Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
Steelers-Ravens games are typically low-scoring slugfests with few outliers. The division rivals play twice a year, and these are their last six regular season results: 23-20, 13-10, 35-7, 23-20, 17-14, 13-10. The over-under on this game is 40.5 points, which is the third lowest of Week 7. I'd probably still bet the under. ... Ben Roethlisberger's pass protection is a major concern again with 6-foot-3, 303-pound utility lineman Kelvin Beachum installed at left tackle facing a Baltimore defense that ranks second in the NFL in sacks with a 3:4 TD-to-INT ratio permitted to enemy quarterbacks since Opening Day. Big Ben is a low-end two-QB-league play this week. ... Le'Veon Bell has an inarguably difficult matchup versus the Ravens' No. 7 run defense, which is permitting just 3.64 YPC with one rushing score allowed through six games. The fantasy points didn't cooperate in Week 6 against the Jets, but Bell has still settled in as an every-week RB2/flex in tough matchups, with high-end RB2 potential when the Steelers face weaker teams. Bell is averaging 19.5 touches since returning from his foot injury two games ago, and that volume is hard to find. If Bell's box-score stats continue to disappoint versus run-tough Baltimore, he will be a recommended buy-low target ahead of Week 8.
Big Ben's target distribution since Le'Veon joined the lineup: Antonio Brown 24, Heath Miller 15, Emmanuel Sanders 14, Bell 8, Jerricho Cotchery 6. ... Despite an early-season bye, Brown ranks tenth in the NFL in targets over the past five weeks and is approaching WR1 value as the clear focal point of Pittsburgh's passing game. Brown may never be a good bet for double-digit TDs in a season, but he could easily emerge from Week 7 with nine catches. The Ravens' secondary is their defensive weakness. ... Miller is an every-down player again and critical part of OC Todd Haley's passing attack. Baltimore is allowing the ninth most fantasy points to tight ends, giving Miller a plus matchup this week. He's a low-end TE1. ... When I watched the Steelers' Week 6 game against the Jets, I came away feeling like Miller had clearly bypassed Sanders as the No. 2 option in Haley's passing game despite Sanders' 55-yard touchdown versus Antonio Cromartie. I expect Sanders to be a low-ceiling WR3/4 moving forward. ... Cotchery's playing time was cut way back against the Jets, as he played a season-low 19-of-67 downs and was not targeted. He's well off the fantasy radar even though Markus Wheaton remains out indefinitely with a broken finger.
Beyond Torrey Smith, the Ravens' passing game can only be considered dysfunctional. As a team, Baltimore is 24th in completion rate (57.9%) with a 7:8 TD-to-INT ratio and 19 sacks allowed, tied for seventh most in football. Taking on Pittsburgh's top-four pass defense at Heinz Field probably won't cure what's ailing Joe Flacco & Co. 17th in fantasy quarterback scoring on the season, Flacco is an especially low-end QB2 this week. ... Based on his game tape and performance, I think it's safe to say Ray Rice is no more than 80% of the back he was two years ago. Slipping O-Line play has only exacerbated the issue. Rice still has at least 16 touches in all but one game this year, keeping him on the RB2 radar against Pittsburgh's No. 22 run defense. Just don't be surprised if the Ravens start giving Bernard Pierce more runs. Rice seems already to be wearing down at age 26, and 23-year-old Pierce is noticeably more effective in terms of tackle breaking and swallowing up blocked yards. Pierce is a back to target in Dynasty leagues.
Under Dick LeBeau, the Steelers play primarily zone defense in the back end when they're not using RCB Ike Taylor in matchup coverage. (And they rarely do the latter.) So Torrey Smith won't see the same "cloud" coverage he experienced in last week's loss to Green Bay. Despite the Week 6 hiccup (1-12), Smith remains an every-week WR2 who ranks fourth in the league in receiving yards and first in yards per catch. ... Flacco's target distribution with Marlon Brown back from his hamstring injury against the Packers: Brown 7; Tandon Doss and Dallas Clark 6; Rice and Smith 4; Jacoby Jones, Pierce, and Vonta Leach 2. ... The way the Packers' defense guarded Smith had an obvious impact on those target numbers, and coach John Harbaugh's pledge this week to increase Jones' involvement makes the rest of Baltimore's pass catchers shots in the Week 7 dark. They're facing a stingy Steelers pass defense to begin with. Brown would be a poor WR3 investment. Jones is only worth consideration in return-yardage leagues. And Clark's Week 6 stat line of 4-81-1 can't be trusted as predictive against a Pittsburgh team giving up the third fewest fantasy points to tight ends. Doss is a fourth receiver behind Smith, Brown, and Jones, who also competes with Rice, Pierce, Clark, and Ed Dickson for weekly pass-game attention.
Score Prediction: Ravens 17, Steelers 14
Cleveland @ Green Bay
Matching up with Cleveland's top-seven defense is never an easy task, but fantasy owners can find solace in the fact that Green Bay's skill-position pecking order is defined. Randall Cobb is out eight weeks with a fractured fibula. James Jones will miss 1-2 games with a PCL sprain. Eddie Lacy has piled up 48 touches the past two weeks, while the rest of the Packers' backs have combined for eight. We know who's likely to get the football in this game. ... There is nothing easy about Lacy's Week 7 matchup. The Browns rank No. 7 in run defense and surrender 3.49 yards per carry, the fifth stingiest clip in football. Lacy owners can still hang their hat on heavy volume and the odds of a goal-line plunge, which are good in a home game where Aaron Rodgers is still very much capable of moving the offense. Lacy is the Packers' best bet for a Week 7 touchdown. He's a borderline RB1 going forward. ... Although the numbers appear fluky based on Cleveland's stifling Weeks 1-5 tight end coverage, the Browns coughed up seven grabs, 70 yards, and three touchdowns to Lions tight ends last week. Jermichael Finley is going to play a bigger role in Green Bay's passing attack this Sunday out of sheer necessity. He's a prime candidate for 8-12 targets.
Some fantasy leaguers asked me this week if benching Jordy Nelson is a good idea against Joe Haden. The answer? No. Haden deserves kudos for his to-date performance, but Nelson is a top-five fantasy wideout whose target potential is only enhanced by Cobb and Jones' absences. I also firmly believe Nelson is good enough to beat Haden if Browns DC Ray Horton lets them match up one on one. Treat Nelson as a locked-and-loaded WR1. ... Even without Jones and Cobb, in Nelson and Finley Rodgers still has enough firepower to pay Week 7 fantasy dividends. Perhaps he's more mid-range or even low-end QB1 than top-five option, but Rodgers can be counted on. It's worth noting Rodgers lit up Horton's Arizona defense in November of last year for four touchdown passes. The Cardinals were playing outstanding defense at the time. ... Green Bay's Week 7 three-receiver set figures to be comprised of Nelson, Jarrett Boykin, and Myles White. Boykin is worth a look for WR3 desperados in Cobb's old slot role, but beware of his ability limitations. Boykin ran a 4.62 forty at the 2012 Combine at 6-foot-2, 217. Boykin played 58-of-69 snaps in Week 6 against the Ravens, dropped two passes, and caught 1-of-6 targets for 43 yards. Unquestionably, opportunity is on Boykin's side. Boykin's on-field play to this point is troubling.
Cleveland's offense is always more likely than not to struggle when it's being quarterbacked by Brandon Weeden, but there is room for Week 7 optimism for Browns pass catchers. The Packers are without starting OLBs Clay Matthews (thumb) and Nick Perry (broken foot), in addition to ILB Brad Jones (hamstring). To call Green Bay's defense banged up would be an understatement. ... With at least 70 yards and/or a touchdown in four straight weeks since coming off suspension, Josh Gordon should be viewed by fantasy owners as an every-week WR2. Gordon is averaging 11 targets per game. ... Weeden's target distribution over the past two weeks: Gordon and Chris Ogbonnaya 14, Jordan Cameron 11, Greg Little 9, Davone Bess 6, Gary Barnidge 4, Willis McGahee and Travis Benjamin 3. ... Cameron's stats are naturally going to take a hit in the post-Brian Hoyer era simply because Cleveland doesn't have as much passing volume as a team, and their quarterback has downgraded. Still, here are Cameron's stat lines in Weeden's three starts this season: 9-108-1, 5-95, 5-64. At the very least, Cameron should be treated as a low-end fantasy TE1. If the Packers employ "cloud" coverage to slow Gordon as they did versus Torrey Smith last week, Cameron would project as the primary box-score beneficiary. Washed-up Ravens TE Dallas Clark dropped 81 yards and a touchdown on Green Bay's defense in Week 6.
Ogbonnaya is very much involved in the Browns' offense as a versatile lead blocker, change-of-pace runner, and passing-down specialist, but fantasy owners need to avoid chasing his Week 6 receiving stats (7-61-1). Ogbonnaya saw five of his 12 targets in the fourth quarter of Cleveland's 31-17 defeat. He's more of a drain on McGahee's value than a standalone flex option. ... Dead-legged 32-year-old McGahee laid a 39-yard egg in last week's plus matchup versus Detroit's leaky defense. On Sunday, he'll meet a Packers unit that ranks third against the run and allows just 3.37 yards per carry. Consider McGahee a low-ceiling, low-end flex option. He doesn't have much left. ... Little regained his starting job from Bess against the Lions and finished with two catches for 12 yards and a touchdown, seeing five targets. Just not a very good NFL receiver, Little doesn't warrant roster space on 10- and 12-team league fantasy rosters. ... Bess is a role-playing slot receiver without playmaking ability, and has scored one touchdown over his last 20 games. He's obviously without fantasy value. The Packers are expected to get an upgrade in slot receiver coverage this week with Casey Hayward finally returning from a six-week hamstring strain.
Score Prediction: Packers 23, Browns 14
Sunday Night Football
Denver @ Indianapolis
Trent Richardson's fantasy owners are understandably discouraged. So far, the Cleveland-to-Indy move hasn't helped his box-score stats. 20th in fantasy running back scoring since the trade five games ago, T-Rich's forthcoming groove has yet to reach high gear, though there are promising signs both on his tape and in his per-play efficiency. His weekly yards-per-carry average has risen each week since his acquisition, and Richardson ripped off numerous tackle-breaking runs in the rare instances the Colts had the ball in last Monday night's loss. (The Chargers won the time-of-possession battle 39:21.) There is risk on Sunday night of Indianapolis falling behind on the scoreboard and resorting to the pass versus Peyton Manning's Broncos, but it's also likely T-Rich will be the focal point of playcaller Pep Hamilton's game plan in an effort to limit Peyton's field time. Richardson owners should stay the course and treat him as an every-week starter, because he's on the verge of breaking loose. Non-Richardson owners' best approach is to buy low. This is a volume back in a highly effective, run-based offense. A hot stretch is nigh. ... The returns of sack master Von Miller (suspension) and CB Champ Bailey (foot) improve Denver's pass defense, but Andrew Luck deserves top-five QB1 consideration in this likely shootout. Broncos games this year average a combined point total of 70.2, and Sunday night's 56-point over-under is the largest of Week 7. In fantasy, you want to start quarterbacks in shootout games.
Luck's target distribution since the Richardson trade: Reggie Wayne 34, T.Y. Hilton 26, Darrius Heyward-Bey 19, Coby Fleener 18, T-Rich and Donald Brown 7. ... Playing ball-control offense, the Colts' No. 23 ranking in pass attempts has resulted in an inability to support more than one pass catcher as a consistent weekly fantasy starter. That one guy is Wayne, who ranks 16th among fantasy wideouts. His Week 7 outlook is particularly promising due to this game's high-scoring projection. ... 35-year-old Bailey is vulnerable deep, as evidenced in last January's postseason matchup with Torrey Smith. Although Hilton's weekly inconsistencies are frustrating, this is a good week to play him. ... Possession-blocking wideout Heyward-Bey is on pace for a 2013 stat line of 38/390/0. He isn't worth a roster spot in 12-team leagues. ... Although Fleener has underwhelmed both as a real-life player and fantasy tight end, he's worth a look as a Week 7 flier TE1 play due to the game's shootout potential. The Broncos have also allowed the fifth most receptions and third most yards in the league to tight ends. ... Brown is averaging six touches for 50 yards per game since Ahmad Bradshaw's year-ending neck injury three weeks ago. "Dammit Donald" deserves kudos for settling in as an effective NFL change-of-pace back, but has no re-draft fantasy value.
Colts owner Jim Irsay essentially ripped Peyton Manning for being a Stats QB in the media this week, complaining about Peyton's number of Super Bowl wins. Manning's likely reaction will be swift and harsh. It'll last 60 minutes, and Irsay will not enjoy it. Look for secondary weak link LCB Greg Toler to experience Peyton's wrath. Among Denver receivers, Eric Decker and Wes Welker run the most pass routes against opposing left corners. Welker is an every-week WR1; Decker is a high-end WR2. ... RCB Vontae Davis has been Indianapolis' top cover corner this year, but he's given up a touchdown in back-to-back games and will now deal with No. 5 overall fantasy wideout Demaryius Thomas. Davis was victimized by Seahawks fourth receiver Jermaine Kearse in Week 5, and upstart rookie Keenan Allen last Monday night. This is a plus matchup for Demaryius. ... Manning's target distribution on the season: Welker and Decker 50, Demaryius 49, Julius Thomas 43, Knowshon Moreno 24, Ronnie Hillman 12, Montee Ball 4. ... In fantasy football, there are only three tight ends I'd rather own going forward than Orange Julius: Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, and Rob Gronkowski. The Colts have been stingy in tight end coverage -- no TE has scored a touchdown on Indy and they're 23rd in fantasy points allowed to the position -- but Thomas is an elite play every week.
Many folks were still worrying about a three-headed backfield several weeks ago, while we were pointing out in the weekly Matchups columns that Moreno had clearly ascended atop the heap even if box-score stats hadn't yet cooperated due to blowout wins. They're cooperating in full now. Here is Denver's backfield touch distribution over the past two weeks: Knowshon 46, Hillman 17, Ball 12. The pecking order will stay this way barring a Moreno injury. Treat Moreno as an every-week RB2 who can score like an RB1 in any given game. His Week 7 matchup is especially enticing against a Colts defense that ranks 31st against the run and silver platters 4.60 yards per carry. Indianapolis' front seven was physically handled by a middling Chargers rushing attack last Monday night. ... I realize Hillman is getting more work at the moment, but I would prefer to use a "stash" fantasy roster spot on Ball over Denver's change-of-pace back if forced to decide between the two. The Broncos have repeatedly openly stated that they do not envision Hillman as a lead runner. Were Moreno to go down, Ball would likely get the nod as the primary early-down and goal-line back, with Hillman mixing in on passing downs. Ball is the superior Moreno handcuff in fantasy leagues.
Score Prediction: Broncos 34, Colts 28
Monday Night Football
Minnesota @ NY Giants
Coming off their most promising 2013 performance and an 11-day break to heal up, the Giants have another get-well matchup at home against the sieve-ish Vikings. Not only does Minnesota rank 31st in yards allowed, it'll be minus top defensive back Harrison Smith (turf toe). Desperate QB1 streamers ought to give Eli Manning a look. The Vikings get gashed in the air because they can't generate pressure, with 13 passing scores allowed in five games. They're 29th in sacks. It's a defense capable of making bad offensive lines look good. ... Speaking of that Giants O-Line, it's finally stringing together some continuity. For the first time all season in Week 6, New York started the same five linemen as the week before. The Giants bullied an admittedly depleted Bears front for year highs in yards per carry (4.7), rushing yards (123), and rushing scores (2) while allowing just one sack. Week 7 foe Minnesota ranks 18th in run defense and has allowed six rushing TDs through five games. The Giants project to move the ball on offense, setting up opportunities to score. 31-year-old street free agent Brandon Jacobs lacks staying power, but he's worth serious consideration as a flex play in prime time. He's a solid bet for a goal-line plunge, and maybe two. ... Jacobs' backups will be fellow in-season free agent signing Peyton Hillis, and promising seventh-round rookie Michael Cox. I watched all of Cox's preseason touches and came away impressed. He has quick feet, burst, and lateral agility. I would want him on my Dynasty roster.
Saturday Update: Listed on the injury report with a balky hamstring, Jacobs missed Saturday's practice after barely participating earlier in the week and is shaping up as a game-time decision against Minnesota. One Giants beat writer suggested Jacobs had encountered a "setback," while another openly considered Jacobs' availability a total unknown. Because this game won't be played until Monday night, fantasy owners with safer Sunday options should invest in those instead. Even if Jacobs were 100 percent, he's a still 31-year-old plodding running back and no lock for Week 7 statistical success.
If Jacobs doesn't play: I think we'd see Hillis and Cox in a rotation, with Cox handling the majority of early-down work and Hillis in the pass-protection and short-yardage role. I'd use Cox over Hillis if forced to decide between the two.
You could argue Victor Cruz has the best on-paper matchup of any wide receiver in football this week. Vikings slot corner Josh Robinson has been torched to the point that he was benched for special teamer Marcus Sherels in last week's loss to Carolina, although Robinson had to reenter due to LCB Xavier Rhodes' recurring ankle injury. This has the look of a slump-buster game for Cruz, who hasn't cleared 70 yards or reached pay dirt since Week 4. ... With Rhodes hobbled and the rest of Minnesota's secondary in shambles, Hakeem Nicks remains on the WR3 radar, though he'll likely spend most of Monday night in top CB Chris Cook's coverage. Cook has been up and down this year, but he is a long-armed, 6-foot-2, 212-pound press-man corner who can disrupt receivers’ routes at the line of scrimmage. Regardless of matchups, Nicks' inconsistency makes him an every-week roll of the dice. ... Third receiver Rueben Randle again has a plus matchup, and again is a boom-or-bust WR3/flex. Fantasy owners can't ignore the upside, but have to be aware of the risk. Randle has cleared 75 yards and/or scored a touchdown in 3-of-6 games this year. He's been held scoreless and/or to 40 or fewer yards in the other three. So he's a classic high-risk, high-reward fantasy option. I wouldn't be comfortable starting Randle without a Nicks injury or trade. ... Giants TE Brandon Myers has been injured and ineffective as a blocker, which may combine to explain his season-low 30 snaps in last Thursday's loss to the Bears. He could score a fluky red-zone touchdown on Monday night, and would still be fantasy waiver-wire fodder.
The Vikings have handed the keys to their
ferrari kit car to Josh Freeman just in time to face a Giants defense that ranks last in points allowed and 24th in yards. Similar to the Vikings, the G-Men can't generate enough up-front heat to mask their deficient secondary. They've given up a league-high 14 passing TDs and rank dead last in sacks. On paper, this is the kind of cake setup that could bait fantasy owners and perhaps even the Vikings into thinking erratic Freeman is a long-term solution. I'd give him serious consideration as a two-QB-league start. ... Freeman's strength as a passer is throwing the "big ball" -- deep shots downfield where he relies on receivers to make contested plays. The Vikings don't have a wideout that fits that mold, although Jerome Simpson is closest. Simpson, unfortunately, is one of the most inconsistent players in the league both in real life and weekly box scores. Start him as a WR3 at your own risk. ... Minnesota's best, most reliable pass catchers are slot/Z Greg Jennings, and tight end Kyle Rudolph. The bulk of Jennings' usage comes near the line of scrimmage; he's not been a deep threat in the Vikings' 2013 offense. Rudolph truly has poor man's Gronkian-type ability, but Freeman has never been an efficient or accurate short to intermediate thrower. I am intrigued by these players' fit with a new quarterback, but would chalk this up as a wait-and-see week in terms of fantasy start-ability.
When Freeman has experienced NFL success, he's been protected by a high-volume, foundation run game that keeps safeties honest and moves the chains so that his low-percentage passing doesn't result in continual three-and-outs. The Vikings obviously have that with Adrian Peterson, who on Monday night faces a Giants defense that ranks 26th against the run. Minnesota's formula will remain unchanged despite the quarterback switch. Peterson is going to get a ton of carries, and the Vikings will try to kickstart their play-action passing game with an emphasis on increased downfield shot plays. ... Cordarrelle Patterson's snaps have indeed risen the past three weeks, though he's still not a key figure in Minnesota's offense. He's been a 27% player during that span, and is coming off a two-catch, three-yard game. Patterson needs to start playing more downs to become a fantasy asset. Hopefully, OC Bill Musgrave will begin putting Patterson in position to make plays because he possesses video-game talent with the football in his hands.
Score Prediction: Giants 24, Vikings 20