BRONCOS // CARDINALS OVERVIEW
I imagine the Showdown contests for this Thursday night will draw less attention than most weeks, as we are presented with one of the most boring matchups imaginable, with a pair of backward-moving teams playing what projects to be a meaningless, low-scoring affair. The Broncos enter this game at 2-4, and are quickly falling behind the high-powered Chiefs and Chargers in the AFC West. The Cardinals are a no-hope 1-5. Vegas has installed the visiting Broncos as early 2.5 point favorites, with an Over/Under in the game of only 41.5.
The Broncos have played fast this year, ranking eighth in pace of play, while the Cardinals rank 24th. Each team ranks top half of the league in pass play rate, though each unit should lean a bit more run-heavy than normal if this game remains close throughout.
BRONCOS PASS OFFENSE
One of the most meaningful mistakes made by many DFS players (and even many DFS analysts) is that they take shortcuts in their thinking and simply label bad teams as “bad,” without digging into the various things that “bad teams” do well. And when we look at the “bad” Cardinals team, it continues to jump off the page each week how solid they are against the pass. In fact, the Cardinals are allowing the lowest average depth of target (aDOT) in the entire NFL — making it difficult for receivers to pop off for big plays. Through six weeks, only five teams have given up fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than Arizona, and most of these 20+ yard plays have come from short passes that were turned into yards after the catch. Arizona also ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks, and the Jaguars are the only team that has allowed fewer passing touchdowns than the Cardinals.
The bonus in attacking Arizona with an offensive unit is that the Cardinals are so awful on the other side of the ball (their offense ranks 32nd in drive success rate), they are pumping up the play volume in a big way for their opponents. The fast-paced Browns are the only team that has allowed more opponent plays per game this year than the Cardinals — and given that Denver ranks ninth on defense in drive success rate allowed, we should expect this to continue this week.
Even with all these plays faced each week, Arizona ranks middle of the pack in pass attempts faced. Part of this is simply that teams take a lead against Arizona and turn to the run; but a bigger part is that Arizona’s stingy pass defense filters teams toward the ground. This game does not shape up as a huge “volume boost” spot for Case Keenum and the Broncos receivers.
Unsurprisingly — given the tight zone coverage scheme the Cardinals lean on — the best way to attack them through the air (in fact, the only way to attack them through the air without running into areas of the field where they are above-average) is the short middle. Frustratingly, this head-scratching Broncos offensive scheme has completely ignored the short middle of the field throughout the early portions of the season — instead using Keenum’s mobility to target out-breaking routes, while rarely creating confusion for the defense by forcing them to account for receivers who are moving from one side of the field to the other. Even out of the slot, a good 90% of the routes Emmanuel Sanders is being targeted on this year are ignoring the valuable middle of the field, and Denver has shown no ability thus far to adjust for matchups in their play-calling and approach.
To rephrase all that: this matchup sets up poorly for the Broncos pass catchers. Obviously, it sets up best for Emmanuel Sanders, as the only guy who has shown a consistent connection with Case Keenum, and as the guy we would prefer to target against a team that capitalizes on forcing underneath passes. Demaryius Thomas would be second on the list this week, given the short-area throws the Broncos still use him on from time to time. Courtland Sutton is the piece least-likely to hit, with his downfield role in this offense. He still carries ceiling, but the matchup sets up worst for him.
BRONCOS RUN OFFENSE
While Arizona is facing only a middling number of pass plays per game, they have faced an incredible 28 more rush attempts than any other team in football. Before being pasted by Latavius Murray last week, Arizona had been solid against the run on a per-rush basis, but they are ultimately average at best (20th in yards allowed per carry, and they entered last week ranked 12th in DVOA against the run), and volume should favor the Broncos’ offense once again. Arizona is facing an average of 34.3 rush attempts per game, and the Broncos will be happy to lean on the run in this one as often as they can.
The Broncos continue to waste snaps on Devontae Booker, with classic bad-coach thinking of, “He’s on our team, so he should have a role.” While most coaches in the NFL would prefer to have the ball in the hands of Phillip Lindsay in space, Denver has decided that Booker is their “pass-catching back,” which has led to him continuing to play over 30% of the snaps across the last two weeks. Across that stretch, he has only two carries, but he has nine targets and seven receptions.
Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman continue to split early downs almost down the middle, with Lindsay playing 49 snaps the last two weeks and Freeman playing 55. Freeman is not trusted in the pass game (four catches on six targets all year), but he has 62 touches through six games, to 75 for Lindsay, keeping them in roughly the same ballpark. Lindsay has 14 catches on 19 targets, at 8.1 yards per catch — making his touches more valuable. (He’s also averaging 5.7 yards per carry, to 4.7 for Freeman.) You should be able to bank on around 26 to 30 combined carries from these two as a floor, which will push both into a near-starter’s workload.
CARDINALS PASS OFFENSE
As noted multiple times over the last few weeks: the Broncos have been bad against the pass this year, but they have been selectively bad — facing below-average volume, allowing a below-average catch rate, and tackling well after the catch…but getting smoked on the deep ball multiple times per game. Only five teams have allowed more pass plays of 20+ yards than the Broncos, and the best way to target fantasy points against them is to focus on perimeter wide receivers who see work downfield. Unsurprisingly, only three offenses in the league have racked up fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than the Cardinals.
When Josh Rosen looks downfield, he is targeting Chad Williams and Christian Kirk. Williams has seen a number of deep shots this year, and is beginning to be involved underneath as well, but he has connected for an embarrassing five catches for 58 yards on 21 targets this year. Kirk is a different story, and his developing connection with Josh Rosen is a lot of fun to watch. Since a two-target game in Week 1, Kirk has seen target counts of five, eight, five, four, and seven, and he has hauled in 24 of these passes for 307 yards and a touchdown. Almost all of his work has come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, but the Cardinals have taken exactly one shot at least 25 yards downfield to him each of the last four games. This gives him a little extra upside.
This weak passing attack rounds out with Ricky Seals-Jones, who last week turned six targets into a 5-69-0 line…one week after turning six targets into zero catches for zero yards. He’s a risky play who has a bit of upside if things click. The Broncos have been below-average against tight ends this year, allowing the sixth most yards to the position.
CARDINALS RUN OFFENSE
Cardinals offensive coordinator Mike McCoy (in a “revenge game” of his own, after getting fired by the Broncos) is going to watch film on the Broncos this week and assume that the way to beat them is to line up and run the ball at them. And sure, that’s the way for other teams to beat Denver, as this team ranks dead last in yards allowed per carry; but Arizona will have a tougher time in this spot, with one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, and with a running back in David Johnson who is being misused as a between-the-tackles grinder. After three consecutive games of 18 to 22 carries, DJ has still not topped 71 rushing yards in a game this year, and he is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry. He is not a tackle-breaking machine, but is instead a guy who is unstoppable in space with the ball in his hands. The Cardinals appear to be incapable of figuring out how to use DJ in this way, as he has maxed out at five targets across his last five games, with no more than four receptions in any of these games. Expect north of 20 carries for DJ again, in a great on-paper matchup — giving him a shot at hitting. But go in with cautious floor expectations.
I wouldn’t touch anything in this game on the full-weekend slate myself. Maybe one or two guys trip into a strong game, but we’re looking at a low, game-wide floor, with a modest, game-wide ceiling, which is enough to take all these guys out of consideration for me.
If playing the showdown slate, the most upside should come from the Broncos’ side, where Phillip Lindsay (first), Emmanuel Sanders (second), and Royce Freeman (third) would all be on my list. I’d be comfortable swapping spots on Sanders and Freeman for the latter’s touchdown upside, but Lindsay would be my favorite play either way, given the multiple ways he is used and the locked-in touches he will have.
I would roster all these guys over David Johnson. While the Jets pasted the Broncos on the ground with a below-average offensive line as well, their offense is well-designed, with a lot of movement and misdirection that almost looks like a baby version of the Rams at times. The Cardinals’ “scheme” is much more vanilla, with very little that can throw a defense off-balance. This makes the matchup matter more. DJ still carries plenty of upside, and it only takes a couple goal line carries to create a multi-touchdown game, but his floor is lower than the key guys on the Broncos.
Behind these four, Kirk, Demaryius, the defenses, the quarterbacks, and the kickers will battle for the top remaining scores, with no one standing out in that group. Guys like Booker, Fitzgerald, Sutton, Jeff Heuerman, and even Chad Williams are Showdown Specials — guys you can mix and match if multi-entering, in the hopes you capture unpredictable lightning.