Pittsburgh @ New England
Implicitly acknowledging pass-game difficulties have stunted their offense, the Patriots turned to a decidedly run-heavy approach in last week's 27-17 victory over Miami. Despite falling behind 14-0 early in the first quarter, OC Josh McDaniels leaned on his ground game with Stevan Ridley most prominently featured in the second and third frames, putting New England's offense on his back. Ridley has turned his last 56 runs into 278 yards (4.96 YPC) and four TDs, and over the past three weeks only Knowshon Moreno, Jamaal Charles, and Frank Gore have scored more fantasy points among running backs. Indeed, fantasy owners who bought low after Ridley's slow start are now raking in wins. Expect another Ridley-centric, run-dominated approach against Pittsburgh's No. 27 run defense in Week 9. ... LeGarrette Blount handled the bulk of last week's first-quarter carries for what were believed to be disciplinary reasons tied to Ridley's Week 7 end-zone celebration. Look for Ridley to reclaim his usual first-quarter job this week, rendering Blount a lightly used late-game clock killer at best. ... Brandon Bolden executed a giftwrapped goal-line carry for the second straight week against Miami, but remains a package-specific player who hasn't received more than 11 touches in any game this year. He's an undesirable flex option. ... Tom Brady's target distribution since Rob Gronkowski returned two games ago: Gronk 22; Aaron Dobson 12; Julian Edelman 9; Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins 6; Austin Collie and Bolden 5; Ridley 2.
Brady's low pass attempts total (36:22 run-to-pass ratio) and measly 116 yards were to blame for New England's lack of Week 8 pass-catcher production. Only Dobson (4-60-1) turned in a mildly valuable game, and his snaps week to week have been inconsistent. Because of the "X" receiver position he plays, Dobson will face off with Steelers RCB Ike Taylor on most of Sunday's downs. Of course, it could just as easily be Thompkins back in the X role this week, making this a fantasy situation to avoid. ... Amendola still paced the team in Week 8 targets and is the best fantasy bet among Pats wideouts. Amendola will spend most of Week 9 in the coverage of William Gay, who's having a good season but historically has been a whipping boy for pass games. ... Edelman is the No. 3 receiver now, and needs Brady's production to come up for his own to follow suit. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely against a Steelers defense that is much stinger in the air than on the ground, ranking No. 2 against the pass and permitting a 5:4 TD-to-INT ratio to enemy quarterbacks. Brady is not a recommended QB1 this week, although I still think he's going to pay dividends for patient fantasy owners in November and December. Edelman would be a poor WR3 gamble. ... Collie didn't see any Week 8 targets, but keep his name in mind. He's worth rostering in 16-team leagues. Collie's snaps are on the rise; he played 33-of-65 against Miami. ... Gronkowski wound up with a slow Week 8 game, but had a 40-yard touchdown catch negated by LT Nate Solder's holding call at the line of scrimmage. Expect a rebound week against the Steelers. Gronkowski has faced a Dick LeBeau defense twice in his career, teeing off for stat lines of 5-72-3 and 7-94.
With NT Vince Wilfork and WLB Jerod Mayo on injured reserve, and DT Tommy Kelly still nursing a multi-week knee injury, opponents are predictably attacking the Patriots on the ground. The Jets fired up a whopping 52 rushing attempts in their Week 7 upset of New England, before the usually pass-happy Dolphins followed up with a season-high 31 runs against the Pats last week. Although game flow sometimes works against them, the Steelers by identity are a run-minded club. Expect heavy doses of Le'Veon Bell versus New England's No. 31 run defense. ... Ben Roethlisberger's target distribution since Le'Veon joined the lineup four games ago: Antonio Brown 43; Emmanuel Sanders 27; Heath Miller 25; Bell 16; Jerricho Cotchery 14; Felix Jones 6; Derek Moye 2. ... Pats shutdown CB Aqib Talib's expected return from a strained hip is concerning for Brown's Week 9 outlook, although there are reasons for optimism. It's entirely possible Talib won't be 100%, and if not the Patriots may be loathe to use him as a true shadow defender. The Pats also think highly of Sanders, whom they tried signing to a restricted free agent offer sheet this past spring, only for the Steelers to match. And Brown moves around the formation so often that he's not an easy wide receiver for corners to mirror. I still think Brown emerges from this game as Pittsburgh's leader in targets and receptions. On pace for 128 catches, Brown is a PPR machine and every-week WR2.
Although I'm skeptical Talib will eliminate Brown coming off a nearly three-week injury, it stands to reason Sanders could be more heavily targeted in the event that does happen. Sanders' role also has grown the past few weeks. Returning from a triple-knee ligament tear, Miller isn't moving as well of late, thrusting Sanders back into No. 2 pass-option duties. Sanders is a reasonable, if low-ceiling WR3 in Foxboro. ... I was excited about Miller after his first two of four appearances, but the past two have been rough. Miller has never been a speed merchant, but looked particularly plodding in last week's loss to Oakland. He's probably going to be a touchdown-dependent TE1/2 the rest of the way. The Patriots are 19th in fantasy points allowed to tight ends, and tied for 26th in TDs permitted. ... Rookie Markus Wheaton (finger) still isn't ready to play, depriving Roethlisberger of his most explosive offensive weapon. Primarily due to Talib's relentless contract-year coverage and much-improved pass rush, New England has been substantially better in pass than run defense this year. The Patriots rank fifth against the pass, are tied for eighth in sacks, and have allowed a 9:10 TD-to-INT ratio to enemy quarterbacks. Big Ben is a mid-range to low-end QB2 in this road affair. The combination of Pittsburgh's porous offensive line, run-heavy mindset, and a glaring weapons shortage has made Roethlisberger look like an average player all season long.
Score Prediction: Patriots 21, Steelers 17
Sunday Night Football
Indianapolis @ Houston
T.Y. Hilton has a shot to be a stretch-run monster in the absence of Reggie Wayne. The Colts had a Week 8 bye to reshape their offense, pinpointing ways to paper over the loss of a wideout commanding 26% of Andrew Luck's targets. That is an awful lot of opportunity to distribute, with Hilton at the forefront to get it. Look for Hilton to leap from a 63% player to nearly 100%, and perhaps most critically inherit Wayne's old slot snaps, where he will run high-percentage routes like a souped-up Victor Cruz. I don't think there's a slot corner in the league capable of covering Hilton one on one. If the Colts follow through on using Hilton in this manner, I think he's capable of producing like a rest-of-season WR1. ... Coach Chuck Pagano stated this week Darrius Heyward-Bey's role won't change. Wayne's loss could translate to a few more per-game targets for DHB, but he will continue to run possession-type routes and remains the Colts' top perimeter blocker. Heyward-Bey has not been used as a deep threat this season. Now battling a hamstring injury, Heyward-Bey is a fantasy WR4 at Houston. DHB will see solid outside CBs Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson in coverage on Sunday night, while Hilton takes on struggling slot defender Brice McCain. ... Less-established Colts wideouts to monitor are LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen. A 5-foot-11, 197-pound second-year UDFA, Whalen knows OC Pep Hamilton from Stanford and opened the season on the active roster before being demoted to the practice squad. He's back on the 53. Though plagued by off-field drama, Brazill flashed an ability to win at the second and third levels as a rookie last season. He could take Hilton's old third receiver/situational deep threat role.
Friday Update: Heyward-Bey (hamstring, questionable) was held out of practice Friday after going down during Thursday's session. Pagano says DHB is going to play against the Texans, but he's not a recommended fantasy start at less than 100%. Look for Hilton to be the new go-to target in Indy's passing attack.
Luck's target distribution since the Trent Richardson trade: Wayne 42; Hilton 37; DHB 26; Coby Fleener 23; Donald Brown 10; T-Rich 7. ... So even before Wayne's injury, Fleener was the Colts' No. 3 pass-game option at best. It's conceivable his role will grow, but ultimately Fleener has been a disappointment in both real life and fantasy. He's getting destroyed as a blocker and runs routes tentatively, fearing contact. The Texans have allowed the fewest receptions and yards in the NFL to tight ends. ... Hamilton also had time during the bye to reevaluate his usage of Richardson, who's been ineffectively banged between the tackles behind poor run blocking in easy-to-read running situations to this point. Richardson's lack of pass-game usage has telegraphed the Colts' intentions whenever he's been on the field. Hamilton also seems high on Dammit Donald Brown, however, so there are no guarantees Indy's playcalling will change. Facing the Texans' bottom-five run defense, Richardson is just an RB2/flex, albeit one with a high touchdown probability. Brown remains fantasy bench fodder. ... The No. 10 overall fantasy quarterback in per-game scoring, Luck is a mid-range to low-end QB1 versus a depleted Texans defense that has lost critical ILB Brian Cushing (knee) and SS Danieal Manning (fibula) to year-ending injuries. Luck compiled a 4:0 TD-to-INT ratio in last year's two meetings with DC Wade Phillips' group.
Friday Update: Colts OC Pep Hamilton told reporters Friday the coaching staff reevaluated Richardson's usage during the bye, with an emphasis on increasing T-Rich's in-space opportunities. It's a potentially promising step for a disappointing to-date player who maintains plenty of long-range potential, both in the second half of 2013 and years ahead. Richardson is going to get the ball a lot in a consistent offense, and the Colts remain intent on kickstarting him and making him a featured offensive component. He remains a recommended buy-low trade target.
Case Keenum's first NFL start went better than anticipated two weeks ago at Arrowhead. The former Houston Cougar demonstrated poise in an incredibly difficult environment and got the ball to his playmakers. Keenum did absorb five sacks and lost a game-ending fumble, so it's probably too early to crown him. In Week 9, Keenum will take on the Colts' No. 13 pass defense, which has held enemy quarterbacks to a combined 8:8 TD-to-INT ratio and is keyed by NFL sack leader Robert Mathis (11.5). Keenum would be a poor two-QB-league play against Indy. ... Keenum's target distribution against the Chiefs: Garrett Graham 8; Andre Johnson 6; DeAndre Hopkins 4; Ben Tate 3; DeVier Posey and Lestar Jean 2. ... Coming off an open date, Keenum has now had two weeks to engineer the Texans' first-team offense after receiving little to no practice reps in the season's initial six weeks. So expect less involvement from backups like Posey and Jean going forward, and more emphasis on first-stringers. ... All Johnson needs is adequate quarterback play to reel off WR1/2 stats week in and week out. The sample remains small, of course, but thus far Keenum has appeared adequate with some potential to upgrade on Matt Schaub. Among six targets, Keenum and Johnson hooked up for four completions and 89 yards against the Chiefs. Johnson doesn't have an easy Week 9 matchup versus on-fire Colts RCB Vontae Davis, but will continue to be the focal point of Houston's passing attack. He's an every-week fantasy starter.
Graham's Week 7 target total seems promising at surface level, but these are his stat lines in three starts since Owen Daniels' cracked fibula: 3-15-0; 2-25-0; 3-38-0. To-date numbers suggest Graham is better suited for a No. 2 tight end role than No. 1. The Colts are allowing the 18th most fantasy points to tight ends, giving Graham a below-average matchup. ... No. 3 pass-game option Hopkins caught Keenum's lone touchdown pass against Kansas City, but isn't a recommended Week 9 fantasy investment due to his low positioning in the pecking order of a low-volume pass game. ... I'll have an update below this paragraph on Houston's backfield by Friday night. As of Thursday evening, there was very little clarity on what's going to happen with Arian Foster (hamstring), Ben Tate (ribs), and the three running backs the Texans signed early in the week. Foster did return to practice Thursday, albeit in limited fashion. Coach Gary Kubiak hinted afterwards that how Foster responds Friday may determine his Week 9 availability. Tate is going to be limited on game days regardless because he has four cracked ribs. Also in the hunt for tailback snaps and touches are Deji Karim, Ray Graham, and Dennis Johnson. It would be a good sign for Foster's chances of facing the Colts if one of the latter three is waived Friday or Saturday.
Friday Update: Coach Gary Kubiak told reporters Tate (ribs) will play against the Colts, while Foster's status will come down to a game-time decision. This is shaping up as a fantasy situation to avoid without any role clarity in the final game played on Sunday. If you have earlier-game alternatives, use them.
Score Prediction: Colts 24, Texans 17
Monday Night Football
Chicago @ Green Bay
I'm optimistic about the Bears' chances of generating offense during Jay Cutler's (groin) 4-6 week absence for some of the same reasons Brian Hoyer had success in Cleveland. In QB Whisperer Marc Trestman's scheme, the quarterback's job description is to get the ball out quickly, delivering with timing and anticipation. Although he lacks Cutler's physical tools and Chicago will lose big-play pass-game potential, I think Josh McCown can function in that kind of offense. It doesn't hurt that the Bears' defense is a sieve, which will force Chicago into situations where they need to rack up yards and points. McCown is a sneaky two-quarterback-league start Monday night. ... Matt Forte is still likely to be the Bears' offensive foundation moving forward. Already averaging 22 touches a game, Forte should be treated as an every-week RB1 despite Cutler's loss. ... Whereas the Packers rank fourth in run defense, they're 21st against the pass with a 12:3 TD-to-INT ratio permitted through seven games. They're also expected to be without All-Pro OLB Clay Matthews (thumb) for at least one more week. Coming off the bench in Week 7 at Washington before Chicago's Week 8 bye, McCown completed 14-of-20 throws for 204 yards and a touchdown with a 119.6 passer rating. The Packers' defense is better than the Redskins', but hardly impenetrable. I like Brandon Marshall's chances of maintaining WR2 fantasy value with McCown at the controls.
McCown's target distribution against Washington: Marshall 6, Alshon Jeffery 5, Forte and Earl Bennett 3, Martellus Bennett 2, Marquess Wilson 1. ... The good news for Chicago's skill-position corps is the roles are so defined. There is no No. 2 tight end threatening for targets. Third receiver Bennett is a decent real-life slot receiver, but has never really been a fantasy asset. It's Marshall, Jeffery, Forte, and Martellus, and they all get the ball pretty consistently week in and week out. ... Jeffery can no longer be viewed as the every-week WR2 he was producing like with Cutler at quarterback, but remains a big, physical presence who commands targets. He's a mid-range to high-end WR3. ... The Packers have allowed the third most fantasy points in the league to tight ends. So from that standpoint, Martellus has a favorable matchup. And the Bears are still going to sling it around the yard under pass-first Trestman. Bennett will stay in the low-end TE1 mix.
Sixth in fantasy running back scoring the past three weeks, Eddie Lacy will enter Monday night's game on a roll with another cakewalk matchup. Depleted on the defensive line and now starting two rookie linebackers, the Bears are getting hammered on the ground, where they rank 25th in run defense and have coughed up eight rushing touchdowns through seven games. In Weeks 6-7, Alfred Morris, Roy Helu, and washed-up Brandon Jacobs combined to shred Chicago for 242 yards and five touchdowns on 52 carries (4.65 YPC). Lock in Lacy as an RB1. ... "Breather back" James Starks came off the bench with Green Bay up two touchdowns against the Vikings last Sunday night and ripped off a 25-yard fourth-quarter touchdown. Lacy handled a season-high 33 touches, so it's not surprising his backup was needed to give Green Bay's beastly workhorse a blow. Starks remains a handcuff only. ... The Packers have begun motioning Jordy Nelson around the formation in an effort to prevent rolled coverage and brackets. Nelson responded with two touchdowns on slot routes in the win over Minnesota, scorching the Vikings for a 7-123-2 line. Among NFL wideouts, only Calvin Johnson is scoring more fantasy points per game than Jordy.
Aaron Rodgers' stats in his last four Bears meetings: 94-of-135 (69.6%) for 1,090 yards (8.07 YPA) and a 12:2 TD-to-INT ratio. And he's never faced a Chicago defense as weak as it is now. Rodgers is a top-two quarterback start in Week 9. ... James Jones (knee) is expected to miss one more game, clearing the way for Jarrett Boykin to start at Z receiver. With Nelson taking on more slot snaps, Boykin is playing outside the numbers and will spend most of Monday night's game in diminutive LCB Tim Jennings' coverage. Boykin has a six-inch, 34-pound size advantage in that matchup, though Jennings is no slouch. I'd view Boykin as a mid-range WR3 against Chicago. ... . UDFA Myles White is filling in as Green Bay's third wideout. Short on playmaking ability, White secured 5-of-7 targets for 35 yards in the Packers' win over the Vikings last Sunday night. He's only on the radar in 14- and 16-team leagues. ... With Jermichael Finley (spine) likely done for the season, the Packers are employing a timeshare at tight end. Andrew Quarless is primarily an in-line run blocker. Athletic onetime basketball power forward Brandon Bostick is developing. Bostick played 23 snaps against Minnesota, but was not targeted. This is a fantasy situation to avoid.
Saturday Update: Jones (knee) bounced back well enough from a "limited" Friday practice to participate in Saturday's session and now appears on track to start against the Bears. The likeliest three-receiver package from Green Bay would have Jones, Nelson, and Boykin on the field on all passing downs, with White as the No. 4. Jones is a dicey fantasy investment coming off a multi-week injury and not certain to be 100% or play a full complement of snaps, but he's definitely worth WR3 consideration. He is an appealing long-range hold, as well, due to Rodgers' overall pass-catcher shortage. Jones could score a lot of touchdowns down the stretch.
Score Prediction: Packers 30, Bears 23