What To Watch For: Thursday 8/20
Preseason game No. 3 is commonly known as the dress rehearsal for when the curtains come up around the league in two weeks time. Not only are the games themselves as close to the real thing as players will experience prior to Week 1, but the post-training camp run-up to those contests will be marked by simulated regular season structure and game plan implementation.
For fantasy football it comes just in time, as we get to draw more concrete conclusions from the personnel, formations, and increased snaps for the players that we will draft over the next several days. With any luck the officials will pretend these are regular season games, quit being over-officious jerks, and put an end to the foolishness that’s made the first two weeks of games slightly more watchable than televised billiards.
Pittsburgh at Philadelphia (7:30 pm; NFL Network)
Much has been made of LeGarrette Blount stealing Le’Veon Bell’s red-zone thunder, but it remains to be seen if last year’s 14th-highest scoring fantasy back (in 13 games) really has to worry on that front. Blount isn’t a back who deals well with the tight running lanes that Bell skittered through last year. A potentially bigger drain on Bell’s value is Dri Archer’s passing game role. Archer’s snaps increased from five in the opener to 13 last week, and he caught both of his targets in each game for 94 total yards. Bell derived 39 percent of his PPR point total through the air in 2013, and if Archer eats into his nearly five target per game average (4.8) Bell will struggle to return equity on a second round ADP. Closely monitor Archer’s usage against the Eagles, as offensive coordinator Todd Haley is no stranger to employing an offensive weapon that fits the rookie’s profile.
Bell and Blount were involved in a marijuana DUI yesterday. Blount was let go and traveled to Philadelphia, while Bell was taken into custody. Now, with the news that Bell will be joining his teammates after all, it’s anyone’s guess if we’ll see either suit up tonight. Watch how rookie Stephen Houston manages behind Pittsburgh’s inconsistent run blockers, as Bell and Blount could be facing some kind of suspension handed down by the Steelers. Immediate league sanctioned discipline is less likely, but this is obviously a fluid situation.
The Steelers’ starting offensive line has done a solid job of giving Ben Roethlisberger time to operate so far. He’s tied for 73rd in pressure percentage (15.4) this preseason among qualifying passers (25% snap minimum). That’s less than half of the pressure that he dealt with last year (32.4%), and Pittsburgh’s heavy usage of tempo he helped. Keep an eye on how well they operate the no-huddle in a hostile environment. Roethlisberger leads the NFL in passer rating (151.4) through two games and has connected with breakout receiver candidate Markus Wheaton in both contests. Look for signs that both their connection and the improved line play are sustainable.
Veteran wideout Lance Moore only got three snaps in the opener, as fullback Will Johnson was on with the starters (16 snaps) and how often they’ll run three-wide receiver sets is a question. Moore saw 17 snaps last week, but Johnson sat out and Archer was on the field along with Bell at times. Wheaton’s profile is rising, and second-year receiver Justin Brown has turned heads as well. With Martavis Bryant’s slow learning curve and Darrius Heyward-Bey doing DHB-things, the landscape could change quickly – but for now the former New Orleans Saint appears to be a spare part.
Nick Foles led the NFL in deep balls as a percentage of attempts last year (17.4), and it’s no secret that they lost their best downfield threat when DeSean Jackson was cut. His 36 deep targets (20-plus yards downfield) tied for third-most in the NFL, and teammate Riley Cooper’s mark wasn’t even half of that (16). Jeremy Maclin’s totals were on a steady decline to 20, from a career-high of 26 in 2010, before he blew his knee out last preseason. Both Cooper and Maclin have been shelved by injuries, although they should suit up tonight. Rookie Josh Huff has the speed to potentially threaten defenses downfield, but he’s out with a shoulder injury for the foreseeable future. Fellow rookie Jordan Matthews hauled in all nine of his targets against New England, after a drop-filled debut. However his average depth of target (aDOT) this preseason (4.3 yards) makes Kendall Wright look like a deep threat. So far this preseason Foles has only attempted two passes over 20 yards in 18 attempts (11.1%), and that needs to increase if Philadelphia’s offense is going to hum with last year’s efficiency.
With second-year right tackle Lane Johnson suspended for the first four games, veteran Allen Barbre is set to fill in. Barbre looked good in the preseason opener, but that was not the case last week against the Patriots. He gave up a sack and was pushed around in the running game at times. Keep a close eye on how he performs against the Steelers, as he is still inexperienced for a veteran of seven seasons, and having a weak link on their offensive line would be quite a departure from what the Eagles enjoyed in 2013.
Philadelphia also enjoyed uncommon health in 2013, something that has not fully carried over to this year’s training camp. Running back LeSean McCoy’s “minor” toe injury is probably nothing to get too worried about, but the depth chart behind him isn’t the picture of health either. That prompted the Eagles to trade a conditional seventh-round pick to Carolina for a running back who was likely getting cut anyway. Kenjon Barner is familiar with Chip Kelly’s system from their time together at Oregon, and it’ll be interesting to see how they utilize him (he also returns kicks) and how quickly he can acclimate himself. There’s a chance that backup Chris Polk, who has been sidelined all camp with a bad hamstring, is cut – but he’s their best power back option and the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Barner profiles more closely to third-down back Darren Sproles. They also drafted Henry Josey, who looked good against the Patriots, and have Matthew Tucker, who performed well in the opener but pulled a hamstring. All of a sudden the very fantasy-relevant depth chart behind McCoy is unsettled, so keep a close eye on if anyone pops against the Steelers. Hopefully it’s not another hamstring.
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