1 - Will Jalen Ramsey erase any of the Bucs WRs?
In one of the best individual performances of the 2020 season, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey stopped red-hot Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf right in his All-Pro tracks.
Ramsey matched up with Metcalf on 30 of his 42 routes last week and allowed just two receptions (per Next Gen Stats). He was just the next in a sizable line of perimeter No. 1 receivers to underwhelm against Los Angeles.
Next up: Three great receivers from Tampa Bay.
We have a two-week sample of both Mike Evans’ and Chris Godwin’s roles since Antonio Brown joined the team. The longer-tenured Bucs’ receivers have each run 37.5 routes per game in Weeks 9 to 10 while Brown has been third on the team at 29. He’s not been brought along slowly; he’s essentially been tossed right in. He has just one more target (13 to 12) than Godwin in this span while Evans has a good lead over both with 17.
The key to this equation is where these guys line up. In the last two weeks, Godwin naturally leads the team with 23.5 slot routes per game. Brown has almost strictly been a perimeter receiver with just 10 percent of his routes run from the slot. Rather surprisingly, it’s been Evans that’s second behind Godwin with 44 percent of his routes coming from the interior.
Despite what Ramsey said leading into last week’s game, it was always obvious that if the Rams were going to have him track one of Seattle’s guys, he would follow the big, freakish outside receiver.
It isn’t so obvious in Week 11.
My first instinct was to downgrade Evans going into this week given that he fits into the outside X-receiver archetype that has struggled against LA. However, now that we know Tampa Bay has moved him around more than Brown, we shouldn’t be so confident. Godwin is still the one we should rank highest going into the game.
All that said, we may want to consider being a bit bearish with all three. Tom Brady has struggled both in primetime games and when a team can pressure him with the front four. The Rams defense with Aaron Donald certainly fits into that group. Despite the reputation of these two offenses, the contest sits at a modest 48.5-point projected total.
2 - Are the Patriots poised to make a small run?
The Buffalo Bills have the most explosive offense in the division and the Miami Dolphins have both a cakewalk schedule and three team units hitting their stride at once. New England looks like the clear third-place team in the AFC East.
Still, the Patriots could cap off a three-game winning streak if they beat Houston on Sunday, which is a solid feat after they dropped four in a row while looking like one of the worst offenses in the NFL.
Cam Newton seemed to throw a bone to all of us who, with our tinfoil hats firmly in place, wanted to chalk up his miserable performances against Denver and San Francisco to his time on the COVID-19 list. Whether it was after-effects of an illness or whatever, Newton at least said he “felt behind” once he got back.
Over the last two weeks, Newton is looking more like the star who started the year. He sports a 104 passer rating, 77 percent completion rate, and 7.5 yards per attempt while producing as a rusher. Newton’s 78.8 percent catchable pass rate (per SportRadar) ranks top-five among quarterbacks in that span.
More importantly to Newton, he’s had a pair of offensive playmakers emerge. Finally.
Jakobi Meyers has been a literal godsend to Newton. A fine separation-based receiver, he leads all players the last four weeks with a 61 percent share of his team’s air yards and is second with a 38 percent target share, trailing only Davante Adams. Meyers has an 11.5 aDOT so he hasn’t just been a bunny-hop slot target. In fact, he’s split his time between the outside and the interior with 15 routes per game wide and 10 per game in the slot.
In the backfield, Damien Harris has emerged as a centerpiece. Since being activated in Week 4, he’s cleared 100 yards rushing in three games and has 471 rushing yards in total, ranking fifth in that span. He’s up to 5.5 yards per carry. Harris averages a full 3.6 yards per carry before first contact, indicating the great blocking and rushing system provided in New England. He just isn’t getting any passing work, so he’s essentially playing the Sony Michel role ... just playing it much better than Michel ever has.
Harris and Meyers could be huge factors against Houston in helping Newton and the Patriots pull off a third-straight win. Houston ranks 28th in Football Outsiders defensive efficiency metrics. For Harris particularly, they are the stone-worst defense against the run and just ceded two 100-yard rushers to Cleveland last week. As long as the Patriots’ disappointing defense can hold up its end of the bargain, they have a trio of playmakers in Newton, Meyers, and Harris to topple the Texans.
3 - How will Andy Dalton fair in his Cowboys return?
Andy Dalton’s first two showings as the Cowboys starter pretty much couldn’t have gone worse. The silver lining: During his time away, the ecosystem in Dallas seems to have gotten just a bit better.
An offensive line that’s been beset by injuries in 2020 has Zack Martin back in action and actually held its own against one of the league’s best pass rushes in Pittsburgh Week 9. Some of the younger guys are starting to get into a mild rhythm.
On defense, they’ve gone from unmitigated disaster to “maybe passable.” That would be a significant change. They allowed under 26 points to both the Eagles and Steelers. If Dalton or anyone playing quarterback for Dallas isn’t constantly playing in a negative game script, it decreases the chances for turnovers and mistakes.
Combine all that with their Week 11 opponent in the Minnesota Vikings — who don’t force quarterbacks into many mistakes — Dalton could finally enjoy the type of solid performance many thought they’d see out of the veteran in this situation. Minnesota sports a 21 percent pressure rate, ranking bottom-13 in the league while allowing the seventh-highest net yards per attempt mark.
This game between the Cowboys and Vikings could be an underrated fantasy environment.
If you’re looking for a player that has a good matchup this week, look to CeeDee Lamb. The Vikings have allowed seven touchdowns to slot receivers on the year and Lamb is still the primary interior guy.
4 - How does Taysom Hill change the Saints’ offense?
The short and most accurate answer is “We have no idea.”
With Taysom Hill the reported starter heading into Week 11, it’s pretty much all bets off for projecting the Saints’ offense. Hill has played more snaps at quarterback than any other position this year but that doesn’t mean we really know what he looks like as a full-time passer.
Taysom Hill’s 2020 snaps by position (per PFF)
Quarterback - 42
Backfield - 19
Inline - 32
Slot - 41
Wide - 15
One thing’s for sure, it was always hard to imagine Jameis Winston as a natural replacement for a Brees-style of offense. New Orleans has tailored their offense to Brees’ strengths as a timing, rhythm thrower throughout his time with the team and his weaknesses over the last couple of years. That’s pretty antithetical to who Winston is as a quarterback.
Brees has thrown just 4.5 percent of his passes beyond 20 yards this year. Compare that to Winston, who led all quarterbacks in air yards (6,486) in 2019 and ranked second in air yards per attempt in 2018 (10.8).
Sean Payton is putting his money where his mouth is here, seemingly confirming all the media reports that he views Hill as the team’s quarterback of the future. There’s no way the Saints start Hill at this point, clearly in the middle of a Super Bowl run with Brees set to miss multiple weeks, if they didn’t really believe Hill can be a quarterback.
We should still expect some unique formations and concepts based on Hill’s athletic ability. Anticipate plenty of rushing plays with play-action heavily featured in the passing game. That could potentially be a good gameplan to get by for a few weeks without Brees. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a team remake their traditional dropback passing game in favor of a run-oriented attack.
That sounds like it should keep Alvin Kamara in play as a top-three running back on the slate. And if most of the passing is going to be off play action, don’t totally leave Michael Thomas by the wayside. Despite his usage, Thomas can win at all levels of the route tree, including down the field. We could finally see some of that with a different passer under center, especially if he’s pushing the ball on play fakes. But again, there’s no question the risk is greater here and this is basically all just guesswork.
The defense these Saints will face in Week 11 just so happens to be the Atlanta Falcons, owners of the 28th-ranked pass defense in DVOA and the most touchdowns allowed. It’s about as soft a landing spot as possible for Hill in his first start.
5 - Is RB1 James Conner a thing of the past?
Few players have been as disappointing as James Conner the last two weeks. The Steelers back has totaled just 58 scoreless yards on 22 carries with a mere four targets in the passing game. That comes after a six-game stretch when Conner averaged 101 yards per contest and scored five times.
If there was ever a bounce-back week for him, this is it, against a Jaguars defense that ranks 31st in Football Outsiders’ metrics and has allowed 12 rushing scores.
Conner remains the only relevant Steelers back through his slump, which you can take as a good news or bad news proposition. He’s played on 67.1 percent of the Steelers offensive snaps the last two games, while no other runner has cleared seven percent. But that just makes you wonder if Pittsburgh is abandoning their rushing game altogether, or at least, for the time being.
Perhaps the team brass is looking to take things easy on Conner, a player known to get dinged up, as they look ahead to a stretch run. On the other hand, maybe the Steelers look at the team they were in Week 11, an efficient pass-first offense that distributes the ball to their variety of excellent receivers all over the field, as the best version of themselves. It’s hard to argue that point.
Based on the matchup and the fact the Pittsburgh is the biggest favorite on the board this week at -10.5, the process dictates you probably have to start Conner unless you’re just loaded at running back. However, there are far too many points against him, in this case, to do it with any confidence.