The Titans are, pretty objectively, a solid football team. They play assignment-strong ball and boast plenty of attention-to-detail that trickles down to them from a head coach who is legendary for his abilities in this area. They have an identity — knowing how they can best win games — and they do a good job building their game plans around this identity. They are 8-6 and on the fringe of the AFC playoff discussion for a reason. But they also have only one win this year against a team with a winning record — and while that win came against the Chiefs, the Chiefs are also a fairly excellent matchup for the Titans’ preferred style of play: controlling the game on the ground and keeping things close until the end. The Titans will have a much more difficult time pulling off that strategy this week against a Saints defense that ranks ninth in DVOA against the run and has allowed the second fewest rushing yards in the league to running backs, at an excellent mark of only 3.69 yards per carry. The Saints set up well to move the ball through the air against Tennessee, and they have potential to knock the Titans off their standard approach (with no running back having topped 100 yards against them this year). The Saints are only 2.5 point favorites in this spot, which is giving an enormous amount of credit to the Titans’ recent surge. If we played out this slate a hundred times, the Titans would pick up maybe 15 or 20 wins and would play this game close plenty of additional times, but there would also be some Saints smashes, and New Orleans would win by 3+ more often than not.
The starting point for the Saints’ advantage in this spot is the passing attack, where New Orleans has one of the most concentrated bands of distribution in the league — with a very clear top tier (Michael Thomas), followed by two other core pieces (Kamara // Cook) and a hodgepodge of mix-and-match pieces behind these three. Here are target counts for the Saints over their last five games ::
>> Michael Thomas :: 10 // 11 // 8 // 15 // 12
>> Alvin Kamara :: 10 // 9 // 8 // 6 // 5
>> Jared Cook :: 2 // 8 // 6 // 2 // 4
>> Latavius // Ginn // Tre’Quan // Josh Hill combined :: 10 // 9 // 5 // 16 // 6
When we take price into the equation, it’s difficult to call Michael Thomas a “must play,” as the type of score he would have to post in order to “put him out of reach at his salary” is a once-in-a-season type of event. In other words: even if you miss out on one of Thomas’ big games, there are almost always ways to spend that salary in other ways that grab similar point-per-dollar production. And yet, this view of things goes out of the window when you’re able to pair Thomas with a cheap play that goes off for a high raw score, or when you’re able to pair Thomas with a cheap stack that hits. As we often say on OWS: once games kick off, salary doesn’t actually matter; all that matters is the production you get. As such, the way I have been handling Christian McCaffrey over the last two months is the same way I plan to approach Thomas at his sky-high price: I don’t start any rosters with these guys; but when I’m building around a lower-cost stack or some lower-cost-with-raw-upside pieces, I’m always looking for an opportunity to squeeze these guys in. Thomas sets up as well in this spot against an overmatched Titans secondary that ranks 22nd in DVOA against the pass (compared to fifth against the run). If you land some high raw scores from more affordable pieces this week, Thomas can make for an excellent addition.
Kamara, of course, hasn’t topped 14 carries since Week 5, and while he has a very real receiving role, he hasn’t topped 50 receiving yards since Week 3 (and hasn’t topped 23 receiving yards since Week 12). Cook has ceiling and could outscore Ertz this week if he hits his ceiling and Ertz hits his floor. Ginn is the best bet of the remaining pieces (with a pair of one-target games in his last four, but also with a five-target game and a six-target game) — though all of these “hodgepodge” guys merely qualify as dart throws.
The Titans’ best bet for keeping this game close will be rookie sensation A.J. Brown, who has recent target counts of 5 // 4 // 7 // 13, and who has — impossibly — produced yardage totals of 135 // 45 // 153 // 114 on this mostly-light volume, with four touchdowns in this stretch. With only two games above seven targets all season and a matchup on tap with Marshon Lattimore, A.J. is a thin bet at his suddenly-elevated price — though it is worth noting that the players who have hit for the biggest games against the Saints with Lattimore on the field have been DeAndre Hopkins, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin, and Emmanuel Sanders: primarily explosive players with good route-running chops and alpha roles — keeping A.J. in the upside mix.
A.J. can hit big plays alongside Henry, but he is likeliest to spike if Henry is slowed. Henry hasn’t quite looked 100% the last couple weeks (in spite of producing 103 and 86 yards on the ground in those contests), and while the Saints lost Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, they played really well last week against the run, holding Marlon Mack to 1.7 yards per carry. This is a smart enough defense to know that stopping the run is the first priority in this matchup, so this should be considered a tough matchup that Henry has to beat. Talent is part of the equation in stopping the run, but so is technique, scheme, communication, and “emphasis” — and those last four elements all still make this a tough spot for Henry.
Behind alphas A.J. and Henry, Jonnu Smith (2 // 4 // 5) and Corey Davis (2 // 4 // 6) are the next best bets. If Corey misses this game with his ankle issue, it’s likeliest we see a bit more action pushed onto A.J. and Jonnu, but Tajae Sharpe could see a slight bump as well. Ultimately, a bet on the Titans’ passing attack is either a bet on massive efficiency (before last week, Ryan Tannehill had recent pass attempt totals of 19 // 18 // 22 // 27) or a bet on the Saints grabbing a lead and checking Henry — forcing the Titans more heavily to the air.
JM’s Interpretation ::
It’s not as if pricing cooperates here, with the most attractive on-paper pieces from this game (Thomas and A.J.) carrying lofty price tags that require them to hit for one of their highest-end games of the season in order to really be worth a roster spot. But if looking simply at raw production, these are the players (and the scenarios) I’m most interested in focusing on myself: expecting the Saints to check the Titans on the ground, and to produce at their normal level through the air when they have the ball. If the Saints are able to do this, Thomas will have a clear path to his standard, high-end game, while A.J. Brown will have an opportunity for a volume spike as the Titans chase points. With both of these teams ranked in the bottom-third of the league in pace of play, and with both teams focused on the short areas of the field (the Saints through the air; the Titans on the ground), it’s difficult to see a true shootout developing, which will make it difficult for Thomas or even Brown to post a true “must-have” score against their Week 16 price tags. But depending on how the week sets up, a “must-have” score may not be necessary (i.e., there may not be many “must-have” scores on this week as a whole — which could land a standard score from Thomas on a tourney-winning roster, and could land a ceiling score from Brown on a tourney-winning roster). Depending on how salary shakes out this week, I won’t be surprised to find some Thomas on my rosters; and if I have some Thomas, I may bring back some of that action with A.J. Brown — hoping the Saints force the Titans to the air and Brown responds in kind.
I expect to leave the backfields alone here, though if you’ve been taking high-priced, 12 to 15 point scores from Kamara all year in the hopes of finally catching touchdown regression, it would make sense to continue to give yourself a bit of exposure there — essentially considering yourself to be “pot-committed” on this play, and considering any additional risk on this play to be incremental against what you’ve risked already — in the hopes of finally landing your payoff. As I’ve been avoiding Kamara for most of the year myself, I’ll continue to do so here — and will gladly hunt for my upside in other spots even if he finally piles up a couple scores to make his price tag worth it.
The tight ends are also in the mix, though with Hollister and Ertz the clear leaders on this slate at the position, I expect to be overweight there, and I don’t know that either Jonnu or Cook will work his way into the “hedge” discussion for me this week.
Finally — with this game projected to remain close — you could build around this game developing into a back-and-forth affair, and could roster one of the quarterbacks and as many as three additional pieces from this game in the hopes that you can capture magic. The prices are high enough on the core pieces of this game that you would optimally want to look for a low-cost stack to pair with this spot in order to offset some of the lower point-per-dollar production you may be locking yourself into — but if you can find such a setup, the raw scores from this spot combined with the raw scores from a cheaper stack could be enough to shoot you to the top this week.