and by such a wide margin. There isn't a receiver or tight end on the Chiefs that warrants serious fantasy consideration anymore. Smith can't and doesn't throw outside the numbers or downfield, rendering Bowe and Avery all but worthless with little chance of improvement barring an unforeseen defensive breakdown that puts Kansas City into more pass-happy situations. The Chiefs don't play in shootouts, and they don't allow large deficits. Whenever Avery or Bowe has a big game, it's a differentiation from the norm. ... The most-likely outlook of this game plays directly into Charles' hands. The Texans are 25th in run defense and surrender a relatively generous 4.17 yards per carry. With Keenum at the controls, the score is likely to be manageable for all four quarters, allowing the Chiefs to play the kind of offense they want to play, which means ball-control football dominated by handoffs and dump-offs to their dynamic all-purpose running back. There aren't three better fantasy RB1 bets than Charles in Week 7.
Score Prediction: Chiefs 21, Texans 16