The Wild Card NFL Edge will be live on Thursday!
(In the meantime, grab some free NBA training, tools, and content!)
The Wild Card NFL Edge will be live on Thursday!
(In the meantime, grab some free NBA training, tools, and content!)
Slate Overview ::
With Wild Card Weekend broken up into a PAIR of three-game slates, we'll be tackling each slate individually(!). Same as we did with the Thanksgiving slate and the Saturday slates, we'll lead off with a Slate Overview, and we'll wrap the last game of the slate with a DFS+ Interpretation segment that covers all three games. On Friday afternoon, we'll also have Larejo123's "Willing To Lose" linked throughout the NFL Edge. Let's get it!
By Hilow >>
We have an interesting slate on deck for Saturday, with only the early . . .
Game Overview ::
By Hilow >>
Likeliest scenario has this game playing to a divisional slugfest, but the makeup of each team can lend to a more open, back and forth affair (at likely low ownership)Both teams are likeliest to attempt to play “keep away” with the ball, with high rush rates and stifling defenseIt appears likely the Seahawks will be at full strength, while the Rams are awaiting the game day status of their starting quarterback, Jared GoffStrength versus strength matchup everywhere you look here
How Los Angeles Will Try To Win ::
The Rams’ plan of attack here . . .
The Bucs have a few key players to keep an eye on for Saturday, with wide receiver Mike Evans and outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul yet to practice this week while standout cornerback Carlton Davis returned to a limited practice on Wednesday after missing the last two games of the season with a groin injury. JPP has been a force on the interior of this defense while Davis has been one of the best cover corners in the league (has allowed a low 52.6% completion rate on a massive 97 targets in coverage with four interceptions to five touchdowns allowed), so either’s absence would be felt. Davis appears likely to make it back for Saturday from his groin injury while JPP could be a true game-time decision with a knee injury. Similar story for wide receiver Mike Evans, who has also not practiced this week with a hyperextended knee suffered in their Week 17 game against Atlanta. Head coach Bruce Arians indicated earlier this week that the first time Evans would test his knee would be during Thursday’s practice, so keep an eye on how it responds. Tampa’s overall 64% pass play rate ranks third in the NFL over the full season and remains relatively consistent over the last month of play, coming in at 63%.
The matchup on the ground yields an average 4.305 net-adjusted line yards metric and represents a “by the numbers” area of least resistance. I say “by the numbers” as it really only tells part of the story for a team like the Buccaneers, who lean so heavily toward the pass. We should expect a rather neutral 60-40 snap split between Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette, with Jones likely to see 50% more running back opportunities (primarily on the ground). Either way, we’re betting on a multiple touchdown day from one or the other by playing them in a split backfield and average matchup. Furthermore, Washington has allowed the second fewest fantasy points per game to opposing backfields, with a strong defensive line and linebacking corps.
Really the only area that Tom Brady has struggled this season in the pass game is when facing pressure (Washington is top five in pressure rate, quarterback hits, sacks, etc), providing at least a glimpse of hope for Washington (just kidding; Brady/Arians likely realize this fact and have altered their game plan to include a higher rate of ball-out-quick and short passing). I want to talk real quick about one of the biggest downfalls of fantasy footballers: the assumption of rational coaching. The last side note included in parentheses is exactly that, an assumption of rational coaching. The reason I included it is we’re talking about two of the smartest people in the NFL from a football-IQ standpoint in Tom Brady and Bruce Arians. I would be absolutely shocked if a 43-year-old Tom Brady and head coach/play-caller with as much experience and game smarts as Bruce Arians did not come into this game with the understanding that Brady is likely to face pressure at a heightened rate based on the opponent and adjust accordingly. The next point of discussion revolves around the health (or lack thereof) of Mike Evans. Should he play, it is likely going to be in a limited capacity on a hyperextended knee, making it more difficult for him to execute the short area routes we just spoke of, particularly considering the Buccaneers’ other two primary wide receivers, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, are two of the cleanest and most advanced route-runners in the NFL. Because the matchup so heavily favors the short passing game, Godwin, Brown and tight end Rob Gronkowski gain increasing intrigue as potential volume pieces, regardless of the status of Evans.
Looking at Washington’s directional passer rating charts per down (above), we very clearly see a shift from a zone base on first down, inside-out man coverage base on second down and outside-in man coverage base with blitz on third down. Incidentally enough, Mike Evans plays almost 60% of his snaps on the left side of the field, while Chris Godwin is basically 50/50 in right/left alignment out of the slot and Antonio Brown is at 60% on the right side. Considering the big picture here (including price), the order of preference of Tampa pass-catchers goes Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans (if active), Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Brate.
The biggest pieces of injury news out of Washington are the questions surrounding quarterback Alex Smith and wide receiver Terry McLaurin, although the players least likely to actually play are linebackers Thomas Davis, Sr. and Kevin Pierre-Louis, likely leaving linebacking duties to Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb (who, for all intents and purposes, have played much better than the 37 year old Davis and journeyman KPL). Reports from Washington indicate the team is considering a quarterback rotation of Alex Smith and Taylor Heinicke, which is about the worst real-world scenario I can think of for a team in the playoffs (of note, it was Heinicke who took all first team snaps at practice throughout the week). Terry McLaurin gutted through a high ankle sprain in Week 17 and appears likely to do the same here.
It’s a tough ask for the Washington ground game this week against the highest-rated defense against the run in the league (first in DVOA, first in yards allowed per carry). The matchup on the ground yields a well below average 3.975 net-adjusted line yards metric and Antonio Gibson has been fighting through a toe injury for the better part of a month now. The typical snap split between Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic depends on game flow, with a 60/40 split in favor of Gibson in close games (or positive game flows) and reversed in games the Football Team is playing from behind. That said, we’ll cover here shortly the likeliest beneficiary out of the backfield (which comes in the pass game).
Through the air, we have a few key pieces converging in a way that gives us a good idea of where production is likeliest to come from. First off, we have the primary weapon for the Football Team, Terry McLaurin, slowed by a high ankle sprain in a matchup with one of the top young cover corners in the league in Carlton Davis. Secondly, we have a likely quarterback carousel due to injury to Alex Smith. And finally, Jason Pierre-Paul’s likely absence removes one of the key inside-funnel members of the Buccaneer’s 3-4 defensive scheme. The inside linebackers (typically in primary coverage of running backs out of the backfield and tight ends) have allowed a staggering 84 of 116 passes to be completed for 632 yards and six touchdowns in primary coverage. Cornerback Carlton Davis should return for this game and is typically used in shadow coverage of opposing WR1s, in this case, a hobbled Terry McLaurin, leaving relative liability Sean Murphy-Bunting to cover Cam Sims. Considering all angles (likely game flow, injuries to Alex Smith and Terry McLaurin, linebacker coverage deficiencies), Washington’s best chances of moving the ball through the air are through the running backs in the pass game and the tight end (hello Mr. Logan Thomas). As we covered above, Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic are typically deployed in a 60/40 split in close games, with that split liable to flip flop (with room for more snaps for McKissic) in games Washington trails. All of this comes together to provide a likeliest scenario for McKissic to take the snap lead here, with legitimate double-digit target upside as the player with the best chance to move the ball against the Bucs. After I went mad continuing to hype Logan Thomas for over half the season, I finally gave up with the mindset that the coaching and quarterback situations were just going to make it impossible. Then Alex Smith took over at quarterback and everything changed! Thomas has played all but nine (!!!) offensive snaps since Washington’s Week 6 bye and is running a route on 92% (!!!) of pass plays. Like I’ve said before, something had to give. The matchup is a good one against a Bucs team allowing the 10th most fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends at 14.0. Consider Thomas candidate number two for double-digit looks.
Likeliest scenario involves an adjustment from Tom Brady and Bruce Arians to the short area passing game in an attempt to keep a relatively immobile Tom Brady upright. Considering the daunting matchup for Washington’s offense, this is likely to lead to the Buccaneers controlling the game and tempo from the beginning, forcing Washington into desperation as the game moves on (another plus for McKissic and Logan Thomas). There’s really no reason to expect the Bucs to increase the involvement of their backfield; rather, it’s more likely they adjust the average intended air yards for Brady.
With Wild Card Weekend broken up into a PAIR of three-game slates, we’ll be tackling each slate individually(!). Same as we did with the Thanksgiving slate and the Saturday slates, we’ll lead off with a Slate Overview, and we’ll wrap the last game of the slate with a DFS+ Interpretation segment that covers all three games. Let’s get it!
In stark contrast to the Saturday slate, Sunday sees four teams with Vegas implied team totals over 25 points, with only the Bears (19.25) and Browns (21.25) checking in below that mark. Speaking of the Browns, the COVID outbreak (and headache) continues in Cleveland, with head coach/offensive play-caller Kevin Stefanski now set to miss this game due to a positive test (will be unable to be in contact with the team on game day), leaving Mike Priefer to handle acting head coach duties and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt to handle offensive play-calling duties. *This is fine.emoji* Interestingly enough, the Browns, a team whose identity is to run the football, playing the top-ranked defense in DVOA against the run, without their head coach and play-caller, also without their top overall wide receiver (OBJ), on the road in Pittsburgh are still expected to score over three touchdowns. Player pricing is also much more aggressive on the Sunday slate, leaving us with a key question: to Henry, or not to Henry? The three underdogs (Titans, Bears, Browns) are all in difficult situations offensively, but should all come in with low expected ownership (outside of Henry, of course). From an analytical standpoint, the Saints’, Browns’ and Titans’ Vegas implied team totals feel high, something to keep in mind as we navigate this slate (UPDATE: Vegas tends to agree, with the Saints’ implied total dropping a point overnight and the Browns’ implied team total dropping two and half points (!!!) overnight; the Titans’ implied team total has remained higher than I would have it.)
The Ravens are a bit dinged up on the defensive side of the ball, with all of cornerback Marlon Humphrey, defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback Jimmy Smith and nose tackle Brandon Williams on the injury report for various ailments. It appears likely Humphrey, Williams and Campbell will be ready to go, while Jimmy Smith appears legitimately questionable after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury. The Ravens pair a top three overall defense (second in points allowed per game) with the highest rush rate in the league and third slowest pace of play, looking to grind out victories by keeping the ball away from opponents. We shouldn’t expect anything to change here against an opponent yielding the third worst drive success rate on defense.
Mark Ingram II returned in Week 17 to leach 23% of the offensive snaps from standout rookie JK Dobbins and above average change of pace back Gus Edwards, returning this backfield to a maddening three way split. Dobbins has operated as the lead of that committee since the Ravens’ Week 7 bye, scoring seven touchdowns over the final six games of the season. Averaging only 13.5 running back opportunities per game over the last six games, he’ll need to continue scoring to provide fantasy utility. The good news is he carries the third highest touchdown equity amongst running backs on the Sunday slate (behind only Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara), per current betting lines. The matchup on the ground yields an above average 4.455 net-adjusted line yards metric, with yards per carry against the Titans inflated by poor second level and open field yards allowed, areas that Dobbins has dominated as a rookie (second highest rate of carries for 20+ yards of running backs with more than 100 carries, behind only Nick Chubb).
The Ravens average the fewest pass attempts per game at only 25.4, five fewer per game than their opponent (Titans rank 30th at 30.3). When Lamar Jackson does throw, it is typically of the deep variety (seventh deepest average intended air yards at 8.6), with Marquise Brown (13.3 aDOT), Myles Boykin (11.2 aDOT), and Mark Andrews (10.0 aDOT) all carrying elevated average depths of target (only Willie Snead, the primary slot wide receiver, carries a below average aDOT). The Titans have ceded the sixth most average air yards at completion (distance the ball traveled through the air at time of reception), increasing the chances of the Ravens connecting on a few deep shots here.
The biggest pieces of injury news to follow out of Tennessee ahead of their Wild Card matchup with the Ravens are the statuses of guard Rodger Saffold, who has been a top five run-blocking guard over the last three years, and tackle Dennis Kelly, who has served as the team’s top pass-protector and second-best run-blocker on the season. Coincidentally, Saffold actually missed the Titans’ Week 11 game against these same Ravens. He has yet to practice after aggravating an ankle injury in Week 17 but has stated publicly that he’s “definitely playing.” Kelly has regularly sat out the first two practices of the week this season as the Titans allow him extra time to tend to an ailing knee that has plagued him over the second half of the year. The absence of either would be a sizable hit to Derrick Henry but would be arguably a bigger hit to the expected pass protection against a blitz-heavy Ravens defense. With only four games all season of more than 31 pass attempts, it is very clear how the Titans will approach this game, particularly opposite a defense in the Ravens that boasts arguably three of the top ten cornerbacks over the last three years (Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, and Marcus Peters, in no particular order).
The matchup on the ground yields a low-for-the-Titans 4.565 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Ravens defense that has allowed only 22.6 fantasy points per game to opposing backfields and the fewest rushing scores in the league (tied with Kansas City). Many will see Henry’s yardage total from the Week 11 meeting between these two teams (133 yards) and figure this matchup to be a neutral one, but realize Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams, widely regarded as the best run-stopper in the league, missed that game due to injury. Things are further complicated for The King due to the injuries to Saffold and Kelly, who are both likely to be playing through ailments if they are even active. With a season high of only three targets (happened only once, all the way back in Week 1), the yardage and touchdowns are going to be harder to come by for the league’s ultimate yardage and touchdown back. Behind Henry, expect Jeremey McNichols to perform primary mop up duties.
Through the air, the Titans face a defense forcing (forcing as opposed to allowing) the fourth highest pass play rate against at 62.44%, not because they are easier to attack through the air but because they have so handily controlled games this season. Baltimore ranks top four in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.9) and yards allowed per completion (9.3), and ranks ninth in completion rate allowed at 63.76%. The saving grace for the fantasy prospectus of the Titans’ pass game is how insanely concentrated it is, with AJ Brown and Corey Davis accounting for a combined 54% of Ryan Tannehill’s pass yards this season (2,059 of 3,819). As we alluded to earlier, the cornerback trio of Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith is rivaled by that of only the Rams, as these three have played absolutely lights out defensively this season. The total quarterback rating allowed by the Ravens is 71.6, third best in the league, and they blitz at an unreal 44.1% clip, which could spell further troubles with the two hobbled offensive linemen for the Titans. Yeah, this is not a simple task for these Titans. Baltimore’s shallow 7.9 average depth of target faced and heavy blitz rate lead to a scenario of increased ball-out-quick responsibilities for the Titans to be successful, which both AJ Brown and Corey Davis have proved more than capable of this season. It will be up the coaching staff to recognize this early in order to keep Tennessee in the game, before desperation creates long down and distance and a scoreboard deficit that will be tough to overcome.
It is quite clear on paper that the Ravens are the superior team here, and they should have no issues moving the ball consistently against a defense ranked 30th in the league in drive success rate allowed. Assuming nose tackle Brandon Williams plays without restriction, their defense also matches up well with how the Titans are likeliest to attack (throw that completely out the window should Williams miss, as he is the key cog to their dominance against the run this year), both at the beginning of the game (heavily on the ground) and as the game progresses (through the air with emphasis on deep passing). One of the Ravens’ biggest keys to success here will be their ability to bring down Titans’ running back Derrick Henry, who leads the league in broken tackles amongst running backs with 34 (Ravens have missed the second most tackles this season).
It will be up to the Titans to adapt to the opponent and start working the short-intermediate areas of the field at a higher rate if they want to stay in this game, particularly with the injuries to their offensive line against an opponent that blitzes at the highest rate in the NFL. Expect a lower-than-average total number of offensive plays run from scrimmage with the slow pace, high rush rates, and lockdown defense of the Ravens likely controlling the game. The Titans are largely incapable of slowing down how the Ravens are likeliest to attack here, with the third worst drive success rate allowed on defense and large open field yards and second level yards allowed on defense.
The big pieces of news out of Chicago regarding injuries are the likely absences of rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney (ankle), the Bears’ primary downfield threat, and inside linebacker Roquan Smith (elbow), a top three-graded coverage linebacker. Smith is a large reason for the Bears’ success against opposing running backs in the pass game, as veteran right inside linebacker Danny Trevathan has been a coverage liability this season. Backup inside linebackers Josh Woods and Joel Iyiegbuniwe have combined for only 94 defensive snaps in their careers. Chicago’s 62% pass play rate has remained rather sticky throughout the season, dipping only slightly to 57% in the first half when playing with a lead. The largest undoing for this Bears team has been offensive turnovers and poor ability to sustain drives (23rd-ranked drive success rate), placing regular increased pressure on their defense. This has led to a low situation-neutral pace of play (27th-ranked 31.50 seconds per play) but fast second half pace of play (12th-ranked 26.60 seconds per play in the second half) and high 64% second half pass play rate.
Backup running back/special teams ace Cordarrelle Patterson missed practice Wednesday and Thursday for personal reasons and his game day status is in question. Starting running back David Montgomery has averaged a staggering 81.7% of the offensive snaps in the eleven fully healthy games without Tarik Cohen, which ranks tops in the NFL by a wide margin. The matchup on the ground is a poor one for the Bears, yielding a well below average 3.95 net-adjusted line yards metric against an opponent allowing the fewest fantasy points per game to opposing backfields (18.0) and ranked second in DVOA against the run. Montgomery’s torrid stretch to end the season (averaged 27.23 fantasy points per game over the final six games of the year, scoring seven touchdowns) came against opponents ranked in the bottom ten against the run (GBx2, DET, HOU, MIN, JAX).
Number one wide receiver Allen Robinson II joined rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney on the sidelines of practice on Thursday, but it was likely just for maintenance on his injured hamstring. Mooney has a much lower chance of making it back from an ankle injury sustained late in a Week 17 loss to the Packers. Out of a total of 584 offensive snaps, Bears’ third wide receiver Anthony Miller has played 87.15% out of the slot, indicating it would likely be Javon Wims that benefits the most from a snap rate perspective should Mooney miss; an important aspect to understand, however, is that it is likely the biggest boost to Allen Robinson from a pure expected target perspective. After starting the year slow, lockdown corner Marshon Lattimore has played lights out over the second half of the season, bringing down his completion rate allowed in coverage to 49.4% on the year. Furthermore, Robinson profiles as the type of wide receiver Lattimore has historically had the easiest time erasing (tall, possession-style, low 40-time, body wide receivers). The Saints are also expecting safeties Marcus Williams and CJ Gardner-Johnson back from injury, who combine with safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins to form the second-highest rated secondary in the league (Saints safeties as a unit have allowed a ridiculously low 55.1 QBR against in coverage on the year). The combination of high blitz rate (31.8%) and a defense forcing the third deepest average intended air yards (9.1) spells trouble for Mitchell Trubisky, who has eight interceptions and six fumbles (two lost) over his nine starts. Rookie tight end Cole Kmet continues to operate as the lead tight end for the Bears, playing no fewer than 78% of the offensive snap in any game since their Week 11 bye, and is a candidate to see a bump in targets should Mooney miss. Jimmy Graham’s red zone acumen keeps him in the discussion, but the combination of a low snap rate and low targets means he is very much touchdown or bust.
The Saints are expecting a slew of personnel back just in time for the playoffs, with all of running back Alvin Kamara, running back Latavius Murray, wide receiver Michael Thomas, and safeties Marcus Williams and CJ Gardner-Johnson expected back, but will be without recent addition linebacker Kwon Alexander for the entirety of the postseason run after a torn achilles sustained in Week 16. New Orleans would like to leverage their defensive prowess through slow pace of play (28th-ranked 31.54 situation-neutral pace of play), high rush rates (fifth highest rush rate over the full season at 47%), and a pass offense designed to maximize the strengths of the aging Drew Brees (while his arm strength is no longer what it used to be, his timing, ability to read a defense, and NFL IQ remain elite; ranks 34 out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in average intended air yards at 6.0).
The matchup on the ground should be considered a neutral one, yielding an above average 4.52 net-adjusted line yards against a Bears defense allowing middle of the pack numbers against the run. The New Orleans backfield typically operates in a 65/35 split between Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, with Murray getting more run in games the Saints control throughout. Considering the matchup, seasonal tendencies and pace up nature for the Saints, expect likeliest scenario to land the Saints around 70 total offensive plays run from scrimmage (about five more than their season average), which should translate to roughly 32-34 total rush attempts and 34-36 total pass attempts, leaving 18-20 running back opportunities for Kamara and eight to 12 for Murray as the likeliest scenario. The biggest boost to the Saints backfield comes in the form of the likely absence of Chicago inside linebacker Roquon Smith, who has been the key component of the linebacker coverage for the Bears. The linebacking unit for the Bears has been the weakest in coverage of the three levels (linebackers, corners, safeties) this season, and without Smith there are nothing but coverage liabilities remaining. Consider his absence a substantial boost to Kamara’s pass game ceiling.
The top three wide receivers for the Saints this week should be Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Marquez Callaway. On a team that runs 11-personnel at a below average 54% rate, and with Michael Thomas returning from an ankle injury, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see all three end the game in the 70-75% snap rate range. The cornerback unit for the Bears has basically been Kyle Fuller and then everyone else, with every member outside of Fuller allowing a 96.6 QBR in coverage or greater, which is #notgood. Because of the coverage lapses and difficulty in one-on-one coverage, the Bears blitz at the fourth lowest rate in the league and are top ten in zone-base coverage, instead relying on the strength of their defense (the front seven) to create pressure on the quarterback. With the NFL’s fifth-ranked pass-blocking offensive line, it is highly likely the Saints are able to hold off the vaunted Chicago pass rush, particularly with Drew Brees’ low time to throw. Expect tight end Jared Cook to play 50-55% of the offensive snaps, with rookie Adam Trautman mixing in for 35-40% himself.
The Saints’ offense, and their ability to stretch the field (and opposing defense) sideways, is likely to face little resistance from a Bears defense that derives so much of its effectiveness from pressure created without having to blitz. The absence of Roquon Smith would leave a substantial void in the short-middle of the field. It is unlikely Kyle Fuller is used in a shadow role (typically plays the right side), the New Orleans wide receivers are moved around enough in their offensive alignments, and we shouldn’t expect more than 75% snap rates for all three Saints’ wide receivers, meaning there is a good deal of variance associated with the individual pass-catchers, but that shouldn’t affect the overall efficiency of the offense. In all, the Saints are very likely to assert control over this game sooner rather than later and, with an offense ranked fifth in the league in efficiency, should continue to do so throughout the game. This would increase the desperation from the Bears, providing additional opportunities for mistakes to be made from a quarterback who has historically been extremely mistake-prone.
Obviously, the big news out of Cleveland is the once again widespread outbreak of COVID amongst the team, this time extending to the coaching staff as well. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kevin Stefanski will not be allowed to coach on Sunday after he was diagnosed with COVID early in the week, with left guard Joel Bitonio and wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge set to miss as well, both on the COVID list. Lockdown corner Denzel Ward is tentatively expected to make his return from the COVID list in time for Sunday’s game, but pay close attention on Saturday for how his situation is ultimately handled, as his services will most definitely be needed. Filling in for Bitonio is likely to be Michael Dunn, who was one of the highest graded pass-blocking offensive linemen when he left the AAF for the NFL. Still, the absence of Bitonio, particularly considering the Browns have not yet been able to practice this week, is significant. Many will automatically assume the Browns will simply attempt to lean on the run game for as long as possible here, but over the last four weeks of the season they upped their pass play rate from 52% to 61% in games against the Ravens, Giants, Jets, and these same Steelers. With the team facilities closed up until Friday afternoon (21 minutes ago as of this writing), we have little in the way of beat writer expectations. Bottom line, there is a wide range of possibilities for how the Browns open this game looking to attack.
The absence of Bitonio is likely to be felt most in the run game as Dunn is a capable fill-in for the pass protection he brings. The matchup yields a below average 4.23 net-adjusted line yards metric, but the damage done to the Steelers on the ground over the last five weeks has mostly come through splash plays via the second level, an area the Browns excel at (first in the league in second level yards, fourth in the league in open field yards). Cleveland running back snaps typically range from the 40-60% snap rate range, split between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and largely dependent on game flow. With a split backfield, a matchup that should lead to majority of running back value coming via splash plays (high variance), and unknowns surrounding expected run/pass rates, both Chubb and Hunt should be treated as high variance, low floor/high ceiling options.
Expect Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins to operate at the top two wide receivers, with Donovan Peoples-Jones expected back from a concussion in time to fill the WR3 role in the absence of Khaderal Hodge. The Browns have operated out of 11-personnel on only 38% of their offensive snaps over the last four weeks, with a whopping 47% of snaps over that time with at least two tight ends on the field (37% 12-personnel, 10% 13-personnel). This is likely to lead to a 75-80% snap rate for both Landry and Higgins and a 50-60% snap rate for DPJ. With Harrison Bryant set to miss on the COVID list, tight ends Austin Hooper, David Njoku, and Stephen Carlson should all see significant snap rates in an extremely difficult matchup for tight ends. Hooper and Njoku run routes on 82% of pass plays, with Carlson checking in at 77%. The matchup through the air is difficult all around, as the Steelers finished the season ranked first in completion rate allowed (56.65%), third in pass yards allowed per game (194.4), and third in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.9). One interesting piece of information I came across in digging into this matchup: the Steelers have forced/faced the deepest average depth of target in the league at 9.5, which is interesting to an almost counterintuitive level considering their high blitz rate. Since Odell Beckham, Jr. was lost for the season in Week 7, Jarvis Landry has commanded 7.75 targets per game (21.18% team target market share). When we remove the two “Cleveland wind games,” his targets per game jump to 9.17 without OBJ. With all the unknowns surrounding how the Browns are likeliest to attack here, consider the Landry the highest floor option from this side of the game.
The Pittsburgh linebacker corps has been absolutely decimated by injury, with all of Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and Robert Spillane done for the season. The biggest impact has been felt by the loss of Dupree prior to Week 13, after which the Steelers have gone 1-4 overall, surrendering no fewer than 23 points in any game over that span. This is still a top five defensive unit, but the thinned-out linebacker group has clearly been less effective overall. The strength of the Pittsburgh defense has without question been pressure on the quarterback, leading the league with an unreal 32.3% pressure rate over the course of the season (and leading the league with 56 sacks). Their 40.3% blitz rate has generated the second highest hurry rate and most quarterback knockdowns in the league. We know by now how the Steelers will approach games offensively. With one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the league and a quarterback whose arm strength is not what it used to be, the Steelers have built an offense designed around short throws and high percentage completions. Assuming Denzel Ward makes it back in time for this game, we should treat the overall makeup as a “strength” on “strength” matchup, reasoning being the Browns rank ninth in the league in opponent completion percentage allowed at 63.42% but have struggled with deep passing (ranked all the way down at 21st in the league in yards allowed per completion, but carry a respectable 6.8 yards allowed per pass attempt), and the Steelers have largely shown an unwillingness to attack the deep areas of the field. Basically, the Browns are good in the areas the Steelers are good in, and vice versa.
The Steelers’ run game is about as laughable is they come, generating only 3.78 adjusted line yards, 3.82 yards per carry, a 30th-ranked power success rate of 56%, 28th-ranked stuff rate at 18.9% and 31st-ranked second level yards value. Now we understand why the Steelers only use the run game to keep opponents at least somewhat honest defensively. This backfield can be summed up by saying “play James Conner as a low-cost variance piece that could fall into the end zone twice and return value at only $5,000.”
With the nonstandard wide receiver alignments utilized by the Steelers, I don’t expect Denzel Ward to shadow (assuming he makes it back for this game). The high rate at which the Browns are in zone coverage would tend to back that up, but there is at least a possibility he follows one of the perimeter receivers, likeliest Chase Claypool while he is on the field. Diontae Johnson and Juju Smith-Schuster have the most secure roles in this passing offense, but the game-to-game targets have largely flowed toward the path of least resistance. With Claypool/James Washington likely to see the most of Denzel Ward coverage, it also makes the most sense that Juju and Diontae are the likely paths of least resistance here. With eight games over and seven games under 40 pass attempts on the season for Ben Roethlisberger (and two games over 50 (!!!) pass attempts), the volume-boosted floor and ceiling for the top two pass-catchers for the Steelers in a given game are going to rival that of any wide receiver on a given slate, even more so on a small slate like this one. Likeliest scenario for Sunday is that those two wide receivers are Diontae and Juju (but remember, embrace the variance!). Tight end Eric Ebron was activated from the COVID list and is expected back. Likeliest scenario lands him in the seven to eight target range in a plus matchup. On a slate with not many true tight end options, he should be in consideration.
IF the Steelers weren’t currently playing so poorly (lost four of their last five games), or IF the Browns didn’t have so much working against them this week, this game would be a lot more straightforward. But alas, 2020 had a hangover into 2021 and here we are. The bottom line is there are so many unknowns and variables surrounding this game that anyone saying they know how it is going to play out is full of it. With that said, this is the last game on the Sunday slate and should be used to create the most leverage. What I mean by that is this: late swap becomes increasingly important on small slates as a means of generating leverage. Although Jarvis Landry and Diontae Johnson carry the highest raw floor, there are many different ways this game could play out considering the vast number of variables in play here. By building our rosters in a way that gives us maximum flexibility, we can leverage the field from an ownership perspective and leverage the variance associated with this game, as opposed to shying way from it. Remember, the smaller the slate, the more variance we should be looking to embrace, and this game is the perfect example of that. (NOTE: apologies for leaving this section open ended like that, but I felt it was much more useful to discuss Game Theory here than it was to repeatedly say that this game is high variance.)