PANTHERS // REDSKINS OVERVIEW
The “first place” (2-2) Redskins will host the 3-1 Panthers this week, in a matchup of two teams that play a conservative style of football, with Washington ranking 22nd in pace of play and Carolina ranking 28th. Only eight teams have run the ball more frequently than Washington, while only two teams have run more frequently than Carolina. Alex Smith has an average intended air yards of only 7.2, while Cam Newton sits at only 7.6. Both of these teams rank top six in “fewest opponent plays per game.”
While each offense can do some good things, Vegas has installed an Over/Under of 44.5 in what is essentially an “anti-shootout” environment. Each team will be looking to march methodically up and down the field, while playing keepaway from their opponent.
PANTHERS PASS OFFENSE
The only team in the NFL that has allowed a lower aDOT than Washington is the Cardinals — with Washington shaving almost 24% off the league-average aDOT so far, with an aDOT allowed on the year of only 6.2. While Washington has done a tremendous job forcing short passes, however, they do tend to have breakdowns downfield when pass protection holds up long enough for a quarterback. The deep ball has not been nearly as big a part of this Carolina offense as it was in the past — but with the return of Curtis Samuel and the integration of D.J. Moore into this offense, there is upside for Cam Newton to take a couple downfield shots.
Washington has faced only 34.5 pass attempts per game, while Cam Newton has thrown the ball only 32.5 times per game, so look for this to be a low-volume attack for the Panthers, with a good 20% of the targets on this team shaved off the top for Christian McCaffrey. This leaves around 23 to 26 targets left to go around, among Devin Funchess, Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and a likely-to-return Greg Olsen. While Moore and Samuel each saw four targets last week, they came out of the bye playing only 29 (Moore) and 12 (Samuel) snaps, compared to 46 for Smith and 30 for Wright. Speedster Damiere Byrd also out-snapped Samuel, with 13 plays on the field.
The best way to squeeze fantasy points out of a matchup against Washington is to move away from short/intermediate route runners, and to instead target the guys who might get a few shots deep. This theoretically puts Samuel (and even Smith) in play, but this is obviously a boom/bust proposition. This offense has a lot of mouths to feed, without a lot of pass plays to go around.
Inside the 10-yard-line, McCaffrey has six carries and one target, while Cam has four carries and only five total pass attempts.
PANTHERS RUN OFFENSE
One of the biggest mismatches on the slate is the Panthers’ run blocking (second in adjusted line yards) against the Redskins’ run defense (30th in adjusted line yards). Washington ranks a more respectable 14th in yards allowed per carry, but they were fortunate to take on poor run-blocking units in Arizona and Indy to begin the year, and they fell so far behind the Saints last week that they were able to focus on the run down the stretch. The last time Carolina saw a big mismatch in the run game, they gave Christian McCaffrey 28 carries against the Bengals (27th in adjusted line yards). In his other three games, he has target counts of nine, 15, and six. In all, CMC has touch counts on the year of 16 // 22 // 30 // 22, and he should remain the key piece of this offense once again.
In addition to the rushing usage/efficiency CMC should have, it will not be surprising if we see Cam Newton add another 10 or 12 rushes of his own. He enters this week averaging nine carries and 41.3 rushing yards per game, with three rushing touchdowns on the year (to go with seven passing touchdowns). The likeliest scenario in this spot is three total touchdowns for Carolina, so a lot of things would have to go right for a true blowup; but both Cam and CMC should see solid work in this game, with strong floor/ceiling combos.
REDSKINS PASS OFFENSE
While Carolina has not played great pass defense this year — allowing above-average marks in aDOT, catch rate, and expected yards per target, while notching only nine sacks through four games and ranking 24th in adjusted sack rate — they have faced the third fewest opponent plays per game, and they have faced only 35 pass attempts per game as a result. Most of their issues this year have come from opponents finding downfield openings along the sidelines…which is obviously not something Alex Smith is best suited to take advantage of. Smith impressively threw six passes last week that traveled at least 20 yards downfield — as Washington fell behind big and had to dial up an uncharacteristic 39 pass attempts — but Smith had thrown only five total passes this year of 20 or more yards heading into that game. Washington will mix in a couple deep shots, but this is not something they want to lean on unless they absolutely have to.
The Redskins’ plan early in the year has been to try to establish Adrian Peterson on the ground in an effort to control the game and take the lead — and in the two games in which they have been successful with this approach, Smith has thrown the ball 30 and 20 times. In the other two games, Smith has thrown the ball 46 and 39 times, so a lot of this passing attack will depend on the early success of Peterson and the Washington defense. As long as this game stays close, Peterson will be the guy they lean on over Smith.
Early this year, Carolina’s defense ranks third in adjusted line yards on defense — but they have allowed 4.9 yards per carry to running backs, and 4.6 yards per carry overall (24th in the NFL). They are one of the best teams in the NFL at stopping runs up the middle, but they struggle when teams stretch them out a bit and run between the guard and the tackle, which is where Adrian Peterson has had his most success this year. I’m expecting this game to remain close enough for Peterson to see around 16 to 22 carries, and he should have an opportunity to pile up yards. If he punches in a touchdown, he’ll provide a nice box score.
If that prediction proves accurate, “volume” will be low across the board for Washington pass catchers, with a banged-up Chris Thompson seeing fewer targets (he has nine total targets in Peterson’s higher-rush games, compared to 22 total targets in Washington’s other two games), and with the chances of Paul Richardson, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Doctson popping off for a high-usage game looking slim as well. Crowder has one game of more than four targets (eight looks last week). Doctson has target counts on the year of three, seven, and three. Richardson has yet to top six looks.
An additional wrinkle is thrown into all of this with Doctson missing last week’s game, and with Crowder/Richardson listed as “non-participants” in Wednesday’s practice (Washington merely held a walk-through, but Gruden said that neither of these guys would have practiced had it been a standard practice day).
If one of these guys misses this week (and especially if Chris Thompson misses this week), Jordan Reed will see a bump in usage, following up target counts on the year of five, eight, seven, and two. Carolina ranks 27th in DVOA against the tight end, and while they have not allowed big numbers on the year, they have faced three teams (Dallas, Atlanta, and the Giants-sans-Engram) that don’t use the tight end heavily. Regardless of injuries and game flow, Reed should be in line for another five or six targets. If this game unexpectedly turns into a track meet and/or one of Washington’s other pass catchers is injured, Reed will see a small bump in usage expectations.
Given the low play volume in this game, it’s not a spot that will draw much attention from me — especially as each offense takes a “march methodically” approach. There should be some nice fantasy games that emerge from this game — but it will be difficult to find a week-winning score in this spot, and a game like this will produce some duds as well.
The safest, highest-upside play is McCaffrey, and he appears to be the one piece I’ll be heavily considering, given his usage and the way this matchup sets up. I’ll also have added interest in Jordan Reed if a couple of these banged-up Washington pass catchers end up inactive.
You could take a shot on Cam Newton in this spot, and I don’t hate Adrian Peterson (his floor is lower than I would love, but the usage should be there, and the upside is solid), while large-field fliers could also be taken on guys like Greg Olsen and Paul Richardson, in the hopes that something clicks just right. These are not pieces I will be drawn to myself, but they are at least worth a mention.