Football Outsiders: Defensive injuries can change matchups

Jovan Haye. Do you know who he is? If so, did you know before Monday night? And if you learned it on or shortly after Monday night, can you stop sending him hate mail? It's really not his fault.

Atari Bigby. Yeah, the dreaded-out guy in the Packers' secondary. No, not the one who nearly lost his spleen this year -- that's Al Harris. How much relevance did you expect him to have to your fantasy season? Not a lot? Turns out that he cost a fair amount of teams their playoff lives.

For those of you blissfully unaware of what we're talking about, both these players missed their Week 14 games because of injury. Haye, a defensive tackle on the Buccaneers, wasn't around to plug gaps on the interior that Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams ran through for an astonishing 301 yards on Monday night. Meanwhile, Bigby missed the Packers' game against the Texans, forcing Charles Woodson to play safety instead of his standard cornerback position. That pushed Tramon Williams into the lineup, and while his athleticism led to a very nice interception, his cover skills still lack refinement. That presented Kevin Walter with a huge day on a platter against (normally) one of the league's best pass defenses.

There are other injuries around the league's defenses that could affect what we "know" about a matchup. Dusty Dvoracek is out in Chicago, thinning an already-depleted line. Brett Keisel isn't around to serve as one of the unsung heroes of Pittsburgh's defense, which pushed Tashard Choice on his way to a surprisingly nice day. The Patriots' defense is riddled with injuries. The Cowboys will miss Mike Jenkins and Adam Jones, secretly their best cornerback this season. Even bigger names like Rashean Mathis and Nick Barnett have seen their season-ending injuries kept relatively quiet. In some cases, we have a good idea of what impact injuries have on matchups; with other ones, we won't know until the player's replacement actually gets on the field.

At a time when you're looking for any advantage possible over the opposition, the attention you pay to injuries on the other side of the ball could help your team get the upper hand.

Best and worst matchups for Week 15


Peyton Manning (Colts, plus-17 percent): The Colts' wonderful second-half schedule continues with a game against the woeful Lions. It's not as if Manning has particular trouble reading defenses, but Detroit's static, grotesque implementation of the Tampa 2 should be old hat for Manning; he gets to see the real thing in practice every week. The biggest concern here, as usual, is that the Colts get ahead so quickly that they just run the ball over and over again.

Philip Rivers (Chargers, plus-15 percent): While the Chiefs' pass defense has gotten better in recent weeks, with Patrick Surtain likely still out, they don't have enough in the way of downfield coverage for Rivers to fret too much. While there's a slight chance of rain on Sunday, it'll be near 50 degrees in Kansas City, so not even the weather should stop Rivers.

Matt Hasselbeck/Seneca Wallace (Seahawks, plus-14 percent): Last week's performance by Wallace showed that the Seahawks can still throw the ball on a pass defense willing to abet such acts. The Rams' pass defense is about as bad as the Patriots; what to watch for here, of course, is whether Hasselbeck plays on Sunday. He wasn't practicing at the time I wrote this, which seems to point to Wallace getting the start. If you've got a quarterback in a really tough matchup (see below) or need a second quarterback, Wallace is actually a very good one-week start.

Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, minus-15 percent): Roethlisberger was nothing to write home about in an overtime victory over the Ravens in Week 4 (11 fantasy points). In 2006, when the Ravens' defense was equally as good as this incarnation, Roethlisberger averaged 6.5 fantasy points in his two starts versus Baltimore. Playing on the road, Roethlisberger's chances for a big game are too slim to be worth a start.

Ken Dorsey (Browns, minus-14 percent): We really feel for Dorsey; he started this season off against the Titans and, now, an Eagles team that made the best offense in the league look positively ordinary on Sunday. The one advantage Dorsey might have is that the Browns might actually have a better pass-blocking line than the Giants, something which reared its head, ironically, in the Browns' victory over those Giants. We also don't believe in the idea that the Eagles play to the level of their opponent, but if you do, you'll want to temper this negative projection some.

Joe Flacco (Ravens, minus-13 percent): Flacco has established himself over the last few weeks as a low-percentage passer who's capable of one or two deeper throws a game. The Steelers have allowed only two completions of 40 yards or more this season, one of which was the Tashard Choice catch last week. They've also allowed only one completion longer than 30 yards in the air; in other words, they're a bad fit for what Flacco does. In addition, Flacco struggles with reading defenses, and that's just begging Pittsburgh to abuse him. Flacco was sacked five times in their first encounter, fumbling twice. It would be no surprise if he fumbled again on Sunday.

Running Backs

Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars, plus-17 percent): Long-suffering MJD owners, your dream has come true. Fred Taylor's injured thumb almost assuredly will keep him out of action this weekend. While the team also lost fullback Greg Jones this week, the result is that Jones-Drew will get a full workload without anyone to vulture his carries, and he'll do so against a Packers team that was ripped to shreds by Steve Slaton last week. While Walter's success was a surprise, Slaton's was not -- the Packers have been absolutely dire against the run this year. MJD is a must-start.

Dominic Rhodes (Colts, plus-13 percent): Rhodes is owned in only 67.6 percent of ESPN leagues. How is that possible? Joseph Addai is hurt, people. Even if he plays on Sunday, he's going to be in a massive timeshare. They're playing the Lions. This might be a surprise, but the Colts are going to win. That means they're going to be running the ball a lot in the second half. Who do you think is going to get the bulk of those carries? Rhodes, who should be good for at least 85 yards and a touchdown. How many fantasy teams could use that? A lot more than 67.6 percent.

Chris Johnson (Titans, plus-12 percent): If we were Texans defensive coordinator Richard Smith, we'd scheme outside the box this week. We'd take Mario Williams and have him spy Chris Johnson. Johnson lines up in the slot? Get Williams out there and have him bump Johnson into next week. Johnson lining up as the halfback in the I-formation? Push Williams behind the tackles and prevent the Titans' line from getting a clean look at him. Smith won't do that, though, and his team certainly isn't particularly effective against running backs in the passing game. In Week 3, Johnson had only 5 yards receiving against Houston; he'll have way more this week.

LaDainian Tomlinson (Chargers, plus-11 percent): We heard the groans of fantasy owners worldwide when Darren Sproles came in for a gassed LT in the fourth quarter last week and scored immediately on a screen pass. In the past, that would've been Tomlinson's touchdown. This year, it just hasn't been. He can thank the line for a lot of that, but they should be able to push around Kansas City's front four in this game.

Willie Parker (Steelers, minus-22 percent) and Mewelde Moore (Steelers, minus-24 percent): Parker gets the slightest of bumps because we think he'll be in if the Steelers run the ball inside the 5. Of course, that's no guarantee he makes it to the end zone; the Ravens, as you might have heard by now, are unreal against the run. If you read that and think of the Giants, don't. The Giants have the best run-blocking line in football. The Steelers, to keep it simple and polite, do not. The upside here is impossibly small and unlikely.

Jamal Lewis (Browns, minus-19 percent): This past week, Lewis ran for 7 yards on seven carries. Josh Cribbs, a wide receiver, gained 24 yards on six carries running out of the Wildcat. That wasn't on one play, either; his longest run that day was 7 yards. Your starting running back should not be taking a backseat to your slot receiver when it comes to moving the chains on the ground. The Eagles aren't going to give Dorsey any breathing room, and it's hard to see Lewis doing much but block.

Willis McGahee (Ravens, minus-15 percent) and Le'Ron McClain (Ravens, minus-13 percent): Again, McClain gets a slightly rosier projection because he's likely to be the goal-line back if the Ravens get there. Even without Keisel, Pittsburgh's run defense can hold up at the point of attack and limit the Ravens' opportunities for big gains. None of the Ravens is as explosive as Tashard Choice, nor is the Ravens' lineup the same caliber as the Cowboys. Keep these guys out.

Tim Hightower (Cardinals, minus-13 percent): The Williams Wall hasn't been shattered or shuttered yet, meaning that Hightower will have to go through them to get any sort of serious yardage on Sunday. Of course, he won't, although the possibility always exists that he'll end up with four rushing touchdowns because the Cardinals give him the ball every time they're inside the 5. It's slimmer this week, though, than it is other weeks.

Wide Receivers

Reggie Wayne (Colts, plus-15 percent): We're a little concerned about Wayne's touchdown drought -- he's got one score in the previous eight weeks -- but we're also inclined to say it's a fluke as opposed to a particular issue with the Colts' offense. Either way, he's facing a Lions team that plays zone and still forgets to cover people. Expect big things.

Santana Moss (Redskins, plus-12 percent): The Bengals were bad enough earlier this season, when they had promising Chinedum Ndukwe in the lineup. He's missed the past three games with a foot injury, and he's not likely to be close to 100 percent this week. Moss should be able to take advantage of him and the Bengals' corners regardless.

Deion Branch (Seahawks, plus-11 percent): He's back! OK, so he's back in the "nice guy to get off the waiver wire" way, not the "first-round draft pick" way, but you're not Tim Ruskell; you don't need to justify that move to yourself. Branch was fantastic last week and he's still only owned in 13.7 percent of leagues. He also gets to play the Rams. If your league allows transactions in the playoffs, Branch is an absolutely huge Week 15 sleeper. Volatile, sure, but the risk is worth it for the upside he represents.

Michael Jenkins (Falcons, minus-14 percent): We've repeatedly talked about how well the Buccaneers do against No. 2 wide receivers, and even as Steve Smith was tearing them apart this past week, Muhsin Muhammad did nothing. On Sunday, Jenkins is the No. 2 wide receiver they face. He'll do little.

Eddie Royal (Broncos, minus-10 percent): The exciting Broncos rookie gets Carolina on Sunday. While the Buccaneers have the best Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) in the league against No. 2 wideouts, Carolina actually allows them the fewest yards -- an average of only 24.1 receiving yards per game. Royal will do better than that, but expecting a big day out of him is hoping against hope.

Anquan Boldin (Cardinals, minus-9 percent): Minnesota has the second-best DVOA against No. 2 wideouts in the league, holding them to only 32.3 yards per game. Again, Boldin will be better than that, but probably in the range of 55-60 yards without a TD.

Tight Ends

Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs, plus-10 percent): We hyped Gonzalez successfully this past week, and we expect him to have his second big game of the season against the Chargers, who can't cover tight ends. One thing that could affect that: In the Pistol attack that the Chiefs use as their primary offensive set now, Gonzalez is always on the outside as a wide receiver. In that sense, he's more of a second wide receiver than a tight end. That could affect how the Chargers cover him. If he was just going to play tight end, he'd be rated even higher.

Anthony Fasano (Dolphins, minus-13 percent): We warned you last week to avoid Dustin Keller, who had to pay against a 49ers defense that's great against tight ends. This week, we'll tell you the same thing about Fasano. The 49ers allow only 20.8 yards per game to tight ends. Don't start your tight end against them.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.