Reading the Defense - Week 11
by Jene Bramel
November 14th, 2012

The drive to the fantasy playoff weeks is upon us. Last week, I suggested putting some feelers out to add a stud defensive player to add some stability and relative advantage to your lineup, especially if you're stuck deciding among a number of inconsistent RB2 / WR2 / WR3 options. Next week, I'll have an extensive data set ready to identify the most favorable tackle, pass rush and stadium matchups to exploit (or avoid) for one week upside or a Week 14 -16 playoff run.

This week, there's news on linebacker rotations and a look at the best young linebackers to roster now ahead of next summer's hype.

What's Vexing You?

Most of the questions and conversation in our IDP Forum, on Twitter and my inboxes in recent weeks have revolved around a small handful of situations. While this week's column isn't a true All-Request RTD, I'm reviving the "What's Vexing You?" section for a special one week engagement.

Jerrell Freeman is killing me. Why has his production (3-1 over the past two games) dropped? Does it have anything to do with the return of Pat Angerer?

The Colts have been a below average tackle opportunity defense all season. That trend has strengthened in recent weeks, with well below average numbers against both Miami and Jacksonville and compounded by their facing a total of just 30 rushing attempts (and 12 last week) over that two week period. Freeman is still playing every down and hasn't been hurt by the return of Pat Angerer. It'd be nice if he'd been more productive in passing situations over the past two weeks, but he's no NaVorro Bowman or Sean Lee. Expect him to bounce back over the next six weeks.

What's wrong with William Moore? Is he still an elite DB?

This one is tricky. Though Moore is capable of making plays in coverage, the bulk of his fantasy value comes from his in-the-box play. At first glance, the most recent Falcons' matchups (OAK, PHI, DAL, NO) look like offenses that could've limited his run tackling opportunity. The data do not back that up, however. I haven't charted the games specifically, but it wouldn't surprise to find that the Falcons are playing more two deep coverage with Sean Weatherspoon out. For now, I wouldn't worry about Moore unless you're in a league in which you start only one DB.

What are the Broncos going to do when D.J. Williams returns? Is there any chance he plays MLB? Will he play every down?

I think the lineup that makes the most sense is Wesley Woodyard at WLB and D.J. Williams at MLB. Fellow Footballguy and Broncos' insider Cecil Lammey agreed and thinks that's the most likely plan. Don't expect Williams to come in and play a full time role immediately, however. They'll work him back into shape and get him caught up with the defensive playbook, but we could see Williams and Woodyard both playing every down by Week 13 or 14. There's a small chance that Keith Brooking continues to have a base defensive role, but I expect we'll see much more of Williams and Woodyard by the time your fantasy playoff weeks begin.

What happened to Mason Foster after his hot start? Can I still trust him as a LB3 now?

Nothing happened to Mason Foster. Tampa Bay runs two passing subpackages. One of them, on very long down-and-distance situations and most third downs, is a dime package in which Foster comes off the field. I warned readers about that package in Week 3, noting that his 7+ tackle weeks were probably not sustainable and that he could become matchup sensitive in time. Foster has balanced out the tackle variance with some big plays over the past month and he's still on the field enough to trust as a LB3. But if the Buccaneers continue to play well, Foster's snap percentage may drop from 80-85% to 65-70%. Be aware of that possibility over the next month.

How am I supposed to know when it's safe to start Jordan Babineaux or George Wilson?

Unfortunately, we probably won't know. For now, it appears that Babineaux is safe as long as Al Afalava is out with an injury. Robert Johnson does not appear to be a major threat. Wilson has to stay on your bench as long as Da'Norris Searcy is in the rotation unless you've no other 4+ solo tackle bench options.

What the (insert expletive of choice here) happened to Nolan Carroll last week?

The Titans completed only nine passes last week and just six to a wide receiver. Pro Football Focus charting data shows that Carroll was thrown at only one time. They also have him credited with two solo tackles. However, despite the low opportunity, there's still reason for concern here. A consistent fantasy corner has to be productive against the run to avoid this kind of variance. Carroll's previous stat lines suggest that he's better than this and Chris Johnson is not easy to catch, so it's likely that Carroll bounces back quickly. But keep an eye on the run support trend if you're counting on Carroll as your CB1.

Future Watch: Linebackers

I'm shocked at how shallow this group is this year. Every rookie of pre-season consequence is getting extended playing time. Any second and third year player with talent and the list is relatively short is playing. There are a couple of interesting stashes in shallow and intermediate leagues, but there's not much to look at in deeper leagues right now.

This list focuses on players who've yet to earn every down roles, so it will not include Mychal Kendricks or Zach Brown. Both would be in limbo here, though. I'm not convinced that Kendricks (who'd need to move into the middle) or Brown (who doesn't have elite upside) are top 20 linebackers next year and beyond. But it's also unlikely either are available in dynasty leagues where owners roster 4-5 linebackers.

Shallow Leagues (Less than 20 LBs rostered)

In most years, there's a Donald Butler or Curtis Lofton or similar player to highlight here. Those players had elite talent but hadn't been trusted in the showcase position of his defense or hadn't yet played every down. The most likely options a few weeks ago were Kuechly and Wagner, but both have already earned roles elevating them to LB2+ fantasy status. If you're looking for a stash in shallow dynasty leagues, you'll want to look to the IR list specifically Desmond Bishop and Brian Cushing this season.

Intermediate Leagues (20-50 LBs rostered)

Demario Davis (NYJ)
Davis has a good chance of moving into Bart Scott's starting spot next season. Scott is signed through 2014, but his contract jumps significantly this offseason and he's not been the same player against the run this year. Davis still needs some seasoning, but he's a violent, downhill talent with some coverage and pass rush ability. If his starting spot was assured for 2013 and there were no chance of a coaching/philosophy change, he might be listed as a shallow league stash.

James-Michael Johnson (CLE)
Johnson has already worked his way into a starting role with more consistent play than he was known for in college. I think he looked better in coverage than against the run on tape and at the Senior Bowl. He's not the next Lavonte David, but Johnson could do what Zach Brown has been able to over the past month if he's given an every-down role. I expect he'll get every chance to earn one this offseason.

Dont'a Hightower (NE)
Brandon Spikes is signed through 2014 and continues to play very well between the tackles. He's blocking Hightower from a potentially more productive ILB role. There's also no guarantee that Hightower will play in subpackages at any point in New England. But the talent is too good to ignore. Anything can happen in the offseason and Hightower is a better LB5 stash than most replacement level veterans.

Whitney Mercilus (HOU)
Mercilus is a big play league special. Connor Barwin isn't signed for 2013 and he's not been productive enough to consider it a lock that the Texans put the franchise tag on him if they're unable to re-sign him before free agency. Mercilus has been much better over the past month and his athleticism is starting to translate to the field. I don't think Mercilus has Justin Houston like potential yet, but he's worth rostering in deeper big play leagues if Bruce Irvin isn't available on your waiver wire.

Deep Leagues (50+ LBs rostered)

Nigel Bradham (BUF)
I think Bradham is best suited to the SLB spot and doubt he'll ever be a subpackage option, but he's already an interesting matchup play for deep leaguers. He's the best of the short list in this group this year.

Keenan Robinson (WAS)
I'm a little disappointed that Lorenzo Alexander has gotten rotational snaps inside over Robinson. But Perry Riley is a free agent after 2013 and London Fletcher's nagging injuries have started to cluster. Robinson isn't Lawrence Timmons or Daryl Washington, but he's a similar profile inside linebacker with some pass rush upside who can cover better than you'd think.

Audie Cole (MIN)
I'm not a big fan of Cole. He's big and athletic, but I'm not certain he's an NFL linebacker. But I'm also not a big fan of Curtis Brinkley inside and there could be a role of Cole in Minnesota if the backers get shuffled. Consider him as a LB6+ in very deep leagues only.

Stunts

The linebacker carousel continues around the league…

  • Finally. Erin Henderson has earned his way back into the Minnesota subpackages. It's not as clear cut as the media reports have suggested Henderson and Jasper Brinkley rotated series-by-series throughout the game but it's a sign that Brinkley's coverage deficiencies have gained the attention of the coaches. If you're hurting at linebacker, be proactive with Henderson. Otherwise, it's safe to watch and wait another week.
  • The Raiders rotated Aaron Curry and Miles Burris in their base defense last week. I couldn't identify a single subpackage snap in the drives I watched the Ravens ran a lot of no-huddle, then had a huge lead early so it's not clear how they'll approach the nickel package. But be aware that Phillip Wheeler is now the only safe Oakland linebacker for fantasy lineups.
  • Chase Blackburn returned to the starting lineup in New York and his former near-every-down role. I'm not certain that holds when Jacquian Williams (and Keith Rivers) return to form, however.
  • Mario Williams didn't get a sack last week, but his play against the run and multiple pressures of Tom Brady have me thinking I may have been too hard on him in the season's first month. Though the circumstances still seem shady, his play has been better since the procedure he had on his injured wrist. His upcoming matchups are up-and-down, but he's a trustworthy DL2 again.

    Paul Kruger's recent breakout is probably for real. He's still inconsistent at times and he's not yet earned full time snaps, but he's getting less attention with Terrell Suggs back in the lineup. That's a trend that should only improve when Haloti Ngata returns to form. If he's DL-eligible in your league, he deserves DL3++ consideration.

    You'll probably hear that Kroy Biermann is in line for a big increase in snaps with the release of Ray Edwards. That's been happening for weeks and I don't think the Falcons are ready to make Biermann a 90% snap player. The name to watch is Lawrence Sidbury, who could slide into a much bigger rotational role. Sidbury has been on and off my watch list for years, but has never been able to translate his small school college dominance into consistent pass rush in the pros.

    Sigmund Bloom, John Norton and I will flesh out many of these arguments and others I didn't get to on our weekly IDP roundtable podcast on the Audible. You can find that under the Podcasts tab on the Footballguys homepage every Thursday during the season. You can also contact me via email at bramel@footballguys.com or Twitter (@JeneBramel).

    Best of luck in Week 11.

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