On an 11 game slate (with Washington traveling to take on the solid, aggressive defense of the Panthers), we can make fairly quick work of the Redskins’ side of the ball here — with this team carrying the lowest Vegas-implied total on the slate. What we head into this game knowing about Washington is that they want to try to lean on the run, while the loss of Dontari Poe up front for the Panthers makes this matchup even softer (Carolina ranks 31st in DVOA against the run, and Poe was the only player who was contributing good work in this area). We also know, however, that Washington continues to get both Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson involved (Guice has 27 carries and five receptions since returning; Peterson has 37 carries and four receptions), and it is unlikely that game flow does favors to Washington in their desire to control this game in that manner. Washington could continue to lean on the run on the road even if they fall behind, but with Bill Callahan finding it in his heart to generously split up this backfield work, Old Man Peterson and Guice are basically just hoping for unlikely game flow, or hoping for a couple long runs and/or in-close touchdowns.
When Washington takes to the air, their key piece (and the only piece that has provided usable production for them this year) is Terry McLaurin — though after going for 50+ yards in five straight games to begin the season (and 70+ in four of five), he has cracked 50 in only two of five games since, with high-water marks of 69 and 72. Part of this has been due to Dwayne Haskins taking over under center, but a larger part has been the less aggressive mindset of this offense with Callahan calling the shots, as McLaurin has averaged only 7.7 yards per target in these five games while seeing his aDOT drop from his early-season top-of-league mark. Those are a lot of negatives that need to be noted (and McLaurin should draw shadow coverage from James Bradberry this week — who isn’t a true shy-away matchup, but he certainly doesn’t do opposing receivers any favors), but there are a couple positives to note:
1) Sure, McLaurin saw 12 targets last week — but the bigger takeaway for me was that five of these targets came 20+ yards downfield.
2) While that came against a Detroit defense that boosts opponent aDOT by 27% against the league-average (the largest boost in the league), the Panthers boost aDOT by 9% themselves, which opens opportunities for McLaurin to see another two or three downfield looks in this one.
The Panthers are almost as easy to break down as Washington, as this team — as noted multiple times over the last several weeks — has one of the most narrow distributions of touches in the league (with this distribution concentrating even more heavily lately as DJ Moore has emerged as the featured piece in the pass game). Since the Panthers came off bye, targets among the Panthers’ primary pass catchers have gone:
We’ve been hammering the DJ situation since after that first game out of the bye, and he’s now up to eight targets of 30+ yards and nine targets of 20+ yards in five games since the bye. Washington ranks middle of the pack in pass plays allowed of 20+ yards, and in all they shave 7.5% off aDOT and do a good job limiting YAC (while boosting catch rate by 9% — the second worst mark in the league), and their benching of Josh Norman should ultimately solve some of the issues they have dealt with (big games against them have primarily come from speedy downfield threats — with Norman getting repeatedly torched in this area).
Samuel has not been forgotten (while he had only four targets last week, six to eight is still his likeliest range), and he continues to operate with a downfield and intermediate role that is capable of providing value. Olsen — as noted multiple times lately — is tough to get a clear handle on in terms of usage, though he is not “featured” so much as he is “used when the matchup tilts him open.” Still, he is one of only four players on this team who has a real role, which has kept him in a useful target range at an ugly position most weeks. Landon Collins is solid in coverage but doesn’t present a matchup to avoid.
The Panthers’ backfield, of course, is one of the most straightforward positions in the NFL, as Christian McCaffrey has 25+ touches in all but two games this year, with just over 20 carries and six catches per game. In a game the Panthers should control, McCaffrey — as always — carries the highest floor/ceiling combo on the slate. No team in football has faced more running back touches than the Redskins, at 33.0 per game.
JM’s Interpretation ::
The clearest reason to go to the Washington side of the ball is “the fact that no one will.” This team has the lowest Vegas-implied total on the slate, and there is nothing to love on paper in this spot. If going here, McLaurin is the player likeliest to break out for a “necessary” game — though of course, he’ll need a lot to go right in order to get there.
On the other side, CMC is the top play in a game the Panthers should control, while DJ is more “solid play with some paths to another monster game” than he is lock-and-load with his price rising off his recent production. Game flow and simple regression are bigger obstacles than matchup, so there is certainly no reason to feel down on DJ this week. Behind DJ, Samuel should see around six to eight targets, while Olsen will likely be in line for five to seven looks of his own. Either player could rise above this level as well, and each has enough of a role in the red zone to have an outside shot at a have-to-have it score. CMC will slot in as a Tier 1 play this week, while the other Panthers will be varying levels of Tier 3.