Three weeks into the season, injuries have already taken their toll on defenses around the league. Obviously, replacing an all-pro defender with a street free agent dramatically changes a team's makeup and performance; anticipating and understanding those changes create opportunities for you to exploit.
Let's break down some of the defensive injuries we've seen and how they're affecting defenses:
Al Harris, CB, Packers: Harris' desire to have his spleen removed in order to return to the lineup is misguided and awe-inspiring all at once. He is likely to miss the rest of the season regardless. His departure will affect Green Bay's performance against No. 1 wideouts; Harris spent the bulk of his time matched up against the opposition's top guy last season, and Green Bay was third in the league against those receivers in 2007. Expect that performance to fall back to the pack, creating opportunities for Antonio Bryant (Week 4, assuming Joey Galloway misses out because of injury) and Roddy White (Week 5) that weren't there previously.
Shawne Merriman, LB, Chargers: Last year, the Chargers averaged 2.6 sacks per game and gave up 213.3 passing yards a contest; this year, with Merriman a shell of himself in Week 1 and gone afterwards, the team has picked up five sacks in their first three games and is allowing 284.7 passing yards per tilt. It's likely that the team will improve a little on those figures, but the Chargers are nowhere near the same pass defense they were last year, and the lack of a fearsome pass-rusher on Merriman's side cascades across the entire defense's ability to stop aerial attacks. That gives JaMarcus Russell a boost this week, Chad Pennington next, and Matt Cassel in Week 6, turning them from absolute must-avoids to potential bye-week bargains.
Jason Taylor, DE, Redskins: Taylor's bizarre shin injury will keep him out this week against Dallas, where he would have been a potential terror for left tackle Flozell Adams. Now, Tony Romo should have all the time he needs in the pocket, turning the Washington defense into a poor play.
Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans: Haynesworth has struggled with the effects of a concussion he suffered in Week 1; he's played each week, but he's missed snaps and it helped contribute to a shockingly effective game from Texans running back Steve Slaton last week. Haynesworth should be 100 percent by now, so while you won't bench him, expect Adrian Peterson's fantasy numbers to take a hit this week.
Now, on to the Week 4 matchup talk
Best and worst matchups for Week 4
Trent Edwards (QB, Bills, Plus-11 Percent): Edwards has taken a huge step forward this year, completing 67 percent of his passes after running at a 56.1 percent clip last season. This week, he gets to play the Rams, who have allowed more than 272 yards per game so far in 2008. Losing Roscoe Parrish might be a minor hindrance, but Edwards should be good for 220 and a couple of scores. If you need a quarterback for the bye week and Edwards is available, he should be your first choice off the wire.
Carson Palmer (QB, Bengals, Plus-9 Percent): That's assuming that distraught fantasy owners didn't cut Palmer in a show of petulance more akin to the Rams and their treatment of Marc Bulger. Palmer showed signs of life last week despite being constantly under pressure, and against Cleveland this week, he finally gets a fantasy matchup that should work in his favor. He had two very different performances last year against the Browns; in Week 2 he threw for 401 yards and six touchdowns, but in Week 16 he put up a miserable 115 yards and one score. Splitting the difference would be 258 yards and three scores, which wouldn't be totally off as far as expectations go for Palmer on Sunday.
J.T. O'Sullivan (QB, 49ers, Plus-8 Percent): So what if the J in J.T. apparently stands for journeyman? O'Sullivan is completing two-thirds of his passes and averaging more than 9 yards per attempt; those are Tom Brady 2007 figures! O'Sullivan won't maintain that over the entire season, but Week 4 has him in New Orleans against a mediocre pass rush (four sacks in three games) and a porous secondary in a game that'll likely be a shootout.
Kyle Orton (QB, Bears, Minus-8 Percent): Orton had a roller-coaster game on Sunday, mixing in the absurd (screen pass delivered directly to Gaines Adams) with the sublime (a perfect lob to Brandon Lloyd for a touchdown). He set a career high for passing yards, but it was 268 yards; it's not as if he had some kind of stupendous day. If you've picked him up based upon that performance, sit him back down; the Eagles' pass rush should leave him in pieces.
Trent Green (QB, Rams, Minus-7 Percent): We're not sure if anyone has actually picked up Trent Green, but there's really no reason to unless your league rewards quarterbacks for being sacked out of some kind of misguided pity. The speedy Buffalo front four should lay waste to the elderly quarterback.
Gus Frerotte (QB, Vikings, Minus-6 Percent): Again, if your league has managed to quantify "game managing" and awards points for really nice handoffs and play fakes, go for it. After watching the film of Frerotte's performance last week, if your league also gives points for throwing checkdowns 2 yards away from the target and not bothering with velocity on your out patterns, well, Frerotte is your man. In all other leagues, Frerotte will struggle against the Titans' excellent pass defense.
Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew (RB, Jaguars, Plus-9 Percent): MJD wasn't even supposed to play last week, but both he and Taylor excelled in a second half that saw them absolutely run rampant over the Colts' defense. Their reward is a game against the Texans' defense, which has allowed 168.5 rushing yards per game this season. Both backs sat out a meaningless Week 17 tilt against the Texans last year, but in their Week 6 matchup, Jones-Drew had 12 carries for 125 yards and two scores, while Taylor had six carries for 90 yards. They should see a more even split of more carries on Sunday.
Marshawn Lynch (RB, Bills, Plus-8 Percent): Have you seen the way Lynch runs the ball? For all the hype about Marion Barber being a bruising back, Lynch is right with him. The biggest concern about him this week is whether Buffalo decides to toss the ball around or just hand it to the former Cal star and let him do all the work. If it's the former, Lynch still gets to run out the clock and could do something like 20-100-2; the latter could be more like 28-170-1. Either way, Lynch is primed for a huge day.
Jamal Lewis (RB, Browns, Plus-8 Percent): In a game that's likely to be a shootout, Lewis faces a Bengals defense that allowed him 308 rushing yards in two games last year. He hasn't had the chance to run the ball much with the Browns trailing so frequently, but expect a game plan built around getting Lewis the ball this week behind the elite left side of the Browns' line.
Chris Perry (RB, Bengals, Plus-7 Percent): On the other side of the coin, the Bengals' starting running backs (Rudi Johnson in Week 2, Kenny Watson in Week 16) averaged 124 yards rushing in their starts against the Browns last year. The Browns have improved their line with Shaun Rogers, but he's had little effect through three weeks; until we see improvement, start your backs against them. That includes Perry.
Rashard Mendenhall (RB, Steelers, Minus-14 Percent): Mendenhall should be an excellent back in the league one day; certainly, he'll be an improvement on the "boom and bust, bust, bust" style of Willie Parker. That will just have to start next week, since Mendenhall faces the Ravens defense this week.
LenDale White (RB, Titans, Minus-13 Percent): Even though they play the same position for the same team, the ways in which LenDale White and Chris Johnson gain fantasy points dramatically affect their outlook for each week. Johnson is a speedy back with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, which means he's only a relatively poor start this week. White is a bruiser who gains yardage in between the tackles, something that doesn't happen against the Vikings. That's why he's a must-avoid in Week 4.
Brian Westbrook (RB, Eagles, Minus-12 Percent): The fact that Westbrook is hurt only bumps this up a percentage point or two; even if he was totally healthy, he's a bad start this week. The Bears are an excellent run defense which also excels against pass-catching backs; last year, Westbrook caught six passes for 40 yards against them, while LaDainian Tomlinson caught seven passes for 51 yards. The team hasn't allowed a 100-yard receiving day for a back since 2004 (Onterrio Smith) and gave up only one receiving touchdown in each of the past two years. If you want to pin your hopes on Westbrook bucking all that, go for it; astute fantasy owners see the likelihood of Westbrook earning 9-11 points this week and are leaving him on their bench.
Matt Forte (RB, Bears, Minus-10 Percent): Imagine what he could do in a real offense! Alas, Forte plays this week against an Eagles defense which is ranked No. 1 in the league in rush defense DVOA so far this year; it's held Steven Jackson to 40 yards, Marion Barber to 63 yards and Willie Parker to 20 yards. The next step in that trend is not "104 yards and a touchdown," is it?
Lee Evans (WR, Bills, Plus-12 Percent): In Week 2, we gave Plaxico Burress the nod for best matchup of the week when he faced the Rams; this week, it's Evans, who goes against the Rams after they cut one of their starting corners, Fakhir Brown, and replaced him with Jason Craft, a guy who wasn't good enough for the Saints' secondary. Seriously, this could be a historic day.
Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Cardinals, Plus-9 Percent): OK, so you'll be starting Larry Fitzgerald anyway. You can feel a little better about it knowing that he faces the Jets, whose investment in Darrelle Revis has yet to pay off. If you have the enviable option of choosing between Fitzgerald and someone else of his stature, get Fitzy in there.
Braylon Edwards (WR, Browns, Plus-8 Percent): In the same vein, Edwards is a usual must-start; if you were wavering on playing him after a slow start, though, this is the wrong week to bench him. In his two games against Cincinnati last year, he had 16 catches, 198 yards and four touchdowns. If he can't produce this week, there's no hope.
Bernard Berrian (WR, Vikings, Minus-11 Percent): Berrian has been unimpressive this year, and Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan feasts on this type of receiver; undersized speedy guys who run mediocre routes don't play well against Tennessee. Keep Berrian out.
Vincent Jackson (WR, Chargers, Minus-7 Percent): It's been a weird situation at wideout for the Chargers. Chris Chambers has four touchdowns, but only six catches, while Jackson has twelve catches, but only one score. They've both had 17 passes thrown at them, which speaks to the diversity of their skill sets. Jackson is most likely the No. 1 receiver at the moment, which subjects him to Nnamdi Asomugha and his erasure from the stat sheet. The only reason he's not given a lower rating is the possibility that Chambers might be the one who gets taken out of the game by the NFL's best corner instead.
Brandon Lloyd (WR, Bears, Minus-7 Percent): If you just happened to catch the highlights of last week, you might have seen Lloyd dominating Ronde Barber and thought to yourself that Lloyd might be a useful receiver. To this, we offer up the rest of Lloyd's career as a counterpoint. We suspect Lloyd will have more trouble with Asante Samuel this week.
Tony Gonzalez (TE, Chiefs, Plus-11 Percent): We recommended Jeremy Shockey last week against the Broncos, and he delivered with an eight-catch, 75-yard day that will be the last action he'll see for six weeks. We hope that we don't jinx Gonzalez by suggesting that he's also a good start against the Broncos, who can't guard tight ends.
Heath Miller (TE, Steelers, Minus-7 Percent): Miller's stuck in a bad spot here; not only will he have to go up against a group of talented pass defenders in Bart Scott, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs, but the threat of Baltimore's pass rush (and the memories of last week's debacle) means that Miller will have to stay in and block most of the time. He's not a good play this week.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.