The top running backs seem to have been rotating matchups lately: with Austin Ekeler now headed to Miami to take on the defense that Zeke gashed last week, and with Christian McCaffrey taking on the same defense Ekeler faced last week.
As expected, Ekeler had a hard time on the ground last week against the Texans, gaining only 36 yards on nine carries. Houston is getting its run defense feet back under it after the loss of Jadeveon Clowney — currently ranking 19th in adjusted line yards after ranking first last season (with part of this “19th” ranking from this year due to a really rough first game of the year against the Saints). At best, this should be considered a middling matchup — about in line with what McCaffrey had last week against a Cardinals team that doesn’t have the talent of this Houston unit, but that was selling out to stop the run. In that spot, McCaffrey had a tough time breaking free, picking up only 77 yards on 23 carries outside of his long touchdown run.
Of course, the beauty of CMC in DFS is the same as the beauty of Ekeler last week, when he hauled in seven catches for 45 yards in this spot to float his floor. On the young season, McCaffrey has averaged five catches for 44 yards. With this being a tougher spot on the ground, and with Carolina carrying lower scoring expectations than they carried last week (more on this in a moment), McCaffrey sees his floor drop a bit lower than normal; but as with every week, the ceiling remains intact.
Kyle Allen looked genuinely good last week, though he did have the benefit of playing against an extremely zone-heavy, pass-rush-deficient unit in Arizona. Although Houston can get pressure with a four-man pass rush, they are likely to throw some extra pressure Allen’s way this week. And while Houston does not have the cornerbacks to successfully match up with D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel all game, they have a chance to really disrupt the Carolina offense if they can make Allen uncomfortable in the pocket. Expect a decent mix of blitzes and disguised coverages in this spot, making Allen (and this passing attack, and this offense as a whole) more boom/bust than last week.
Target Leaders, Week 3 ::
>> Greg Olsen :: 7
>> Curtis Samuel :: 7
>> Christian McCaffrey :: 4
>> D.J. Moore :: 2
Olsen has a great matchup again this week against a Texans defense that gave up the second most yards, third most catches, and third most touchdowns to the position last year. Olsen should see plenty of Jahleel Addae, which is a mismatch in his favor. Carolina looked to scheme targets to Olsen last week to give Allen a comfortable target; and while Houston will be looking to stop that, their best bet is through the pass rush, as Olsen should still be open a decent amount this game.
Curtis Samuel was very clearly the next man on the target list last week for Allen, seeing schemed looks and having Allen look to him frequently if his first read was covered. We should keep in mind that Moore saw eight targets from Allen in Week 17 last year, and his long touchdown last week came on a (beautiful) play designed to get the ball in his hands moving upfield with space. (Moore also saw a carry at the very beginning of the game last week.) All of these guys will be involved; none are nearly as secure as last week; all carry some upside, while Olsen has the highest floor in the group.
Carolina has played fairly well on defense this year, giving the Rams a tough time, and making life difficult on Jameis Winston and Kyler Murray. The biggest edge for Carolina on defense will be their willingness to blitz and their ability to get after the quarterback; but whenever Watson has time to throw (and it is all but guaranteed that he will create opportunities in which he has time to throw), the matchup favors the Texans wide receivers.
As we have continued to see through the first three weeks of the season, Carolina’s biggest weakness is in the slot — where Cooper Kupp posted a solid, Kuppian Week 1 line and Robert Woods did most of his Week 1 damage before Chris Godwin hit them in Week 2 and Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk each had opportunities for much bigger days in Week 3. This lines up nicely for Kenny Stills, who has seen target counts of 3 // 3 // 6 this year while leading the Texans’ three main receivers in slot rate.
Carolina’s zone-heavy defense focuses on taking away deep passing, but talent deficiencies sometimes lead to breakdowns in this unit. (Last year, Carolina allowed the sixth most pass plays of 40+ yards.) Will Fuller so far has target count of 3 // 7 // 7 — and while he has not yet hit for any monster games, he is still seeing downfield work (currently ranking sixth in the league in average depth of target), and it is only a matter of time before a couple of these hit, keeping him in the “always in tournaments” conversation.
And of course, we have DeAndre Hopkins — who has single-digit targets in back-to-back games, and will be taking on a winnable matchup vs James Bradberry. Since October 2016, Hopkins has only gone three straight games with single-digit targets once. And while three of his five lower target games came with Fuller on the field last year, Fuller’s presence has not significantly impacted Hopkins’ targets over a larger sample size. Hopkins’ slower start has been more coverage related, as he has faced Jalen Ramsey and Casey Hayward. This is an intriguing bounce-back spot for him — especially if Carolina can keep this game close.
JM’s Interpretation ::
With the Texans carrying a split backfield at the moment, they are “play at your own risk” in that area; but the passing attack is quite a bit more attractive, with Hopkins in a winnable matchup (and always worth thinking about paying up for in tourneys), and with Fuller and Stills each carrying slate-breaking upside. On this team that remains comfortable running the ball with a lead, Watson is always preferable in potential shootouts; but his rushing upside and his weapons keep him squarely in the tournament conversation as well.
McCaffrey’s matchup takes away some of his paths to upside, but given that he is Christian McCaffrey, he holds onto enough paths to remain squarely in the middle of an ugly running back conversation this week.
Olsen is also a solid play on this side of the ball, while Moore and Samuel remain in the thick of the large-field tourney conversation against a beatable secondary on a team with a narrow distribution of touches. Allen will find things more difficult this week in Houston than he did in Arizona, but this does not make it impossible for him to get the ball to his pass catchers often enough for one of them to matter again.