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PLEASE NOTE: This does NOT replace the Cheatsheet ranking. The Cheatsheet rankings are the final say on where we see a player for that week. The Matchup Breakdowns are simply one more tool in the box when it comes to helping choose your lineup.
Also note, just because a player has a "bad" matchup, it does NOT mean he's not a starter in your league. If Aaron Rodgers is playing the toughest pass defense in the league, that just means he's got a tough matchup that week. He's also your starter unless you're loaded at QB. In the same way, if the worst QB on your roster has a "great" matchup that week, it doesn't necessarily mean he's your starter. It means we think he'll fare better than normal that week.
Bottom line is that the cheatsheets are the final say.
ARIZONA CARDINALS RUSHING OFFENSE VS Detroit Lions RUSHING DEFENSE (Good MATCHUP)
After accounting for 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns, David Johnson enters this season with high expectations to see if he can maintain his level of dominance from 2016. Johnson will be running behind most of the same offensive lineman as the Cardinals return four of their five starters from last season. Left guard Mike Iupati was a big reason for Johnson’s success as he is one of the best-run blockers in the league. However, Iupati is dealing with an arm injury that could sideline him for this first game, so that is something to keep an eye on coming into Sunday.
The Lions rushing defense was mediocre in 2016 and can be expected to remain as such in 2016 despite a number of changes on the defensive line. Both starting defensive ends from 2016 are gone, with a big lack of experience coming with their replacements. The interior of this line is led by Haloti Ngata, but he struggled mightily last season and is approaching retirement. The Lions linebacker group is completely shifted around this season as well, with two new faces in Paul Worrilow and rookie Jarrod Davis who is expected to fill the gap at middle linebacker. David Johnson and the stout Cardinals offensive line should be expected to win this matchup against a transitioning and mediocre Lions front seven. Weather: Inside University of Phoenix Stadium weather is not a concern for either team.
Atlanta Falcons RUSHING OFFENSE VS Chicago Bears Rushing Defense (GREAT MATCHUP)
The Falcons are expected to continue to run out their two headed monsters of running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in this game. In 2016, the stats between the two players was largely skewed and it could be due to a low sample size but Devonta Freeman had ten touchdowns at home and only one touchdown on the road. Meanwhile, Tevin Coleman had two touchdowns at home and six on the road so they were almost an exact opposite as Coleman scored a vast majority of his touchdowns on the road while Freeman scored a majority of his touchdowns at home. We should not expect this to continue as we head into 2016 as it is likely the case of a small sample size, but it is something to note in case the trend continues. In the offseason, the Falcons did not do much as they spent most of the 2015 offseason improving their offensive line with the addition of Alex Mack. The biggest change in the offseason as Kyle Shanahan leaving to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Sarkisian takes over as the offensive coordinator and it still remains to be seen what impact this will have to the prolific running game we saw last year as Sarkisian has spent a majority of his career in college football. In college, he managed prolific running attacks with Buck Allen at USC and Bishop Sankey at Washington so he has a tendency to run the ball heavily it just needs to be seen if he will continue this trend in the NFL.
On the defensive side, the Bears ranked 27th in terms of rushing yards allowed and 29th in terms of DVOA in 2016. This is a defensive unit that really struggles against the run and with the Vegas line being as high as it is we may see a heavy dosage of running in this game. In the offseason, the Bears did nothing to improve their front seven and while they did sign Quintin Demps who is a solid run stopping safety, the problems persist on the defensive line. The Bears do get Pernell McPhee back from injury after missing the 2016 season, but McPhee is not expected to start for this team as he will be backing up Willie Young. This should be a matchup that the Falcons will be able to exploit especially if they get up late as they will be able to continue to run the ball. Both Coleman and Freeman should see significant volume in this game.
Baltimore Ravens RUSHING OFFENSE AT Cincinnati Bengals RUSHING DEFENSE (Neutral MATCHUP)
The Baltimore running game is in flux. Terrance West will lead the show, with Danny Woodhead playing more on passing downs. But West doesn’t have much going for him beyond volume potential. He’s never spent a season above 4.0 yards per rush on any of his 3 rosters, and he’s never boasted a touchdown rate north of 2.6%. Simply put, he doesn’t offer much hope for efficiency and lacks dynamism. And he’ll be running behind a line that lacks continuity – the projected starters didn’t play a snap together in the preseason. West could certainly see the overwhelming bulk of Baltimore rushes but still struggle to produce. Woodhead brings some ceiling to the table – he averaged 4.5 receptions and 61.8 scrimmage yards per game in San Diego. But it’s hard to know how effective he’ll be while nursing a hamstring injury. Buck Allen, who was extremely productive in the passing game two years ago, could become a factor in the backfield as soon as Sunday.
Cincinnati struggled to stop the run for much of 2016, and they’ll open the season with virtually the same personnel, minus do-it-all inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Nose tackle Pat Sims is capable but can be moved in the run game, and the Bengals could falter up the middle without Burfict. They also struggled to slow receiving backs last year, allowing 5.8 receptions and the 7th-most PPR receiving points to the position. All three prominent Ravens backs deserve a noticeable value boost in receiving potential alone.
Buffalo Bills RUSHING OFFENSE AT New York Jets RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
The Bills rushing attack will again be led by LeSean McCoy in 2017. Last season, McCoy led the league with 5.4 yards per carry among running backs with at least 200 attempts on his way to a fifth 1,000+ yard season. With the departure of Mike Gillislee and release of Jonathan Williams, McCoy may actually see an expanded role around the goal line this year after only receiving 31% of carries within five yards of the end zone in 2016. Mike Tolbert is still there and will see some snaps on short yardage situations, but a healthy McCoy will see the vast majority of the work in Week 1. The Bills also sport a top tier offensive line, led by Pro Bowl left guard Richie Incognito.
The Jets defensive line is the strength of their defense, even after the trade of Sheldon Richardson. Leonard Williams is no doubt an elite talent, and likely the best player on that defense. Muhammed Wilkerson is another piece of that line who should bounce back in 2017 after struggling with an ankle injury last season. The Jets allowed less than 100 rushing yards per game in 2016 while averaging only 3.7 yards allowed per carry (T-4th) and forcing a league high 12 fumbles against opposing rushers. Despite the loss of Richardson, the Jets run defense should still be solid this season. Please refer to the NFL's injury report for the latest injury news regarding your players.
Carolina Panthers RUSHING OFFENSE AT San Francisco 49ers RUSHING DEFENSE (GREAT MATCHUP)
The Panthers will draw a great matchup against the 49ers this week. The 49ers owned the clear cut worst rushing defense in the league last season, allowing league-high 4.8 yards per carry and 165.9 rushing yards per game (a full 23 yards above the next closest defense). They tried to make some significant upgrades in the draft this year by using their first two picks on defensive lineman Soloman Thomas and Linebacker Reuben Foster. With a complete coaching overhaul, the 49ers will also be switching to a 4-3 defensive scheme this season. Despite all of the change, it would be tough to bet on all of this meshing right out of the gate.
The Panthers rushing offense was top-10 last season, averaging 113.3 rushing yards per game with Jonathan Stewart leading the charge. Cam Newton significantly scaled back his rushing attempts last season (from averaging 120 rush attempts per year to 90 in 2016). While he will still contribute with his legs more than the average quarterback, it would be ambitious to expect another 600+ rushing yard season as he continues to age. The Panthers offensive line will see a big change this season as they spent up to acquire left tackle Matt Kalil—brother to the Panthers center Ryan Kalil. Highly touted second round draft pick Taylor Moton will also be competing for some time.
The most notable offseason addition for the Panthers has to be first round draft pick, Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey looks to add more depth in their backfield while opening up an entirely new dimension of the offense via his pass catching ability (Stewart caught only 8 balls last season). McCaffrey is listed as the starter, but he and Stewart were used fairly evenly in Week 3 of the preseason. Stewart outshined McCaffrey in this appearance as he rushed for an impressive 31-yard gain on his second carry. There should be enough work to go around for both of them in this week’s great matchup.
Chicago Bears RUSHING OFFENSE VS Atlanta Falcons RUSHING DEFENSE (GOOD MATCHUP)
The Bears found a gem in fifth round draft pick Jordan Howard in 2016 as he finished second in total rushing yards only to fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott. The Bears are expected to run behind Howard frequently this season as he is their best player on this offense. The Bears return all five starting offensive lineman and heading into this season, Footballguy Matt Bitonti had the Bears ranked as the 12th best offensive line in football headlined by Pro Bowlers Josh Sitton and Kyle Long at the guard positions. Second round draft pick Cody Whitehair is entering his second season after a very strong rookie season after being selected to the All-Rookie Team. The issue for this game is that Kyle Long is banged up and may not play in this game as Long is still returning from an ankle injury. If Long is unable to go, this will be a big loss for the Bears as the three time Pro Bowler will cause issues on the offensive line and ultimately will negatively impact Howard.
On the defensive side, the Falcons ranked 17th in rushing defense as they allowed 104.5 yards per game but ranked as the fourth-worst defense against the run using DVOA adjusting for the Falcons schedule. The Falcons made a big improvement on the defensive side of the ball adding Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford two run stopping defensive lineman. The team also solidified their defensive front seven through the draft adding Takkarist McKinley who adds athleticism to the line and while he is mostly a pass rusher he should allow for a deeper rotation on the line. Grady Jarrett is an emerging star at defensive tackle and the combination of Jarrett and Poe should improve this defense against the run, but we are taking a wait and see approach with this team early in the year.
CincinNati Bengals RUSHING OFFENSE VS Baltimore Ravens RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
The Cincinnati running game has fallen off exponentially over the past two years. They’ve been saddled with one of the league’s worst lines, then lost their two best linemen to free agency this March. But that slump also can be attributed to Jeremy Hill’s massive fall since his rookie 2014. Hill simply doesn’t look like a dynamic NFL runner; at best, he’s a solid grinder incapable of overcoming his woeful front line. Rookie Joe Mixon offers huge upgrades in athleticism and versatility – he could be electric enough to create the yardage Hill couldn’t. Giovani Bernard lurks as a bit of a wild card, and he could do damage against a Ravens defense that allowed 88 receptions to backs last year.
The Ravens boast one of the league’s top run-defending units. It’s in transition – they’re breaking in a new inside linebacker (Kamalei Correa) next to C.J. Mosley, as well as a new strong safety in Tony Jefferson. But the rest of their run defense returns intact, and it’s a powerful one. They finished 2016 fifth-best in the league in yardage, yards per rush, and rushing touchdowns allowed. Nose tackle Brandon Williams, an often elite run-stuffer, could have a field day with the Bengals’ weak interior.
Cleveland Browns RUSHING OFFENSE VS Pittsburgh Steelers RUSHING DEFENSE (Neutral MATCHUP)
Isaiah Crowell's productivity was absolutely up-and-down in 2016, so he's not often a very confident start. But there's reason for some Week 1 optimism against the Steelers' occasionally leaky run unit. The Browns have assembled a truly elite front line, fortified this offseason with stud guard Kevin We'll see just how much volume Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr can muster in a game script likely to be poor, but we can project a solid chance at efficiency. The outlook isn't as strong, however, for new quarterback DeShone Kizer's rushing. The Steelers tend to neutralize running QBs rather effectively.
The Steelers defense is developing quickly into an upper-tier unit, but can still be gashed by the run. They finished 2016 around the middle of the statistical pack but allowed mammoth rushing lines to several great backs. Crowell himself managed 152 yards in their Week 17 overtime meeting. Lawrence Timmons' release could leave the Steelers a bit more vulnerable up the gut, as well.
Dallas Cowboys RUSHING OFFENSE VS New York Giants RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
Despite all the offseason drama, Ezekiel Elliott will get to start this game against the Giants on Sunday night. Elliott was very impressive in his rookie campaign, accounting for a league leading 1,631 rushing yards with 14 rushes of 20 or more yards. It helps that Elliott is running behind the league’s clear-cut top offensive line, ranked first with an A+ run block rating by Matt Bitonti of Footballguys. Darren McFadden may see a few snaps to spell Elliott as he tunes up for what should be his backfield for the next six games thereafter, but the majority of carries in Week 1 will now firmly belong to Elliott.
The Giants defense played very well down the stretch last season as their pricey 2016 additions began to finally pay off. They were much quieter during this year's offseason, but one notable addition includes their second round draft pick of Dalvin Tomlinson, who is expected to replace Johnathan Hankins. The Giants allowed only 88.6 rushing yards per game and 3.6 rushing yards per attempt last season—ranking them within the top four in both categories. Much of that success against the run can be attributed to one of the league’s best interior defenders, Damon Harrison. Harrison stopped the run at a rate of 15.8% last season—the best among all interior defenders. The only question for the Giants’ ability to stop the run would be at linebacker, as they failed to address that position at all during this offseason amidst all the other upgrades made. Despite this, they have one of the best front four in football and must be considered a tough matchup even for one of the best running backs in the game.
Denver Broncos RUSHING OFFENSE VS Los ANgeles Chargers RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
The Broncos rushing attack is led by C.J. Anderson once again this season as he is returning from a torn meniscus that cost him his season having just played seven games. Anderson has not returned to the elite form that we saw in 2014, as his 2015 campaign was splitting carries with Ronnie Hillman, and then the injury derailed his 2016 season. This is a big year for Anderson as he looks to establish a longevity as an NFL starter. From an offensive line standpoint, the Broncos let King Dunlap walk away in the offseason and drafted rookie Garrett Bolles to replace him. Matt Bitonti Footballguys offensive line expert sees this as a potential negative for the Broncos as he has the Broncos ranked as the 19th best offensive line heading into the season while he had them as the 11th best offensive line towards the end of last season.
The Chargers run defense is a good one as they allowed just 97.9 yards per game in 2016 which ranked 10th among teams in the NFL. In the offseason, the team did not do much to replace former starting linebacker Manti Te’o who was injured early in the 2016 season. This is largely due to Korey Toomer stepping up and filling in as a strong replacement for Te’o. This is a defense that is expected to continue to be a good one against the run as a strong defensive line leads the way with Joey Bosa, Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget heading up the group as well as Melvin Ingram III playing near the offensive line.
Detroit Lions RUSHING OFFENSE VS Arizona Cardinals RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
The Lions are typically one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league, and that is not expected to change much this season as they plan to start a committee of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick again this year. Abdullah will receive the majority of the carries as he looks to return after missing most of the 2016 season with a foot injury. He looked great in the preseason, averaging 4.6 yards per carry for 60- yards while catching three passes for 39 yards in the Lions' preseason Week 3 game. Theo Riddick will not receive many carries but should be the primary third down and pass-catching back. The Lions offensive line is in tough shape due to the loss of left tackle Taylor Decker (torn labrum). Former first round draft pick Greg Robinson was acquired from the Rams to fill the gap left by Decker's loss, however, Robinson proved to be a massive failure in Los Angeles.
The Cardinals defense is one of the best units in the league, however a big question mark this season will be their ability to stop the run. After allowing the league’s second fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.6) last season, the Cardinals would hope to repeat in 2017. However, the loss of Pro Bowler Calais Campbell in free agency was a huge blow to the interior of this defensive line. Their 2016 first round draft pick Robert Nkemdiche will be called on to replace Campbell, however, his status for Week 1 is still uncertain due to a calf injury. The Cardinals linebackers remain consistent from 2016 this year, with the addition of first round draft pick Haasan Reddick who could snag some playing time. With as good as this defense is overall, it will still be a challenge for the Lions—but the big questions marks on the interior of this defensive line make this a Neutral matchup for Week 1.
Green Bay Packers RUSHING OFFENSE VS Seattle Seahawks RUSHING DEFENSE (Bad MATCHUP)
The Packers will start the season with Ty Montgomery as their lead running back. Montgomery is used heavily in the passing game, so expect him to be spelled by either Jamaal Williams or Aaron Jones. Montgomery has looked great in preseason, rushing for an impressive 25-yard run in Week 3 while converting his only goal line carry for a touchdown. The Packers offensive line has question marks on the interior, but a solid presence on the outside in David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.
Despite the good vibes for the Packers rushing offense, they will run into a buzz saw this week as the Seahawks are sporting one of the most talented defensive fronts in football. The Seahawks were dominant against the run last season, allowing a league best 3.4 yards per attempt. Only a few days before Week 1, their defensive line added, even more, talent with the trade involving former pro-bowler Sheldon Richardson. Richardson alongside Jarran Reed on the inside with pro-bowlers Clint Avril and Michael Bennett on the edges will prove to be a tough challenge for even the best of offensive lines to deal with this season. In addition to the talent on this defensive line, the Seahawks return most of their other defensive starters, all of whom contributed significantly to their ability to stop the run last season. While Ty Montgomery will certainly be targeted out of the backfield, do not expect much success with him rushing the ball this week.
Houston Texans RUSHING OFFENSE VS Jacksonville Jaguars RUSHING DEFENSE (NEUTRAL MATCHUP)
In 2016, the Texans running game carried them all the way to the playoffs as the team had the eighth most yards per game rushing. In 2017, the story is a lot of the same as the rushing offense for the Texans is going to be based on how many carries Lamar Miller can handle this week as both backup running backs D’Onta Foreman and Alfred Blue are highly questionable for this game leaving Miller as the only healthy running back for the Texans. If Foreman or Blue is able to go Jordan Todman and Tyler Ervin will be expected to be active although neither of these players will be a threat to cut into Miller’s workload if he stays healthy. One additional situation to watch is the status of All-Pro Duane Brown who is in a contract holdout. It seems unlikely that he will play, and if he does not our Matt Bitonti warns that the Texans offensive line ranking will drop to 28th for this week compared to 12th if he were on the field.
The Jaguars defense was 19th against the run in 2016 allowing 106.4 yards per game rushing. They did see a need to improve this as they brought in Calais Campbell who has been regarded as a very good run defender. The other improvement that the Jaguars made in the offseason was bringing in A.J. Bouye and solidifying up the secondary which should allow less pressure on the cornerbacks and allow the linebackers to focus on stopping the run more in this game. While it is still largely unknown how the defense is going to come together with three new starters expectations are that based on the amount of money the Jaguars spent in the offseason their defense will be better this upcoming season.
Indianapolis Colts RUSHING OFFENSE AT Los Angeles Rams RUSHING DEFENSE (Bad MATCHUP)
Frank Gore is entering his 13th season as an NFL running back which is amazing considering the number of hits he has taken throughout his career. In 2016, the Colts ranked 23rd in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per carry at just 4.0 yards per carry. This is a team who is setup to pass first and run second which may prove to be even more difficult without Andrew Luck in this game. Gore relies on the offensive line to create holes as he is no longer the elusive running back that he once was and without Luck, this could create problems as the defense may bring more guys into the box than they otherwise would have to have to respect the arm of Luck. From an offseason perspective, the Colts did not make any significant changes to their offensive line other than changes due to injuries. The team gets Jack Mewhort back after a knee injury cost him most of 2016 which is a big upgrade for the Colts as Mewhort is a terrific offensive guard and someone that should help the running game. Just when the Colts were getting Mewhort back, they are losing former first round center Ryan Kelly who is week to week with a foot injury. The Colts are starting undrafted free agent Deyshawn Bond at center which having a new center and quarterback could lead to issues for this offense in this game.
The Rams defense was the second best against the run in 2016 allowing just 78.3 yards per game. The team does have a new head coach in Sean McVay, but McVay brought in Wade Phillips who is widely regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in football. This is a defense that should continue to be a very tough matchup led by a strong front seven and safeties who are very good run defenders in LaMarcus Joyner and Mo Alexander.
Jacksonville Jaguars RUSHING OFFENSE VS Houston Texans RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
The Jaguars running attack is a big question heading into the 2017 season as while the team spent a fourth overall pick on Leonard Fournette he has been dealing with a foot injury and has not played since week one of the Preseason. Fournette who has a long history of injury dating back to college has not produced well when dealing with injury dating back to college as his production has declined. The Jaguars thought they had improved their offensive line which was a weak spot in 2016 with the trade of Branden Albert, but he subsequently retired after trying to re-negotiate a new contract. This was a big loss for the offensive line and Matt Bitonti has this group ranked as his sixth worst offensive line heading into 2017.
In 2016, Houston had one of the best defenses in football and the 12th best rushing defense allowing just 99.7 rushing yards per game. This was largely done without J.J. Watt, so the Texans' defensive line should be much better than it was last year. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney should cause all sort of problems for the Jaguars offensive line. The linebackers led by Bernardrick McKinney are a great cohesive unit who have all played with each other for the last two seasons and should be even better than they were last season.
Kansas City Chiefs RUSHING OFFENSE AT New England Patriots RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
Kansas City’s rushing production stumbled a bit in 2016 from head coach Andy Reid’s high expectations. His offenses had finished top-10 in rushing yardage in 5 of the previous 6 years but fell to 15th last year. They’d been top-3 in rushing touchdowns in each of those 5 years but landed just 13th in 2016. There’s reason for optimism, though. The team hopes rookie Kareem Hunt will be a talent upgrade on Spencer Ware, and that’s certainly possible. Ware was a part-time player in college and a sub par tested athlete, while Hunt carried Toledo’s offense for much of his school career. On Thursday night, the team will utilize a two-headed monster of Hunt and Charcandrick West, a SPARQ superstar who’s underwhelmed through three seasons.
The Patriots allowed very few raw fantasy points in 2016, but that was due in part to their frequent leads forcing opponents to abandon the run. That game script also nudged them to allow the second-most receptions to running backs, though, so there’s still some potential value in Kansas City backs. Still, the Patriots have finished in the league’s upper third in yards-per-rush allowed in each of the last three years. Between the expected game flow and the tough personnel matchup, Kansas City can’t project to much efficiency – and iffy volume – from its backs.
Los Angeles Chargers RUSHING OFFENSE AT Denver Broncos RUSHING DEFENSE (Good MATCHUP)
Melvin Gordon is returning from injury after his season was cut short last season with a sprained PCL. Gordon took a huge step forward in 2016 after a largely disappointing 2015 rookie campaign. In the offseason, the Chargers have rebuilt part of their offensive line as they had intended to replace King Dunlap and D.J. Fluker with Russell Okung and rookie second round pick Forrest Lamp. Lamp went down with a season-ending knee injury, so Kenny Wiggins will be taking his spot as the right guard on this team. This is not a move that Footballguys offensive line guru Matt Bitonti thinks is an upgrade as he has the Chargers ranked as the 19th best offensive line while he had them ranked as the 12th best offensive line towards the end of last season.
The Chargers go up against a Denver defense that can be run on as we saw at times last season. The Broncos gave up the fifth most yardage rushing in the NFL at 130.3 yards per game and while the Broncos did add nose tackle Domata Peko Sr to their defensive line so he should help a little bit, but this is a team that is all about shutting down the pass and rushing the quarterback.
Los Angeles Rams RUSHING OFFENSE VS Indianapolis Colts RUSHING DEFENSE (Great MATCHUP)
Todd Gurley had a season to forget in 2016 after his breakout season as a rookie in 2015. Gurley averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season and while he did become more involved as a pass receiver catching 43 passes, he was largely a disappointment. Heading into the 2017 season Gurley is expected to improve, but the big concern is the offensive line as Matt Bitonti has the Rams rated as the 26th best offensive line in the NFL heading into the season. This was the same issue that the Rams had last season as they were rated 28th last season towards the end of the year.
The good news for the Rams is that the matchup is one of the best matchups that they will see all season. The Colts were 25th against the run last season allowing 120.4 yards per game and ranked 30th in yards per carry at 4.7 yards per carry. The Colts lost Då˜†well Jackson in the offseason, and while he was not a great linebacker his specialty was stopping the run. The Colts signed veteran inside linebacker Sean Spence only to cut him a few weeks later, and also signed Jon Bostic who has not started since 2014. Bostic will be starting alongside fifth-round rookie Anthony Walker at middle linebacker. There are a lot of unknowns for the Colts heading into this game and with largely inexperienced middle linebackers this could pose a problem for the Colts in what is already a bad run defense.
Miami Dolphins RUSHING OFFENSE VS Tampa Bay Buccaneers RUSHING DEFENSE (Good MATCHUP)
Jay Ajayi broke out in a big way in 2016, of course, averaging 105.0 rushing yards over his 11 starts. But it’s worth noting just how sporadic his excellence was. A whopping 49.1% of his rushing yardage came across his three 200-yard games, and he failed to top 4.0 yards per rush in 6 of his 15 contests. The Miami offensive line was extremely inconsistent and again looks a bit overmatched, and it’s worth noting that Laremy Tunsil, who excelled at guard last season, will kick outside to left tackle in 2017. That would again leave the line undermanned on the interior, where they’ll be needed against the Buccaneers’ dynamic defensive tackle duo. Still, we can’t merely turn up our noses at Ajayi’s 2016 dynamism, and it may be wise not to overthink this matchup. He’s probably locked into a floor around 65-70 ground yards, which would likely help make for a solid (if low-end) RB1 performance.
Despite boasting two tackle-hungry vultures in their front seven, the Buccaneers were routinely gashed by opposing running games in 2016. Of their 16 opponents last year, 12 topped 100 ground yards, so Ajayi carries a strong Week 1 outlook. Tampa Bay’s front line is built for penetration and pass-rushing and lacks a true nose tackle to control gaps, leaving most of the run-stuffing burden on the linebackers at the second level. It doesn’t help that stud defensive tackle McCoy was slowed late in the preseason by a groin injury. The Miami offensive line may struggle in a vacuum, but even marginal play should create plenty of cutback lanes for Ajayi to us
Minnesota Vikings RUSHING OFFENSE VS New Orleans Saints RUSHING DEFENSE (NEUTRAL MATCHUP)
The Saints defense carries a reputation for being porous and weak, and many running games have indeed posted big numbers against them of late. However, this Minnesota offense may not yet be up to that task. The Saints are burned far more by touchdowns than by overall production, and the slow-paced Vikings don’t project to impressive volume or much short-yardage opportunity. (Nor are they prolific in short yardage; last year, they converted just 8 of 24 rushes from inside the 5 – tied for the third-worst rate in the league.) There are still big concerns up and down the offensive line, as well, which has been rebuilt this offseason and will need to develop cohesion. And with the underneath-oriented Sam Bradford under center, there’s not much of a downfield presence in the passing game to open up the box. Still, rookie Dalvin Cook looks like a sure talent upgrade over their recent runners, which offers hope of transcending those trends.
Like the Vikings, the Saints carry a run defense that’s better than its 2016 numbers suggest – only in reverse. As a result, Cook might not get the “Saints bump” many short sighted fantasy owners come to expect weekly. New Orleans allowed the third-most fantasy points to running backs, but most of it came through touchdown and receiving production. From a yardage efficiency standpoint, they managed to stifle a few solid running games well beyond expectation. That trend could swing even further if second-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins blossoms in his first full season.
New England Patriots RUSHING OFFENSE VS Kansas City Chiefs RUSHING DEFENSE (Great MATCHUP)
It’s anyone’s guess how their rotation will shake out – there are several versatile, moving pieces in this backfield. Rex Burkhead served as a featured back at times in the preseason and has likely earned a solid Week 1 role. Mike Gillislee projects easiest into the interior rushing role: he boasts the most career carries in this group and was absurdly effective in a supporting role in Buffalo. But he missed a lot of time in the offseason and there’s no telling where his running is prioritized. It’s a safer bet that the Patriots lean on Burkhead and their pass-catching backs – James White and Dion Lewis – while Gillislee gets up to speed. Armed with a solid front line, New England backs project quite well for Week 1. An early lead and positive game flow could amplify this backfield’s contributions and culminate in a big running back line (or two).
Kansas City is rebuilding its defensive line, one year after a massive drop-off in run defense. It’s a smart move, but not one likely to disrupt with the Patriots much in their home opener. Last year’s opponents averaged the ninth-most yards per rush in the league, and they’ll proceed without Dontari Poe, a sometimes-star at nose tackle. He’ll be replaced in the middle by another capable nose, ex-Eagle Bennie Logan, but the unit’s cohesion is yet to be seen. Longtime inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, a pursuit machine in Kansas City for 12 years, is now 34 and has lost a noticeable step. With new personnel facing a tough matchup in a likely tough game script, this defense could find itself thoroughly upended to open the year.
New Orleans Saints RUSHING OFFENSE AT Minnesota Vikings RUSHING DEFENSE (Neutral MATCHUP)
The Saints running game is nothing to get excited over, but that’s usually not a big deal; they routinely draw better-than-expected productivity from their running backs. Their fantasy success is built less on efficiency and more on receiving production and gobs of touchdown opportunity. Over the past 3 seasons they’ve finished just 13th, 24th, and 16th in rushing yardage, but 5th, 5th, and 6th in touchdowns – and 1st, 2nd, and 1st in running back receptions. No team has snapped the ball more from inside the 10-yard line over the past 3 years, and they’ve skewed surprisingly toward the run from there. And both Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara will supplement whatever rushing production they can manage by catching balls out of the backfield. Simply put, a banged-up line and a frightening matchup aren’t enough to derail their fantasy value.
The Minnesota run defense is certainly trending upward. With an imposing front line and a rising middle linebacker star in Eric Kendricks, the future looks bright. But they still tend to allow rushing yardage in chunks, as we saw down the 2016 stretch when 9 of their last 10 opponents ran for 94 yards or more. They were a tough unit to face from an overall fantasy perspective – only one defense allowed fewer rushing touchdowns – but opposing running games still generated production. Their Week 1 challenge will come in corralling the Saints backs on the edges and in the passing game, and they’ve been mediocre at that for years. They boast a stout front seven but use a lot of nickel sets that put big pursuit and tackling onuses on backup defensive backs Terence Newman and Anthony Harris. They may shut down Ingram and company at the point of attack, but they’ll probably leave usable room open in space.
New York Giants RUSHING OFFENSE AT Dallas Cowboys RUSHING DEFENSE (Neutral MATCHUP)
The Giants offense has undergone a transformation over the past couple of seasons, including an increase in pass attempts and decrease in rushes as Eli Manning focuses more on short, high-percentage passes. Over the past three seasons, the Giants have ranked near the bottom of the league in all rushing categories. They have lacked a clear cut three-down running back for a while now, and we can expect more of the same this year as they plan to utilize both Paul Perkins and Shane Vereen to start the season. Perkins will get the first opportunity for the Giants, while Shane Vereen can be expected to spell him, especially on passing downs. While most have the Giants offensive line ranked near the bottom, Matt Bitonti of Footballguys ranks them just within his top 10 due to their expected increase in cohesiveness from returning all five 2016 starters along with a healthy Justin Pugh coming back at left guard.
The Cowboys rushing defense finished atop the league last season, allowing only 83.5 rushing yards per game and one of only four teams to allow fewer than 10 rushing touchdowns. However, much of this was a product of their extremely effective offense that put opposing offenses in clear passing situations for nearly every game. Their defense lost a lot this offseason, including the season-long suspension of defensive end Randy Gregory and loss of Terrell McClain in free agency. While the Cowboys used a first round pick on Taco Charlton, that is all they did to address their holes on the defensive line, leaving them extremely vulnerable to the run this season unless that unit quickly proves otherwise.
Overall, the Giants rushing offense is not one to be trusted even in a decent matchup. However, despite what the stat sheet says about the Cowboys rushing defense last year, this is a matchup that can be exploited if the Giants offensive line can give Perkins room to run.
NEW YORK JETS RUSHING OFFENSE AT Buffalo Bills RUSHING DEFENSE (Neutral MATCHUP)
The Jets will rely on a pair of running backs in Matt Forte and Bilal Powell this season. For Week 1, we may see much more of Bilal Powell than expected as Matt Forte is dealing with a nagging hamstring injury—a situation that requires monitoring going into Sunday. When Forte was out last season, Bilal Powell was a top five running back as he racked up a couple of 120+ yard rushing outings along with some massive contributions in the passing game. Both of these backs will not have much of an offensive line to run behind though, as the Jets offensive line is ranked near the bottom coming into this season by Footballguys offensive line specialist Matt Bitonti.
The Bills run defense allowed 133.1 rushing yards per game last season, fourth worst in the NFL. In addition, they allowed the league’s second most rushing touchdowns (21). This team was not great at stopping the run in 2016, but they did have a bright spot in Marcell Dareus, who had a very good season as an effective run-stopper. This season, the Bills are transitioning to a 4-3 scheme under new coach Sean McDermott. With an extra body on the line and a healthy Shaq Lawson, there is a chance the Bills could improve here. With the unknowns on this Bills defensive line along with the starting running back situation for the Jets.
Oakland Raiders RUSHING OFFENSE At Tennessee Titans RUSHING DEFENSE (TOUGH MATCHUP)
The Raiders rushing offense is the biggest question mark for their team this season. With the high-profile addition of Marshawn Lynch, it is yet to be seen if this unit can match their 17 touchdowns and sixth ranked 120.1 rushing yards per game from 2016. We all know what Lynch was capable of in the past, but after a taking a season off and dealing with injuries in 2015, anything can happen. Lynch should start the year as their primary back though, with all of the goal line opportunities first / second down snaps. Look for Lynch to be spelled by one of the younger backs like Jalen Richard or DeAndre Washington on passing downs. Lynch will also have a very talented offensive line to run behind, including three 2016 Pro Bowl selections in Rodney Hudson (center), Kelechi Osemele (left guard), and Donald Penn (left tackle). The big question mark for the Raiders lies on the right side of their line, however, which was their weak spot last season and may continue to be a vulnerability in 2017. Despite this weak spot though, Footballguys offensive line specialist Matt Bitonti has the Raiders line ranked third overall with an A+ run block rating.
The Titans run defense was statistically solid in 2016, allowing second fewest rushing yards per game (88.3) in 2016. Jurrell Casey has consistently been one of the most elite run stoppers in the league, and Sylvester Williams was added in the offseason to help stop up the middle.
Even with the Raiders talent on offensive line, this still is a tough matchup considering the efficiency of the Titans rushing defense and uncertainties that come with Marshawn Lynch in Week 1.
Philadelphia Eagles RUSHING OFFENSE At Washington Redskins RUSHING DEFENSE (Good MATCHUP)
The Eagles line has dropped off a bit over the past two years, but it’s still a top-tier unit. And it’ll pave the way for, most likely, a slightly stronger group of runners than it did last year when the Eagles finished 11th in the league in rushing. LeGarrette Blount is a flawed back but should benefit from running behind past Pro Bowlers Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, and Lane Johnson. Second-year man Wendell Smallwood will spell Blount – just how much remains to be seen – and boasts a similar outlook. Darren Sproles remains a wild card and could see anywhere from 3-12 rushes.
Washington’s run defense couldn’t have performed much worse in 2016. They allowed the fifth-most fantasy points to running backs, including 4.5 yards per rush and 19 touchdowns. First-round rookie lineman Jonathan Allen was added in the offseason, as was athletic inside linebacker Zach Brown, but neither looks like immediate paths to stopping the bleeding. All signs point to a major struggle in holding down even the Eagles’ mediocre rushing attack.
Pittsburgh Steelers RUSHING OFFENSE AT Cleveland Browns RUSHING DEFENSE (Great MATCHUP)
LeVeon Bell is always projectable to a dynamic rushing line, of course, in terms of both volume and productivity. Bell has taken 20 or more rushes in each of his last 8 full games and 13 of his last 20 (playoffs included). That’s to say nothing of his otherworldly receiving production; all told, he’s averaged 162.7 scrimmage yards over that span. There may be concern over the team’s desire to work him too hard after his missing virtually the entire preseason, but that’s a narrative that doesn’t hold up historically. Bell has been “eased in” after heavy layoffs in each of the last two seasons with 26 and 23 touches, and he’s responded with a combined 310 yards from scrimmage. Running behind an elite line – out Matt Bitoni ranks it fourth in football entering the season – Bell carries as strong an outlook as any back this week.
The Browns carried the league’s fourth-worst run defense in terms of yards per rush last season. And they were gashed by Bell in Week 11; he accounted for all 146 Steeler rushing yards in a 15-point win. Gregg Williams’ arrival brightens their outlook – his units have finished top-six in per-carry defense in four of his last six seasons as a coordinator. However, Bell is an exceptionally tough task to start with, so this doesn’t look like the week we’ll see the turnaround blossom.The Browns defensively should be improved this year but we will take a wait and see approach as they are incredibly young with Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Danny Shelton, and they added Jamie Collins to the mix late last season.
Seattle Seahawks RUSHING OFFENSE At Green Bay Packers RUSHING DEFENSE (BAD MATCHUP)
The Seahawks have a ton of question marks at the running back position coming into the 2017 season. Thomas Rawls sits atop the depth chart and is expected to start, however, he is expected to share the load with Eddie Lacy while yielding to C.J. Prosise on some passing downs. Regardless of who take the reins in this backfield, there is one fact that can’t be denied---the Seahawks offensive line is really bad. Footballguys offensive line specialist Matt Bitonti, along with many others in the industry, have the Seahawks offensive line as the consensus worst ranked in the NFL. They made some changes in the offense by adding Luke Joeckel and Oday Aboushi in free agency, but those are not significant upgrades in talent, and it has yet to be determined how they will mesh with the rest of that unit. At best, this line has the chance to be average—but to expect that to happen Week 1 is a big risk.
The Packers defense was ranked in the top-10 against the run last season and return this year with a solid interior presence on the line led by defensive end Mike Daniels and second-year defensive end Kenny Clark. If Clay Matthews can stay healthy and return to form, this run defense can be a force to be reckoned with. This should be a mismatch in the trenches that does not bode well for the Seahawks running backs.
San Francisco 49ers RUSHING OFFENSE VS Carolina Panthers RUSHING DEFENSE (Tough MATCHUP)
The 49ers will be in for a tough matchup this week against the Panthers solid defensive front. San Francisco returns Carlos Hyde as their primary running back, leading a rushing offense that was fairly productive in 2016 as they averaged 4.4 yards per attempt 126.2 rushing yards per game (4th ranked). Hyde has not been great running the ball this preseason, with most of his production coming through the air. Hyde mightily struggled against Carolina early last season, averaging only 2.4 yards per carry for 34 yards and a fumble. While durability has been a concern throughout his career, Hyde is an every down back who is expected to own this role as long as he stays healthy. He will be running behind a top-10 offensive line according to Footballguys offensive line specialist Matt Bitonti, which should help this week as they face the tough challenge from Carolina.
The Panthers run defense was very solid in 2016, allowing only 91.6 rushing yards per game. Led by Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker and Star Lotulelei at nose tackle to stop up the interior, this unit can be expected to continue its dominance in 2017. The Panthers added veteran Julius Peppers this offseason to compliment Charles Johnson and Mario Addison on the ends, rounding out a very solid defensive line. Despite San Francisco’s top-10 offensive line, this Panthers defense led by Luke Keuchly will present a significant challenge this week, making it a tough matchup for Carlos Hyde and company.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RUSHING OFFENSE AT Miami Dolphins RUSHING DEFENSE (Good MATCHUP)
Presumed lead back Doug Martin will open the year on a three-game suspension, but that doesn’t ding the Tampa Bay running game a bit. The Buccaneers didn’t miss a beat without him in 2016, averaging significantly more yards per game (108.3) and per carry (4.10) without Martin than they did with him (91.0 and 2.98). Jacquizz Rodgers will start the year in his place, and he posted his first whiff of productive running as a Buccaneer fill-in last year. In fact, Rodgers was downright outstanding – over his 7 games of 37 snaps or more, he averaged 92.4 rushing yards. That was more than any featured back in the NFL besides Ezekiel Elliott or LeVeon Bell could boast. He’ll lose much of the passing-game work to Charles Sims but doesn’t have much competition for rushing duties. The Buccaneers’ offensive line may be a hampering issue, though – our Matt Bitoni ranks them 24th to kick off the season.
The Tampa Bay backfield isn’t a particularly consistent group but could find particularly easy sledding in Week 1. Last year’s Dolphins were thoroughly gashed by the run – 14 of their 17 opponents topped 100 ground yards (including 7 that topped 160), and only the 49ers gave up a higher per-rush average. They did clamp down nicely near the goal line, allowing just 4 of their opponents’ 17 rushes from inside the 5 to score. But overall, this was a unit target weekly, and it’s hard to find an area that improves much entering 2017. Star safety Reshad Jones returns to action, which is nice, but likely too little to provide a true boost. They’ll likely be forced to lean heavily upon 31-year-old Lawrence Timmons, who’s slowed noticeably over the years, and Rey Maualuga, who signed in mid-August, on running downs. Maualuga was an oft-injured mess over seven years as a Bengal, and he struggled with his conditioning throughout his truncated Dolphins camp. Yet he’ll likely start in the middle on Sunday and see at least 25-30 early-down snaps. This unit could struggle mightily.
Tennessee Titans RUSHING OFFENSE vs Oakland Raiders RUSHING DEFENSE (Good MATCHUP)
The Titans are expected to continue with the run-first offensive philosophy that led them to own the third best rushing offense in the league last season (136.7 rushing yards per game). Demarco Murray was the fourth best fantasy running back, and while Derrick Henry may have an expanded role this year, that rushing attack as a whole will continue to be relied heavily upon. Murray and Henry will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in football, led by left tackle Taylor Lewan and second-year right tackle Jack Conklin. With health on his side in Week 1, expect Demarco Murray to shoulder the load against the Raiders.
The Raiders allowed Demarco Murray to average 7.1 yards per attempt for 114 yards and a rushing touchdown last season in Week 3. While their rushing defense was opportunistic in forcing 11 fumbles last season, they ranked in the bottom half allowing an average of 117.6 rushing yards per game. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack is an elite talent, but the Raiders lost three defensive contributors in Perry Riley, Malcolm Smith, and D.J. Hayden. Their interior defenders and linebackers are a big question mark this season, making them susceptible to a solid offensive line and rushing offense like that of the Titans. This game has one of the highest point totals of the week, so expect for yards and points to come from all facets of the game, including the Titans rushing attack.
Washington Redskins RUSHING OFFENSE vs Philadelphia Eagles RUSHING DEFENSE (Neutral MATCHUP)
The Washington run game should be better in 2017 than it was last season. The line remains solid, and starter Rob Kelley now has a full year in the NFL. It’s worth noting that they gashed these very Eagles for 230 ground yards (on just 33 rushes) in Week 6 of last year. And it’s encouraging that Washington's backs were particularly successful near the goal line last year, converting six of their nine attempts into touchdowns. Still, Kelley tapered off mightily down the stretch, managing just 3.3 yards per rush and 46.7 per game over the final 6 weeks. He’s a tough runner who gets what’s blocked, but his overall talent level is still up for debate. Rookie Samaje Perine waits in the wings as a more gifted runner but may struggle to find the field after a shaky preseason.
The Eagles were stout against running backs in 2016 – if only from a fantasy perspective – and their front seven returns intact for 2017. They allowed just 9 rushing touchdowns all year and the 10th-fewest points to opposing backs. Still, some regression could be in play. Much of that success was built by facing mediocre running games early in the year; they were worked over by three so-so units – including this Washington attack – over the final four games of the year.