The Shadow Knows Week 15

By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport


This analyst has a confession to make.

No, not about that. Or that other thing. Y’all need to get your minds out of the gutter. And no, I don’t murder random people in Canton at the Fantasy Football Expo every year so I can steal their sneakers.

Even by my standards, that would be weird. Plus the whole “murder is bad” thing.

My confession is this—the title of this column isn’t especially accurate. Hasn’t been for a while. I can count the number of “shadow” cornerbacks left in the NFL on one hand—and have fingers left over. Even those guys don’t generally follow a wideout into the slot.

It’s not that the level or cornerback play has declined since I started writing this. You can argue the opposite. NFL teams decided (rightly) that for most corners, the best bet is just letting them play their side of the field. Become comfortable in that role, as opposed to asking them to flip the script in the heat of the moment.

I honestly just like the title—and it’s a reference that likely sails over the head of 80 percent of the six people who read this. I’m old. It could be worse. I could also load up the “Seinfeld” references. Or the “Dragnet” ones.

This may have started as a highlight of which wideouts would be shadowed in a given week. Now, it’s just a breakdown of the biggest matchups between wide receivers and corners.

Given that the fantasy playoffs are here, such a breakdown might be useful.

But I’m not changing the title.

Now get off my lawn, punk.


Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts (Joey Porter vs. Michael Pittman)

Michael Pittman rarely gets mentioned among the NFL’s best wide receivers. But he’s been as consistent and productive as any wideout in the league over the past month-plus. Reggie Wayne knows a little about playing receiver in the NFL, and he told the Indy Star that he continues to be impressed by the fourth-year veteran.
“One thing about Pitt, he’s going to find a way to get it done,” Wayne said. “It’s going to be ugly. It’s never a smooth landing, it’s always going to be rough at the end, but it’s going to be a first down, it’s going to be a needed catch. Everything is fullback mentality. He’ll run through a wall, but he’s going to get the job done.”

A pretty compelling argument can be made that Joey Porter has played better than any first-year corner in the league in 2023. But Pittman has hauled in at least eight catches in six straight games. He’s been targeted 10 or more times in five of those games. And he’s a top-five fantasy receiver over that span. Porter may well be a star in the making, but Pittman is all but matchup-proof right now.


Denver Broncos at Detroit Lions (Patrick Surtain vs. Amon-Ra St. Brown)

The Denver Broncos have gone from dead in the water to the fringes of playoff contention—largely because their defense went from abysmal to surprisingly proficient. Second-year cornerback Patrick Surtain may be the best player on that defense, but he told reporters he’s at least a little curious about seeing how the other half lives.

"If there were a time and an opportunity to get those offensive snaps, I would definitely be there, because I've always wanted to be an offensive player growing up," Surtain said. "So if I get a time or a chance to play offense I would do so. I was acting like I was lined up at receiver and doing some releases and some routes, and I was trying to get Sean (Payton’s) attention. He looked, but he kind of brushed me off."

Joking aside, Surtain is playing as well as any cornerback in the league this year—his passer rating against and completion percentage against for the season are both excellent. But Surtain doesn’t follow opposing wideouts inside, and St. Brown spends upwards of half his time in the slot. If there’s a coverage downgrade for St. Brown this week, it’s minimal.


Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns (D.J. Moore vs. Denzel Ward)

By just about any objective measure, the Chicago Bears made out like bandits in the trade that landed Moore in the Windy City, given that he’ll most likely be accompanied by the first pick in the 2024 draft. Moore has held up his end of the deal as well—he has already eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards and set a career-best with seven scores. Given the quarterback play in Chicago, that’s quite the achievement. But this week, Moore and the Bears face the league’s No. 1 pass defense, and Liam McKeone of The Big Lead believes that could spell trouble for fantasy managers.

“Moore has put forth three straight games of quality fantasy production, with 15-plus points in each of those contests with a bye mixed in there,” he wrote. “Justin Fields has gone his way constantly, with Moore receiving at least nine targets per game during this stretch. It took a while but Fields and the Bears' coaching staff finally realized they should be getting the ball to Moore constantly; the fact that Fields has decided to play football well at the same time is a happy accident. However, it does feel like they're due for a down week and a matchup with the Browns in Cleveland is a guarantee for a low-scoring game.”

The injury-ravaged Browns lost safety Grant Delpit for the season last week, but Ward appears on track to play for the first time in a month. If Ward is out there and close to 100 percent, then he, Greg Newsome and Martin Emerson might just be the best trio of corners in the league. Cleveland isn’t first in the league in pass defense and 31st in PPR points allowed to wide receivers (even without Ward) by accident. Cleveland’s defense is the reason the Browns are an 8-5 playoff contender—don’t underestimate how bad this matchup is.


New York Jets at Miami Dolphins (Ahmad Gardner vs. Jaylen Waddle)

Stop freaking out. This doesn’t mean that Tyreek Hill won’t play. But he hasn’t practiced this week, and Miami’s schedule gets a LOT rougher after this game. If Miami is a legitimate Super Bowl contender, they should be able to beat the Jets without Hill. And as ESPN’s Mike Clay pointed out, when these teams met a few weeks ago New York’s vaunted secondary got roasted like they worked at Arby’s.

“The Jets' elite pass defense didn't slow Miami's standout WR duo from delivering the goods when these teams met in Week 12,” Clay said. “Hill posted a 9-102-1 receiving line and Waddle managed an 8-114-0 line. Hill's unique skill set and playmaking ability makes him attractive regardless of the matchup, so he can be started with confidence. Waddle is riskier, but his showing last month suggests he remains a viable WR2.”

The dilemma, of course, is that Hill sits and the Jets can focus on shutting down Waddle, which would likely mean not only Gardner on the perimeter but safety help down the field most of the game. If Hill gives it a go, Waddle may well outscore him (Hill is the NFL’s most dangerous receiver, and even a hobbled Tyreek makes for one heck of a decoy), but if Waddle goes into this contest the No. 1 receiver in the worst fantasy matchup for the position, the top 25 is likely closer to Waddle’s ceiling than his floor.


Dallas Cowboys at Buffalo Bills (Stephon Gilmore vs. Stefon Diggs)

Some might be wondering why DaRon Bland isn’t being mentioned here—after breaking the league record for interception returns for touchdowns in a season, Bland is the talk of the NFL. And while speaking to reporters ahead of this week’s pivotal interconference matchup, Bills quarterback Josh Allen said he has no intention of being added to Bland’s list of pick-sixtims.
“To have five pick-sixes, let alone (eight) interceptions, is pretty amazing,” Allen said. “So, I’m just trying not to be added to that tally. I think it’s keyed up with what their D-line is able to do, put pressure on quarterbacks. It allows them on the back end to understand those quarterbacks don’t have all the time in the world to throw. So, when those quarterbacks are looking one way or another, that ball’s coming out. That’s a big achievement for not just him but for their D-line.”

The thing is, while Bland’s experience in the slot would (in theory) make him a perfect shadow for Diggs, there’s a problem—Bland really isn’t all that good in coverage. After Bland was savaged by Seattle’s DK Metcalf two weeks ago, the Cowboys switched veteran Stephon Gilmore to Metcalf. And to Philly’s A.J. Brown the following week. Gilmore vs. Diggs will be quite the showdown (at least while Diggs is outside), but Bland is susceptible to big receivers on the perimeter—don’t rule out a long Gabe Davis TD in this game.

Gabe Davis is still alive, right?