Lessons Learned – Week 12

by Al Scherer · Analytics & Advanced Metrics
ezekiel-elliott-fantasy-football

1) Thursday Breakdown – Dallas Will Only Go As Far as Dak Takes Them

Dallas’ 36-33 Thursday overtime loss to Las Vegas was their third loss in four games, dropping their record to 7-4. Though the Cowboys can give thanks for being in the NFC East, where they get at least six matchups every year against teams that are just not very good.

They went into their bye week this year at 5-1 on the strength of a pressuring defense and a balanced offense that averaged 296 passing yards and 164 rushing yards a game. They’ve gone 2-3 since, putting up half the rushing yards and 10 less passing yards per game.

The Dallas run game is struggling primarily on three fronts:

  1. 1) Zeke’s sagging performance and nagging injuries: Ezekiel Elliott averaged seven 100-yard rushing games a season in his first four years. He’s since put up four in the last two seasons combined. As a team, the Cowboys have one 100-plus yard rushing game since their bye – in Week 10 against Atlanta’s run-funnel defense. In that 40-point blowout win, it took 31 rush attempts to put up 103 yards.
  2. 2) The Offensive Line: Tackles La’El Collins and Tyron Smith were supposed to be the offensive line bookends to make this offense unstoppable. But Collins, who lost much of 2020 to surgery, was benched Thursday in favor of 2020 UDFA Terence Steele. Six-time Pro Bowler Tyron Smith returned but wasn’t enough to salvage the rushing attack.
  3. 3) Lack of Commitment: Missing both CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, Dallas did have their top two running backs on hand, facing a Las Vegas team ranked No. 26 in Rushing Yards Allowed. Even though the score remained close throughout, Dallas chose to throw the ball 47 times and run it 19 times. In a low-scoring loss to KC last week, they threw it 43 times and rushed just 16. Even in a blowout win over Atlanta in Week 10, they threw as often as they ran. On their drive late in that game that put them up 40, they threw seven passes and ran it just three times. All of this shows Dallas either can not or has chosen not to run. Especially if they rest Elliott as is being rumored, they’re not likely to increase their run rate.

So the Cowboys will only go as far as Dak takes them. Fortunately, most of their remaining schedule is against the NFC East – pass funnels all and all mostly just bad defenses.

Action:

Expect Dallas to throw, throw and throw. Even though Tony Pollard would get more playing time if the Cowboys choose to rest Elliott, we must focus on Dak and the Cowboys receivers the rest of the way.

2) Everyone Can and Does Run on the Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers still have a winning record but it’s not because of their defense. Considered one of the NFL’s premier teams, now after Week 12, they’re sitting with a negative point differential and are tied for second (but also last) place in the AFC West.

Though starting defensive linemen Jerry Tillery and Christian Covington returned today, it didn’t seem to make much difference – the Chargers gave up 147 yards on 33 carries in their Week 12 loss to the Broncos.

Other than an impressive performance against Najee Harris in Week 11, everyone has run on the Chargers, who have now dropped four of their last six games. In Week 11, Dalvin Cook and the Vikings beat the Bolts, holding the ball for 36 minutes. The week prior, though Los Angeles beat the Eagles, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Jalen Hurts combining for 173 rushing yards. Before that, New England beat them, holding the ball for 35 minutes, with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson and Brandon Bolden combining for 132 rushing yards. And the week prior, Baltimore beat them, holding the ball for 38 minutes, rushing for 187 yards and three scores.

They face Joe Mixon, Saquon Barkley and Clyde Edwards-Helaire the next three weeks before facing Denver again in the fantasy playoffs.

Action:

Start all running backs against LAC. Strongly consider alternatives you have to LAC receivers the rest of the way. If they can’t get the ball to their offense, the rest of the season could be a struggle for Chargers’ offensive players.

3) Stock Up on Backup Running Backs

Whether it’s to back up your own starters or someone else’s, all higher-profile backup running backs must be rostered.

Over the past few seasons, the prior year’s RB1s and RB2s miss, on average, 25-percent of games to injury the next season. Sometimes, it’s earlier in the year like David Montgomery or Clyde Edwards-Helaire and you have to backfill until the player returns. Other times, it’s either later in the season – e.g., Alvin Kamara or D’Andre Swift or long-lasting like Derrick Henry. Today, Dalvin Cook was carted off the field. Christian McCaffrey left in a walking boot. I hope they’re alright.

As we head into the playoffs, whether to give ourselves depth or to block our opponents, we must stuff the back end of ours roster with backup running backs who could win us playoff matchups. Extra wide receivers like Marvin Jones or Quez Watkins aren’t going to win us playoff games. But a starting Chuba Hubbard, Alexander Mattison or the like just might.

Mattison is already rostered. Hubbard probably still is, too. But guys like Khalil Herbert, Nyheim Hines, Boston Scott, Jermar Jefferson or even a Matt Breida might still be out there. Use PlayerProfilers advanced metrics, check your waiver wire and see what you can find.

On an unrelated yet injury-related note, congrats, D’Onta Foreman! Four years after being drafted in the 3rd round of out Texas and three years after tearing an Achilles, D’Onta put up his first career 100-yard rushing day today. Nice job!

Action:

Look at PlayerProfiler’s advanced metrics and depth charts. Scrub your waiver wire. Add any backup RBs that could see volume should COVID hit, the starter get dinged up or the team decide simply to rest a guy.

4) Najee’s and the Steelers’ Struggles Continue

Heading in to Week 12, Najee Harris‘ 19.3 Fantasy Points Per Game was ranked No. 6 among qualified running backs, sounding like great output for a rookie back. But, as a deeper look into the metrics show, his output this week and throughout 2021 has been driven by volume. Heading into Week 12, Harris was No. 1 in Snap Share, Opportunity Share, Routes Run and Route Participation.

On a per-touch basis, though, the numbers have not been good, sitting at 0.77 (No. 46) Fantasy Points Per Opportunity, 6.9 (No. 31) Yards Per Reception, 4.3 (No. 50) Yards Per Touch, a 3.2-percent (No. 39) Breakaway Run Rate and a 25.7-percent (No. 33) Juke Rate.

Even if an NFL team has a very good receiving corps – as the Steelers do, if their quarterback won’t or can’t throw the ball downfield – Ben Roethlisberger ranks No. 34 in Air Yards Per Attempt – and the offensive line can’t block (they’re last in Rushing Yards Per Attempt), the team can’t move the ball well. In today’s blowout loss, Harris took his eight carries for 23 yards and caught three of five targets for 15 yards.

The once-vaunted Steel Curtain defense hasn’t been any good, either, giving up 41 points per game and over 900 yards combined in their last two losses. They even gave up 414 to the Bears in Week 9. Before that, they tied the Lions. The Steelers are now in last place. And there are no more Bears, Lions or Geno Smith-led Seahawks on the horizon.

Action:

No Steelers are Must-Starts the rest of 2021. In the upcoming off-season, move any or all Steelers from your dynasty rosters. It’s going to take more than one piece to complete this Pittsburgh puzzle.

fantasy-football-dynasty-league-rankings

5) Hey, Rams, at Least Try to Run

Heading into Week 11, ten teams were more pass-heavy than the Los Angeles Rams. Those teams have combined to lose eight more times than they’ve won with a combined .463 winning percentage. By comparison, the 10 most run-heavy teams have won 15 more than they’ve lost and have a.566 winning percentage. Whether a team wins because they run or runs because they win, those traits do tend to go together in 2021. Even in 2020, 7 of the 11 most run-heavy teams made the playoffs.

Darrell Henderson‘s rushing attempts the last 5 games heading into Week 12? 21-15-14-11-5. He did get 16 carries today but they also put up almost 40 pass attempts.

So, why do teams like the Rams choose to throw at such high rates? Is it Henderson’s 18.1-percent (No. 47) Juke Rate, 2.50 (No. 40) Yards Created Per Touch or maybe the 0.80 (No. 42) Yards Per Route Run? Whatever the reason, if they can’t or won’t run the ball, they’re going to put a lot of pressure on Matthew Stafford, who has put up 5 TDs and 5 interceptions on a huge 127 attempts in their three-game skid. These attempts have generated 839 passing yards which works out to 6.6 Yards Per Attempt. If maintained for the entire season, that would tie him with Ben Roethlisberger at No. 27 in the league, sandwiched nicely between Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold.

Van Jefferson had an exciting 79-yard catch and score today but, beyond that, caught two of eight targets for 14 yards. His 1.56 Yards Per Route Run heading into Week 12 ranked No. 64 in the league. His 56.6-percent Catch Rate ranked No. 93.  Maybe some of those challenges can be attributed to his 1.42 (No. 80) Target Separation.

Odell Beckham was peppered today with 10 targets. He, too, caught one long score. Counting on one long score to carry a fantasy week, though, is a nerve-racking strategy.

Action:

See if you have RB alternatives to Darrell Henderson. Of course, you’ll ride with WR Cooper Kupp and his every-week double-digit targets but, beyond that, there’s no sure thing in Los Angeles anymore. 

6) The Most Underrated Bye Week WR?

While researching this article, Christian Kirk‘s quietly-impressive season really caught my eye and I want to share what I found with you – even though he was on bye this week so it’s not technically a Week 12 Lesson Learned.

Kirk has posted an amazing 80.3-percent (No. 2) Catch Rate. No receiver with a higher catch rate has more Targets, a higher Yards Per Target or Yards Per Reception, or more First Downs, Receiving Yards, or Touchdowns. And no one with a higher Catch Rate has put up more Receiving Yards per Game. On the season, Kirk has averaged 2.27 (No. 11) Fantasy Points Per Target and 10.3 (No. 13) Yards Per Target.

While DeAndre Hopkins and Rondale Moore rightly get much of the attention in the Arizona receiving corps, Kirk might be the guy that can help you the most.

Action:

If you need upside in the weeks to come, go ahead and start Christian Kirk. Prioritize him in next year redrafts and in the offseason in dynasty.