1. what's wrong with Kareem Hunt?
Hunt remains the No. 4 fantasy back in PPR leagues but for the past month, he's ranked 41st in PPR fantasy production among runners. Measure his productivity over the past five weeks and that rating only jumps 10 spots.
When Kansas City couldn't generate a consistent ground game against a Cowboys defense that Troy Aikman has routinely told his viewers "allows runners to earn yards without changing direction," I marked my calendar for the Bills-Chiefs game. The Jets, Saints, and Chargers gashed, steamrolled, and pounded Buffalo to the tune of 614 yards and 9 touchdowns during the three weeks leading up to this game.
If the Chiefs couldn't get Hunt right against the Bills, something would be wrong. After watching Hunt earn 17 yards on 11 carries on Sunday, there are numerous problems.
The weightiest of the issues is the Chiefs' offensive line. They deserved a ton of credit early this year for opening creases for Hunt to get downhill. Hunt would then use his balance and agility for extra yards against second and third-level defenders. However, there were multiple plays this week where the Chiefs' line didn't prevent unblocked defenders from reaching Hunt before he could reach the crease.
Just as no one blocks the backside defender coming down the line, there's a free linebacker on this gap play below who isn't accounted for and waiting for Hunt at the entrance of the crease.
The left side of the Kansas City line had the most errors this weekend. The left tackle was the weakest link. Here's a play where the Bills defensive end and linebacker converge on Kareem Hunt for a loss in the Chiefs backfield. If the left tackle did a better job sealing the edge on this run below, Hunt has a fighting chance to work away from the linebacker.
However, we can't assign blame to one player for the Chiefs' lost ground game. Here's a gap play where the Bills reset the right side of the line of scrimmage into the Chiefs' backfield.
Gap plays don't have built-in cutbacks or bounce-outs like zone plays. It means the intended crease or gaps near that crease are more often than not an all-or-nothing proposition for the running back. Hunt takes what he can get with a cutback, but he's making the best of a bad situation.
Give Hunt a crease, and he'll create yards after he crosses the line of scrimmage just like he did during the first six weeks of the season.
If there's any fault to find with Hunt's running, it's the occasional play where he's lacking patience at the edge of the crease. You won't find a lot of these plays, but they're out there. Here's one during the first half where Hunt arguably misses the best crease because he made up his mind well before the "read phase" of his approach to the line of scrimmage was over.
If Hunt were more patient and cut his stride or pace to the crease, he could have identified the lane up the middle between the guard and tackle. Instead, he bounced the run outside the tackle. This is a common issue with many young runners. David Johnson lacked patience on specific runs between the tackles during his rookie season.
Even veteran backs miss a hole or two every week. It's a lot like a quarterback's accuracy or a receiver's catch rate — nobody's perfect.
However, it's important to be thorough when examining the Chiefs' struggles. From what I can tell, here's how I'd describe the problem:
- Opponents aren't as susceptible to the Chiefs' misdirection as they were six weeks ago.
- The offensive line isn't winning its matchups in November as consistently as September and October.
- Defenses are shifting late in the pre-snap process to gaps that will increase its chances of foiling the offense at the line of scrimmage.
- The Chiefs line is making mental errors with assignments and getting physically outmatched at the point of attack.
- The Chiefs receivers are making mental errors with route assignments and dropped passess, forcing more three-and-out offensive series.
- Hunt earned 2-3 pass protection assignments this week (there's progress but still mixed results), which is 1-2 more than I've seen from him in the past, but the Chiefs prefer to use Charcandrick West inside the 20s and the two-minute drill because West remains the better pass protector. It means Hunt's volume earns a decrease when the Chiefs fall behind early.
- Hunt has been an excellent rookie producer, but he's still a rookie who occasionally misses potential creases for big plays.
The Chiefs began this game with three, three-and-outs and it took the offense 27 minutes into the first half to earn its first, first down in the game. The left tackle missed multiple assignments, and Alex Smith's interception was the result of a route mix-up that was likely the fault of the receiver. Smith also delivered three first-half targets that were behind his receivers and contributed to drops.
Hunt may be the fantasy problem for teams that began the year with a hot start, but it's the Chiefs that haven't figured out a way to address opponents that have developed a counter punch to the offense's early success. The NFL season is often divided into three parts. If teams don't make adjustments in October and November, it's the end of the road for them in December.
Kansas City has the talent and coaching to turn this around but I cannot tell you it will happen. I'd consider benching Hunt against a Jets defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since LeSean McCoy gained 110 yards on the ground in the opener.
I wouldn't normally suggest this course because the Jets have allowed at least 45 yards receiving to 4 backs this year. However, Hunt has only earned 45 yards as a receiver in 2 games this year. If Hunt was a pleasant surprise for your team and you have depth with consistent top-35 production at the position, I'd use that depth if the matchup isn't horrible.
If your team survives Week 13, you can reassess Hunt's starter status in the playoffs.
2. julio jones' wheelhouse and Matt Ryan's underbelly
While I've always liked A.J. Green more than Julio Jones, I have to give Jones credit for developing into a strong route runner. He has a limit route tree at Alabama, and his early-career exploits in Atlanta were with routes where Jones could gain separation with his size, speed, and leaping ability.
While athletic displays are awe-inspiring, they're not always refined or reliable. For at least a few years, Jones' game has been refined to a sharp point. On Sunday, the Falcons called Jones's number at will to the tune of 12 catches, 253 yards, and 2 touchdowns.
Jones's target distribution spanned the entire field, but the Buccaneers could not stop Jones's double move of an out that he sold with an initial sale of the post.
This route accounted for 2 catches, 45 yards, and a touchdown during one of Atlanta's drives. When a receiver can sell a break to one side of the field to earn separation on the other, he poses a massive threat to the defense. Especially, when he put the defense on notice with a 51-yard touchdown reception on a post route earlier in the game.
Speaking of Matt Ryan, I've mentioned the quarterback's discomfort with interior pressure in the past. Ryan is a tough player, and he's willing to stand tall and take a hit when he knows he's in a situation where the contest could be on the line. He's also smart about protecting his body and doesn't try to play the hero when there's no need.
When Atlanta built an early lead against Tampa, the Buccaneers had success at holding the Falcons to field goals or stalling drives altogether when it blitzed Ryan in the B gaps (the gaps at the guards' outside shoulders). Good pressure packages can alter the decision-making and execution of the best quarterbacks. However, I've found that interior pressure bothers Ryan enough that he will hasten his process and miss open targets that he should hit.
The B-gap pressure from the first clip is most notable because the weakest link on this Atlanta offensive line is guard Wes Schweitzer. Atlanta faces a tough Vikings defense in Week 13 and a Carolina unit with similar strengths. If either team can get ahead of the Falcons early or dictate with pressure early on, the Falcons' passing game could disappoint just as it appears everything is coming together.
It makes Minnesota Atlanta's greatest test of the season, especially when Xavier Rhodes has the speed and physicality to pose a challenge to Jones. If you have a good second quarterback on your roster and a better matchup, benching Ryan next week is worth consideration.
For those of you with an anxious personality, don't disrupt your team or week with overwrought waiver wire additions of sub-par quarterbacks with favorable matchups to use ahead of Ryan. I'm solely speaking to those with tight playoff races and the luxury of a sound fantasy starter also on the roster with Ryan.
3. is Jared Goff a puppet doomed for a letdown?
My friend Josh Norris noted today that Rams head coach Sean McVay is taking full advantage of the ability to be in Jared Goff's ear at the line of scrimmage. The Rams often line up with 25 seconds on the play clock. It gives McVay and Goff a chance to see the defense and McVay to feed an audible to Goff before the helmet transmission shuts down.
Norris didn't criticize or minimize Goff's performance in light of this information, but he rightly stated that McVay's usage of the time and technology was notable. Although common in the college game, it's currently rare to other NFL teams. The resulting commentary on Norris' Twitter thread was filled with thoughts from fans — many of them broached Chip Kelly and Nick Foles during Foles' lone strong year as a point of comparison.
Naturally, there were suggestions that Goff is a fluke who needs McVay to be a good quarterback in this league and, if the NFL changes the transmission rule, Goff will be lost an unable to handle the complexities of the Rams system. This is a complete overreaction and simplification of Goff and McVay.
First, there is no point of comparison between Goff and Foles when it comes to execution. Foles always had issues handling pressure in the pocket and making erratic decisions in the middle of the field when pressure arrived. Goff has never displayed this problem. In fact, he's consistently shown poise, toughness, and smarts with throwing the ball away or taking a calculated risk that at least makes sense in theory.
Quarterbacking is a physical, technical, conceptual, and intuitive craft of execution and leadership. The best quarterbacks prospects have the skill to tie together what they do best with each of these components. After watching a season of tape to prepare for the Saints' game, Tony Romo had a lot of praise for Goff this weekend. Much of it was focused on the way Goff tied together technique, field awareness, aggression, and poise.
The points Romo makes about Goff's pocket presence and footwork in the clip below aren't dramatic changes to what Goff displayed at Cal. Rookies often display some uncharacteristic behavior when uncomfortable. Goff displayed more poise and pocket presence than credited last year. When he had lapsed, his feet weren't as quiet as what Romo discusses below.
I've often discussed Goff's ability to avoid pressure with efficient movement and linked it to the pocket presence we've seen from top pros. Romo breaks this down well, and again, it's not something Foles ever displayed in Philadelphia.
McVay, Matt LaFleur, and Greg Olsen have given Goff a sound framework to continue mastering the West Coast Offense and a stable and knowledgeable crew to maximizes Goff's strengths as a technician and on-field strategist. They didn't turn a proverbial bedwetter into a poised and steely-eyed field general. Goff was never the former.
If anything, McVay's presence in Goff's helmet will serve as a useful transition for Goff to eventually make sound audibles of his own choosing. The West Coast Offense is a difficult system and Goff had to learn it from scratch as a rookie and then McVay's play calls in Year Two. The Cal offense may not be as intellectually demanding with play calls and route variations, but it doesn't make Goff dumb.
However, we've heard these concerns before during the history of football. Otto Graham was a robot who didn't think because Paul Brown shuttled Don Shula and Chuck Noll from the sideline to the huddle with play calls. Joe Montana had scripted plays early in the game. The quarterbacks of the 1990s weren't calling the plays like the majority of great passers of previous decades.
It's far too simplistic to say that Goff is being fed answers to the test or a robot with his coach holding the controls. McVay's role is close to that of a good corner man shouting out salient advice during a prize fight.
Goff still must understand the defenses and make the connection between the current defensive look and McVay's audible. Most important, Goff's integration of his physical, technical, strategic, and intuitive talents cannot be controlled by a coach on the sideline as the play unfolds.
This is where Goff is shining the brightest.
4. Christian McCaffrey's greatest fantasy obstacle
McCaffrey had a solid fantasy outing this weekend. However, it could have been much better. Two of his touches brought him within a yard of the end zone. That's 12 points he nearly had, and the fact that he's earning red zone touches is an important supporting argument that McCaffrey is an every-week start despite volume that might not be as rich as other backs within his tier.
Now that the Panthers have made successful adjustments to its offense so McCaffrey's usage isn't as predictable the greatest remaining obstacle for McCaffrey is Cam Newton. The Panthers quarterback missed three easy targets to McCaffrey in this game.
Each target would have put McCaffrey in position for significant yardage after the catch. If Newton can fix his short-range woes, McCaffrey could see a weekly jump of 6-15 points per week in PPR. Even the low end of this range is substantial.
5. (role, not talent...) Rex Burkhead is the AFC's McCaffrey/Kamara
James White's role is diminishing, Dion Lewis' production is remaining constant, and Rex Burkhead's role is increasing in scope. Although I've written about defenses that are the best matchups for each runner on the Patriots' depth chart, it seemed too segmented even if the resulting production supports much of the theory.
The offenses aren't the same and the roles don't have exact matches with the other, but the ideal behind each of these back's roles are similar:
- Stretch the defense horizontally.
- Motion these players outside the formation to create advantageous matchups.
- Motion these players outside the formation to diagnose the defensive coverage.
- Use of these players in specific red zone packages.
Burkhead's run above is his longest gain of the season. While his athletic metrics are far more impressive than some realize, he's not a breakaway option. He's better in space than he is between the tackles.
He's also better at bouncing off indirect contact or getting under direct contact than he is at powering through it or avoiding it completely. He's a space back who also has the size to hit a crease hard from a short distance and push the pile at the goal line.
Note that Lewis often earns touches between the opponent's 2 and 20. Lewis took the ball to the Patriots' 1 during two drives in this game. At that point, the Patriots brought Burkhead in for the plunge. He was 1 of 2 in those efforts. The one where he failed to punch it in, the Patriots used him like McCaffrey but paired with a more accurate passer.
As long as he stays healthy, consider Lewis-Burkhead the AFC's Ingram-Kamara with a diluted volume but high-impact opportunities.
6. Ricky seals-jones is the opposition's forgotten man in 12 personnel
I wrote about Seals-Jones last week because I saw a clear path for him to earn additional playing time and high-impact opportunities that will help fantasy teams in need of a cheap and productive tight end during the stretch-run.
Seals-Jones has NFL-caliber wide receiver skills as a pass catcher. His route running is good by tight end standards and should get even better. If he's utilized as the second tight end and split from the formation as a big slot, he's a potential bargain in 1.5 premium TE PPR scoring systems. He'll also see far less attention in the red zone than Fitzgerald, Jermaine Gresham, and Adrian Peterson.
The Cardinals draw a tough Jaguars linebacker and safety corps next week but if you can remain patient with him (or add him after a frustrated points-chasing ower drops him next week), the Rams, Titans, and Giants are vulnerable to tight end production. Keep him in mind if your starting tight end has an issue before the playoff run.
Arizona got a lot of mileage from Seals-Jones this week and at least two of his receptions came as that second tight end. The Cardinals used motion from the backfield to reinforce great attention to the receivers opposite Seals-Jones and leave him with an ideal matchup unprepared to cover a tight end/wide receiver hybrid.
It helped that ace coverage linebacker Telvin Smith Sr was out of the game and in the blue medical tent, but this wasn't the only time the Cardinals used this two-tight end set with backfield motion. Although Blaine Gabbert delivers an inaccurate pass, Seals-Jones got open on the play.
Seals-Jones also beat safety Barry Church straight-up at the line of scrimmage — a promising sign that his athletic ability is still close enough to a wide receiver and will generate mismatches against many safeties.
Is Seals-Jones the next Antonio Gates? It's highly unlikely. Is he a potential difference maker for fantasy teams down the stretch and a dynasty addition to deep-roster leagues? Absolutely. He's a big target who can win man-to-man as a rebounder and he's skilled against zone coverage. It's a good match for a quarterback like Gabbert, whose accuracy has always been inconsistent.
7. Paxton lynch and red zone management
If you haven't already, you're about to hear a lot about the Broncos not having its 2018 starter on its roster. I'll argue he's not on the active roster and the plan has always been for this rookie to get completely healthy and prove that he has gained the maturity to earn a shot as the franchise guy.
More about Maverick at another time. Whether you agree with me or not about this potential reprise of Top Gun for the football field, one thing is clear to me: Paxton Lynch has the physical traits of a starter, but he has never tied it all together the way I've outlined quarterbacking in the segment about Goff above.
One of the easiest ways to spot this is red zone management. The red zone compresses the space that the offense has to operate. A good NFL starter is a competent red zone quarterback. And a competent red zone quarterback must display a balance of decisiveness and patience, aggression and temperance, and strategic command and creativity.
Lynch has struggled as a red zone decision maker since his time at Memphis.
Lynch has the legs to buy time and the arm to make difficult throws into tight windows. He lacks the wisdom to know when to do it. He also leans too hard on these physical traits because he hasn't developed the conceptual acumen to spot the earliest opportunity to throw the ball.
He also hasn't learned to throw the ball away or take what he can get.
Lynch still has a chance to develop into a starter. It probably won't happen in Denver. However, Josh McCown is another quarterback with early-round physical skills and sound technical facility as a thrower but lacked the complete package of conceptual and intuitive skills early in his career.
McCown sounds like a disappointing comparison for those who place first-round expectations on Lynch. However, let's remember that the bust rate for first-round quarterbacks is higher than a coin flip. Modify your dynasty expectations if you haven't already.
8. from the trenches
While still realistic about the nature of fans, I'm growing hopeful that Vikings faithful have seen Adrian Peterson in Arizona and made some realizations. One, the issue with Peterson on the field was the Minnesota line. Two, the staff desired to use its backs in the shotgun. If not, you're bitter about something and I can't help you.
Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon have performed well this year in the place of the promising Dalvin Cook. Sam Bradford and Case Keenum have had moments of excellence from the pocket. The Vikings defense has played to its expectations. And the common denominator supporting all of these components has been the offensive line.
We don't give them enough credit or blame when they deserve it. It's because most fans who only follow the ball idealize and demonize those that touch it. The Vikings have one of the best interior run units in football.
There's more to this segment than praising an offensive line. If you want to learn more about running back play and how to evaluate it, the first place you should always begin your play-by-play journey is the center and the guard. What they do will tell you a lot about the play design, the running back's understanding of the play, and how realistic it was for the back to earn yardage on the play.
On this play below, the center and guard have a double team on the tackle. Depending on the movement of the tackle, one of these linemen will work from the tackle to the linebacker. The running back's job is to set up these blocks with his timing to the crease and the path he takes to bait the linebacker towards the second portion of this "combo block."
Here's a double team that turns a Latavius Murray run into a big play. Murray shows the requisite patience, but it's the athletic and technical prowess of the blocking that generates the size of this gain.
It's not just the running backs that owe a massive debt to the offensive line. Linemen offer significant contributions to successful "space plays" from scatbacks and wide receivers.
If the Vikings have a strong playoff run, thank this offensive line for creating easy decisions for its skill talent. If or when the Vikings lose, expect it to happen on plays where the quarterback's decision-making falters in a tight game despite the line giving the Vikings a chance to win.
Until that point, I would not shy away from any Vikings skill players who have been productive for you.
9. The Xavier Rhodes-Marvin Jones Jr Chess match
This matchup was one of my favorites of the month. I scouted Rhodes at Florida State and came away impressed with him as the superior prospect to the celebrated David Amerson and closer in style to Patrick Peterson. Six years later, and Rhodes belongs in the elite tier of shutdown cornerbacks.
You all know how much I value Jones and how long I have valued him. I've long argued that he had the potential to become a primary option and fantasy WR1. This year, we're seeing it happen in Detroit, and the Thanksgiving matchup would provide the sternest test for Matthew Stafford to treat Jones like a primary matchup since the opener against Patrick Peterson.
Jones earned a respectable showing even scoring his second touchdown on a busted play between inadvertent double coverage.
However, it's far more compelling and instructive to share the punch and counterpunch interplay between Jones and Rhodes throughout this game. We begin with a display of Rhodes' physical play at the line of scrimmage that, combined with his speed, makes him one of the best press corners in the business and a difficult player for a receiver to avoid.
Despite Rhodes' speed, he has to respect Jones' vertical prowess. He also has to respect Jones' skill to deliver a believable double move. This target below illustrates Rhodes' patience and Jones' skill to finish his routes with aggressive breaks back to the ball. These are skills we're going to see both utilize later on a pivotal target.
Jones and Rhodes matchup later at the left sideline on a fade route. Rhodes has the early position and maintains it throughout and Stafford delivers a poor throw. However, Stafford has learned to trust Jones' skill to win the ball against tight coverage.
The mark of a quarterback who recognizes that his receiver is a primary option and playmaker is a 50/50 target that gives his receiver a shot at making the play. It's a sign of confidence that his receiver can win the ball in the air. Delivering this kind of throw against Xavier Rhodes is a huge sign that Stafford trusts Jones as a primary option.
Jones isn't Calvin Johnson and Stafford won't target him in triple coverage, but from what we've seen with the touchdown catch and this play above, Stafford's targets suggest that he's developed a massive amount of trust in Jones — and ours should increase as fantasy owners.
Jones' skill to finish a route and Rhodes' patience come into play on this red zone target that Jones wins by the smallest of margins. It's a great display of Rhodes not falling for the initial release and remaining in position to drive on the break. However, it's an equally great display of Jones to anticipate Rhodes and lean into the oncoming defender so he can shield the cornerback from the target and earn the goal line.
Jones won the battle in this game, but Rhodes won the war on the scoreboard. He also made the game-sealing play with another chess match of an individual battle.
If you love football, you savored this battle.
10. FRESH FISH
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for that weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than having our players face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," I provide my weekly short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
- Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro: He interfered with rookie Josh Reynolds on a 4th and 1 route that extended a Rams scoring drive and he stopped running after Cooper Kupp initially beat him on a double move, resulting in a gain of over 50 yards that Vaccaro still had a shot at stopping.
- Dolphins LBs: Rob Gronkowski scored twice and they were no match for Rex Burkhead the receiver in the red zone. The Dolphins corps is a fun park for opposing tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs.
- Denver LBs: While not quite as bad as Miami's corps, this crew bites on running back routes that set up the outside to break to the middle of the field and they bit so hard on bootlegs that even a plodder like Lee Smith can get wide open behind them. If your back earns a lot of receiving targets weekly or you need a desperation starter at tight end, consider the Broncos linebacking corps.
- The left side of the Chiefs offensive line: See Segment No. 1
- Evan Engram: He's dropping a lot of passes in recent weeks and Thanksgiving night was no exception. He's still a strong start due to his target volume, but he's no longer a guaranteed must-start if you got Engram cheap and still have the option you selected earlier in your August draft.
As usual, the film tells a compelling, insightful, and useful story.