Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2010 [Print without images]

Sunday, September 26, 2010
Instant Replay: Flacco redeems himself

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

It's amazing how quickly things can change in the NFL.

Joe Flacco is your perfect example: A week after a four-interception disaster, he bounced back with a week that demonstrated a level of accuracy not seen the week before, completing 22 of 31 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

Granted, the matchups had something to do with it; a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals is a stiffer challenge than a home game against the Cleveland Browns. Still, Flacco's performances were like night and day, and the most encouraging thing about his Sunday performance was that he recaptured the chemistry he displayed with his newest weapon, Anquan Boldin, in the season opener. Flacco and Boldin thrived in the vertical passing game in this one, as Boldin caught eight of 11 passes sent his way for 142 yards and all three of Flacco's touchdowns.

Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco still has the same lofty upside he had before the season, and he showed it Sunday.

In terms of his matchups, there's concern that just as quickly as Flacco has returned to being a trusted fantasy quarterback, he might be right back in our doghouses after Week 4, when he has a tough-as-nails matchup at the Pittsburgh Steelers. To that end, I'd advise being patient with him; his schedule ranked among the most difficult in the league in September, but as we get deeper into October, it'll lighten up, including a Week 6 game at New England followed by a Week 7 home game against the Buffalo Bills. That said, assuming "bad Flacco" isn't the one who chooses to take the field, Flacco might even be serviceable to fantasy owners who are thin at the position or in a two-quarterback league even against the Steelers. It's a risk, and a somewhat more worrisome one than it should be after he looked as bad as he did in Week 2, but his Week 3, again, was every bit as encouraging.

Flacco will remain at the back end of my top 10 quarterbacks in Tuesday's re-ranks, with the level of upside he has and a more favorable schedule ahead. He's obviously more trustworthy as an asset at this point than a Brett Favre or Donovan McNabb, and probably Eli Manning, too. Plus, his work with Boldin in Weeks 1 and 3 -- excuse Boldin for Week 2 because Flacco warranted the blame -- makes his favorite wide receiver an elite every-week play.

Tristan's MVP

It's Michael Vick, from the standpoint that what you want out of your fantasy players is for them to dominate matchups they should. Vick, a popular pickup coming out of Week 1, has now crushed the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars in back-to-back weeks, in Week 3 tallying 32 fantasy points thanks to 291 yards and three touchdowns passing and 30 yards and a score rushing. Surprisingly, he was started in only 48.9 percent of ESPN leagues, perhaps a product of him landing on teams that already had a (seemingly) better alternative in the starting lineup, a good example being, say, Aaron Rodgers owners who picked up Vick as a backup.

Vick's owners are certainly happy Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid decided to stick with his hot hand despite the healthy return of Kevin Kolb, who missed Week 2 with a concussion, and there's little reason to believe Kolb will recapture the starting job now. Vick gets another favorable matchup in Week 4 against the Washington Redskins, but don't expect his MVP-caliber stats to last forever. More likely, he'll be a borderline top-10/high-level matchups play after that … but that's still awfully good for a player you scooped up as a free agent.

Incidentally -- and let's give him an honorable mention -- DeSean Jackson now has managed 100-plus yards and a touchdown in each of Vick's starts.

Week 3 observations

• Here's the New York Giants' rushing-attempt breakdown one week after Brandon Jacobs' helmet-throwing incident: Ahmad Bradshaw 15, Jacobs 4. Bradshaw was also targeted five times in the passing game to Jacobs' one, and caught all five, giving Bradshaw a 118-yard, one-touchdown day in total. In addition, Jacobs incurred a personal foul for fighting on his first carry, which won't put him any further in the Giants' good graces. Bradshaw is now averaging 4.9 yards per carry to Jacobs' 3.5, and he has looked the far more explosive runner of the two. It's safe to call Bradshaw a weekly No. 2 option, and the threat of Jacobs possibly vulturing goal-line touches might be lessening.

LeGarrette Blount
LeGarrette Blount is forcing his way into the Bucs' backfield picture.

• A name to track in the coming weeks, and add in deeper leagues if you have the bench room: LeGarrette Blount, who might soon begin cutting into Cadillac Williams' workload. While Williams might be forgiven by many for a miserable six-carry, 13-yard performance because it came against the rock-solid Pittsburgh Steelers defense, consider that Blount had six carries for 27 yards and a touchdown, only the score a product of garbage time. After Williams began the game with three carries that totaled 2 yards, Blount came on late in the first quarter and tore off 12-, 4- and 8-yard gains on three of his first four carries. Blount then received two goal-line attempts during garbage time, converting on his second.

Charlie Batch won't have games like that every week, and certainly not against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, but his Week 3 effort does ease the concerns of owners of Steelers wide receivers. Though Batch's accuracy and decision-making can be questioned at times, he displayed a very nice deep ball in hooking up with Mike Wallace for two scores and even converted a 9-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward. I said before the week that Ward was a worthwhile fantasy play every week regardless of his quarterback and matchup, and I stick by that; it's Wallace whose fantasy appeal gets an uptick. I'm not advising you to expect big things from Wallace in Week 4 against the Ravens, mind you, but I am saying that he still has the big-play skills that make him a huge breakout candidate once Ben Roethlisberger is eligible to return from suspension after the Week 5 bye.

• One week's pleasant results weren't enough to make me pounce on New England Patriots rookie Aaron Hernandez; two weeks' pleasant results sure will. He's available in 81.7 percent of ESPN leagues but should rank among the week's hottest pickups, as a clear member of the Patriots' rotation filling Kevin Faulk's shoes. Hernandez was already getting extra snaps in three- and four-receiver sets, and any extra work can only be considered a plus for his value.

C.J. Spiller's 15-point Week 3 offers some hope that he can revive a season that appeared lost after the first two games, but let's not forget that six of those came from a kickoff return for a touchdown (he also had 189 yards on kickoffs). The Bills should continue to utilize him in that role, and that helps keep him flex-worthy, but he's going to need to recapture some of his carries from Marshawn Lynch before being a trustworthy weekly play. Think high-risk, moderate-reward.

• What a game by Peyton Hillis, who was granted the start by the Browns in Jerome Harrison's absence. He ran 22 times for 144 yards and a touchdown, and added seven catches on eight targets for 36 yards, and don't overlook that those numbers came against the Ravens, who practically never allow opponents to crack the century mark in terms of rushing yardage. Hillis is looking every bit capable of being a workhorse for this team, and at the bare minimum he should continue to get all goal-line carries, as well as passing-down work. It's time to call him a weekly flex play, with matchups potentially pushing him into No. 2 territory.

• Since I've apparently been stamped the president of the Jamaal Charles Fan Club, it only makes sense I provide your weekly update: He managed 154 total yards on 15 touches (10.3 yards per touch, and he had 8.1 yards per carry), still better than Thomas Jones' 96 on 20 (4.8 yards per touch, and he had 5.0 yards per carry). Still, expect Jones to be the starter and at least as involved as this when the Kansas City Chiefs come out of their Week 4 bye, as he's the one who converted a fourth-quarter goal-line attempt, not to mention his team's 3-0 hot start probably has coach Todd Haley thinking, "Why change things?"

Lance Moore appears the prime benefactor of Reggie Bush's injury; he broke off a 72-yard punt return in Bush's place early in the game and totaled six catches on seven targets for 149 yards and two touchdowns in the receiving game, thriving over the middle, which is where Bush made a name for himself. Moore won't do that every week, but he's looking like a prime pickup, a matchups play and certainly more involved at this point than the slumping Robert Meachem.

Michael Turner's groin injury from a week ago presented him no issues in Week 3, as Turner handled 30 carries, second most of any back Sunday, for 114 yards. At the same time, that's a pretty hefty workload for a back who has his health history, especially one who already has a season of 370-plus carries under his belt. Jason Snelling ran 14 times for 62 yards as the Falcons dominated the time of possession, and if the team is smart in the coming weeks, it might aim to limit Turner to 15-20 touches, with Snelling handling 10-15 to keep the starter fresh.

• I'm declaring Sam Bradford definitely roster-worthy in all fantasy leagues, even redraft formats, as it's clear through three games that he has the accuracy and arm strength to roll up a respectable amount of yards and potential scores on a weekly basis. He'll be mistake-prone -- he has an interception in each game -- but he does have upcoming matchups against the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions. It's possible he'll look like a top-10 option in those games.

Darren McFadden
Darren McFadden is finally looking like the back we expected him to be a few years ago.

• Consider the Oakland Raiders' backfield officially Darren McFadden's. He managed his second consecutive 100-yard rushing effort (105 to be exact) and added a touchdown on 25 carries, while fresh-off-a-thumb-injury Michael Bush received just three carries. McFadden has shown burst like never before in his NFL career, and playing in the AFC West, he has a schedule that should keep him a productive No. 2/flex option so long as that workload split holds up.

• What a day for fantasy wide receivers out in Denver, but it's Austin Collie's 12 catches on 16 targets for 171 yards and two scores that most catch my eye. Yes, it was partly a product of the Denver Broncos missing cornerback Andre' Goodman, which stacked the matchup for Collie, as did Pierre Garcon's absence. But Collie has clearly settled in nicely as a slot receiver for Peyton Manning. The Colts look like an offense that must engage in shootouts more often than not, and their defense probably won't afford them the luxury of clinching early and resting their stars. Don't be surprised if Collie has stepped up as the clear No. 3 in Manning's pecking order, and perhaps his top target on days where Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are attracting opponents' top defenders, as was the case Sunday.

Injury report

For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.

Ray Rice (knee): His was the surprise injury of Week 3, as Ravens coach John Harbaugh revealed during his postgame news conference that Rice injured his knee during the fourth quarter of the game. "We don't know [the extent] for sure," Harbaugh told The Baltimore Sun, though he added that Rice doesn't have ligament damage. "Right now, everything is standard," said Rice. "I'll take some tests Monday, but everything looks positive right now." Regardless of Rice's optimism, the smart move for now is to snatch up Willis McGahee, who would presumably be the team's starter if Rice misses any time. Le'Ron McClain would then move into the backup role.

Andre Johnson (ankle): Johnson left briefly in the third quarter after aggravating his right ankle but returned for a bit thereafter, finishing the game with four catches on seven targets for 64 yards. "He nicked [the ankle] again," Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak told the team's official website. "I don't think it's any worse than it was." Keep tabs on Johnson's practice reports, but the aggravation didn't look good; he appeared in considerable pain and had to be helped off the field. If he suffers a setback and is limited or sidelined in Week 4, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones would probably each see an increase in targets.

Jahvid Best (toe): He missed most of the second half, though in a closer game, it's possible the Lions might have let him return. Best was visible on the sidelines during the second half, which should help ease his owners' concerns about something worse, like a dreaded turf toe injury. He finished with 39 total yards on nine touches, a letdown from his monstrous Week 2. But if Best's injury does cost him Week 4, Maurice Morris, who had 41 total yards on 11 touches, including five catches for 36 yards, could start, with Kevin Smith perhaps serving as the backup if the Lions deem him sufficiently recovered from knee surgery.

Steve Jackson
What's more surprising, that the Rams won Sunday or that they did so without their workhorse back, Steven Jackson, for much of the game?

Steven Jackson (groin): He left in the second quarter with a groin injury, spelled by Kenneth Darby and Keith Toston in the St. Louis Rams' victory. Darby was the more productive of the two, managing 49 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Toston ran 11 times for 22 yards. Jackson's status wasn't immediately known after the game, but if he's expected to miss more time, Darby would probably earn a start. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also reports the Rams might have interest in Larry Johnson, though Johnson probably would be more suited to a backup role.

Fred Taylor (toe): He left in the third quarter with a toe injury, which is the same issue that bothered him during his limited practice week. Taylor finished with six carries for 16 yards, numbers that paled in comparison to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' 16 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown. Green-Ellis, in fact, got 14 of his carries for 71 yards and the score, as well as his lone reception (a 6-yarder), after Taylor's departure. If Taylor's injury costs him further time, Green-Ellis will become a popular pickup. Not that his fantasy appeal most weeks will be greater than that of a flex-play consideration, but still, he's probably the most suitable option the Patriots have to handle double-digit carries, what with Sammy Morris being injury-prone and off to a poor start, and Danny Woodhead splitting Kevin Faulk's old role with Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman.

Visanthe Shiancoe (lower leg): He was limited Sunday, managing just one catch for 7 yards, and admitted he could use the bye week's rest after the contest. Shiancoe's injury isn't believed to be serious, though keep tabs on him coming out of Week 4, as he's one of Brett Favre's most trusted weapons.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.