Examining the divisional round's 24 WR/CB showdowns
Same as last week, my weekly wide receiver/cornerback matchup breakdown will be a bit more in depth than it was during the regular season. During the playoffs, I’ll be taking a close look at each team’s top wide receivers and projected opposition at the cornerback position.
Before you set your DFS lineup this week, be sure to also study our Wide Receiver vs. Cornerback matchup tool.
More information on weekly WR vs. CB matchups can be found in the regular season Shadow Report.
Green Bay Packers (@ ARZ)
Primary matchups: (assumes Davante Adams is out) Randall Cobb vs. Patrick Peterson, James Jones vs. Justin Bethel, Jared Abbrederis vs. Jerraud Powers
There are only a few cornerbacks who shadow the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver a majority of the time, but Peterson fits the bill. During what was a career-best regular season, Peterson shadowed Brandin Cooks, Torrey Smith (twice), Calvin Johnson, Kenny Britt, Antonio Brown, Steve Smith, Travis Benjamin, A.J. Green, Tavon Austin and Stefon Diggs. You’ll notice that Peterson did not shadow a Packers receiver during the Week 16 meeting between the teams. He played both sides of the field in that game and followed Cobb to the slot on only six of his routes. Peterson did not shadow during any of Arizona’s final three regular season games, which is relevant because the primary wide receiver for those three opponents was the slot receiver. That list included Jordan Matthews, Cobb, and Doug Baldwin. In aforementioned shadow situations, Peterson often stayed put on the perimeter when the receiver he was shadowing moved inside. That, of course, was when Tyrann Mathieu was active and dominating as the team’s slot corner.
Although this background information is notable, it may not be overly important if Davante Adams (knee) sits out this week. Jarred Abbrederis has lined up in the slot on 87 percent of his 77 pass routes this season. When he and normal slot man Cobb are on the field together in three-wide receiver sets, Cobb is split out wide and Abbrederis works the slot. When Adams is active, he lines up out wide opposite Jones and Cobb is the slot man. In the latter scenario, Cobb would dodge Peterson’s coverage a majority of the time. In the former, Cobb would be a strong candidate to be shadowed by Peterson.
In a nutshell, if Adams plays, Cobb will be covered primarily by struggling Cardinals slot corner Powers. If Adams is out, Cobb will see plenty of, if not shadow coverage from, Peterson.
Bethel is Arizona’s other perimeter corner. He’s been competent in coverage this season and covered Jones on 26 of his 46 pass routes in Week 16. Powers (26) and Peterson (12) combined to cover Cobb on 38 of his 41 routes. Peterson (18) and Bethel (13) covered on 31 of Adam’s 36 routes. Aaron Rodgers didn’t hide the fact that he was targeting Bethel in that game, targeting him 14 times. Bethel performed well, allowing seven receptions for 75 yards and adding an interception. Of Jones’ team-high 11 targets, eight were against Bethel. Cobb was targeted only three times (he caught all three) despite mostly working against Powers.
Because he figures to carry the ball a few times and line up all over the field. Cobb is the best play here. Of course, that’s only by a slight margin over Jones. Abbrederis is a deep sleeper if Adams is out.
Arizona Cardinals (vs. GB)
Primary matchups: Michael Floyd vs. Sam Shields or Quentin Rollins, Larry Fitzgerald vs. Casey Hayward, John Brown vs. Damarious Randall
Shields is dealing with a concussion and has now missed four consecutive games. It’s unknown if he will return this week, but it shouldn’t impact any shadow scenarios. The Packers have shadowed occasionally this season, but it’s generally been when one of Shields or Randall have missed time. When these two teams faced off in Week 16, Green Bay did not shadow. Shields missed that game and Quinten Rollins replaced him at right corner. Arizona moves its wide receivers around the formation quite a bit, so Floyd, Brown, and Fitzgerald each saw plenty of Randall, Hayward, and Rollins in that game. Fitzgerald will usually see Hayward more than the others because he’s the primary slot receiver. Brown and Floyd line up on the perimeter roughly two third of the time.
In the Week 16 meeting, Arizona – unlike Green Bay – had little trouble moving the ball through the air. Floyd caught 6 of 8 targets for 111 yards. That included 3 of 3 for 40 yards against Randall. Fitzgerald posted a modest 7-4-29 line, but did score a touchdown against linebacker Joe Thomas Jr. (the advantage to running routes from the slot). Brown was limited to 25 yards on four targets. We should expect similar matchups this weekend, but Arizona figures to attempt more than 27 passes in what is likely to be a more competitive game. Arizona leaned heavily on the run in a 38-8 blowout a few weeks back.
Green Bay has a strong group of corners, but Arizona’s strong offense keeps all three of its wide receivers fantasy relevant. Floyd is the best play here. Fitzgerald and Brown, respectively, are just behind. If you’re looking to be unique in a DFS tournament, rookie speedster J.J. Nelson is always a sneaky bet for a long touchdown.
Seattle Seahawks (@ CAR)
Primary matchups: Doug Baldwin vs. Cortland Finnegan, Tyler Lockett vs. Josh Norman, Jermaine Kearse vs. Robert McClain
If you’re thinking about using Baldwin, but you’re worried about potential Norman coverage this week, don’t be. Nothing about Norman’s 2014 or 2015 usage suggests he will shadow Baldwin. During the regular season, Norman was on the field for 679 pass plays. He lined up in the slot on two percent of those plays. Norman does shadow, at times, but it’s always against top perimeter corners and he almost never followed those guys when they lined up inside. Further evidence that suggests Norman won’t shadow Baldwin is the Week 6 meeting between the teams. Norman lined up at both right and left corner throughout that game (not uncommon for him), but did not shadow one specific player. He was on Kearse 16 times, but saw plenty of Lockett (seven routes), Chris Matthews (five), Jimmy Graham (five), Baldwin (four), and Ricardo Lockette (two). Norman lined up in the slot once and it was against Graham.
Graham toasted Carolina in that game, but he’s obviously not available this weekend. Baldwin was limited to three receptions for 23 yards on four catches, but his usage didn’t pick up until well after that game. Lockette scored Seattle’s only receiving touchdown and joined Graham as the only Seattle receivers to eclipse 16 receiving yards.
The big potential curveball in this game could come as a result of Carolina’s beat up cornerback unit behind Norman. Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman are both out for the season. Finnegan is the new slot corner and Robert McClain replaced Tillman in the lineup in Week 17. Both players figure to be heavily exploited by Wilson. If there was ever a time for Carolina to put Norman full time on a slot receiver, this would be it. Baldwin lines up inside on 83 percent of his routes.
That said, I don’t expect Norman to shadow. He will work exclusively on the perimeter, which means he’ll see plenty of both Lockett and Kearse. Neither needs to be downgraded as a result since both will see plenty of McClain, as well. Baldwin is safe to utilize against Finnegan.
Carolina Panthers (vs. SEA)
Primary matchups: Ted Ginn vs. Jeremy Lane, Jerricho Cotchery vs. Deshawn Shead, Corey Brown vs. Richard Sherman
Sherman has shadowed a few times this season, but it’s generally been when a team has one perimeter receiver that really stands out. He shadowed against A.J. Green, Torrey Smith (twice), Dez Bryant, and Antonio Brown during the regular season. He also followed Michael Floyd at times in Week 17. Sherman did not shadow last week against Minnesota or, most importantly, during the Week 6 meeting with Carolina.
In that Week 6 game, Sherman lined up at left corner on 100 percent of the 36 pass plays he was on the field for. He covered Brown on 20 of his 35 pass routes and limited him to one catch for 11 yards (Brown added one additional catch for 11 yards against Cary Williams). Williams primarily covered Ginn in that game and limited him to one catch for 18 yards on two targets. Williams has since been cut and replaced by Lane, who is a big upgrade opposite Sherman. Since Lane’s emergence, Shead has moved inside and will thus see plenty of Cotchery in this one. I’ve yet to mention Devin Funchess since he’s been working as the team’s fourth wide receiver when the top three are active. Funchess primarily works out wide, so he’ll see Sherman and Lane when on the field. In Week 6, Greg Olsen was responsible for 131 of Carolina’s 269 receiving yards and scored the team’s only receiving touchdown. Considering Seattle’s impressive secondary, it’s fair to expect a similar result this week.
Ginn is the top fantasy option at wide receiver, but he obviously needs to be downgraded and faded in DFS cash games. Brown, Cotchery, and Funchess are well off the fantasy radar. Funchess is boom/bust, which is intriguing in DFS tournaments, but he’s a big risk considering his low snap numbers.
Denver Broncos (vs. PIT)
Primary matchups: Demaryius Thomas vs. William Gay, Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antwon Blake, Jordan Norwood vs. Brandon Boykin
The Steelers are one of only a handful of teams that did not shadow during the regular season. Gay manned the slot throughout much of the regular season, but has since settled in as the team’s top perimeter corner. He usually lines up at right corner (where Thomas lines up on 44 percent of his routes). Gay is competent in coverage, but he won’t be much a roadblock for Thomas and Sanders. Boykin is now the team’s nickel/slot corner and will spend most of Sunday covering rarely-targeted Norwood. Where it gets tricky is Pittsburgh’s No. 2 perimeter corner. Blake and Ross Cockrell had been splitting the gig over the past month, but Blake took full control against Cincinnati. He was on the field for 42 pass plays, compared to only eight for Cockrell. This is very odd because Blake has been brutal in coverage this season, whereas Cockrell has been pretty good. Sanders should be upgraded, but note that he moves around the formation a ton. Thomas will see plenty of Blake, as well.
When these teams met in Week 15, Gay (14 routes), Blake (10), Cockrell (10), and Boykin (7) each saw their fair share of Thomas when Denver was passing. Thomas had little trouble in the game, hauling in 5 of 11 targets for 61 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders ran most of his 45 routes against Gay (20), but also saw Blake (10) and Cockrell (six) several times. He had a huge game, posting 10 receptions, 181 yards, and one touchdown on 15 targets. It’s worth noting that Brock Osweiler – not Peyton Manning – was under center in that game. Thomas is your best play this week, but Sanders is right behind him.
Pittsburgh Steelers (@ DEN)
Primary matchups: Antonio Brown vs. Chris Harris Jr., Martavis Bryant vs. Aqib Talib, Markus Wheaton vs. Bradley Roby
Denver only shadowed three times during the regular season, but fortunately for us, one of those games was against Pittsburgh in Week 15. Harris shadowed on 56 of Browns’ 61 routes. Talib shadowed on 49 of Bryant’s 56 routes. Roby shadowed on 39 of Wheaton’s 45 routes. Although it may seem simple enough to project the same matchups this weekend, we have two potential roadblocks.
The first is Brown’s concussion. If he sits out, it’s likely that Denver will not shadow. Harris would stick to the slot in nickel situations, which means he’d primarily be on Wheaton (he’d need to be downgraded against one of the game’s best corners). When he stays at home, Talib is at left corner. That’s where Bryant is on just over half of his routes. Because Bryant is Pittsburgh’s biggest receiver and Talib Denver’s biggest corner, it’s also possible Talib shadows Bryant regardless of Brown’s status. So, in any scenario, it’s likely that Talib and Bryant will be matched up quite a bit. Bryant should be downgraded, but only slightly.
The second roadblock is what went down in Week 18. To put it frankly, Brown destroyed Harris. The game’s top wide receiver caught 16 of 17 targets for 189 yards and two touchdowns (13-12-137-2 against Harris). Similarly, Bryant had a ton of success against Talib. He caught 10 of 14 targets for 87 yards (12-9-86 against Talib). Wheaton, meanwhile, caught 5 of 10 targets for 48 yards and one score against Roby and added a 14 yard catch against Talib. It was a complete disaster for Denver and could lead to an overhaul in their defensive gameplan this time around.
If he goes, Brown is the best play here. Bryant and Wheaton are next in line. Darrius Heyward-Bey is only worth a look as a sneaky play in DFS tournaments if Brown is out.
New England Patriots (vs. KC)
Primary matchups: Julian Edelman vs. Marcus Peters, Brandon LaFell vs. Sean Smith, Danny Amendola vs. Ron Parker
The Chiefs have not shadowed at all this season, so we can expect Peters and Smith to stick to their spots on the perimeter against New England. Parker is the team’s slot corner. The trio has been solid in coverage this season, with Peters playing exceptionally during the second half of the regular season.
The Patriots move their wide receivers around so often that the above “primary matchups” shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Edelman runs 52 percent of his routes from the slot, but is listed as a perimeter receiver because Amendola works inside 84 percent of the time. LaFell lines up wide to Tom Brady’s left on 50 percent of his routes, but works from the slot one quarter of the time. Needless to say, each Patriots receiver, not to mention Rob Gronkowski, who lines up at wide receiver on 78 percent of his pass routes, will see plenty of each corner.
Edelman is the man you want in your lineup. LaFell will have his hands full on the outside, but he’ll see more targets than Amendola.
Kansas City Chiefs (@ NE)
Primary matchups: Jeremy Maclin vs. Malcolm Butler, Albert Wilson vs. Logan Ryan, Chris Conley vs. Leonard Johnson
One of only a few playoff teams that shadows a significant percentage of the time, New England has kept Butler and Ryan quite busy this season. The duo has shadowed in every game since the team’s Week 4 bye. Unlike many top shadow corners, Ryan (29 percent) and Butler (22 percent) have also spent plenty of time shadowing in the slot. This is key, as the Chiefs have increased Maclin’s slot routes in order to get Conley on the field over Jason Avant. When New England has faced a team with a top-end target who works primarily from the slot, Butler has been asked to do that shadowing. That includes Eric Decker in Weeks 7 and 16, Jarvis Landry in Weeks 8 and 17, and Harry Douglas in Week 15.
This may all be meaningless if Maclin (ankle) sits out, but if Kansas City’s top wide receiver is active, he should expect shadow coverage from Butler. If Bill Belichick throws us a curveball and shadows him with Ryan, it won’t matter much, as both Butler and Ryan have been terrific in coverage this season. Maclin will have his hands full this week, especially with the bad ankle. Wilson, meanwhile, figures to draw shadow coverage from Ryan and should be avoided. Conley and Avant will be mixed and will see a lot of struggling nickel corner Johnson. Of course, the Chiefs have their third receiver on the field on 59 percent of pass plays, which is the league’s sixth-lowest rate.
If Maclin plays, he’s going to be a smart fade, but is still the best of an underwhelming group in Kansas City. Wilson won’t be a smart contrarian play against Ryan (and possibly Butler if Maclin is out). If Maclin goes, Conley won’t play enough to warrant your attention.
Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL