THE SHADOW KNOWS Week 4 2019
At the beginning of the 2019 season, this Sunday night's matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints looked like one of September's biggest games. In some respects, it still is-the two teams head into the game a combined 5-1 and in first place in their respective divisions. But a bit of the luster was knocked from the contest when Drew Brees' thumb injury cost us a duel between him and the red-hot Dak Prescott.
However, we still get at least one marquee matchup-the receiver who's the biggest factor in Prescott's early-season explosion vs. one of the NFL's best young cornerbacks.
The thing is, as Taylor Smith of NumberFire pointed out ahead of Amari Cooper of the Cowboys and Marshon Lattimore of the Saints, the latter hasn't exactly been playing like an elite cornerback.
"Lattimore used to be a top coverage corner," he said. "Now he seems to be the top target for most offenses, as his shadow coverage has seemingly lost its luster. The rest of the unit isn't picking up the slack, either, as the New Orleans Saints rank 23rd in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (net expected points) per play. They'll have their hands full with Amari Cooper, who ranks sixth in Reception NEP per target among receivers with at least 15 looks."
Lattimore also leads the entire NFL in receiving yards allowed this year with 334-no other corner has crossed the 300-yard mark yet. The last time this pair crossed paths, Cooper didn't find the end zone, but he did post a decent PPR stat line-eight catches for 76 yards.
Considering those numbers, Lattimore's struggles and how well Prescott is playing, Cooper's sore ankle is a bigger issue in Week 4 than his matchup.
Los Angeles Chargers at Miami Dolphins (Keenan Allen vs. Xavien Howard)
Xavien Howard needs a hug. And maybe the number of a good sports psychiatrist. Not only is the fourth-year pro quite possibly the best player left on the Titanic of football teams that is the Miami Dolphins, but as Ian Hartitz wrote at Rotoworld, now Howard gets a matchup with the most-targeted wide receiver in the league-and no help.
The only realistic solution (to covering Allen) is to have Xavien Howard travel inside for the 41% of snaps that Allen lines up in the slot," Hartitz wrote. "This is something that Howard doesn't have a ton of experience with, but coach Brian Flores comes from the Patriots Defense coaching tree that utilizes the league's highest-frequency shadow CBs that consistently travel inside in Patriots CBs Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty as well as Lions CB Darius Slay. The latter CB allowed an 8-98-0 line to Allen back in Week 2. This isn't an indictment on Slay; he deserves credit for consistently traveling into the slot while the overwhelming majority of outside CBs seldom do so. Rather, it's just more evidence that nobody can stop Allen, particularly as long as he continues to lead the league in both target share (36%) and market share of air yards (46%)."
This isn't to say Howard's not a good corner. He's just been placed in an untenable position this season-and it's showing. Allen is a no-brainer must-start whose biggest problem Sunday is getting pulled early. Howard needs to hope he's the next Dolphin to be traded. And the hug.
Carolina Panthers at Houston Texans (Donte Jackson vs. Will Fuller)
You may have been expecting to see James Bradberry vs. DeAndre Hopkins here, and with good reason-it's one of the better matchups of the week. A big, sneaky-good cornerback against the player some consider the game's best wideout. But there are very few corners I'd sweat in a matchup with Hopkins (even after two duds in a row) and with all due kudos to Bradberry, he ain't one of them.
Besides, the matchup on the other side of the field may actually have a bigger impact on the fantasy landscape-and not in a good way. The folks considering rolling out Will Fuller in anticipation of that gonzo stat line we're all waiting for are setting themselves up to be disappointed.
In news that should surprise absolutely no one, Will Fuller's best quality is his speed. The problem is that Donte Jackson might actually be faster. In the pay-per-view footrace fiasco I won't mention by name because no one got paid, it was Jackson who lost the final to Marquise Goodwin.
It's not a matchup that favors Fuller.
Kansas City Chiefs at Detroit Lions (Sammy Watkins vs. Darius Slay)
The last thing an NFL defense needs-other than having to play the Chiefs at all-is having to play them without their best cornerback. The prospect of the undefeated (no, really-they are) Lions having to do so is that much more brutal given that as Jeff Risdon of Lions Wire wrote, Darius Slay of the Lions is playing as well as any cover man in the league.
"No cornerback in the league allows a lower completion rate on throws targeted at his receiver than Slay, according to date from NFL Inside Edge," Risdon said. "Slay has allowed just 10 completions on 38 targets from Week 13 of 2018 through Week 3 of 2019. The 26.3 percent completion rate is the best in the NFL among 48 cornerbacks who have faced at least 20 targets over that timeframe."
Slay's been limited in practice, but there's little question in my mind he'll play-he's a veteran who isn't gonna miss a game like this if he can help it. He's also a significant thorn in the side of Watkins' fantasy prospects in Week 4. But his loss will be someone else's gain. Whether it's Mecole Hardman or Demarcus Robinson, one of Kansas City's secondary receivers is going to go bananas Sunday. Or maybe both.
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens (Odell Beckham vs. Marlon Humphrey)
In his third NFL season, Humphrey is starting to come into his own as a cornerback. But as Aaron Kasinitz reported for Penn Live, this week the former Alabama standout faces a huge test-playing hurt against one of the most difficult receivers in the NFL to cover.
"Quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Browns' passing game ran into struggles early this season, but that's from no fault of Odell Beckham's.," Kasinitz said. "The three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver has piled up 19 receptions for 288 yards and one touchdown this season - and the Ravens will likely rely on Humphrey to slow him down. Humphrey shadowed with Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins for a chunk of Sunday's loss to the Chiefs, and if cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee) remains sidelined, Baltimore has no better option to defend one of the NFL's best pass catchers. A rising star in his third NFL season, Humphrey faces a stiff test. He'll try to ace it while battling a hip injury."
Humphrey, like Slay, is probably going to play. And quite possibly play well. But the orange flag with Beckham in Week 4 isn't the player covering him-it's a combo-platter of bad play-calls and a struggling young quarterback in Cleveland.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams (Aqib Talib vs. Chris Godwin)
The Los Angeles Rams have arguably the best one-two punch in the NFL at corner in Talib and Marcus Peters. According to Cameron DaSilva of Rams Wire, head coach Sean McVay is unsurprisingly pleased with the play of his star corners for a team that has yet to lose. Go figure.
"I think they've done a nice job. I think really our defense as a whole has done an outstanding job communicating," McVay told reporters this week. "Like with anything else, there's always some things that we can continue to clean up. I think in terms of limiting the big plays…that's a very positive thing. Make offenses snap it one more time, but been pleased with those guys."
After what Mike Evans did last week, his matchup with Peters is a lot less imposing. Godwin's another story though-he's unlikely to find much room outside with Talib draped all over him and will get one of the better slot corners in the league in Nickell Robey-DPI-Coleman when he kicks inside.
Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears (Xavier Rhodes vs. Allen Robinson)
In light of Green Bay's loss on Thursday night (and the flaws it exposed), Sunday's game at Soldier Field is huge. If the Bears win, a sluggish start is all but forgotten and the reigning division champs are right back in it. If the Vikings win, a message gets sent that last year's coronation might not have been so much misplaced as premature.
The game's also going to feature a true shadow. An actual WR vs. CB brouhaha. A pair of talented, physical players with Pro Bowls and other assorted accolades on their NFL resumes. One team's best wideout against the other's best coverage guy. For just about every play.
We even have a sample size, because the Bears and Vikings have been known to occasionally play one another 116 times. As with more wide receivers than not where Rhodes is concerned, it's not great-in their only get-together last year (Robinson missed Week 17) Rhodes held Robinson to three catches for 39 yards.