CHARGERS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
It’s that time of year, when the Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football games take away some of the more attractive games on the Main Slate — though with no bye weeks and 13 games taking place earlier in the day, this doesn’t impact DFS too heavily, and instead it gives Showdown players an opportunity to target a game with plenty of back-and-forth potential in a matchup between a first-place, 7-3-1 Steelers team and a second-place, 8-3 Chargers squad. It seems inevitable at this point that both teams will be in the playoffs (each team is very clearly among the top eight squads in the league, so it would certainly be a shame if one of these two misses), but this game will provide a valuable measuring stick for each side, and it will be an important game for positioning down the stretch.
Both of these teams are above-average at controlling the clock, and with the Chargers ranked sixth in time of possession, 23rd in pass play rate, and 32nd in pace of play, they are able to shorten games to a remarkable degree. In spite of ranking sixth in time of possession, this team ranks 29th in plays per game. They also allow the seventh fewest opponent plays per game.
Each team is solid on defense, with the Chargers allowing the fifth fewest points per game and the Steelers allowing the 11th fewest points per game. The Chargers get there by limiting opponent plays and playing stellar red zone defense (third lowest red zone touchdown rate allowed). The Steelers get there with an attacking defense that ranks first in the NFL in sacks and ninth in drive success rate allowed. With great offensive pieces on both sides of this game, we’ll have an entertaining strength-on-strength matchup.
As is always the case when two evenly-matched teams are playing one another, the home team is favored in this spot, with the Steelers installed as early-week 3.5 point favorites in a game with a healthy Over/Under of 51.5.
CHARGERS PASS OFFENSE
The Steelers have been tough on quarterbacks this year — topping the NFL in sacks while taking away the short areas of the field. This has led to Pittsburgh shaving almost 4% off the league-average catch rate. The Steelers also rank first in the NFL in limiting YAC, knocking over 20% off the league-average YAC/R rate.
The Chargers, of course, are one of the least pass-heavy offenses in the NFL, with the eighth fewest pass attempts in the league this season. Philip Rivers has, incredibly, topped 29 pass attempts only once in his last seven games. The potential back-and-forth nature of this game could lead to the Chargers opening things up a bit more than normal as this game moves along, but the safest way to enter this game is expecting Rivers to max out at 30 to 33 pass attempts, with anything above that range a bonus. Benefitting the pass catchers on the Chargers is the fact that Rivers is averaging an elite 9.1 yards per pass attempt — the third highest mark in the NFL. This positive is offset somewhat by the matchup. The best yardage total by a wide receiver against the Steelers since Week 4 was 86 yards for Emmanuel Sanders last week, followed by 82 yards for A.J. Green, 73 yards for Mohamed Sanu, 62 yards for Julio Jones, and 62 yards for Tyler Boyd. No other wide receiver against the Steelers has cracked even 60 yards since September.
The best bet on the Chargers for production, as always, is Keenan Allen, who has recent target counts of 10 // 9 // 12 // 7, with yardage totals in this stretch of 124 // 57 // 89 // 72. Allen typically sees only one downfield look per game, which will make it difficult for him to pop for a big yardage game against a team that tackles so well after the catch, making him a “bet on floor and hope for upside” option. With Gordon out, the Chargers could lean on Allen a bit more — especially in the red zone.
With Tyrell Williams playing only nine snaps last week, Mike Williams popped off for a 4-25-2 line on four targets. It should be noted that Mike has seen exactly three or four targets in six of his last seven games, so his production can hardly be considered predictable. He’s a low floor play with plenty of price-considered upside. If Tyrell is healthier this week, the same can be said for him, as he should step into four to six targets, with a couple of these looks coming downfield. If Tyrell is limited again this week, Travis Benjamin should see another two to four targets.
CHARGERS RUN OFFENSE
As explored a few times over the last few weeks: the Steelers are just a bit better than average against the run, with running back fantasy production on the year simply depressed because opponents are typically forced to go pass-heavy in this matchup, which has led to the Steelers facing the 10th fewest rush attempts in the league. Oftentimes, the pass-heavy nature of opponents against the Steelers is less because they are chasing points and more because they know they will have to score points in this spot; but with these teams evenly matched, and with Anthony Lynn sticking to the run as consistently as any coach in the league, the likeliest scenario is that the Chargers remain run-heavy. This will open opportunity for Austin Ekeler to touch the ball over 20 times, while working with an offensive line that ranks fifth in adjusted line yards. This is one of the most creative run schemes in the NFL, and the drop-off from Melvin Gordon to Ekeler this week is unlikely to be a huge one. Gordon is a slightly more patient runner, which leaves him with less boom/bust to his game, but Ekeler is capable of excelling in his own right. Ekeler should be in line for at least five targets in this game as well, increasing his opportunities to be a difference-making play.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
Last week, I kept coming across JuJu Smith-Schuster when building around the higher end of the price range and thinking, “JuJu could have a big week.” As noted throughout last week, I had heavy interest in Ben Roethlisberger in tourneys — but because of JuJu’s heavy snap rate in the slot and his matchup in the slot vs Chris Harris Jr., I never seriously considered pulling him onto my Main Builds. This was a bit of an oversight, as we have been noting in this space since Week 3 or 4 that first year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is doing a great job this year adjusting the route trees and responsibilities of JuJu and Antonio Brown to best capitalize on what the opponent gives them (I believe the quote in the NFL Edge that first week talking about this went something like, ‘I wouldn’t worry too much about usage and matchup, as Fichtner is working right now to figure out a way to get these guys open’). In a display of great coaching: the Steelers proceeded to give JuJu 47 snaps on the perimeter (his most on the season, by far) and only 19 snaps in the slot (his fewest on the season). JuJu caught two passes for nine yards in Harris’ coverage on the inside, while smoking Bradley Roby on the perimeter for a 7-144-1 line. And so, as a precursor to any writeup of the Steelers’ passing attack: This team is dead set on getting the ball into the hands of AB and JuJu — with each of these guys ranking top nine in the NFL in targets per game, and with them combining for 49.2% of the Steelers’ total targets on the year. And each week, this team hunts for ways to put these two in the best position to succeed.
As for the matchup: only two teams are forcing a lower average depth of target than the Chargers this season, and only four teams are allowing a lower catch rate — a lethal combination that has this team ranked ninth in fewest yards allowed per pass attempt. The one major weakness of the Chargers’ secondary comes in yards after the catch, where they are allowing an 8.4% increase on the league average YAC/R rate. (Both JuJu and AB have above-average marks this year with the ball in their hands.)
As noted last week, JuJu has been more efficient on his looks this year, hauling in 70% of the passes that have flowed in his direction, while Ben and AB have had an uncharacteristically difficult time connecting — with a 58.2% completion percentage on passes thrown to the Steelers’ longtime alpha. This has led to JuJu topping AB in catches (77 to 71) and yards (1055 to 874), with six games this year of 100+ yards compared to only three for AB. The big edge for Brown has come in the touchdown department, where he has 11 scores on the year to JuJu’s four. As such, it is worth noting that it is actually JuJu who leads the NFL in red zone targets, with 23. AB has 16 such looks, and has scored a primed-for-regression eight of his 11 touchdowns from outside the red zone. Neither guy has a good matchup, but both will be fed targets and opportunities for upside, with Fichtner finding ways to scheme them open. JuJu profiles as the better option right now, but it’s close between the two.
Behind these guys, James Washington has yet to top two receptions or 25 yards in a game, while Ryan Switzer has functioned as a rarely-used checkdown option — with seven receptions in Week 4 and six receptions last week, but with no other games north of three catches or 32 yards.
The best bet behind AB and JuJu is the tight end position, where Vance McDonald (recent target counts of 6 // 4 // 6 // 5) and Jesse James (recent target counts of 3 // 1 // 0 // 4) continue to mix and match production. The Chargers have been solid this year against tight ends, but McDonald’s YAC ability and James’ size mismatch gives each guy opportunities to post production in any spot. They are upside plays on the Showdown, with McDonald the likelier bet to hit.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
The Chargers’ run defense has been completely nondescript this year, ranking middle of the pack in yards allowed per carry while holding enemy backs to a non-attackable, but non-elite six rushing touchdowns. With this team defending wide receivers well, they have allowed the third most receiving yards in the NFL to running backs, backed up by the sixth most receptions allowed.
This is a “good, not great” spot for James Conner, who has been impacted more by game flow this year than by matchup, with the Steelers perfectly happy to lean pass-heavy when A) they fall behind, when B) they are facing a tough defense, or when C) they are in a game in which they will need to put up points. Even taking away the game against the Panthers in which Conner left early with a concussion, he has 15 or fewer carries in half his games on the season, with a scary three games already of single-digit carries. In theory, Conner’s occasional dip in run game work is offset by his role in the pass game, but he has finished with four to seven targets in eight of his 10 start-to-finish games, which is not quite enough to justify his price tag when his carries drop. Outside of a game against a Baltimore defense that erases wide receivers, Conner’s best games this year have come against poor run defenses — primarily in games the Steelers have controlled throughout. With a likely floor of 15 carries and six to seven targets, his upside is big in this spot — but this is unlikely to be a spiked-carry game for Conner, leaving his floor a slim concern at his price.
On the Chargers’ side of the Showdown, Ekeler deserves to be one of the most popular plays, as he should have no trouble clearing 20 touches in this spot, and he is underpriced for his role in this offense. Keenan Allen will almost certainly produce a solid game — and while his chances of posting a big game are slim, he certainly has the ability to get there. Rivers is less exciting than Ben, but he has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league this year, and I wouldn’t bet against him. Mike and Tyrell Williams are low-floor, solid-upside plays.
The matchup is not great for the Steelers’ passing attack, but this is the kind of game in which this team may once again put the ball in the hands of their big quarterback — allowing him to take over. On the Showdown, none of Ben, JuJu, or AB are locks for production in a difficult draw, but all three carry big upside — keeping them very much in play. Behind these guys, Vance is the most attractive remaining pass catcher as he can rip off a 30+ yard play with the ball in his hands.
The Steelers wrap up with Conner, who carries a solid raw floor and a big ceiling — though his price-considered floor is a slim concern in a game in which the Steelers may lean on Ben for the win. Conner obviously stands out as one of the better plays on the Showdown, but he does not come without a small amount of risk.