A few years ago, Luke Louison (AKA the great and always entertaining GiantBallofOil) mentioned to me that it’s crazy to him that I’m able to have all the games written up by Wednesday night // Thursday morning with how much injury news we don’t really have settled most weeks until later in the week. This is not the first time I’ve thought back to him saying that to me — though oftentimes, we’re able to work around injury news easily enough, as the impact on a game environment is somewhat minor, even if the individual player’s impact in the box score can (obviously) change dramatically between “playing” and “not playing.” Every once in a while, however, we run into a situation like Matthew Stafford for the Lions this week — wherein the entire game literally shifts depending on whether or not that player plays.
The Matchup Against The Cowboys ::
Regardless of who is under center for the Lions, the matchup is not great for Detroit this week. The Lions were unable to run the ball with Kerryon Johnson, and they were downright awful on the ground with Ty Johnson. Now, Ty Johnson is set to miss with a concussion, which is going to leave Giants castoff Paul Perkins (recently on the Lions practice squad) and pass-catching back J.D. McKissic handling the bulk of the backfield work. The Lions have thrown the ball more and more as the season has moved along, and even with Stafford out last week in a close game, they called on Jeff Driskel to throw the ball 46 times compared to 22 designed run plays. In other words: regardless of who is under center, we can expect a somewhat pass-leaning approach — in a tough spot against a Dallas defense that has faced the fifth fewest wide receiver targets while allowing the second fewest wide receiver yards and the second fewest wide receiver touchdowns. As we note seemingly every week: the Cowboys and Colts run very similar coverage schemes, and both teams aim to take away wide receiver targets (which effectively forces looks to running backs and tight ends). Only two pass catchers have topped 100 yards against the Cowboys this year. There has not been a single other pass catcher who has posted even a strong price-considered score in this matchup.
If Stafford Plays This Week ::
As we know by now, the Lions are one of the more aggressive (and effective) passing attacks in football when everything is clicking; and while they have enjoyed a fairly steady stream of soft wide receiver matchups in Stafford’s recent hot streak (Raiders // Giants // Vikings // Packers have been his last four opponents — all four of whom rank bottom eight in yards allowed to wide receivers), this team is aggressive enough and talented enough (while piling up enough volume) to be considered tourney-viable in any spot. This offense is designed to strain a defense vertically — so while the floor is lower in this spot than normal if Stafford plays, there are paths to ceiling that remain intact.
If Stafford Misses This Week ::
Only 6.5% of Driskel’s attempts last week traveled 20+ yards downfield (compared to 19.2% of Stafford’s throws in his last two starts), while 11 of his 46 passes (23.9%) and 11 of his 27 completions (40.7%) came at or behind the line of scrimmage (compared to 11.0% and 13.7% for Stafford in his last two contests). Driskel fed nine targets to Kenny Golladay and six to Marvin Jones, but this came on 46 pass attempts. He fed eight targets to Danny Amendola and six to T.J. Hockenson, while nine targets were sent to running backs (with McKissic accounting for seven of these).
On the one hand, this all came against the Bears — but on the other hand, the Bears (while a better overall defense than the Cowboys) are actually a slightly softer wide receiver matchup than what Dallas presents. It’s always a bit foolhardy to take a one-game sample and apply it to all games moving forward — but Driskel’s Week 10 tendencies line up with what we would expect from a backup entering a tougher matchup for his wide receivers; and given that the Cowboys do such a great job filtering targets away from wide receivers, it seems likely we see a similar setup here.
How To Handle This Side Of The Ball ::
If Stafford plays, we should expect the Lions to go pass-heavy, and to stay somewhat aggressive with their downfield attack. In this setup, Detroit will likely have to poke and prod multiple angles and ideas to find something that will work, and efficiency is unlikely to be in the cards, but they should eventually hit for a few big plays and find a few ways to pile up points — and while slate-breakers will remain unlikely to emerge in this spot, there will at least be a case to be made for “a talented and aggressive offense” potentially finding a way to break through for a big stat line or two.
If Stafford misses, we should still expect the Lions to go pass-heavy — but these passes should be a bit more focused on the shorter areas of the field, where Driskel’s comfort level will be higher, and where the Cowboys look to filter opponent action. Only three teams have faced more running back targets than the Cowboys (one of these teams is the Bears), and only five teams have faced more targets to tight ends, with only three teams allowing more catches to the position. (Again: the Bears are right next to the Cowboys in this category as well.) In this setup, six or more short-area to intermediate looks should be in play for Hockenson again, while six or more targets will be a distinct possibility for McKissic. (Ty Johnson lasted only 12 snaps last week — after which McKissic played 57 snaps compared to only 15 for Perkins. We’ve already seen the fantasy community get “Patricia’d” once this year, and it could happen again; but McKissic — as a pass-catching back — is less interchangeable with Perkins than Ty Johnson was. In other words: it’s likelier than not that McKissic sticks to the role he had last week.)
On The Cowboys’ Side ::
The matchup obviously doesn’t change one way or another with Stafford playing or missing — but if Stafford plays, we’ll have opportunities for a back-and-forth affair, while Driskel under center would open opportunities for Dallas to control this game throughout.
Detroit has been a middling matchup for wide receivers this year, with a man-heavy coverage scheme that shaves over 5% off the league-average catch rate and ranks top five in preventing yards after the catch — but that allows teams to attack downfield, with a 24.7% boost to the league-average aDOT (the largest boost in the league). With Detroit struggling to generate pressure this year and presenting fewer zone looks to force opponents to throw the ball short, this team has allowed the fourth most pass plays of 20+ yards, at over four per game.
The Cowboys’ receivers have been maddeningly inconsistent this year, with Amari Cooper seeing recent target counts of 14 // 2 // 5 // 7 // 14, and with Michael Gallup going 14 // 7 // 4 // 6 // 10 in that same stretch, as Dallas has gone run-heavy in games they have controlled (and also randomly produced target duds for these two — 2 // 7 — in a loss against the soft secondary of the Jets). Once again, of course, this points back to Stafford, as the Cowboys should be able to lean on the run if Stafford misses, and are likelier to have to put the ball in the hands of Dak Prescott if Stafford plays.
In the lower-target games for Amari and Gallup, Ezekiel Elliott saw touch counts of 33 // 28 // 23, while he went for 14 and 22 touches in the target-spike games for the Cowboys’ star receivers — which obviously means that it has been difficult this year for Zeke and one of the Cowboys’ wideouts to pop off for a big game in the same spot, but also means that Zeke becomes more valuable if Stafford misses for the Lions. As explored last week, the Lions are allowing a ton of opponent plays per game (now the second most in the league) and are filtering carries // targets to running backs at one of the highest rates in the NFL. Zeke played 70 of a possible 71 snaps last week and should soak up all the available running back touches in this spot — giving him a clear shot at 26+ touches if game flow cooperates. The Panthers are the only team allowing more running back touchdowns than the Lions, while Zeke leads the NFL in red zone carries.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Likeliest scenarios in this spot have the passing attacks mattering most if Stafford plays and the running backs mattering most if Stafford misses. Obviously — with the talent boasted on these teams — you could play things other ways (if Stafford plays, Zeke should still clear 20 touches, and paths will remain open for 26+ total looks, while McKissic will still be set to operate as the lead back and should be in line for a workload similar to what he saw last week — 10 carries, seven targets, with targets less likely to spike with Stafford, but with some looks still there || while if Stafford misses, Driskel could still hit Golladay or Jones for a long play or for a multi-touchdown game, and the Lions could keep this close enough for targets to remain high on Amari and Gallup), but understanding “likeliest scenarios” is obviously the first (and most important) way to get a feel for how you want to build around a game.
If Stafford plays, Amari and Gallup will be really strong Tier 3 options for me (along with Dak), while the Lions’ pass game pieces will be a little further down the list in a difficult matchup, but will still be very much in play for the upside in larger-field builds. I’ll still have interest in Zeke and McKissic, though they’ll likely be less of a priority for me.
If Stafford misses, Zeke and McKissic (price-considered) will both flirt with Tier 1 placement (with Zeke likely landing there and McKissic likely landing on the higher ends of Tier 3), while Hockenson will be in play as a Tier 3 option as well. Amari and Gallup will likely fall to deeper Tier 3 for me if Driskel is starting for the Lions, while Golladay and Jones will become more dart-throws than pieces to build around in some large-field tourney play.
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