Football Outsiders: Playing the Week 3 matchups

One of the commenters in last week's thread made a good point regarding Ryan Grant's Week 1 performance against the fearsome Vikings run defense.

How was Grant a disappointment? He was questionable and had 93 yards rushing, however, didn't have a touchdown. Nearly a hundred yards is a disappointment? What's a good game?

It's easy to see both sides of this argument. On one hand, Grant ran for 93 yards -- only nine fantasy points, a below-average performance for the guy who averaged more than 18 fantasy points in a six-game stretch last year.

On the other hand, Grant gained those yards on only 12 carries, averaging nearly 8 yards an attempt. On his biggest run, a 57-yard gallop, he was a yard away from getting a touchdown and six fantasy points. The Packers removed him from the game after the play, and Aaron Rodgers sneaked in for a touchdown two plays later.

In reality, Grant's performance blew away the performance of someone like LenDale White, who carried 15 times in Week 1 for 40 yards and a touchdown. But in fantasy, it doesn't matter; White was the better back by virtue of a 1-yard dive in the fourth quarter.

The point isn't that fantasy football is unfair or that it has little to do with successful football, although both points are true. What's worth noting from Ryan Grant's day is that in standard scoring leagues you can't depend on a guy to get a touchdown to make his day worthwhile, nor you can depend on a big play to automatically result in a touchdown. Grant's day aside from the big run was pretty mediocre, with his carry line evocative of the struggle he faced. His carries, in order, gained 3, 2, 2, 6, 3, -2, 2, 19, 0, 4, -4, and 57 yards.

Compare that line to that of another running back from Week 1. Brian Westbrook rushed for 91 yards on 19 carries, but none of his runs was longer than 18 yards. His carry line: 3, 5, 5, 18, 2, -6, 1, 1, 9, 0, 9, 3, 5, 4, 9, 11, 6, 0, 6. He had only one negative run and gained 5 yards or more on 10 of his 19 carries; Grant gained more than 5 yards three times. Westbrook's touchdown came on a 6-yard run, while Grant came up short on three carries inside the 6-yard line. Against an easier defense, it's likely that Grant would've picked up a touchdown in one of those carries, much the way Westbrook did.

Had Grant picked up that last yard on his long touchdown run, the discussion would be moot. But he didn't. If you're depending on your back to score, chances are that score will be close to or inside the 5-yard line. And you'll want a back who goes against a defense that allows yardage in steady chunks, not one who shuts down backs for most of the game. That's borne out by statistics; running backs are 29 percent more likely to score a touchdown on a poor defense (defined by our rushing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric) than they are on a great one.

Best and worst matchups for Week 3


Joe Flacco (QB, Ravens, plus 11 percent): We've highlighted the rookie quarterback in his first two NFL starts, which seems strange considering his middling Week 1 performance that was supplemented by a fluke long touchdown run. The simple facts are that Flacco's average performance isn't projected to be very good, and he's faced weak defenses to start the season. Last year, Steve McNair and Kyle Boller averaged 293 passing yards in their starts against the Browns. Flacco isn't much worse.

Matt Cassel (QB, Patriots, plus 9 percent): One of the reasons that the Patriots shouldn't have much trouble winning the AFC East regardless of their quarterback is a very favorable schedule. That includes the Dolphins, whom Cassel faces this week. The Dolphins don't have the pass rush to bother Cassel or the cover corners to handle Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Cassel should be capable of a very nice day, even with the simplified game plan he's working with.

J.T. O'Sullivan (QB, 49ers, plus 8 percent): O'Sullivan got a lot of positive press last week after a gritty performance against Seattle. He showed an ability to scan the field despite having a pass rush in his face, something he shouldn't need to be concerned with this week against the Lions. In addition, it's Mike Martz versus his old team. You don't think he'll try to throw for 1,000 yards against them?

Chad Pennington (QB, Dolphins, minus 9 percent): The Dolphins don't have the pass-blocking to handle the Patriots' pass rush, and Pennington doesn't have the arm strength to keep their safeties honest. It shouldn't be much of a performance from Pennington.

Matt Schaub (QB, Texans, minus 9 percent): Last year, backup QB Sage Rosenfels handled both starts against the Titans for Houston. In the fourth quarter of the first game, playing against a prevent defense, Rosenfels threw for 255 yards and four touchdowns against only one interception. In the other seven quarters, Rosenfels threw for a total of 220 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Schaub is better than Rosenfels, but he should lean closer to the seven awful quarters than to the one great one.

Aaron Rodgers (QB, Packers, minus 7 percent): We hyped Rodgers to have a huge Week 2, and he delivered; unfortunately, he doesn't get to play the Lions every week. Against the Cowboys, he'll struggle some. Last year, in relief of the injured Brett Favre, he threw for 201 yards and one score in a game that was already out of hand. With the Cowboys actually bothering to rush, Rodgers is likely to throw a pick or two. Dallas is also the only team that could lose a Pro Bowler in its secondary and see its pass defense improve, so perennial whipping boy Roy Williams' being out of the lineup will only do the defense good.

Running backs

Frank Gore (RB, 49ers, plus 12 percent): We did just say that Mike Martz will want to throw the ball all over the field against the Lions, and that's probably true. That being said … the Lions have given up 441 rushing yards in two games. The effects of losing Shaun Rogers already are becoming apparent, and Gore seems absolutely primed for a huge game. If we had to pick numbers, he'll get 125 yards and two scores.

LaDainian Tomlinson (RB, Chargers, plus 10 percent): Generally, we avoid listing the fantasy studs as suggested starts. After all, you're not benching LT no matter what we say, and you shouldn't. This week, though, we really love his matchup, at home against the Jets. The matchup might even be enough to offset the worries you have about his toe.

Joseph Addai (RB, Colts, plus 9 percent): Stop sounding the alarms about the Colts and their issues running the ball. Take a look at Addai's stats versus another player's first two weeks.

Player B is LaDainian Tomlinson in 2007; the difference in their lines is one 7-yard touchdown run. Addai has faced two top-five run defenses in his first two games, Chicago and Minnesota; Tomlinson faced Chicago and New England in his first two last year. This week, Addai will face a Jacksonville defense that he ran against for a total of 152 yards in two games last season. That stat isn't great, but it's better than he's been running, and if he picks up a touchdown, he'll have a very solid day.

Michael Turner (RB, Falcons, plus 9 percent): Kansas City added Glenn Dorsey in the offseason, but they've been gashed for 416 rushing yards in two games. The tandem of Atlanta's Turner and Jerious Norwood should have a field day.

Jamal Lewis (RB, Browns, minus 17 percent): Lewis had the best day of any running back against the Ravens last year, rushing for 92 yards and a touchdown. When that's the best you can hope for, start another running back.

DeAngelo Williams (RB, Panthers, minus 15 percent) and Jonathan Stewart (RB, Panthers, minus 10 percent): While Stewart was showing off his potential last week breaking countless tackles, Williams was sitting on the bench. The two will split carries, but Stewart's the future star. It doesn't matter, either way, for this week -- if you wouldn't want to start a running back against the Vikings, imagine if that running back had to split his carries in two. We'd leave both out, but if you have to pick one, go with Stewart.

Steve Slaton (RB, Texans, minus 13 percent): Ron Dayne ran for 86 yards and a touchdown against the Titans during a game when Albert Haynesworth was returning from injury and not 100 percent. When Haynesworth was in the lineup, Ahman Green ran for 39 yards. Haynesworth will be in the lineup this week. Any questions?

Wide receivers

Brandon Marshall (WR, Broncos, plus 9 percent): OK, maybe he won't have 18 receptions for 166 yards this week. Against a Saints secondary that looked as ineffective in Week 2 as it looked improved in Week 1 (a performance that Jon Gruden has stuck squarely on the shoulders of Jeff Garcia), Marshall should be positively impossible to cover in Denver.

Plaxico Burress (WR, Giants, plus 9 percent): The Bengals' defense has looked slightly improved this year, but there's still road to be traveled before they become even an average defense. Burress is too tall for either one of the cornerbacks he'll face on Sunday, as both Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are 5-foot-11. No. 1 receivers who can get downfield gave the Bengals fits last year; Larry Fitzgerald, Braylon Edwards, Lee Evans and Randy Moss are the receivers most similar in style and ability to Burress in the league, and they averaged -- averaged, mind you -- nine catches for 126 yards with a score and a half.

Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, Dolphins, minus 6 percent): We understand that the Dolphins are rebuilding. That's fine. Does it seem like a good fit, though, when your top wide receiver is a speed demon who can't run routes and your quarterback is a West Coast offense junkie who can't throw deep? Ginn shouldn't be in anyone's lineup, and the matchup against the Patriots just makes it worse.

Roy Williams (WR, Lions, minus 6 percent): Williams should be held somewhat in check by Nate Clements; with Calvin Johnson opposite, Jon Kitna should have a pretty comfortable target to throw at whilst avoiding the 49ers' best cover corner.

Tight ends

Jeremy Shockey (TE, Saints, plus 15 percent): Shockey hasn't blown anyone away yet, but this is the first time this season he'll get a really favorable matchup. Denver, to repeat last week's discussion, was the worst team in the league against tight ends last year. That should mean more targets and, more importantly, more yards for Shockey.

Owen Daniels (TE, Texans, minus 14 percent): The supremely underrated Daniels has to go at the Titans' Keith Bulluck & Co. come Sunday; he could muster only a combined five catches for 62 yards in his two starts against them last year. Hold him out.

Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.