THE SHADOW KNOWS Week 8 2020
There are a number of big matchups across the NFL in Week 8-but none are bigger than the AFC North showdown between the 6-0 Pittsburgh Steelers and 5-1 Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. And while that contest doesn't feature any true "shadow" matchups, it still has plenty of drama involving cornerbacks and wide receivers.
The Baltimore Ravens don't generally use their trio of excellent cornerbacks to shadow opposing receivers-because they don't have to. There is all of one quarterback this season who has thrown for 225 yards with more than one touchdown pass against the Ravens this year, and his name is Patrick Mahomes.
JuJu Smith-Schuster entered the 2020 season as the No. 1 receiver for the Steelers, and his role as the team's slot receiver means he'll likely draw a matchup with fourth-year pro Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey is playing even better in 2020 than in last year's Pro Bowl campaign-so well, in fact, that Smith-Schuster admitted to Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot that he's going to have his hands full Sunday.
"They have a great defense", Smith-Schuster said. "I think they have great DBs. Going against them this week is gonna be a good challenge. I'm super excited to see where that takes us".
Rookie phenom Chase Claypool isn't any better off this week. Not only did he completely vanish last week against the Tennessee Titans with Johnson back, but the big-bodied former Notre Dame standout gets one of the best press corners in the NFL Sunday in Marcus Peters.
If there's one wide receiver in Pittsburgh who might have at least a decent matchup is Johnson, who scored twice in his Week 7 return to the field. Baltimore's Jimmy Smith missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with an Achilles injury. If Smith sits, Pittsburgh's actual No. 1 receiver might make some hay-but Johnson's own toe injury muddies those waters too.
Add in the less-than-stellar passing numbers from Ben Roethlisberger so far this season and Baltimore allowing the 10th-fewest PPR fantasy points to wide receivers in 2020, and it's hard to get too excited about any Steelers receiver in Week 8-although Johnson's probably the best of the lot.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (Adam Thielen vs. Jaire Alexander)
There isn't a cornerback in the NFL playing better coverage than Alexander right now. As Matthew Freedman pointed out at the Action Network, Alexander is the highest-graded cornerback at Pro Football Focus and is barely allowing over five yards a target. Over a three week stretch this season, Alexander shadowed Tampa's Mike Evans, Atlanta's Calvin Ridley, and Will Fuller of the Texans.
The combined stat line for the trio was 4/45/1. But in two meetings with Thielen in his career, it's been a different story--his first shadow assignment ever was against Thielen in Week 12 of 2018, and Thielen exploded for an 8/125/1 line on nine targets. In Week 1 of this season, Alexander once again shadowed Thielen, who went 6/115/2 on eight targets.
This is hot meets hot-the Vikings might be a dumpster fire, but Thielen's numbers haven't suffered as a result. However, Alexander's been in blanket mode most of the year. Rolling Thielen out is a no-brainer, but expecting a repeat of the season opener is the epitome of optimism.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Stephon Gilmore vs. Stefon Diggs)
In 2019, Stephon Gilmore was the best defensive player in the National Football League-or so says his trophy. Less than a year later, with the new-look Patriots reeling, there have been reports that Gilmore might be on the trade block. As former Pats great Tedy Bruschi told WEEI, that's not good for player or team.
"This Stephon Gilmore thing is big," Bruschi said. "I think it's real and if you're a player in the locker room you're really wondering how the organization is feeling towards the season. Are you giving up on the season? Because if you are it goes against everything that you're telling me every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday about doing your job, about winning the football game this week. Because if you take away our best player, that's not about winning football games, that's thinking down the road."
Simply put, the Pats are a mess. The offense is offensive. The defense is giving out under the strain. And Gilmore's level of play is nowhere near what it was in 2019. Diggs might not get back to the gaudy numbers he was posting at the beginning of the year Sunday, but he's an easy start in what could be a statement win for the Bills.
Los Angeles Rams at Miami Dolphins (Jalen Ramsey vs. DeVante Parker)
A few weeks ago, this might have been the matchup of the week between corner and receiver. But with Tua Tagovailoa about to make his first NFL start against one of the better defenses in the league, DeVante Parker's fantasy managers are adjusting to a new reality with the 27-year-old. Per Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, that adjustment period might take a while.
"A main component of Chan Gailey's offense is a receiver's ability to improvise on his routes," Kelly said. "But that only works when the receiver and his quarterback are on the same page. It's likely going to take some time for Tagovailoa and his weapons to jell."
Tagovailoa could be better than Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert put together for all we know. He could also be worse than Josh Rosen. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But starting the kid for the first time in a game where Aaron Donald will be in his grill all day and Jalen Ramsey will be all over his best wideout (by a wide margin) just…
Welcome to the pros, kid.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles (Amari Cooper vs. Darius Slay)
When the Eagles host the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, it won't mark the first time that Darius Slay and Amari Cooper have played against one another. It will, however, mark the first time the two have faced off since Slay went to Philadelphia. As the veteran corner told Rueben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia, he's becoming aware of the difference.
"In the locker room, everybody's around here yelling, 'Cowboys week, Cowboys week,'" Slay said. "When I was with Detroit, I think we considered all the teams in the division rivals. But over here? They really don't like nothing about the Cowboys. Nothing. And that's just funny. I'm, like, loving it."
There's nothing much funny going on in the NFC East, a division where no team has three wins yet. But for all the bad things that have happened to the Eagles in 2020, Slay has been mostly as advertised. Because the idea of Cooper catching passes from a rookie quarterback named Ben DiNucci behind a non-existent offensive line isn't bad enough.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Giants (Mike Evans vs. James Bradberry)
They say that familiarity breeds contempt. If that's the case, Bradberry and Evans won't be exchanging Christmas cards given that the pair have faced off a number of times while Bradberry played for the Carolina Panthers. The fifth-year veteran is in New York now, but he told Scott Thompson of SNY that he expects another battle on Monday night.
"I have to prepare for that by watching film," Bradberry said. "But I feel like Mike Evans, he's the same guy that he was a year ago, two years ago. Big, physical guy, plays well through press coverage because he's a strong, physical guy. He's 6-5, 230, I think, 220, long arms. I think his best attribute is he's able to go up there and attack the ball at the highest point. Just an elite receiver overall. A lot of it is just mental recall from the past experiences when I played him when it comes to pressing him, when he gives his release off the line, stuff like that."
Bradberry has shadowed Evans on half a dozen different occasions, and in those meetings, Evans has one 100-yard game and zero touchdowns. With Chris Godwin out, Evans feels like a must-start-especially with Tom Brady playing at such a high . But it's not like Evans is 100 percent either, and Bradberry has more than held his own in extended action against him.