Week 4 - Exploitable Matchups
By Allie Fontana
The first of the bye weeks are here and that means fantasy owners are looking for replacements for key starters including Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne and even Donald Brown. Neither the Steelers nor the Colts have much of a ground game this season, but that doesn’t matter—we have suggestions for running backs anyway! Keep in mind that we don’t deal with slam dunk starts in this article, though a few may be on their way to no-brainer status. You’ll mostly find recommendations for spot starts, risky players with upside and favorable matchups for those who like to roll the dice, deeper league options, injury replacements and the aforementioned bye-week fill ins. Here are some players that fit the bill in Week 4.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots
Fitzpatrick is quietly putting together a solid early campaign, averaging 20-plus fantasy points per game and securing a spot as a top 10 fantasy quarterback in all formats. After a shaky Week 1 start in which he threw three picks in the Bills’ 48-28 loss to the New York Jets, Fitzpatrick has been mistake free in his last two outings. Buffalo’s O-line has also done a great job of protecting him, and he has yet to take a sack. In Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns, Fitzpatrick completed 22-of-35 pass attempted for 208 yards and three touchdowns. Fitzpatrick has been extremely efficient, converting eight of 86 pass attempts into touchdowns. He is currently tied with Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger for the most touchdown passes in the NFL through three games. Fitzpatrick and the 2-1 Bills play host to the 1-2 New England Patriots on Sunday. New England is reeling from back-to-back losses to the Arizona Cardinals and Baltimore Ravens, and Fitzpatrick will have to be at his best to give his team a chance. He is more likely to be successful if at least one of Buffalo’s two dynamic backs—Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller—is healthy enough to play. While Tashard Choice may be a serviceable backup, he won’t deter the Patriots defense from focusing attention on Fitzpatrick and attempting to rattle him. New England’s defense is having trouble slowing down opposing quarterbacks, yielding 794 passing yards and five scores. The Bills gunslinger has had success against the Patriots in the past, and he’ll need to keep calm, avoid costly mistakes (INTs) and throw the rock a ton to lead his team to victory. If you need a bye-week replacement or your starting quarterback is giving you heartburn—let’s say you drafted Michael Vick, Tony Romo or Jay Cutler—then consider “The Beard” in Week 4.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals @ Jacksonville Jaguars
No one would have predicted that Dalton would have six passing touchdowns to fellow sophomore signal-caller and 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year Cam Newton’s two after three weeks. But that is a fact and so is Dalton’s current standing as fantasy’s sixth-most productive quarterback. What’s most impressive with Dalton’s performance is that he’s put up numbers even though the Bengals lack a legitimate No. 2 receiving threat to complement A.J. Green. Dalton has a knack for finding open receivers, shows good anticipation and makes decisive throws. In Week 3, Dalton had his way against a struggling Redskins’ secondary, completing 19-of-27 passes for 328 yards, three touchdowns and one pick. He has another favorable matchup this Sunday against a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that held Christian Ponder and Matt Schaub to single-digit fantasy points in Weeks 1 and 2; yet gave up 23 to Andrew Luck, who threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday. Dalton is worth a look if you need a bye-week replacement for Ben Roethlisberger or Luck.
Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions
Ponder is one of the early season surprises—both in terms of his growth and development as a NFL quarterback and his viability as a potential fantasy starter. He shows poise and presence in the pocket, knows when to use his legs, and has yet to turn over the ball. His 70.1 completion percentage puts him second behind Matt Ryan in the league. Ponder’s fantasy stock is on the rise after leading the Vikings to a shocking 24-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3. He threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 33 yards and a score, which translated into a productive fantasy day. The Vikings travel to the Motor City to take on NFC North division rival Detroit Lions. Opposing quarterbacks have lit up the Lions defense for 802 yards and five scores, including the Titans’ Jake Locker who threw for 378 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday. Locker had a lot of time to throw in the pocket and Minnesota’s O-line is better than Tennessee’s. Outside threat Jerome Simpson returns from suspension this week and adds another quality weapon to Ponder’s already potent arsenal. In an ideal world, we’d like to see another solid performance or two from Ponder before starting him over established quarterbacks, even risky ones like Michael Vick and Jay Cutler. Ponder is certainly viable this week if you need a bye-week replacement in deeper leagues, a better option in two QB formats, or if your current starter isn’t getting the job done.
Note: Ponder had a neck issue and showed up on the Vikings’ midweek injury report. He returned to practice Friday and is listed as probable for Sunday.
Other QB matchups we like: Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers @ Kansas City Chiefs; Carson Palmer, Oakland Raiders @ Denver Broncos; Matt Schaub, Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans (great matchup, only downside is no way to predict how much the Texans will throw the football); Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Washington Redskins (Freeman continues to struggle, so while the matchup is extremely fantasy friendly, start him at your own risk).
Cedric Benson, RB, Green Bay Packers vs. New Orleans Saints
If Benson is on your fantasy roster, his Week 4 matchup with the New Orleans Saints is about as good as it gets. The Saints have given up 505 rushing yards, 174 yards in the air and six total scores to running backs over the first three weeks. They’ve also allowed the most standard-scoring fantasy points per game (31.7) to the position. Benson’s role has grown as he becomes more familiar with the offense, including being involved in the passing game. Look for Green Bay to use Benson to help take pressure off their struggling pass protection—which was exposed in a major way last Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks (eight first half sacks, are you kidding me?). Don’t go overboard and expect anything close to Jamaal Charles-like numbers from Benson; though he could conceivably hit the century mark for the first time this season and also find the end zone at least once. Benson is a player some fantasy analysts and owners love to hate. If you’re among them, put your feelings aside on Sunday and show Benson some fantasy love. He’s a good bet to return the favor.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati Bengals @ Jacksonville Jaguars
The Law Firm lost his first fumble in 589 NFL-career touches in Week 3 against the Washington Redskins and he could only muster 38 yards on 17 carries in a subpar performance. He salvaged his fantasy day by finding the end zone from one-yard out. While his numbers through three weeks aren’t exactly jaw-dropping—56 carries, 204 yards, two scores and another four catches for 34 yards—Green-Ellis appears to have a firm grip on the job as the Bengals lead back. Redemption may be in the cards for Green-Ellis in a fantasy-friendly matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars this week. Although the Jags run D held the Colts backfield to 74 rushing yards last Sunday, they’ve coughed up 511 combo yards and six total touchdowns to running backs. With his nose for the end zone, Green-Ellis could have his most productive outing as a Bengal—padding his yardage totals and scoring his third touchdown of the season. Plug him in as your low-end RB2 or flex option and hope that Cincy uses him in the red zone.
Ben Tate, Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans
Knowing when to put the Texans’ No. 2 running back in your lineup is never easy because his bipolar fantasy production is tied to game flow and how many touches he gets. If you took a chance on Tate in Week 2, you were rewarded with a 74-yard, two score performance. In Week 3, Tate barely registered a pulse, carrying the ball eight times for 26 yards. Houston hosts the Tennessee Titans on Sunday—a team that Tate gashed for 201 yards and touchdown in two contests last season. Tennessee’s run defense is among the worst in the league, giving up 575 combo yards, four rushing touchdowns and an average of 25 fantasy points per week to running backs in three games. In his NFL debut last week, the Lions’ Mikel Leshoure hit them up for 100 yards on the ground and another 34 in the air. While anything can happen on any given Sunday, we expect the Texans to run the heck out of the ball to control the clock. Tate has a realistic shot to get at least 15 touches, which makes him a solid flex option in deeper leagues or if you’re coping with injured starters or need a bye-week fill in. An interviewer once asked Tate for his thoughts on fantasy football, to which he replied “I don’t care about your fantasy team.” If you’re stuck between a rock and a fantasy hard place, don’t hold Tate’s indifference against him in Week 4.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers
Rodgers was among the fastest risers heading into the 2012 season after Falcons coach Mike Smith said the 5’6” former fifth-rounder could be an every down back. While it’s clear that Michael Turner isn’t going “away-away”, Rodgers’ playing time is slowly starting to increase and he’s also seeing the field in early downs. Still, his 20 carries for 57 yards and seven catches for 48 yards don’t exactly scream “fantasy starter”. So what makes Rodgers an option in Week 4? Matchup, matchup, matchup! Atlanta takes on the Carolina Panthers—a team whose run defense made a star out of the Giants’ Aaron Brown in Week 3. Not only have the Panthers given up 400 rushing yards and three touchdowns, pass-catchers out of the backfield have 32 grabs for 242 yards. Sounds like a perfect scenario for the Falcons to exploit Rodgers’ skills as a receiver and for fantasy owners in PPR formats to consider plugging him into their flex spot.
Other RB matchups we like: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons (Check his status on Sunday); Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals vs. Miami Dolphins (rushing yards will be hard to come by, but Williams has a shot to be productive if he gets volume carries and/or is used as a pass-catcher out of the backfield); Steven Ridley, New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills; Lance Ball, Denver Broncos @ Oakland Raiders (decent flex option if Willis McGahee sits out or is limited; boom/bust flex option in very deep leagues); Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers vs. New York Jets (boom/bust flex option in very deep formats)
Denarius Moore, Oakland Raiders @ Denver Broncos
If Moore has been stashed on your bench, then the first bye week of the season gives you the perfect excuse to dust him off and get him in your lineup. The speedy and quick receiver has a solid matchup this Sunday against a Denver Broncos defense that has been vulnerable through the air—giving up 525 yards and four passing touchdowns and allowing 24.7 fantasy points per game average to receivers. Just last week, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub torched the Broncos secondary for four touchdowns, including two downfield bombs of 50-plus yards to Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter. With teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey sidelined indefinitely with a concussion and neck injury, the Raiders need Moore to play an even more critical role in the passing game. Consider him a low-end WR3 or flex option in Week 4. All it takes is a couple of big plays and Moore’s production could be off the charts.
Leonard Hankerson, Washington Redskins vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Pierre Garcon is still dealing with a foot injury and he’s status remains cloudy heading into Week 4. With several reliable fantasy wideouts on bye, fantasy owners in deeper leagues or those with Garcon on their rosters are considering Hankerson as a WR3 or flex option. Hankerson caught four of seven targets for 56 yards in Week 3 against the Bengals. The Redskins face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—a team whose defensive unit is second only to Washington in terms of fantasy-friendliness to wide receivers. The Bucs outpace the Redskins in receptions and passing yards (52/874 vs. 45/766), and opposing wideouts score a healthy average of 33.3 fantasy points per game. With all those yards and points for the taking, it’s hard not to love Hankerson’s chances to catch a deep ball or two this Sunday. Hankerson caught a 68-yard pass from RGIII for a touchdown in Week 2, and the Buccaneers gave up an 80-yard touchdown to Giants’ Victor Cruz the same week. If you’re looking for a sure thing, leave Hankerson on the bench or waiver wire. Start him only if you can live with his potential to boom or bust.
Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Washington Redskins
Cards on the table—it’s hard to believe in the Buccaneers passing offense right now after witnessing Josh Freeman complete only 10-of-28 passes for 110 yards against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Williams had two catches for 33 yards on a team-high six targets and it’s a “sad but true” fact that he also led the team in receiving yards, even with those paltry totals. Tampa Bay takes on the Washington Redskins “get well” defense in Week 4—a unit that has ceded touchdown passes to six different receivers and 766 passing yards through three games. Washington’s secondary has given up a league-high 38-plus fantasy points per game to wide receivers. Common sense says the Redskins will attempt to contain Vincent Jackson, which could work to Williams’ advantage. Two of his seven catches have been touchdowns and Williams could very well find the end zone again this Sunday. If you’re desperate and need a deep reach WR3 or flex player with a favorable matchup, Williams is worth a look.
Nate Burleson, Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings
When you drafted Burleson, you had bench depth and bye weeks in mind, right? He’s coming off a big game in against the Titans last week in which he finished with 10 catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. He also added a two-point conversion. Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill targeted Burleson 12 times on the day, including three red-zone looks and one goal-line shot. With the Titans focused on taking away everything over the top to Calvin Johnson, Burleson was left to do some damage underneath. The same scenario could be in play this Sunday when the Vikings come to town. Minnesota has a middle-of-the-pack pass defense, allowing 500 yards and two touchdowns to wide receivers, and roughly 20 fantasy points per game to the position. The Vikings run defense is the stingiest in the league (227 yards on the ground over three games), so we expect Stafford and the Lions to air it out all day. We can’t guarantee that Burleson will put together back-to-back big games; however the recent past suggests he’s worth a look if you need help this week.
Other WR matchups we like: Malcom Floyd, San Diego Chargers vs. Kansas City Chiefs; Andrew Hawkins, Cincinnati Bengals @Jacksonville Jaguars; Ramses Barden, New York Giants @ Philadelphia Eagles (better if Nicks is out, though not a slam dunk matchup); Brandon Stokley, Denver Broncos vs. Oakland Raiders (if there’s ever a week to use him for fantasy, this is it)
Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota Vikings @ Detroit Lions
The 6’6”, 258-pounder is on track to become a stud tight end, and if he’s still available in your league, there’s something seriously wrong. Rudolph has clearly emerged as the No. 2 option in the Vikings passing game. He saw six targets from Christian Ponder last Sunday, including three red-zone looks and two goal-line targets. Rudolph converted two targets into scores to finish the day with a 5/36/2 stat line. Rudolph and Ponder hooked up for three touchdowns over the last two games and they’ll have an opportunity to continue that streak against the Lions in Week 4. Detroit is giving up the second-most fantasy points per game (14.2) to tight ends. Find a way to get Rudolph in your lineup.
Owen Daniels, Houston Texans vs. Tennessee Titans
He’s baaaaccck! That’s right, folks, we liked Daniels chances in Week 3 against the Denver Broncos and he has a potentially sweeter matchup this Sunday. Although Daniels only had three grabs for 26 yards on five targets, the veteran tight end scored his first touchdown of the 2012 season. No team has struggled more against tight ends than Houston’s Week 4 opponent, the Tennessee Titans. Not only have they surrendered a league-high 28 receptions for 288 yards and five touchdowns through three weeks, they’ve also allowed the most fantasy points per game (19.7). Daniels caught four balls for 71 yards in one appearance against the Titans last year. Predicting how much the Texans will throw in a given week is like tossing darts at a bulls-eye wearing a blindfold. Nevertheless Daniels looks to be a relatively safe bet for low-end TE1 production if you need some help this week.
Brandon Myers, Oakland Raiders @ Denver Broncos
There’s a good chance that some of you may not know who Myers is. The numbers say the under-the-radar Oakland Raider is one of the league’s most productive tight ends through three games. Heading into Week 4, only four tight ends—Tony Gonzalez (21), Dennis Pitta (18), Jimmy Graham (17) and Brandon Pettigrew (16) have more catches than Myers’ 15. The fourth-year pro has caught all 15 targets from Carson Palmer and his 206 receiving yards is second only to Tony G’s 214. In Oakland’s come-from-behind victory over Pittsburgh last week, it was Myers who set up what would turn out to be the game-winning drive. He caught a critical 15-yard pass from Palmer on a third-and-10 from Oakland’s 25-yard line. Myers was concussed on the play after a hard hit by Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, but he held on to the ball. He returned to practice on Thursday and it looks like he’s on track to play this Sunday against the Broncos. Palmer’s security blanket faces a Denver defense that has allowed the fourth-most fantasy points per game (12.0) to the tight end. Myers may not be fantasy gold, but he has out-produced Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham, Jermichael Finley, Greg Olsen, Jacob Tamme, and Fred Davis in the majority of formats. If you need a bye-week replacement or you’re looking for better results at the position, Myers could give you some juice in deeper PPR leagues or formats where you can flex a tight end. Be sure to check his status on Sunday before inserting him into your starting lineup.
Others TE matchups we like: Jacob Tamme/Joel Dreessen, Denver Broncos vs. Oakland Raiders (Tamme is dealing with a groin injury, so check his status before putting him in your lineup. While Tamme continues to see double-digit targets from Peyton Manning, he has dropped far more passes than he’s caught and seems out of synch with his quarterback. Dreessen would be a sneaky start if Tamme was unable to play or limited.); Brent Celek, Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants
Team Defense/Special Teams
Arizona Cardinals D/ST vs. Miami Dolphins
First the facts: The Cardinals have given up zero rushing touchdowns and only two passing touchdowns to their opponents through three weeks. What makes them an even more appealing fantasy team defense is their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks and create turnovers. The unit has 12 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, and one defensive touchdown. Arizona has already wreaked havoc on the New England and Philadelphia offenses and they’ll look to make it three in row in a tasty matchup at home against Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins. If the Cardinals are available in your league, grab them while you can. After they get through having their way with the Dolphins, they get to do more of the same to the St. Louis Rams and the Buffalo Bills.
Other D/ST matchups we like: Dallas Cowboys D/ST vs. Chicago Bears; Atlanta Falcons D/ST vs. Carolina Panthers; Cincinnati Bengals D/ST @ Jacksonville Jaguars