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Matthew Stafford @ Packers
Stafford delivered a disappointing performance for fantasy owners last week throwing for only 242 yards with one passing touchdown and one interception. He salvaged his day with a rushing score–don’t count on too many more of those going forward. Stafford was more erratic than he had been all season long, but he made enough plays for the Lions to get out to an early lead. The Lions struggled to protect Stafford’s blindside and Bears RE Julius Peppers had a field day registering a sack, two hits and a hurry.
This week, Stafford will take on a Packers pass rush that seems very likely, as of Wednesday night, to be without top pass-rusher Clay Mathews. In three games this year, the Packers have struggled to defend the pass. It is starting to seem like this Dom Capers scheme has lost almost all of its appeal. The Packers have graded out as the fifth-worst team in pass coverage and second-worst in pass rush despite playing only three games. The Lions defense has been much improved and that should mean more opportunities for Stafford and their offense. I expect Stafford to take advantage of this matchup and hit several plays for chunk yardage.
Machine Readout: Start him. Stafford will likely perform as a top-end QB1 and I can see him finishing in the top five at his position.
Eli Manning vs. Eagles
The last time I called upon #10 was Week 2 in his matchup against the Panthers and I was burned. Why should this week be any different for an offense that has no remedy to fix a depleted offensive line? The answer is simple—it is their opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have not been able to stop anyone through the air except for Alex Smith—and that was only because of the Chiefs game plan on that particular night. After a few good series in the opening game against the Redskins, the Eagles have been exposed consistently in pass coverage.
No matter who they put in the secondary at safety, they have been getting burned. They have tried using different combinations of Patrick Chung, Earl Wolff and Nate Allen. Combined, the three have all been “in the red” in pass coverage (-12.6). As a unit, the Eagles have graded out as the second-worst team in pass coverage. Their pass rush has graded out as the worst in the entire NFL. They only have one total player who has graded out “in the green” in pass rush, Vinny Curry, who has only played 25 snaps all season. This has to be the week that Eli Manning gets going.
Machine Readout: Start him. Manning has probably moved to your bench, but he can still throw the deep ball and the Giants have enough weapons to make several chunk yardage plays. Manning should throw multiple touchdowns in this game and finish as a mid-range QB1.
Terrelle Pryor vs. Chargers
Pryor is definitely the biggest risk-reward play of Week 5. On one hand, he is returning from a concussion that led to short-term memory loss and he enters this game having shown well only in a small sample size. On the other hand, Pryor has already been cleared to practice and play in what is shaping up to be a juicy matchup. The Raiders greatest offensive weakness is their offensive line, but the Chargers pass rush will be much weaker than it has been all year. This offseason, they let stalwart pass rusher Shaun Phillips leave in free agency and signed Dwight Freeney to replace him. Freeney has stood out as the Chargers’ best pass rusher (+7.7) by far.
Their next best rusher, linemen Jaruis Wynn, has only played 76 snaps. Not a single other player outside of their secondary has registered a pass rushing grade above 0.0. We have exploited the deficiencies of the Chargers secondary in last week’s column, and those problems remain the same. The biggest culprits are their second and third corners, Shareece Wright (-4.3) and Johnny Patrick (-5.3). They have graded out as the third-worst team in pass coverage. As an added bonus for a running quarterback like Pryor, the Chargers have graded out as the sixth-worst run defense.
Machine Readout: Start him. Playing at home, I believe Pryor can get out to a fast start and hit some big plays against a beat up Chargers defense. I see him finishing as a back-end QB1.
Alex Smith @ Titans
Two weeks ago, we saw what the Titans pass defense could do to a red-hot quarterback. Phillip Rivers came in to Tennessee and left having thrown just one touchdown pass and under 200 yards passing. Smith comes to town, in much less of a rhythm than Rivers was, but the Titans pass defense has not missed a beat. Last week, they shut down Geno Smith for the entire 60 minutes with another dominant effort. The Titans combine a top ten pass rush with great play on the outside. Standout cornerback, Alterraun Verner (+4.2) has graded out as our highest rated through four weeks. He has been targeted 23 times and has allowed just 118 yards on eight catches while adding four interceptions.
Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis got most of the accolades, but Verner is one of the best cornerbacks in the league right now. Overall, the Titans have graded out as the fourth-best team in pass coverage. Most of the Titans pressure comes up the middle where they get a consistent push from defensive linemen Jurrell Casey (+10.0), Derrick Morgan (+5.5), Mike Martin (+2.8) and Antonio Johnson (+2.2). Most of those mentioned are not household names, but soon they might be. Casey, an emerging star in this league, has generated the fourth-most pressure of any defensive tackle in 2013. Overall, the Titans have graded out as the fourth-best pass rush thus far in 2013. The Chiefs are best off trying to run the ball this week. I know Smith dabbled with success in Week 4, but the same is not likely to be true this week.
Machine Readout: Bench him. You can find many better options for your QB2 in two quarterback leagues. Brian Hoyer agains the Bills comes to mind first.
Russell Wilson @ Colts
Everyone wants to look at this matchup and predict the opposite—Andrew Luck will struggle with the Seahawks defense. You won’t see Luck in my “best” section, not as he goes up against the Seahawks pass defense that has graded out as the second-best in pass coverage and in pass rush. However, there is something to be said about how the Seahawks defense has played at home versus away—take last week versus the Texans as an example of that. I am not sold that Luck will do well, but I am more sure that the Colts will be able to stymie Russell Wilson. It took a trade for Vontae Davis and two clutch free agent signings—LaRon Landry and Darius Butler, but the Colts have finally built a very solid secondary. Those three starters have all graded out “in the green” in pass coverage combining for an overall grade of (+7.1).
The Colts are finally adapting to Chuck Pagano’s scheme and we are seeing a physical defense utilizing press-man coverage at the point of attack. The Colts have shut down their two opposing offenses in the past two weeks. Overall, they have graded out as the sixth-best team in pass coverage with the 13th-best pass rush to accompany it. Wilson won’t be able to make all of his checks and audibles in what is likely to be a very loud Lucas Oil Stadium for a battle of two of 2012’s premier rookie quarterbacks. I expect the Seahawks to stick to a game plan of moving the ball on the ground, and Wilson will struggle when he does attempt to make plays through the air.
Machine Readout: Bench him. There are better options than Russell Wilson this week as your QB1.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Chiefs
I understand that most of you won’t be starting Fitzpatrick this week, but this column is more about the best and worst matchups than anything else. Fitzpatrick was exposed last season as the Bills crumbled and now he has a chance to prove himself again for at least four weeks as the Titans starting quarterback. With a strong defense and run game, there is reason for hope. Unfortunately, that hope will not come to fruition this week against a Chiefs defense that stayed dominant last week even without its top cornerback, Brandon Flowers.
The Chiefs have separated even further in their pass coverage rating (+18.9) from the second-best graded team. They also have continued to get a great pass rush going, grading out as the best in that as well (+22.1). You are looking at the single best pass defense in 2013 through the quarter mark. Things will change and their matchups will get harder, but right now it looks like this defense is for real.
Machine Readout: Bench him. This is the LAST quarterback that should be played in Week 5. Every other starting quarterback deserves the nod over Fitpatrick this week.
Jamaal Charles @ Titans
While Alex Smith will struggle to generate anything in the passing game, Charles should pick up major chunks in the run game. For as good as the Titans have been in stopping the pass, they have been almost equally as bad against the run grading out as the seventh-worst team in run defense. As mentioned above, the Titans have generated pressure from smaller and quicker defensive tackles that have at times left lanes open for the opposing running back.
Tennessee’s starting right defensive tackle Antonio Johnson and left defensive end Derrick Morgan, mentioned above in Smith’s section for their pass rushing prowess, have been the opposite in run defense—registering a (-9.8) combined grade. The Chiefs will likely also look to isolate Charles in one-on-one matchups in the passing game against Titans middle linebacker Moise Fokou (-2.4) who has graded out poorly in pass coverage.
Machine Readout: Charles is an every-week starter and there is a very strong chance he finishes in the top three in points at the running back position in Week 5.
Eddie Lacy vs. Lions
With two of the top four worst run defenses on byes and the other two facing each other with atrocious offensive lines, I’m really picking for straws this week at running back. Most of the “first round” running backs have fizzled to this point anyway, so I decided to go with two players who haven’t proven much in 2013 but have great matchups this week. Lacy, has yet to prove much in the NFL. His first game was marred by an early fumble that led to a benching. He came back later in the game to score a touchdown and gain momentum only to see it halted the next week when he suffered a concussion on the first series. Lacy is practicing fully again and is primed for his breakout game this week against the Lions at home.
On the offensive side of the ball, through only three games, the Packers have graded out as the fifth-best run-blocking offensive line. They have gotten most of their push from the right side of their line with right tackle Don Barclay and right guard T.J. Lang who have both graded out “in the green”. On the other side, they match up with a Lions run defense that has graded out as the tenth-worst in the NFL this season so far. You saw them give up a huge touchdown run to Matt Forte last week—and it has been common for them to give up chunk yardage this season. Nick Fairley (-1.5), in particular, has really struggled to stop the run up the middle of the defense. Look for the Packers to exploit this matchup advantage because the Lions have been a top five defense in both pass coverage and pass rush up until this point.
Machine Readout: Start him. If the Packers come out with the game plan to run the ball, Lacy could be in line for 100+ yards and a touchdown.
Rashad Jennings vs. Chargers
It is difficult to ever be to sure in a matchup play when you are relying on a player who has never shown too much talent in the past. When you add in the fact that Jennings is playing behind the tenth-worst run-blocking unit, it seems like maybe this belongs in the “worst” section. That is why other factors come in to play when reviewing each weekly pick. This week, the Raiders will be getting back dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Pryor operating the offense creates major holes for his running back whoever that may be, because the defense must respect that Pryor can tuck it and run at any time. This holds up the defensive ends from crashing and creates a gap off tackle for the halfback.
With the home crowd behind them, the Raiders can control the clock and play a physical brand of football running right at the Chargers who will be without another starter this week—Dwight Freeney. The Chargers have graded out as the fifth-worst team in run defense thus far and they have looked like a much worse team on the road. Most importantly of all, Jennings has little competition for touches out of the backfield with both McFadden and Reece likely to miss this week.
Machine Readout: Start him. Jennings should provide value as a FLEX with mid-level RB2 potential.
Do you notice a trend? Any running game that goes up against the Jets immediately enters the discussion for worst matchup when I research the schedule every week. They have every reason to be held in this regard as their run defense (+39.4) is reaching all new levels of success and further widening the gap between them and the second-best graded run defense. I don’t know who you plan to start out of Rodgers and Snelling, but both belong on your benches regardless of how desperate you are at running back.
The Falcons will be looking to throw the ball all game and take advantage of mismatches in the secondary. They have an offensive line that will most likely be missing Sam Baker again, and that means a lot of wins in the trenches for that dominant Jets defensive line. At this point, it makes more sense to play someone like LaGarette Blount over either of these two backs.
Machine Readout: Bench them. Neither of these two backs will be the first in 2013 to expose the Jets run defese.
DeAngelo Williams @ Cardinals
With an extra week to prepare, coming off a blowout at home against the Giants, Williams seems like he would be an ideal play against what is perceived to be a weak Cardinals defense. However, if you watched closely enough, Williams struggled to gain yardage on the ground in Week 3 until the game was well out of hand. More importantly, the Cardinals defense is not as weak as it is perceived to be. While the Cardinals have struggled in both pass coverage and pass rush, they actually boast the third-best run defense (+16.5) in the NFL so far this season.
They have accomplished this grade despite missing their nose tackle Dan Williams for two games, due to the death of his father. Williams graded out strongly agains the run in the limited snaps (50) he has played this season and there is a good chance he returns this week. Even if he misses the game, former free agent castoffs linebacker Jaspar Brinkley (+7.7) and defensive right end Matt Shaughnessy (+5.5) have combined to be very dominant in the run game thus far. The Cardinals are a team that plays much better at home, as evidenced by their Week 2 defeat over the otherwise undefeated Lions.
Machine Readout: Sit him. Williams will struggle to get anything going and will be dependent on a touchdown to save his day. It is doubtful that he finishes as anything higher than a mid-level to low-end FLEX play.
Randall Cobb vs. Dwight Bentley
Although the Lions pass defense and pass rush have both graded out in the top five so far in 2013, there has been one major weak link—slot cornerback Dwight Bentley. Bentley has graded out as the ninth-worst overall cornerback in pass coverage (-5.8) and he has the second-worst “cover snaps/reception”—a PFF premium statistic that measures the amount of times a cornerback is the primary man in coverage relative to how many receptions he allows. Bentley has given up 22 receptions on just 30 targets for 229 yards with 116 yards coming after the catch. Cobb knows a little something about picking up yardage after the catch, and this matchup is going to offer him a great opportunity to do just that.
Machine Readout: Start him. Cobb is an elite wide receiver play this week.
Josh Gordon vs. Bills
All those Josh Gordon owners, myself included, who left him on the bench in his first week back felt horrible about it for the next six days after watching him light up the Vikings for 27 fantasy points. He didn’t exactly repeat against a tougher Bengals defense, but Gordon owners rejoice—the opportunity presents itself once again! Even though Gordon primarily lines up at split end, opposite of the lowest graded cornerback in the league—Justin Rogers, you have to believe that the Browns will get him matched up with Rogers on several occasions.
With Bills top cornerback Stephen Gilmore still out, and their second best cornerback Aaron Williams questionable, whoever guards Gordon will have a tough time the entire night. The Bills are likely to be without all-pro free safety Jarius Byrd for at least one more game, which means bombs away over the top of their defense.
Machine Readout: Start him. Gordon has a chance at producing like a mid-range to high-end WR2 in this premium matchup.
Justin Blackmon @ Rams
Maybe it has to do with the fact that he is trying to compensate for atrocious play by the safeties behind him, but former all-pro cornerback Cortland Finnegan is off to an atrocious start in 2013. Thus far, he has graded out as the sixth-worst cornerback in pass coverage. Quarterbacks have the highest passer rating in the NFL when targeting Finnegan. He has been targeted just 19 times allowing 16 receptions to go for 248 yards and three touchdowns.
With Blaine Gabbert at quarterback I understand the hesitation to play Blackmon coming off his suspension, but he has drawn rave reviews for his work ethic during the suspension and for the way he has treated his body. This may be the best matchup he has all season long.
Machine Readout: Start him. Dez Bryant is a locked-and-loaded top five play this week. I know I said that last week as well, but this matchup is even juicier!
Flier of the Week
Keenan Allen @ Raiders
I’m digging very deep in this week’s flier—but I feel like I can and should challenge myself to that after crushing my “flier of the week” picks every week I have done them so far. Whereas the previous three picks have finished as WR2s, Allen’s matchup is great but his talent and inexperience keep him as someone you should be expecting FLEX numbers from this week. Allen has recently moved into the starting lineup as the split end following Malcom Floyd’s season ending neck injury.
He responded in his first chance at extended action last week against Morris Claiborne of the Cowboys by posting 80 yards receiving on five receptions—reeling in all five of his targets. This week, Allen matches up with Raiders cornerback D.J. Hayden who has been consistently torched, grading out as the seventh-worst cornerback in pass coverage. Hayden has been targeted 21 times and has allowed 15 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Dwayne Bowe @ Titans
As I mentioned above when referring to the Titans pass defense, there’s a new shutdown cornerback in town and his name is Alterrraun Verner. Not only has Verner graded out as the best cornerback in pass coverage, but opposing quarterbacks have registered a 12.9 quarterback rating when targeting him good for last in the league. Verner should have his way with Bowe all day. He should be able to keep tight man coverage with the assurance that Alex Smith’s noodle-arm can’t beat him over the top. Bowe’s stat line could end up looking a lot like it did in Week 3.
Machine Readout: Sit him. Bowe has a real strong chance of finishing with under 30 yards receiving. He will need a touchdown to salvage his week at all.
Golden Tate @ Colts
Trading for cornerback Vontae Davis was one of the most underrated moves that the Colts made last season. Before that, the Colts had one of the worst secondaries on both paper and in real life. After a somewhat rocky season trying to learn the scheme mid-year, Davis looks much more comfortable in year two with the Colts. Although Davis has graded out as just the 19th-best cornerback in pass coverage, opposing quarterbacks have the third-worst quarterback rating when targeting him—36.2. Davis has been targeted 21 times this season and has allowed just 10 of those to be completed for 72 yards and no touchdowns while adding an interception. Davis plays primarily at right cornerback and will likely be matched up with Golden Tate for the majority of the day.
Machine Readout: Sit him. Why start a borderline wide receiver when he has to face a cornerback who can consistently beat him in one-on-ones.
Stevie Johnson @ Browns
There was once a time where Stevie Johnson was the only wide receiver in the NFL who could get off of Revis’ island with a positive performance. Those times have passed, and Johnson has lost a lot of explosion to nagging injuries in these past two seasons. It seems as if he is playing through another injury now, this time his hamstring, but he expects to be fine for this game. Regardless of whether or not he does play, he will have to face Browns shutdown cornerback Joe Haden. Haden has graded out as the ninth-best cornerback thus far in pass coverage but has done so while defending the likes of AJ Green, Torrey Smith, Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace. He is truly one of the elite players on the defensive side of the ball in the entire NFL.
Machine Readout: Sit him. Johnson will struggle to gain more than 30 yards on a few catches. He is not someone you start against Haden.