Thanks to everyone who sent in feedback on last week's format change. It was overwhelmingly in favor of the team-by-team format, at least for the first few weeks of the season when there are so many unsettled situations around the league. I've also had quite a few requests to update the positional tiers articles. I'll do that in next week's column.
The Falcons started Stephen Nicholas at strong side linebacker, but quickly turned to a rotation by package. Joplo Bartu started in Sean Weatherspoon's place and played every down as expected. Atlanta also worked Paul Worrilow into the lineup -- as a nickel backer in place of Akeem Dent -- even sooner than I expected. Though the tackle opportunity was marginal, Bartu didn't make many plays and has me concerned about a low floor despite being the only every-down linebacker. Hold Bartu and Dent for now, but only in deeper leagues as they aren't viable starters.
The Cardinals lost Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander to season-ending injuries last week. Neither were fantasy options, but it may affect the status of Karlos Dansby, whose 28 solos are easily the best in the league to date. With a very thin depth chart at outside linebackers, there's at least a small chance that the Cardinals could morph toward a 4-3 front -- with Dansby moving to strong side linebacker -- or shift Dansby outside in the 3-4 when Daryl Washington comes off suspension. Watch how Arizona reworks their roster this week for an indication of how they'll handle the alignments. We're entering the "prove it" part of the schedule for Tyrann Mathieu. After great matchups against STL, DET and NO, he gets a run of offenses that don't spread the field as much (TB, CAR, SF, SEA) over the next month. Mathieu has started to win me over, but I'm worried there may be some variance coming. I don't know what got into Darnell Dockett last week, but I need to see another week of consistent play before I considering rostering him, much less trusting him in a lineup again.
Daryl Smith played much better last week and it was reflected in his stat line, which was buoyed by an interception he returned for a touchdown. He doesn't yet look fully comfortable against the run, but that should come soon. When it does, he could be an every-week LB1 value. Arthur Brown has a pectoral strain that the Ravens are calling minor, but that doesn't mean he'll return soon. Josh Bynes is holding his own, but sat in dime packages for Michael Huff last week. After a brutal first week in Denver, James Ihedigbo has settled down and looked very good over the past two weeks. He's worth considering as an every week DB2/3 in moderately deep leagues.
Manny Lawson had a huge day (11-3) against New York. That's meaningful, but not for Lawson's value. It's a reminder that teams like the Jets that only rarely use spread sets can be nice one-week matchup plays for a solid linebacker who sits in subpackages. That's for deeper leagues only. There's no reason to spot start these players in a league where your starting just two linebackers. The pendulum swung the other way on Mario Williams this week. Reports of a mild sprained ankle may explain away some of his poor stat line, but both New York tackles played well. Injuries to the Buffalo corner group pushed Aaron Williams into duty outside last week. That could keep Da'Norris Searcy afloat if Jairus Byrd returns before Leodis McKelvin's ankle injury heals.
Achilles tendon and microfracture surgeries have robbed Jon Beason of his legs. It's disappointing for those who remember Beason as a top five fantasy linebacker (and, obviously, Beason and the Panthers, too), but it's becoming apparent that he can't run well enough to play well. Chase Blackburn replaced him in the base defense last week, with Beason getting just one snap. Robert Lester had a nice fantasy line in place of Charles Godfrey last week, but he's a limited player who isn't likely to be more than a desperation matchup play. Greg Hardy returned with a vengeance after a poor Week 2 performance. If you're new to IDP leagues, this is what you're going to get from nearly every defensive end not named J.J. Watt. The elite defensive end prospects -- like Hardy -- will give you 9-10 very nice weeks. But there are going to be some head-scratchingly maddening lines mixed in-between. Ride out the eye of the hurricane. There's another storm coming on the other side.
One of the most vexing IDP situations this year has been the total lack of production from Geno Atkins, who's put up one sack and one assisted tackle in three favorable matchups. I'm not sure I have a handle on what's different this year. Teams are clearly paying more attention to Atkins and finding ways to double and chip him along the interior line. There are also snaps where it looks like Atkins has given up on the pass rush before it starts. But that's not necessarily unusual for a defensive tackle. There were enough good signs in Atkins' pass rush in the first two weeks to chalk it up to an unlucky start. Last week's game against the Packers was a different story. Sam Monson raised an interesting question on Twitter on Tuesday, wondering aloud if Atkins was tasked with keeping Rodgers fixed in the pocket, i.e. not letting him step up and to the outside. I've never seen that with a defensive tackle, especially one so explosive around center like Atkins, but Monson saw snaps that looked like Atkins was playing a two-gap like technique with his eyes on Rodgers. If Atkins blows up against Cleveland this week, it could be that Monson was on to something. Atkins is too good to drop, but I won't argue if you want to sit him in favor of a Jurrell Casey or Jason Hatcher while the situation sorts itself out.
The Bengals played at home last week. Vontaze Burfict finished 10-1, Rey Maualuga 8-0. Why is this notable? Not because Maualuga played in the nickel package -- he didn't. What's notable is that it could be a sign of a change in the weather in the home stat crew in Cincinnati. Notorious for awarding more assisted tackles than solos for the past two seasons, the Packers were awarded 36 solos and 12 assists last week. The Bengals finished the game with 53 solos and just 9 assists. This wasn't a wide open game with plays being made in the open field from start to finish either. The two teams combined for 54 rush attempts. I've been down on Burfict over the past two seasons because he'd been at risk of a 1-7 line in every home game. If that's changing, Burfict's value will rise into every-week LB2+ range.
Barkevious Mingo has some work to do -- as most young pass rushers do as they adjust to the NFL -- but the raw talent is there. His stat line wasn't as brilliant as it looked. He was awarded one solo for falling on Adrian Peterson and sitting on him after a play had ended and Christian Ponder had as much to do with his sack as Mingo himself did. But the Browns are already trusting him with lots of rotational snaps. Last week, those snaps came at the expense of Jabaal Sheard, who looked tremendous again off the edge.
Anthony Spencer is undergoing microfracture surgery and will be out for the season. I was looking forward to seeing how well he'd play in the Tampa-2, but it gives us a long look at George Selvie. Selvie has played well since the beginning of the preseason and could be a DL2 for the rest of the season. And it'll help to play opposite DeMarcus Ware and outside of Jason Hatcher. But I have some concern that he'll hold up over 700+ snaps. He deserves to be rostered, but don't hesitate to jump off the bandwagon if it starts to go off course. Hatcher's start (nine solos, three sacks) is legitimate. He's a great fit at three-technique. If you didn't take a flyer on him as your DT2 in the preseason and he's still on the free agent list, he's clearly a must add.
Duke Ihenacho left last week's game early after aggravating his ankle injury. Whether it was precautionary given the lopsided score against Oakland or something more concerning is hard to say. Watch his practice reports closely this week. Nate Irving had a nice game between the tackles, but his snap count hasn't increased. He's not a strong waiver wire add.
If this is what Jim Washburn can do with an inexperienced but talented player like Ezekiel Ansah -- another three solos and two sacks with a forced fumble last week -- in just a few weeks, the sky is the limit for Ansah by year's end. His first step continues to look impressive, his pad level is nearly always better than the opposing lineman and his closing speed looks better than it did at BYU -- where it was strikingly good. It'll be hard to keep him out of my elite tier next week. With Jason Jones out for the year, Willie Young is going to get more snaps. He's a strong edge rusher and will be working with Ansah, Ndamukong Suh (who finally had a stat line reflective of his strong effort last week) and Nick Fairley. Big play leaguers take note.
Other than the stellar play of J.J. Watt, which is again being reflected in the box scores after a so-so Week 1 result, and the long-awaited emergence of Brian Cushing, there's not much to see in Houston. Ed Reed was back this week, bumping Shiloh Keo into a rotational role, but the back seven rotation was otherwise unchanged. Reed's presence could allow Danieal Manning to see more snaps near the box. If that happens, Manning could become a strong matchup play.
Delano Howell started for LaRon Landry rather than Joe Lefeged. There's nothing to see there. Pat Angerer's frustrating career continues; he missed last week with a knee injury. Kelvin Sheppard started but was a mess against the run again. A healthy Kavell Conner may start seeing base defensive snaps again if Angerer can't return this week.
I'm having a hard time getting excited about the IDP value of anyone on this defense despite the likely high opportunity. Paul Posluszny and Jonathan Cyprien are probably every-week starters. Geno Hayes, who is still an every-down player over Russell Allen, may be on the verge of every-week LB2 value, too.
Three weeks into the season, Justin Houston has 16 solos, 7.5 sacks and a handful of additional peripheral stats. He's been far and away the most valuable player in big play heavy leagues and jumped to the top overall IDP in balanced scoring systems with last week's monster performance on Thursday night. The torrid pace isn't going to continue, but this is no fluke. I noted in the preseason that Houston's ten sacks last year came on just 352 pass rush chances and that he was likely to see his opportunity jump significantly this year. According to ProFootballFocus, Houston has had 96 pass rush chances already. That puts him on pace for over 500 pass rushes for the season. That pace won't hold -- and neither will his current one sack per 12 pass rush rate -- but he'll get enough chances to continue to have LB2++ value in balanced and big play leagues alike.
Cameron Wake sprained his MCL in the first series last week and couldn't get any push after that. He left the game after just a handful of snaps. He will reportedly try to play in passing situations this week, but the injury could limit him for two weeks or more. The New Orleans matchup isn't very favorable anyway. We may not see him back in form until after the team's Week 6 bye. Dion Jordan should benefit from Wake's absence. Jordan looked very good again, this time in an expanded role, last week. He'll get a chance to prove he's ready for extended rotational time over the next two weeks.
Desmond Bishop is slowly working his way into a larger rotation. It may be too late to matter, however, as Erin Henderson and Harrison Smith will make it difficult for Bishop to fill up a stat line even if he earns the start in the base defense. Jared Allen put up a 0-0-0 line last week. He matched up against Joe Thomas all day. Though Thomas got off to a rocky start in the first two weeks, he was in full form against Allen. Put Allen back in your lineup against Pittsburgh this week.
new england patriots
There's nothing of note in New England but I feel compelled to note that Dont'a Hightower is still playing in the nickel packages after Brandon Spikes put up a 5-2 stat line last week.
new orleans saints
I've written about it frequently this offseason, but it's still an under-appreciated theme. The number of elite 5-technique linemen in the league is higher than it's been in a long time. J.J. Watt leads the way, but Cameron Jordan isn't far behind. I argued that he was worthy of fantasy lineups last week and he put up another strong week against Arizona with three solos and two sacks. Jonathan Martin should be another good matchup for him this week.
New york giants
The Giants are using some creative alignments with their fronts, showing some 3-4 looks with Justin Tuck standing up and reducing both defensive ends over the guards in a 46-like look to get more favorable matchups. It's working for Tuck and the line has been getting a little better push inside. Jason Pierre-Paul still isn't his explosive edge-rushing self off the edge. While it's fair to wonder how much his back injury has taken off his speed rush, there have been a number of strong bull rushes over the past two weeks and he's been active in pursuit. We'll know soon whether he's rounding into form or no longer the elite edge rushing force he once was. There's nothing new in the linebacker group. All four players in the New York rotation are playing between 60-80% of the defensive snaps.
The Guru called it. Despite nearly every media outlet speculating that Usama Young would replace Tyvon Branch, it was Brandion Ross. Though there wasn't a big box score for Ross, those who pre-emptively grabbed Young can move on. Charles Woodson moved to strong safety, put up the big numbers and is clearly the better option. Nick Roach rebounded nicely this week and remains a solid LB3+.
The speed offense was supposed to bump the value of opposing IDPs. It has, but only to a small extent through three weeks. Somewhat surprisingly, it's been the defense that's benefited from the style of play. The Eagles are seeing a way above average 61 tackle opportunities a week. That's boosted the numbers of Mychal Kendricks, who may be missing as many tackles as he's made, DeMeco Ryans and both Patrick Chung and Nate Allen. Kendricks has the best spot in the defense and should continue to put up numbers, but I'd be leery of the rest of the Philadelphia defenders in weeks where the matchup favors their offense sustaining drives. Chung is already back on the injury report with a shoulder issue. I advocated looking for a buyer last week. It may now be too late.
Geno Atkins has generated the most mail in my inbox, but James Laurinaitis is a very close second. I think there are a handful of things happening here. First, Laurinaitis is a very good linebacker, but he's not as strikingly instinctive or as effective in coverage as Patrick Willis or Sean Lee. He'll throw a stinker in now and then, as all inside linebackers will. And I don't think his first two weeks, though they resulted in only 11 total solos and a pass defensed, were poor efforts. Laurinaitis played downhill in those games and shed blocks well. Last week was a different story. Laurinaitis was tentative between the tackles and didn't disengage from a fairly average interior Dallas line. After the game, it was reported that he had a foot injury. If that's the case, and the injury is minor, we could see him return to form quickly. If not, he may not be back to LB1 form until after Week 5's matchup against the Jaguars.
Donald Butler was a late scratch on Sunday, but the Chargers didn't get him on the inactive list in time. Reggie Walker started and was the lone every down linebacker, with Bront Bird again a base defensive player only. Walker is replacement level NFL talent, but there's no one else to make tackles other than him and Eric Weddle. If Butler is out again this week, Walker is a LB2 caliber play against Dallas. Manti Te'o is close to returning from his foot sprain, but may be limited in his first games back.
The Niners will be without two critical players this week. Patrick Willis left last week's game with a groin injury and is unlikely to suit up against St. Louis. Aldon Smith is on indefinite leave in alcohol rehab. Michael Wilhoite replaced Willis and played in all packages. He's not going to provide the numbers that Larry Grant did when Willis was out two seasons ago. Dan Skuta (base) and Corey Lemonier (subpackages) will fill in for Smith. Lemonier may have matchup value in big play leagues, but the main upgrades here will go to NaVorro Bowman and Eric Reid.
I wrote about my Bobby Wagner concerns last week, noting that you should consider sitting him unless you're betting on a big play. Wagner managed to find nine total tackles (three solos) and an interception despite sitting out a good number of second half snaps. I'm not any less concerned about Wagner's potential high variance stat lines over the long term, but he's a strong play in Houston this week. Chris Clemons played sparingly but is back on the radar in big play leagues. Cliff Avril was healthy enough to play nearly every down before the Seahawks pulled their starters.
I noted the strong run support numbers of Mark Barron in last week's column. Those continued last week against the Patriots. It's also notable that when the Buccaneers go to their dime package, they are often dropping Barron into the box as a hybrid linebacker. If the Bucs' season implodes, that could turn Barron into a 90 solo tackle safety. Adrian Clayborn is still inconsistent on the field, but is playing nearly every down and doing enough good things to have an impact in the box score. He's on the verge of being an every-down DL2.
Before the season, I projected Colin McCarthy and Zach Brown as the Titans' nickel linebackers. Had you told me that, in Week 3, McCarthy and Brown would be on the active 53 and that Moise Fokou would be the lone linebacker in the team's primary subpackage, I'd have wondered if you read the jersey numbers wrong. Yet that's exactly what happened. Fokou left with what looked like a stinger for a handful of plays over two series in the first half -- during which time McCarthy played in all packages and was far from inspiring -- but he's the lone trustworthy option right now in Tennessee. The Titans went to a dime package with three safeties, including another 30+ snap day for George Wilson, and sat Zach Brown on passing downs. Despite his flashes of dominance, I think Brown has been worse in run support than in coverage since joining the starting lineup and I've no idea why the change was made. It may be a one week game plan issue (Brown was on the injury report with an illness, but fully practiced Thursday and Friday) and the Titans aren't likely to play much dime against a Jets offense that rarely spreads the field but I'd be leery of Brown in my lineup this week.
There are two things of note with the Washington defense this week. Neither are happy thoughts. The first I've written many times before -- start a Washington safety at your own risk. Bacarri Rambo was one of the best IDP values available through two weeks. Last week, Rambo didn't play a defensive snap. Instead, Washington opted to play three corners or use Josh Wilson at safety. Brandon Meriweather may be the safest option, but his durability issues are worrisome. The second note flies in the face of last week's stat line, but I think the days of London Fletcher as an every-week fantasy LB2 are over. Through three games, Fletcher has struggled to keep pace with the speed and spread offenses of PHI, GB and DET. He's flashed between the tackles, but his range and ability to shed blocks have declined. If you can sell him on the strength of his 4-4-1 "rebound" performance against Detroit, do so. If not, consider him an option in Washington where the stat keepers will pump his stat line full of assisted tackles.
Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our weekly IDP podcast here every Thursday for injury updates, player analysis and matchup discussion. Check my article page on Sunday morning for notes on every team's key injuries, depth chart changes and IDP expectations. Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel.