Stack Steelers and Bengals on FanDuel
Calling this weekend’s four-pack of games a “short slate” does not begin to do justice to how little fantasy juice there is to squeeze out of these matchups. Even the rare up-tempo offenses in action tend to go slower on the road. A pair of already slow-paced teams will do battle on the frozen tundra of Hoth Minnesota. Two high-pressure defenses will clash with poor (Chiefs) and injured (Texans) offensive lines, against quarterbacks who turn into pumpkins in the face of a stiff pass rush.
With so few glaringly strong options available, the chalk will be thick on the ones that exist. Diversification remains high on our list of tournament goals, but subtle pivots should prove more optimal than seeking absolute distinction. We will need to eat some chalk, and the key is finding the best spices to make it palatable. For instance, ignoring commonly-held guidelines — like not playing running back and receiver teammates — is an acceptable diversifier on this low-scoring slate.
Salaries are set at levels where we are not overly concerned with value, and it’s a strong bet that winning lineups will have a chunk of money left over. Don’t be afraid to stack games, particularly in Cincinnati and Washington, with players from each side that correlate with a likely (or next-most-likely) game script. And most of all, realize that this is not a bankroll-building week due to how limited our choices are – and have fun.
On to the Wild Card Weekend FanDuel tournament plays.
Pittsburgh Steelers, $8,400 (-$400 from Week 17)
Speaking of highly-owned players, Roethlisberger will be the most popular quarterback this week. We can still win with him and unique roster construction or lower-owned players elsewhere. The Steelers have the highest implied total and are facing a team that held them to 3.0 yards per carry a month ago when DeAngelo Williams was healthy. Although Pittsburgh ran their touchdowns in, Roethlisberger completed 79 percent of aimed throws and earned a +1.8 grade in a game they controlled throughout.
While the Steelers run half as much no-huddle on the road (14 percent of snaps) as at home (28.9 percent), snap it less often (63.2 per game versus 67.5), and score fewer points (23.5 versus 33.3), the Bengals are allowing 70.3 plays per game since their last meeting. Roethlisberger will throw a ton, and against a defense that does not blitz (18.4 percent; NFL-low). Cincinnati’s blitz rates against Pittsburgh this year were 10.4-percent and 9.5-percent. That’s key, as Roethlisberger has a -2.7 grade and 73.9 QBR against extra rushers, and a +34.8 grade and 101.5 QBR when teams don’t blitz.
Cincinnati Bengals, $6,400 (+$100)
We can still get exposure to one of the two games with healthy projected totals (45.5), and gain lineup diversity at the same time, by flipping to McCarron. The fact that he’s $2,000 cheaper than Roethlisberger is a nice bonus, and allows access to all three of the high-priced wideouts – and Tyler Eifert — without too much trouble. Of course, McCarron still needs to produce a tournament-worthy point total, even in a week where the winning scores will be lower than usual.
McCarron came close to hitting three-times his current salary in less than a full game the last time he faced the Steelers (18 FanDuel points). He came out firing, and completed three of his five attempts that traveled 20-plus yards downfield. That was also his lowest-graded passing performance (-1.3), and he’s earned a +4.9 mark since then (seventh of 36 qualifying passers). The underdog Bengals face a stiff run defense and will be throwing often in the closest thing to a highly-paced game this slate has to offer.
RB Eddie Lacy
Green Bay Packers, $6,000 (+$100)
Lacy got swallowed up by the Vikings last week, producing only 5.1 FanDuel points on 15 touches. He did, however, earn a +3.1 PFF grade. He is the fifth-highest-graded running back since Week 10 (+7.7), out of 63 qualifiers. During that span, he’s gaining 2.8 yards after contact per attempt (12th-best) and has broken 17 tackles (eighth-best), despite being slowed by injured ribs. His main issue is a backfield split with James Starks, who plays more often in passing situations and when the Packers get behind.
Green Bay is a one-point road favorite, and Washington’s run defense ranks sixth-worst (-38.2). They have allowed 5.5 yards per carry during the last month, and it will behoove the Packers to maintain a strong ground-based presence. Aaron Rodgers has been repeatedly battered lately, and Washington sporting a quality pass rush (41.6; ninth-best). Lacy’s volatility isn’t for cash games, as his workload and passing game involvement is not bankable – but his GPP upside is considerable on this likely low-scoring slate.
Minnesota Vikings, $5,500 (No Price Change)
McKinnon is clearly a punt play, and only if we bank on the five-point-favorite Seahawks rolling in frozen Minnesota. Despite missing snaps last game, and practices this week, due to a balky back, Peterson will almost definitely play more than McKinnon. But if things really go sour for the Vikings, like the last time they faced Seattle, it will not be the league’s leading rusher who is tapped to get them back into the game. McKinnon saw a season-high snap total in that game (22), and Peterson saw a season-low (20).
McKinnon’s +3.3 passing game grade during the last month ranks fifth among 120 qualifying running backs. Peterson sports a -3.4 passing game grade this season, has just four positively-graded games in that area, and saw four total targets over the last month. Since facing the Seahawks in Week 13, he has been on the field for only 12.8 passing plays per game. McKinnon logged 15 against Seattle. Again, he is a long-shot, but one who has hit (at least) three-times his current salary twice in the last three weeks.
RB Spencer Ware
Kansas City Chiefs, $5,400 (+$100)
The Texans run defense is no pushover, ranking fifth (+51.3) and allowing only 3.0 yards per carry during the last month. However, the Chiefs run blocking (12th) ranks far above their pass blocking (29th), and in a game they are favored to win by 3.5 points, the late-game script sets up well for the power back. Ware is the better-graded runner (+6.7 on 72 carries) than backfield-mate Charcandrick West (+3.9 on 160 carries), on fewer than half of the carries, and is more likely to get into the end zone.
With running back options are scarce and scoring likely subdued, having Ware convert a goal line carry makes him a solid investment. If he scores twice, he’s a gem. He also correlates well with the Chiefs’ defense. The Texans’ offensive line ranks 25th in Pass Blocking Efficiency during the last month and just lost left tackle Duane Brown. Kansas City’s now-healthy edge rushers should force Bryan Hoyer – who has a -11.3 grade and 62.5 QBR against pressure, versus +11.3 and 100.8 QBR with a clean pocket – into several miscues.
WR A.J. Green
Cincinnati Bengals, $8,300 (-$100)
Green will be popular, although not quite as heavily-owned as Antonio Brown will be in the same pass-heavy matchup. Green offers exposure to a game that is tied for the weekend’s highest projected total, and he can be paired with several teammates to cut some chalk. His big-play potential has not disappeared with A.J. McCarron standing in for Andy Dalton. They have identical 14-percent deep ball rates (20-plus yards), and Green is seeing deep targets (25 percent) and catching them (50 percent) at the same rate from both passers.
Green has six touchdowns in his last six games, including one against Pittsburgh, when he caught six of nine targets for 132 yards with McCarron throwing to him. He also hauled in 11 of 15 targets, for 118 yards and a score, during the teams’ first meeting. Green’s matchup is excellent, both against a pass coverage unit (-26.9; 24th) that allowed the fourth-most points to receivers, and from a game script angle. The three-point-underdog Bengals will be throwing against a defense that held them to 3.6 yards per carry.
Seattle Seahawks, $6,200 (+$300)
The cold weather and slow pace will scare folks off of the passing games in the Seahawks-Vikings matchup, but the explosive Lockett doesn’t need a ton of volume to pay off. By now it’s no secret that he pairs well with the Seattle defense, due to his explosive kick and punt returning ability and the opportunity for double-dip points if he brings one to the house. While his punt return opportunities may be down in a low-scoring, frostbitten game (have you ever tried punting a rock?), it’s still a positive factor for him.
What is more enticing is his matchup with a slowly calcifying Terence Newman, against whom he caught all four targets for 35 yards as part of a seven-catch, 90-yard Week 13 performance. Since Week 10, when his +4.8 coverage grade ranked 21st of 111 qualifying cornerbacks, the 37-year-old Newman is 97th (-5.7), has allowed four touchdowns, and surrendered a 120.8 QBR. If the extreme cold doesn’t make Newman feel his age, trying to keep up with a 23-year-old rocket ship surely will.
WR James Jones
Green Bay Packers, $5,700 (+$200)
Jones put up 102 yards on only four catches last week, although he did see a whopping 13 targets. He is the league’s 10th-most targeted wideout during the last four weeks, and only two receivers in action this weekend are above him. Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins cost an average of $3,450 more than Jones. While we aren’t doggedly seeking value, if we are going against the grain and stacking receivers with their running back teammates (Lacy), it is preferable to do it on the cheap.
With the second-highest implied total (23.3), and in game that’s tied for the highest projected over/under of the weekend (45.5), the Packers are an offense to stack. Washington’s pass coverage unit (-36.4; 28th) contributed to them allowing the third-most fantasy points to wideouts. Jones’ individual duel for more than half of his routes (roughly 60 percent) with Quinton Dunbar — PFF’s 97th-ranked cornerback among 106 qualifiers since his first start in Week 15 — is similarly juicy.
TE Jordan Reed
Washington Redskins, $7,400 (No Price Change)
If we are constructing multiple tournament lineups, it makes sense to fade Reed in some of them. But if we are only rolling with one or two, locking up Reed and diversifying in other ways is the best bet. He is that far above everyone else at his position with Rob Gronkowski not on the slate. Reed averaged 8.7 targets per game during the six weeks prior to Washington’s meaningless Week 17 contest. PFF’s third-highest-graded receiving tight end (+13.8) produced 25.3 FanDuel points per game from Week 14 through Week 16.
Reed will be the uber-chalk, but at a position that relies on inherently-volatile touchdown scoring, he offers more than a mere hope of winding up in the end zone. He rolled up 15 more catches and 77 more yards than the next-best total of any tight end playing this weekend (Travis Kelce), and Kelce is the only one who is even close. The Packers allowed a middling number of fantasy points to tight ends (15th-most), but when faced with elite players – like Antonio Gates and Greg Olsen – they proved vulnerable.
TE Heath Miller
Pittsburgh Steelers, $5,600 (+$500)
Tyler Eifert ($6,400; +$200) is also an option in the same relatively enticing matchup. If we are moving off of Reed – affording him along with the three most expensive wideouts is tough — these are fine pivots. That’s especially true when starting one of their quarterbacks, as mentioned above. Miller averaged 11 targets, 10 catches, and 85.5 yards in Pittsburgh’s two meetings with Cincinnati. Eifert led all tight ends in touchdowns (13), adding another last week in his first game back from a concussion.
The Bengals surrendered the fifth-fewest fantasy points to tight ends, mainly because they only gave up one touchdown to the position while allowing the second-most catches and fourth-most yards. Pittsburgh surrendered the sixth-most catches and seventh-most fantasy points to tight ends. Again, going away from Reed is a high-risk move despite his sure-to-be-hefty ownership rate. But if you’re feeling frisky, Miller and Eifert offer acceptable lineup-diversifying alternatives at lower price points.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman