Kickoff Sunday, Dec 8th 4:25pm Eastern

Steelers (
23) at

Cards (
20.5)

Over/Under 43.5

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Notes

Key Matchups
Steelers Run D
27th DVOA/32nd Yards allowed per carry
Cardinals Run O
23rd DVOA/10th Yards per carry
Steelers Pass D
13th DVOA/9th Yards allowed per pass
Cardinals Pass O
6th DVOA/10th Yards per pass
Cardinals Run D
5th DVOA/20th Yards allowed per carry
Steelers Run O
24th DVOA/29th Yards per carry
Cardinals Pass D
6th DVOA/7th Yards allowed per pass
Steelers Pass O
24th DVOA/15th Yards per pass

What makes a slate ugly? There are a lot of things that go into play here :: the Bucs playing a team that is less likely to help them produce a shootout; the Packers and Vikings playing at home in blowout spots; a number of teams matching up poorly with their opponent, and a number of recently hot players (i.e., currently overpriced players) entering tougher matchups than they have had of late; but one of the more clear and obvious factors is this particular game. The Steelers typically give us a defense that will shut down or at least slow down whatever opponent they face, while giving us an offense that largely kills any opportunity to feel good about loading up on an individual player. This week, the Steelers take on a Cardinals team that sometimes gives us useful pieces on offense, and that almost always gives us useful stat lines against them. The Steelers in this spot make the Cardinals offense less attractive, while the Steelers offense doesn’t give us nearly the same setup we can typically target against the Cardinals defense. What would typically be one of the sharper spots on the slate to target now becomes a much more iffy proposition.

We will begin our exploration of this game on the Cardinals side, where we can typically make pretty clean work of things, as this spread-the-wealth, short-area passing attack of the Cardinals has miraculously managed to produce only four remotely usable stat lines from pass catchers across their last nine games: three “I can live with that” scores (one from Christian Kirk, one from Larry Fitzgerald, and one — on one reception — from Andy Isabella), and Kirk’s blowup game against the Bucs. This week, the Cardinals passing attack will take on a Steelers defense that ranks fourth in DVOA against the pass, third in sacks, first in turnovers forced, and sixth in points allowed. The Steelers have allowed only the following notable stat lines to pass catchers ::

8-100-0 Hunter Henry
5-101-1 Boyd

4-95-2 Dorsett
7-95-0 Woods

Avoiding pass catchers against the Steelers has been one of the more profitable things to do this season, while the Cardinals passing attack has rarely produced stat lines worth pursuing. Your best bet if going to the Cardinals, of course, is Christian Kirk, who has recent target accounts of 11 // 5 // 10 // 9 // 7 and recent yardage totals of 79 // 8 // 138 // 41 // 23 — though any pieces on this Cardinals attack are low floor bets, just hoping for things to break your way.

The Cardinals backfield has not been much more usable of late, with Kenyan Drake leading the way in recent weeks at touch counts of 19 // 16 // 22 // 15. Drake played 79.4% of the snaps last week, compared to just over 20% for David Johnson (and 0% for Chase Edmonds) – and considering that Arizona was coming out of the bye (which means both extra time to adjust roles and a higher likelihood of everyone being healthy), it’s fairly safe to expect this distribution to continue. The Steelers rank fifth in drive success rate allowed and fifth in points allowed per drive, making it difficult for any big stat lines to emerge against them; but with recent target counts of 4 // 7 // 7 // 5, Drake does maintain pathways to production.

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals defense has been attackable both on the ground (16th in DVOA) and through the air (29th), with this team – as explored last week – ranked first in pace but dead last in time of possession, leaving their defense to face the most opponent plays per game. The Steelers are not a particularly exciting offense, ranking 28th in DVOA, 28th in yards per game, and 24th in points per game, while managing a 30th place ranking in drive success rate and generally allowing their defense to do the heavy lifting. This game does, however, boost median expectations for this unit.

If the Steelers are able to control this game as expected, we should see them leaning toward the run and slowing down the pace, while primarily sticking to the short areas of the field in the pass game and mixing in a couple well-placed downfield shots. If James Conner returns, he’s a solid bet to take over the lead role in this backfield, with recent touch counts of 14 // 23 // 26, and with receiving lines in that stretch of 0-0-0 // 7-78-1 // 3-5-0. If Conner misses, it will again be Benny Snell handling the work on the ground (21 and 16 carries the last two weeks), while Jaylen Samuels will function as the major player in the pass game (only five targets the last two weeks, but with a 41.4% share of the snaps leaving opportunity for more work to show up if things click in place).

The matchup through the air couldn’t be much better for Pittsburgh, as the Cardinals have allowed the third most catches and the third most yards to wide receivers, while allowing the following, lengthy list of notable stat lines ::

6-131-1 Hock
7-104-1 Amendola
8-112-1 Andrews
10-123-1 Boyd
8-117-1 Hooper
8-108-0 Julio
11-112-1 Michael Thomas
7-112-1 Manny
8-134-0 Deebo
13-172-0 Woods
7-107-1 Higbee

8-86-0 Marquise
6-75-0 Olsen
7-57-1 Dissly
6-79-1 Kittle

We’ll start with the matchup that has stood out more than perhaps any other in the NFL this year: tight ends against the Cardinals. Vance McDonald has recent target counts of 7 // 7 // 7 // 1 // 3, but he has produced yardage marks of only 30 // 11 // 33 // 1 // 21 in this stretch, while not topping 40 yards in a single game this year. His average depth of target of 4.7 is the second lowest mark in the league. He does have five targets inside the 10 (three touchdowns), while the Cardinals have not only allowed the most tight end touchdowns, but have allowed five more than any other team, and have allowed more tight end touchdowns than all but nine teams have allowed to wide receivers. This is an upside-producing matchup, though Vance will need a bit of a change to his role in order to really produce at the level other tight ends have produced at in this spot.

Among wide receivers, James Washington continued his hot play last week, hauling in four of four targets for 111 yards and a touchdown — marking only the fourth time this year a Steelers wide receiver has gone for 90 or more yards…while marking the third time in four games that Washington had done so. With recent target counts of only 7 // 5 // 7 // 4 and passes being thrown to him by Devlin Hodges, Washington is a low floor option; but the big-play ceiling is there. Diontae Johnson has recent target counts of 6 // 4 // 6 // 5 and is primarily occupying the short areas of the field, requiring a broken play or an unpredictable downfield connection in order to produce upside. If JuJu Smith-Schuster returns this week, he will throw a wrench into all of this – likely reestablishing himself as the top target through the air, and making all of this even less stable than is already the case.

JM’s Interpretation ::

This week is ugly enough that I probably won’t cross Cardinals off my list right away — and yet, I’ll be surprised if I end up with any of these guys, as picking on the Steelers has just been so unprofitable this year. If going anywhere on the Cardinals — per usual — the starting point for me would be Kyler Murray, as he is typically the first player from this offense to produce when the Cardinals have a good game. I would be likeliest to roll Kyler naked, as he has produced plenty of strong stat lines without bringing any of his teammates with him.

It says a lot about the state of the slate that this year’s Steelers offense can be considered moderately attractive, but that is the position in which we find ourselves this week. With that said: the prices on these players have been bumped up so outlandishly high on DraftKings that it’s tough to get too excited about them there, while none of these guys quite fit the “hunt for All-Star Team” approach that is favored on FanDuel. If going here, the player who is likeliest to draw my eye — once again — is Washington; though given the offense in which he plays, the likely low target total, and the rising price, he is thinner than what I typically prefer to target. I also think Conner has an outside shot at being viable if he plays, while McDonald is a “hope for a role change to take advantage of this matchup” option. Yeah. It’s that kind of slate.