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5 things I care about
Asking too much of the Bucs
There are only so many straws to lay before the camel’s back breaks. No fortress is impenetrable in the NFL … not even Tom Brady’s castle.
Perhaps the Bucs were always going to lose this game. This Saints team does seem to have the Brady Bucs’ number. After all, Tampa Bay wasn't exactly running up and down the field early. It’s quite conceivable that the Saints would have pulled off the upset, despite all their own problems.
Nevertheless, it was never — not in any universe — expected to play out like this. I challenge anyone out there to think of a single team that can recover from losing three of their four best offensive skill-position players. The absence of one of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin (who will unfortunately miss the rest of the season), or Leonard Fournette would have been survivable.
To lose them all, while also still missing Antonio Brown, and especially in the tidal wave in which it happened, is just not something any operation can recover from.
Even if the Bucs have some intriguing depth, you can’t suddenly elevate the entire B-team and expect to compete. Subbing in Ronald Jones for Fournette, that’s fine. Bringing up Tyler Johnson to fill in for either Evans or Godwin, that’s been done before. But losing the entire trio? That’s just too much to ask.
We shall pass no judgment on the Bucs for the way this game played out, as hideous as it was to watch. As we wait to see how the other injuries aside from Godwin's sort out, the good news is the Bucs' three remaining games are against the the Panthers (twice) and the Jets.
Tyler Huntley can play a bit
Sometimes we see a backup come in and start only to suck all the life out of the offense. That has not been the case for Tyler Huntley so far.
The Ravens took the Packers down to the wire, thanks in large part to the juice their backup quarterback brought to the table.
The best part about Huntley’s game is that he just takes what the defense gives him. Green Bay consistently failed to develop any kind of plan to seal the edge against Baltimore. Huntley never hesitated to shift to the stretch run game on his own. He rushed 15 times for 73 yards and two scores, easily the most productive runner on the team.
As the Packers continued to try to pressure Huntley up the middle, that left the center zones open for Mark Andrews. For the second game in a row, Huntley just continued to hammer his tight end. Andrews secured 10 catches on 13 targets. A week after Huntley drew up plenty of good looks for rookie Rashod Bateman, he turned to Marquise Brown as an underneath threat against Green Bay. That’s flexibility.
Lamar Jackson likely returns to action next week, if he was indeed close to playing this week. However, if Huntley has to start more games, we should not be fully confident he can hold down the fort.
Deebo Samuel catches four passes
I know that’s not much, but it’s worth noting considering he had a string of three games with just a single catch. Most fantasy managers won’t care because Deebo Samuel, once again, got there on rushing production. Samuel seems like a lock for six to seven carries when Eli Mitchell misses time and just continues to punch in rushing scores. The plays and lanes Kyle Shanahan dials up for Samuel in the red zone are just unmatched.
However, Samuel reminding us he does still have a crucial receiving role is important. It’s not as if Samuel has been lining up as a full-time running back. He’d been in the backfield about nine to 10 snaps per game over the last month-plus. His primary position is still an outside wide receiver. He just wasn’t getting the ball.
He drew five targets in Week 15; one fewer than George Kittle and three more than Brandon Aiyuk. We should consider this target pecking order pretty malleable. That’s been the case any time this trio is all healthy and playing together.
Lions WR legitimacy
Detroit has run out an expansion-level wide receiver depth chart at different points of the season. We were legitimately wondering if Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman could be a legitimate one-two punch at the position.
That is just not real.
Neither of those veterans made an impact for the Lions this season and the team cycled bottom-of-the-roster guys throughout the season — until recently. The team was quick to snag Josh Reynolds when he was placed on waivers. Reynolds isn’t a high-end starting wide receiver but he’s a baseline NFL talent. That’s a huge step up from who Jared Goff was throwing to at different times of the year. He’s made big plays since arriving in Detroit and caught all six of his targets and scored in the team’s Week 15 upset.
The bigger story has been rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown, who leads the team in routes and targets since the team’s bye week. St. Brown added another 11 targets to that total and caught eight balls for 90 yards and a touchdown in Week 15. His 37-yard touchdown catch doesn’t fit into the slot receiver stereotype often associated with St. Brown. He should be in starting lineups every week the rest of the way.
A lot went right for the Lions in Week 15 and the team has a long way to go in its rebuild. But the wide receiver room being legitimate is a huge development over the last few months.
The Steelers just know how to drag you into the mud
Every Steelers game has a chance to be ugly. And man, do the Steelers know how to win ugly.
Almost no one with any level of fantasy investment in a Steelers player is happy coming out of Sunday. Najee Harris had perhaps his worst game of the season with 12 carries for 18 yards and two catches for eight more scoreless yards. Diontae Johnson led the team with 38 yards through the air. Chase Claypool did nothing and Pat Freiermuth left the game early with a concussion.
The Steelers could not care less, however, after escaping with a 19-13 win.
Pittsburgh secured four turnovers off a depleted Titans team and chipped in with key stops. This defense with likely DPOY T.J. Watt always seems to deliver when the offense needs it most. The run defense is still leaky and fantasy managers were happy to secure the 135 total-yard game from D’Onta Foreman. However, Watt, his 1.5 sacks and the rest of the pass rush proved to be too much for the Titans to bear.
Pittsburgh’s ability to drag another team down into the mud and play on their terms is why they’ll be a factor to the end. It’s great for the Steelers but it can indeed put a huge anchor on their fantasy players' hopes.
5 things I don’t care about
Every second of this game where the Bucs suffered another catastrophic loss or failed to move the ball was another good break for the Saints. There was never a moment where Taysom Hill's offense felt like a high-end attack.
In all fairness, it's a lot to ask the Saints to thrive while missing Sean Payton. This is still a highly depleted offense that was already low on talent and has suffered losses on the offensive line. Hill himself is a specialized player who can't thrive in every condition. This team is built to win ugly, and that's exactly what they did against the Bucs.
All the credit in the world to the Saints for continuing their hot streak against a Bucs team that can't seem to shake the New Orleans monkey off its back. But there just isn't much reason to have any further optimism about the Saints. The most interesting questions about the Saints are about what they'll do in 2022 and beyond. The story for 2021 has already been written.
Blaming it all on Urban Meyer
There is no doubt that Urban Meyer’s departure brought a breath of fresh air and a collective sigh of relief to the Jaguars building. The vibes are undoubtedly better around Jacksonville today than they were on Monday.
That doesn’t mean the roster magically got better, too.
The Jaguars are still a deeply flawed team; an operation that can lose 30-16 to the Houston Texans.
Fantasy managers mostly got what they bargained for with James Robinson cashing in as the feature guy. Robinson inhaled 21 touches and posted 88 total yards with a touchdown. Backup Dare Ogunbowale touched the ball just twice.
If you’re counting on anything beyond that, you’ve messed up. The passing game around Trevor Lawrence is still fundamentally broken. Pushing Meyer out needed to happen but it was in no way about to cure all that ails Jacksonville. It’s going to take a full offseason to exorcise those demons.
Gabriel Davis’ flaws
I’ve said all season that the Bills were right to hedge their bets with Gabriel Davis in 2021. He was not a clean route-runner nor an efficient player as a rookie. Bringing in a crafty veteran like Emmanuel Sanders to immediately give them a high-floor presence to start the season made all the sense in the world. But Sanders ended up playing as a deep threat and that quickly ran out of steam.
While an injury may have forced their hand, it was past time to turn the page back to Davis.
With Sanders out, Davis handled seven targets (tied with Stefon Diggs), led the team with 85 yards and scored twice. It’s been clear for months the Bills could use someone to win in tight spaces and hit on these deep targets. Davis and his 17 yards per catch in Week 15 are more than up to the task for the rest of this year, at least.
The Bills should play Davis heavily every week going forward. Fantasy managers should consider following suit.
Duke Johnson’s breakout
If you’ve spent any time on Fantasy Twitter over the years, you know that there has long been a strange “Free Duke Johnson” movement. Multiple coaching staffs have decided he can’t handle a full workload and he’s routinely been phased out of rotations. Despite all that evidence, some truthers held firm right to the end. And it indeed looked like that journey came to its resolution early when he failed to catch on with a team to start 2021.
So it is absolutely hilarious that Duke Johnson finally had his moment when just about nobody was asking for it.
Johnson has been lying in wait on the Dolphins practice squad since late October and when the backfield was struck by COVID issues in Week 15, he shined.
Johnson posted the first 100-yard game of his career in his Miami debut. It was unreal.
The real twist is that nominal starter Myles Gaskin was active for this game and Johnson still led the backfield with 23 touches. We have seen some teams favor guys who practice all week ahead of more established players who get activated from the COVID list late in the week. That’s probably our one actionable takeaway from the Duke Johnson saga. It will be impossible to project him for this type of outing again with the Saints, Titans and Patriots left on the Dolphins schedule — and that’s assuming he’s still the lead back. That has a less than 50 percent chance of being true.
Ezekiel Elliott leads the backfield
It’s difficult to care because he did it by just four touches. Ezekiel Elliott handed 16 carries to 12 for Tony Pollard and they both caught three passes for minimal yardage. There were some reports that Corey Clement could figure into the mix after spelling Zeke a bit last week but that didn’t happen.
Elliott said after the game that he feels better than he has in weeks. The usage says the Cowboys are still taking it easy on him and it’s worth noting that Pollard (also coming in banged up) almost doubled-up Zeke’s yards per carry.
A 50-yard rushing performance with a touchdown is about the best you can hope for out of Zeke right now until something changes. It’s tough to tell yourself a story where that outlook is going to magically get better with some superior defenses — not by much — on the schedule down the stretch. Perhaps Elliott will stay feeling better, as he indicated.
We will need better evidence than his fantasy numbers from Week 15 to believe that’s the case.