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The fantasy playoffs are here, the bye weeks are over, and we’re entering the holiday season. We’ve even got games on Saturday, but they feel like events in the distant future. Injuries and potential outbreaks have rocked the league, and we need to stay on top of it all to set the best lineup. Oh, and there’s a game tonight. Let’s dig into TNF, and I’ve got all of the news from yesterday’s practices for you down below.
TNF Preview: The Best Passers in the West
Divisional rematches are like the usual chess match between two teams but on steroids. The familiarity gives off an “I know that you know that I know” vibe to the affair. But with both squads adjusting their identities throughout the season, it’s hard to expect anything with playoff seeding up for grabs. Let’s start with the Chiefs.
This play is fascinating to look back on as it was Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s second (and last) target, and the Chiefs are now using their running backs as a larger extension of their aerial attack. Plus, Mahomes’ dip in production continued the conversation surrounding his demise against the dreaded Cover 2. But, like most things, it’s not as simple as deploying a decades-old scheme and expecting to stop Kansas City’s offense.
Ben Solak succinctly summed up how defenses are treating Mahomes. They’re making him play a style of offense he doesn’t want to play. By restricting the downfield passes, he’s struggled to adjust. For three years straight, Mahomes was top-4 in PFF’s big-time throws (typically downfield passes into tight windows). This year, he’s just above Zach Wilson at 3.0%. I’ll get into how they’ve overcome the defensive issues in a bit, but they’ve also been hit with the wrong side of variance.
Think about all of the popped-up passes turned interceptions or fumbles this season. The Chiefs are tied for third in turnovers after being bottom-10 throughout the Mahomes era. They had four turnovers against the Chargers in their last meeting. Mahomes is back towards the bottom of the ranks in turnover-worthy plays, and the Chargers’ defense has a few weaknesses he can exploit.
Los Angeles is 30th in defensive rush EPA, but that’s no secret. Teams have been throwing their running backs at their front all season. But receiving backs have also been a threat. Last week, the Giants scored twice through the air, and Javonte Williams had a 4-57-0 stat line just two weeks prior. And while their coverage has boasted limiting explosive plays, they’ve given up yards underneath. From Tyler Boyd (7-85-0) to Diontae Johnson (13-101-1), offenses have taken the layups the Chargers present. It worked for Travis Kelce (11-104-0) last time, but the Chiefs will need to incorporate their entire offense to pull off a win tonight. Especially with Justin Herbert playing so well.
I didn’t understand the “strawberry through a battleship” comment when Don Martindale said it back in October. I still don’t. But I think Martindale was onto something because Herbert’s arm, like the analogy, doesn’t make any sense.
That throw encapsulates the Chargers’ offense for a couple of reasons. First, the cannon attached to Herbert’s right shoulder is so shocking the cameraman didn’t know where the pass was heading (watch the hesitation at six seconds). But also, that level of aggression hasn’t consistently been there throughout the season.
Herbert’s 8.1% deep-ball rate is 27th amongst all quarterbacks with eight or more starts this year. Ok, so maybe he’s just working the intermediate areas of the field with Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. Nope. His 6.5 air yards per attempt on early-downs is fifth-lowest. There’ve been concerns about Joe Lombardi and his ability to construct an offense around a young passer. However, their shifts over the last couple of weeks (like the pass to Guyton) couldn’t have come at a better time.
Kansas City’s defense is peaking at the right time. They’re fifth in dropback EPA over their last four games after being 29th through the first month of the year. Their pressure rate is up to 38.1%, with Melvin Ingram up front, but that doesn’t mean the Chargers can’t find a way to move the ball tonight.
Hunter Renfrow’s 14-117-1 stat line from Week 14 isn’t a bug in the Chief’s defense. It’s a feature. You’d have to go back to Week 7 to find a perimeter receiver with a top-12 performance (A.J. Brown, 8-133-1). Since then, aerial attacks have favored their interior pass-catchers and running backs. Even mobile quarterbacks have given them fits (Lamar Jackson – 16-107-2, Jalen Hurts – 8-47-0, and Josh Allen 11-59-1). Austin Ekeler’s health will be pivotal in the Chargers’ play-calling, but their remaining options (e.g., Allen, Palmer, and the tight ends) can all find success with Herbert under center.
Points of Interest in TNF
For Kansas City, my interest lies in their backfield. They’ve re-established themselves as a complete team both offensively and defensively. But one expectation was that they’d have to establish the run to create balance in their play-calling. However, in typical Andy Reid fashion, they’ve bucked conventional wisdom and still accomplished their goal.
“The Mentor” highlighted one of their keys to success in fixing their issues on offense. Mahomes has been more consistent in using running backs in the passing game. It’s a shift we all assumed would be a feature after Kansas City drafted Edwards-Helaire. But it’s like asking a power hitter to bunt or a three-point shooter to go for the layup. However, the impact couldn’t have been more apparent this past weekend.
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KC running backs had a meager 14.4% target share (29th in the league) through the first six weeks of the season. Now, they’re 10th in targets to running backs over their last six games, and Mahomes has climbed back into the Top 12 in EPA per play. Their PROE has stayed the same throughout (10%), and they’re still first in yards per drive. LA has been the team to run on, but Williams and Edwards-Helaire can be deployed such that the entire offense benefits from their usage. I don’t know if we can say the same for the Chargers’ backfield outside of Ekeler.
I’m assuming Ekeler plays tonight, but his “game-time decision” status should at least have us looking at the options behind him. However, I used the above video to emphasize how unclear it is who the beneficiary is should Ekeler sit or reaggravate his injury during the game. They’re used in near-opposite fashion, which makes them interesting to figure out.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Kelley, at 212 lbs, was the only non-Ekeler running back to run a route in the red zone on Sunday. He’s tripled Jackson’s red-zone routes on the season and has a high-value target. Meanwhile, at 193 lbs, Jackson has seven carries inside the 20-yard line to Kelley’s two across the two games both earned work. Jackson’s likely the favorite should anything happen to Ekeler, but all three could be productive with the number of pieces missing on the Chiefs’ defense.
It’d be easier to list the players not moved to the reserve/COVID-19 list at this point. The Rams have gone into intensive protocols to avoid further spread, and the league-wide count is forcing changes to their policy. Fantasy managers should be keeping a close eye on their waiver wires should any more players test positive, but we’ve also got injuries to monitor.
Let’s start with the players injured during or before the Week 14 games. Most missed practice yesterday, and some are unlikely to play this week. However, we’ll be watching for any change in their status over the next few days.
- Lamar Jackson – Ankle – Considered “day-to-day” with Tyler Huntley taking the first-team reps
- DeAndre Hopkins – Knee – Seeking a second opinion on his injury, but expected to miss the rest of the season
- Terry McLaurin – Concussion – Seen on the side field but still progressing through the protocol.
- Elijah Mitchell – Concussion, Knee – First sighting on the side field since Week 13, but still in the protocol.
- Tony Pollard – Foot – Was expected to be limited but listed as DNP. No word on if a setback occurred.
- Rex Burkhead – Hip/Quad – Ruled out for Week 15, giving John Daigle another reason to tout David Johnson.
- T.J. Hockenson – Hand – Worked out on the side with hopes to be back by Friday.
- D’Andre Swift – Shoulder – No change in status, and considered an IR candidate.
The list of players already hurt will make any playoff roster hard to manage, and the latest injury news only adds to the infinite sadness. For example, look at Washington’s roster.
The bottom third of the page comprises the players on either the reserve/COVID-19 list or IR. Plus, Curtis Samuel added a hamstring injury to his list of injuries this year. Taylor Heinicke is at least trending in the right direction, but Washington's passing-game options continue to dwindle. Their divisional matchup against Philadelphia already looks tough, and the Eagles are getting some help on offense back.
Jordan Howard returned to the practice field as his team’s rushing attack tries to get healthy. Jalen Hurts split first-team reps with Gardner Minshew, and Nick Sirianni expects Miles Sanders to be available after a limited practice yesterday. Assuming health, Howard gives them another option in their run-first offense. Regardless, practice participation across the board will be critical in determining their status for Week 15.
Saquon Barkley only played 55% of the snaps while having one of his best fantasy days since Week 4. His DNP yesterday likely explains his lack of on-field involvement. It’s the same ankle that landed him on IR earlier in the season, which doesn’t bode well for his Week 15 status. If Barkley's unable to go, Devontae Booker will take the lead role in another lost season for the Giants. This next one kind of caught me by surprise.
At the end of their Monday night game, Hopkins' injury was apparent, and Kliff Kingsbury didn’t announce Conner was getting an MRI until Tuesday. Kingsbury labeled Conner as “day-to-day,” but an MRI never sounds promising for the following week. We’re stuck in limbo until the team provides news regarding the results. Thankfully, the rest of the DNP’s from yesterday weren’t as ominous.
Leonard Fournette’s DNP sent Ronald Jones’ stans into a frenzy, but it might all be for naught. Bruce Arians said the RB1 had a sore ankle and had been held out to rest. Tampa has a divisional matchup this weekend, so Fournette’s absence early in the week makes sense. Same with the Packers’ QB1.
Bakhtiari’s return has been long-awaited, but Rodgers hasn’t practiced on a Wednesday due to the toe injury since Week 10. He discussed the setback to his toe, but it won’t keep him off the field. He should be back for Week 15. The same goes for Joe Burrow.
Zac Taylor noted in his presser that Burrow was out to rest his pinky. They’ll likely continue the routine throughout the rest of the season to manage the injury. Seattle’s approached DK Metcalf’s injury in the same manner.
Metcalf has been limited or DNP on Wednesday since Week 11. However, it hasn’t affected his status on gameday nor his involvement in the offense. The back issue is new, but he should be back to practice later this week. George Kittle is also having his involvement managed this late into the season.
Kittle was at practice and caught a pass from Trey Lance during the portion open to the media. But after racking up 332 yards in two games, an extra day of rest seems prudent given the other injuries San Francisco is currently managing.