Every week, I'll review every play of three games to give you the underlying storylines and points from beyond the box score that you need to get an edge in your fantasy league. This week, we'll focus on the NFC South:
Tennessee Titans / Buffalo Bills
There are things Matt Hasselbeck can't do anymore, like throw the deep ball with any accuracy (he overthrew an open Kenny Britt and underthrew an open Damian Williams), but his steady field vision and accuracy kept the Titans offense flowing well in this win. Hasselbeck was on time and not afraid to throw into small windows to get first downs. His calm mental toughness was a rudder for the offense, and he showed his meddle on a perfect game-winning touchdown throw to Nate Washington on fourth down. With the way Hasselbeck is playing, the Titans won't rush Jake Locker back from his shoulder injury
What to make of Chris Johnson's resurrection? The majority of his runs were not well-blocked, but a few opened up freeway lanes, which allowed Johnson to show that he still has a top speed that few players in the league can match. He broke a few tackles, made a few Bills miss, and otherwise flashed things we hadn't seen from him for a while. Johnson was stopped just short of the goal line only to be vultured by Jamie Harper twice, or he would have had the biggest RB game all season. His speed and quicks were still there late in the fourth quarter, so conditioning is no issue. Consider Johnson a strong RB2 going forward, but be open to dealing him if you can use him as a piece to get up to a true RB1, because the Bills are the weakest run defense he'll face all season. That the Titans' offensive line couldn't consistently open holes for Johnson is still a little concerning.
Kenny Britt looked like he was going to be a big part of the game plan, and then Chris Johnson happened. He got two catches very early on the opening drive, and then got open deep, but was overthrown. Britt can get back to strong WR2 level when Jake Locker returns, and he should build momentum against the Colts next week. If the game script had demanded it, I have a feeling Britt would have had a much bigger game. The rest of the Titans receiving crew flashes here and there - Kendall Wright's open field running ability, Jared Cook's size/speed combo (although he dropped a fourth down pass in the fourth quarter), Nate Washington's clutch play in the end zone, and Damian Williams's steady play in the middle of the field - which should also make Locker an intriguing pickup if you need QB help.
Ryan Fitzpatrick executed a more conservative gameplan extremely well, and then when he had a chance to lose the game, he did. Fitzpatrick also gave up a strip/sack when he didn't sense pressure, but otherwise, he was terrific in most of the first four quarters. He was getting the ball out quickly to open receivers, especially his running backs. Fitzpatrick was processing the field quickly and didn't take any chances deep, which has been his achilles heel. Tennessee's coverage was terrible in the vein of "keep 'em in front of you", and Fitzpatrick was in synch with Steve Johnson and Donald Jones. Then, up six, on a third down with about three minutes left, Fitzpatrick decided to throw to a covered receiver, and he horribly underthrew the ball to ensure the interception and give the Titans new life. On the potential game-winning field goal drive, Fitzpatrick passed up a wide open Fred Jackson for the first down on third and short to have a downfield pass to Scott Chandler broken up instead. The Titans blitzed him on fourth down, and that caused a rushed throw that ended the game. Fitzpatrick isn't played bad enough to be benched, but he isn't playing well enough to trust in your fantasy lineup, either.
The Bills running backs were both terrific in their own way, and the offense should continue to flow through them going forward. Our recapper Jonnie Stoneberg put it well when he compared Fred Jackson to water flowing through cracks. Jackson is back to 100% and his subtle moves broke tackles to get yards after contact with regularity. The burst and agility we hadn't seen the last few weeks is back. CJ Spiller's superior burst and quickness stands out, and he is becoming the kind of back that makes a defense hold its breath every time he touches the ball, like Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson during his 2K season. The Bills offense can support two strong fantasy RB2s with the way this pair is playing and being used.
The receivers' outlook with the running backs doing so much is definitely diminished, although the defense should spot their opponents some leads, which will keep Steve Johnson viable. He was the first read on the majority of downfield passing plays, and he was getting open easily. Donald Jones and Scott Chandler are solid, competent players, but this style of offense won't feed them enough to make them relevant in fantasy leagues.
Jacksonville Jaguars / Oakland Raiders
Blaine Gabbert was protected well early, but off at first. He eventually hooked up with Cecil Shorts on a couple of downfield throws, including one for a touchdown when Shorts snuck behind the defense. Shorts still had to slow down for the score and field it like a punt. Before Gabbert went out with an injury, he threw two balls that should have been picked. Folks who wondered if it can get worse for the Jags at quarterback got their answer as Chad Henne looked like the worst quarterback in the league who has seen the field this year. He was out of synch with his receivers, had no touch on his passes, and no feel for attacking the defense. He even threw the ball away on fourth and 1. Poor, poor Jaguars faithful. I feel for you.
There are no clues to the severity of Maurice Jones-Drew's foot injury, but early signs point to a multi-week injury as head coach Mike Mularkey said he would be out for an "extended period" and Jones-Drew has already been ruled out this week. Rashad Jennings gave everything he had in relief of Jones-Drew. He broke tackles and got north-south on most runs even though the blocking wasn't there. Jennings had terrific hands out of the backfield and he should become a primary target in the Jags feeble passing game. He is definitely worth a #1 waiver wire priority or most, if not all, of your remaining waiver wire bidding budget if you need a running back.
Justin Blackmon might be the most instantly disappointing top five pick in 20 years. He looks like he has no interest in the game. He is showing no burst or edge to his game. Landing on a team going nowhere with a poor passing game may cause him to drift and pretty much destroy his dynasty stock.
Carson Palmer made his share of mistakes and poor decisions (like an interception on a Favre-esque underhanded toss under pressure), but his offensive line kept him running for his life all day. He did miss a wide open Denarius Moore downfield early, but also hit Darrius Heyward-Bey deep. His energy on offense kept the team engaged when nothing was working in the running game and they were down by 10 points or more for a lot of the second half. He is leading this rebuilding team and hanging in the pocket to make throws when he knows he is going to get hit. Another possible long touchdown was dropped by Rod Streater, and Palmer's ability to throw downfield with impunity drew the pass interference call that set up the game-tying touchdown. Palmer deserves more props for his effort and leadership.
Part of what Palmer is doing well is using all of his receivers. Denarius Moore is still the closest thing to a #1 receiver. He drew a long pass interference penalty in the game, and also was missed by Palmer when he was open downfield early in the game. Moore showed a good nose for the end zone on his short touchdown catch and run, and he should remain a solid WR3 with WR2 upside. Beyond Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey got back involved with an early deep reception, Marcel Reece was showing his underrated speed and open field running instincts on his receptions, and Brandon Myers was the old reliable when nothing was there early in Palmer's progressions. Rod Streater even got in the act, making some nice sprawling catches after dropping a long touchdown. Reece is interesting because he was getting more downfield targets as the game went on, including one in the end zone. He might have re-entered the game after a concussion, so monitor his status before you pick him up in any deep leagues.
Darren McFadden just doesn't look like Darren McFadden, but a lot of that are poorly designed runs out of the shotgun or otherwise set up so McFadden doesn't have a head of steam or incentive to get downhill quickly. The burst is still there on the few attempts where he does get north/south. He was stopped just short on a late touchdown, and the Raiders could be doing a better job of using him as a receiver to get him the ball in space. Carson Palmer is playing well enough to keep defenses from completely keying on McFadden. Chris Johnson's performance should remind us that talented backs can get off the schneid at any times. Take the gamble and buy low on him if you can.
Arizona Cardinals / Minnesota Vikings
John Skelton actually looked pretty good in this game and got time to throw early. It was only later on that the Cardinals offensive line allowed pressure on most snaps. Skelton has great pocket presence and if anything is too calm in there and doesn't always sense pressure. He escaped one pressure right into a sack/fumble, and his pick six to Harrison Smith was an ill-advised throw moving up in the pocket to escape pressure. He was let down by a terrible play call on 4th and short deep in Minnesota territory where he didn't sell the play fake and had no chance to make a play when he rolled out. A delay of game to turn a late fourth and five into a fourth and 10 also hurt. Overall, Skelton's field vision, accuracy, and throws downfield were all quality. Skelton was composed and did a good job giving the Cardinals a breath of life on a quick desperation touchdown drive. The team is just as well off with him as they are with Kolb.
The Vikings focused on taking Larry Fitzgerald away, and they were successful. Skelton found Fitzgerald on a handful of early short crossing patterns, and that was about it. Except for Andre Roberts on the desperation drive, the Vikings generally did a good job covering downfield, which is keyed by their ability to get pressure rushing only four defenders. Fitzgerald should be as Skelton gets more established. The two riffed well last year. Michael Floyd is still fourth in the wide receiver rotation, and the team seems to want to get the ball in Early Doucet's hands, even giving him a couple of carries. Rob Housler is looking sure-handed and getting open. He isn't an incredibly dynamic athlete, but he's more impressive than former first-rounders Jermaine Gresham and Brandon Pettigrew. He'll never be an elite fantasy tight end, but borderline TE1 numbers are possible.
LaRod Stephens-Howling couldn't have looked more different than he did vs. Buffalo. An early fumble by William Powell on a kickoff opened the door, and Stephens-Howling ran tough right through it. He was successful (as was the line) being effective between the tackles, and "Hyphen" also found lots of room to run outside, just as William Powell did last week. Stephens-Howling ran hard, breaking multiple tackles, not going down on first contact, and successfully picking his way through the line. His legs were always churning, and his determination was as good as Adrian Peterson's on the other sideline, which is saying something. Stephens-Howling's terrific balance got him 10+ more yards on a play that the whole defense assumed he was down on, and his stamina well into the fourth quarter was the stuff that feature backs are made of. The Vikings did him some favors with some poor tackling, but Stephens-Howling sure looked for real in this game against a run defense that held Alfred Morris to 47 yards on 16 carries last week. The effectiveness running the ball even means William Powell isn't an autodrop even though Stephens-Howling should get the start vs. San Francisco. The Cardinals running game has proven to be ever-changing this season.
Christian Ponder looked like a wily veteran and foolish youngster at different points in this game, sometimes on the same play. He drew a long pass interference on a pass to Jerome Simpson early that set up Adrian Peterson's touchdown. He ran the offense well and appeared to be under control, except when he would escape pressure in the pocket, which Ponder is very good at. Twice Ponder threw interceptions trying to do too much after he was flushed from the pocket, and both were deep in his own end. One cost the Vikings seven points, the other saw them saved by a Jay Feely missed field goal at the end of the first half. The second was particularly bad because the first half clock was counting down and the Vikings had nothing to gain even if Ponder had made a play. Ponder needs to learn the wisdom of throwing the ball away. Don't look for the hyper-conservative offensive approach to change any time soon.
Adrian Peterson just isn't human. I'm not sure how else to explain him looking like he has the top of his game just ten months removed from a catastrophic knee injury. The power cuts, vision, refusal to let just one tackler get him down, and speed are all there. He is an elite fantasy running back who shouldn't be traded for anyone short of Arian Foster or Ray Rice, no matter what Minnesota's schedule holds. He got the first down the finish off the game and looked angry doing it. Be thankful that you get to watch this living legend play every Sunday.
Percy Harvin had the deck stacked against him. His other "bad" game this year also came when the Vikings got the strength of return touchdowns. Harvin had a return touchdown called back on the opening kickoff, but the he did score when Bill Musgrave drew up a play to get him across the formation in the red zone, making it hard for Patrick Peterson to track Harvin. In general, Peterson had trouble with Harvin in the red zone on that possession. He continues to look like one of the top 10 or 15 offensive weapons in the game, and I trust Musgrave to find ways to keep him involved no matter what the defense does to take him away.
Kyle Rudolph owners are sad, and they should be. With Adrian Peterson surging, he won't get the chance to finish drives nearly as often, or compile numbers in a wide open game or comeback attempt. Two of the targets he got on Sunday were bad because Ponder was under pressure, another 15+ yard gain was called back by an illegal formation penalty. Remember, Adrian Peterson got two shots from inside the five before both Rudolph touchdowns vs. the 49ers, his best fantasy game of the year. If Peterson keeps finishing runs like he did in this game, Rudolph's touchdown opportunity is going to take a hit.
As always, thanks for reading. Questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.