The mission of this column—and a lot of my work—is to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality of football analysis. Football analysis—fantasy and reality—is often dramatized because there's a core belief that it's more important to entertain than to educate.
I don't live by the idea that it's better to be lucky than good. While I want to give you actionable recommendations that will help you get results, I prefer to get the process right. There will be a lot of people talking about how they were right to draft or start specific players. Many of them got the right result but with an unsustainable process.
The Top 10 will cover topics that attempt to get the process right (reality) while understanding that fantasy owners may not have time to wait for the necessary data to determine the best course of action (fantasy).
As always, I recommend Sigmund Bloom's Waiver Wire piece which you'll find available on this page, Monday night. Bloom and I are not always going to agree on players—he errs more often towards players who flash elite athletic ability and I err more towards players who are more technically skilled and assignment-sound.
STRAIGHT, NO CHASER: WEEK 9'S CLIFF'S NOTES
The article below will provide expanded thoughts and supporting visuals for the following points.
- The Titans' defense shut down the Rams' offense thanks in part or the same things it did to the Chiefs: earning pressure with its defensive line while dropping 7-8 defenders into coverage. Their success getting home to Matthew Stafford led to the Rams quarterback and offensive staff getting set up for some bait-and-switch plays that tricked L.A. into a hole they couldn't escape.
- Rashod Bateman is a player on the rise and there are multiple plays that indicate he's proving what the Ravens said this summer: He doesn't play like a rookie.
- Jordan Love faced a struggling Chiefs defense but couldn't get the job done because athletic ability only matters for quarterbacks if they possess the baseline technique and accuracy to execute the mundane parts of the job. I'll also use Patrick Mahomes II plays to show the difference between describing a decision as reckless and daring.
- Cordarrelle Patterson is benefitting from the Falcons' intelligent play designs but there are also moments where his one-on-one skills can rise to the fore. Still, he's the ultimate utility weapon and not really a full-time receiver or runner, which is why it took so long for Patterson to deliver reliable production.
- The Browns defense is finally healthy and A.J. Green, Denzel Ward, Troy Hill, and Myles Garrett generated sacks and turnovers that put the Bengals in a deep hole early and Cleveland kept them there.
- The Browns offensive line is an elite unit that also has an elite runner in Nick Chubb, who showed elite skill on a play you won't see another Cleveland back show.
- Chubb and the line create easy big-play opportunities for the passing game. Expect Donovan Peoples-Jones to be the best bet for those easy opportunities with Odell Beckham Jr the odd-man-out.
- The most compelling thing about football is that there's often more than meets the eye. I'll be sharing this in greater detail in this week's Gut Check where I profile the Tennesse running backs against L.A. Two examples I share in this article are plays from Justin Jefferson and Lamar Jackson.
- James Conner benefitted from a first-play injury to Chase Edmonds, showing off his skills and the successful play-calling of the Cardinals against the 49ers.
- Fresh Fish: Daniel Sorenson is the headliner—potentially for the entire first half of the season—because his coverage lapses have led to numerous big plays, especially in the red zone.
- Jonah Williams understandably, couldn't handle Myles Garrett, giving up multiple pressures and a sack.
- Jordan Love's inaccuracy
- Sam Darnold's reckless and inaccurate assessment of coverage.
- The Chargers' defense, as it has done almost weekly, gave up easy targets and opened the gate for good runs.
For those of you who wish to learn the why's, the details are below.
1. How the Titans Shut Down the RAms
Tennessee's defense has been successful this year because it is earning pressure with a minimal number of pass rushers and dropping a maximum number of players in coverage:
Key to Titans Pass Rush Success ðŸ”‘— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 8, 2021
ðŸ”¹ Blitzed Stafford on just 4 of 53 dropbacks (7.5% blitz rate)
ðŸ”¹ 15 pressures w/four-or-fewer rushers (30.6% pressure rate)
ðŸ”¹ All 5 sacks w/four-man pass rush, tied for most in a game by any defense this season#TENvsLAR | #Titans
Early in this game, it's clear that the Rams did not respect the Titans' pass rush, sending three or more receivers on downfield routes in the intermediate and vertical ranges of the field while expecting the offensive line to keep Tennessee's front at bay while these routes developed.
Even when Stafford got away from pressure early in the game, forcing the Rams quarterback to run plays into the hands of Tennessee. As mobile as Stafford is, he is an older quarterback who has suffered a lot of hit-related injuries during his career who wants to throw far more than he runs. Forcing Stafford to run early can influence the quarterback into rushing his decision-making process or squeezing targets into coverage — the kind of "hero ball" where Stafford's game has been known to deteriorate.
In addition to the Titans defense providing excellent coverage on underneath routes that develop early and banking on its pass rush to reach Stafford before he can even anticipate longer-developing routes, the defensive line's use of stunts and twists can generate a false sense of security that the pocket is clean until it obviously isn't. There's no advanced warning with a well-executed twist in the way there can be with bull rushes and edge rushers turning the corner with a tackle glued to them.
The killer thing about #Titans stunts and twists is that it can lull a QB into a false sense of security that the pocket is stable enough until the moment it is not and that leads to reckless behavior for Stafford pic.twitter.com/KBc18UL5Oh— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
When you combine long-developing plays with frequent pressure, especially interior pressure within a second after the top of the quarterback's drop, it will disrupt almost any veteran quarterback.
Eventually, the Rams had to resort to quicker passes and when backed up inside their own territory, the Titans did a great job of anticipating the quick game and successfully baited Stafford into the quick throw.
#Titans with a great bait (sugar the LB) and switch (late climb of S to right flat) to force a pick-six of Stafford who attempts a quick throw after #Rams were failing on long-developing plays early pic.twitter.com/nrj6Nh7SPu— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
This shouldn't concern the Rams fans or fantasy GMs of Rams' players long-term. Few defenses can execute this plan as well as the Titans, who pulled it off against the Chiefs as well. The game script illustrates where Robert Woods can earn a lot of love. The only two teams on the schedule that I think can potentially replicate some of the Titans' gameplan and force more short and intermediate passes to Woods are the Cardinals and Vikings in Weeks 14 and 16.
It doesn't mean Woods won't be effective for fantasy between now and then, but those should be his best shot for elite-level performances.
The Titans' defense has excellent matchups for the rest of the year, although teams that stay patient with the run can limit what Tennessee wants to impose defensively. The 49ers, Patriots, Saints, Steelers, and potentially, the Jaguars with a healthy James Robinson could mitigate this threat if they don't make early mistakes and have to get away from the run.
2. Why Rashod Bateman Rarely Plays Like A Rookie
One of the best plays I saw from a wide receiver this week was from Bateman, who saved Lamar Jackson with a great undercut of a target that was heading directly for the coverage. Jackson made the right decision but the placement while throwing on the move and under pressure wasn't ideal.
This wasn't the first time I've seen Bateman win a target with a late adjustment. This one from last year was even more impressive.
#RavensFlock— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
Yesterday's Rashod Bateman play to help out Lamar Jackson wasn't the first time he showed this skill.
This one is even better because it's even more intuitive of an adjustment. https://t.co/xHKE4AYjI3
The best receivers help out their quarterbacks and the best quarterbacks know then they can put their receiver in a position to make these moments happen. This doesn't mean throwing the ball up for grabs but at least placing the ball within a realistic window where the receiver can win interactions. I'll show more of what I mean later in the article with different quarterbacks.
Even so, the best quarterbacks have targets that aren't well-placed. Here's another fine adjustment from Bateman to draw a defensive pass interference and a spot foul inside the Vikings' 10.
When a young player consistently makes plays as a relied-upon option in moments of trouble, it leads to easy plays for teammates. This Bateman slant in the red zone is nothing special, but the equity he has earned from recent plays in this game forces the coverage triangle of Vikings' defenders to collapse on him and forget about Devonta Freeman working underneath to the flat.
Bateman's production should remain in the range of 6-8 targets and 50-80 yards in this offense, which makes him a better option for the Ravens than fantasy GMs. The potentially capped ceiling for Bateman's production has more to do with an offensive line that doesn't afford Jackson a lot of time to throw deep. When it does, Marquise Brown is faster and that means Jackson doesn't need to take as much time to throw the ball. Brown's speed also opens the middle of the field for Bateman and Mark Andrews.
Look for Bateman's production to improve dramatically somewhere between 2022-23, depending on the health and improvement of the offensive line and return of the ground game. For now, Bateman will continue having roster value for fantasy leagues, but he's not a legitimate fantasy starter in the most basic, two- and three-receiver formats.
3. Lots of Icing, But Little Cake: Jordan Love's Debut
The easiest thing to say about Love's starting debut for the Packers is that he lacked accuracy and placement with makeable targets that would have moved the chains and kept drives a lot. His footwork is still lacking and he didn't look comfortable setting his feet under instances of pressure that afforded him time to stand in the pocket.
Love INT is high and front shoulder rather than low and back shoulder back pic.twitter.com/idTvUCKd79— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
These are all plays that could have kept the Packers competitive against the struggling Chiefs'. And when Love had to create outside the pocket, he was too reckless. There is a contingent of fans who look at these plays and invoke Patrick Mahomes II as a player who is labeled a genius for allegedly making the same throws.
They don't understand that, even when a player like Mahomes will tell the media after the game that "he threw the ball as far as he could and hoped for his teammate to make a play," he's still strategically placing the ball in a favorable location for his teammate to make an adjustment. This is the fine line between reckless play and daring play.
Mahomes throws open Hill like it’s nothing… pic.twitter.com/iy9oKlQSr9— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) September 12, 2021
I don't blame fans for not seeing this and drawing the false equivalency in an attempt to support their young quarterback. However, it's disappointing that NFL organizations use first-round picks on the likes of Love, Drew Lock, Paxton Lynch, Zach Wilson and can't see the subtle but important differences between them and Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes II.
Love has a long way to go. He has the physical tools to get there, but that's not enough.
4. Atlanta's intelligent use of Cordarrelle Patterson — And Why It Took the NFL So Long
It's entertaining to see fantasy analysts calling for Patterson to take over the Falcons' backfield or demand he becomes a primary receiver on the outside. I've already written about Patterson's limitations with zone plays that cut out half of most NFL run-game playbooks. What people forget, or never thought about, is that Patterson earned time in the backfield because he was not complete enough in the receiving game to match up against top cornerbacks on a consistent basis. The physical skills and pass-catching are absolutely there, but the reading of coverage and adjustments with his quarterback is not.
This conceptually advanced part of the game is the baseline for a player who can win one-on-one and transcend the offense. When a player can't do this against typical coverage that a primary receiver will face, it means that the team has to run a lot more schemed plays to get the player open. Eventually, opponents figure out these plays, know when they are coming, and defend them because they are reliant as much on trickery as individual execution. The top players can win when the defense knows what's coming and still can't stop it.
Here are Patterson's big plays against the Saints, who got the better of Tom Brady the week prior. Two of the three were schemed-up plays that leveraged mismatches or drew attention to a more compelling Falcons' teammate. The third play featured Patterson on a rookie, who is a promising player, but still made a rookie mistake.
This empty alignment vs Saints coverage would have me wishing for a T.O. if I were a Saints DC and magically had more than 3 TOs Cordarrelle Patterson for a field-flipper on third down #Falcons pic.twitter.com/pwn7SBAncq— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 7, 2021
Fantasy GMs are loving (I know I am) what Patterson is doing and how the Falcons are getting the most from him. However, when you examine how he succeeds, especially when he wasn't a college running back, it's understandable why it took so long for a team in the NFL to get the most from him. As good as Patterson has been — and when I scouted him I thought he was the best open-field runner I ever scouted —it's understandable if they never did.
5. Second-Half Buy: Cleveland's Defense is Finally Healthy
Cleveland had multiple defenders return to the field this week, including linebacker Anthony Walker and John Johnson III III. These fortifications bolstered a unit that has the tools to rush the passer with its base front like the Titans or send blitzes with defensive backs Troy HIll and Grand Delpit. Hill earned multiple pressures and two sacks — a half-sack more than Myles Garrett who bombarded Joe Burrow with pressure for much of the day.
The pressure certainly mattered greatly in the outcome of this game, but so did the Browns' ability to win the football in the secondary.
Rookie Greg Newsome II also came up big with defenses of targets to Chase and Tee Higgins in the vertical game and the red zone. For Cleveland to make the playoffs, it will need this defense to play like it did this weekend against the likes of Baltimore (twice), New England, Las Vegas, Green Bay Pittsburgh, and its end-of-season rematch with the Bengals.
This won't be an easy task. The Browns have a defense with personnel talent that's as good or better than Tennessee but a much tougher schedule. If there's a reason for fantasy hope with this unit, it's the ball-control, play-action offense that complements Cleveland's defense.
6. The Browns' confidence in its Scheme and D'Ernest Johnson May Be Bad News for Nick Chubb's Upside
Last week, I wrote about Nick Chubb and why he has the highest floor of any NFL running back because Cleveland is already using him in his "floor scenario" with Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson splitting touches and taking most of the receiving work. There isn't another running back with RB1 fantasy value last year or likely this year who has had a legitimate high-end RB1 talent splitting time with him.
I said that Chubb's 2,000-yard ceiling is unlikely to ever manifest in Cleveland. The primary reason is the caliber of the offensive line that gives the Browns confidence to run a variety of plays that can fit the styles of multiple runners. Cleveland can generate creases in the zone and gap schemes that Chubb can execute at the highest level, which makes him rare. However, it also means this versatility of blocking excellence opens the door for the Browns to use other backs in committee with Chubb who are limited to just one style.
Cleveland can also trick opponents into thinking pass when the play call is a run offers additional value to backs who might lack Chubb's talent to gain yards when opponents know what's coming their way. The versatility of the ground game also opens the doors for a successful short passing game that features space backs who aren't strong runners between the tackles.
Chubb's ceiling is capped relative to his immense talent because the Browns scheme can pair just him with any back that has baseline NFL contributor talent and get production from that player. Still, I told you to beware of conclusions that Chubb isn't an attractive early-round pick because of this ceiling. Because the flip side of that statement is that Chubb's floor is low-to-mid-range RB1 value and that makes him arguably one of the safest bets at the position in fantasy.
I told you to expect Chubb to earn a lot more touches if his calf responds well to last Sunday's workload despite Cleveland's confidence in Johnson meaning there could still be a platoon with Johnson playing the Hunt role. While I think it's a waste of Chubb's ceiling, especially in the passing game, I see why they hope to keep Chubb fresh for games where they really need him to manage a heavy workload as well as prolong his career. Considering his impact-per-touch, I get it.
The matchup with Cincinnati was one of those must-win games and yet, Cleveland didn't give Chubb the ball any more than it didn't in previous weeks. In fact, Johnson earned twice the carries that he earned the week prior. Chubb played well enough to make, far and away the most impact. The only real difference from previous weeks was the passing game. Chubb earned two targets, including a career-long reception of 20 yards, and Johnson didn't earn any.
Chubb earned a lot of huge creases behind his excellent offensive line, but he also showed moments of creativity, elite power, and elite speed and burst that you won't see from his teammates at the position.
#Browns OL running gap play with Nick Chubb is a mule-kick in the Bengals hind parts. Note the blocks at each level and the acceleration past the S and more notably, the CB.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 7, 2021
Buh-Bye. Anyone see D’Ernest Johnson, fantasy folks? Maybe soon but Chubb getting his. pic.twitter.com/8sNTxTi6f0
Chubb's breakaway run was an awe-inspiring combination of acceleration and long speed. So much so, I had a long-time NFL personnel analyst contact me to share his awe of Chubb. Only two running backs outscored Chubb in fantasy football last week: Jonathan Taylor and Conner. If you find an opportunity to buy-low on Chubb, I'd do it. To me, a buy-low window is a team that thinks he's likely to deliver mid-to-low RB2 value for the rest of the year as opposed to low-end RB1 value.
Most of you won't be in this situation, but if you spot this opportunity, I'd take it because his floor remains as high as any back in football.
7. Donovan Peoples-Jones: Beneficiary of An INheritance of Riches?
Cleveland jettisoning Odell Beckham Jr leaves a void in the deep passing game that Donovan Peoples-Jones has the potential to fill. He's not a route runner on Beckham's level — freelancing issues for Beckham aside — nor as explosive. However, Peoples-Jones doesn't need to be on Beckham's level to help this team and fantasy GMs.
He's physical, adjusts well to the ball, and has skills in the open field (if the Browns can finally leverage them, which is something that Baker Mayfield couldn't do when Beckham wasn't freelancing and wide open).
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 7, 2021
The biggest obstacle for consistent fantasy success for Peoples-Jones is Mayfield. While the delivery of the messages from Beckham's father, Steve Smith, and likely Beckham himself was poor, the content of the message is accurate. Mayfield is a limited player in an offense designed to insulate him from as many game-transcending moments as possible.
Even the throw dropped between coverage is not ideally placed. In contrast, look at Trevor Siemian's throw to Kenny Stills and how he places this ball to protect his receiver and limit exposure of the ball to the defensive back.
— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 7, 2021
Fortunately, the ground game and offensive line afford Mayfield high-leverage targets that don't demand perfect placement on a consistent basis. If you need to take a shot on a player who could emerge as a big-play weapon off play-action, Peoples-Jones gives you a puncher's chance at low-end WR2 production down the stretch and, occasionally a WR1 week.
8. Analysis Teaching Tape: Justin Jefferson and Lamar Jackson
The most compelling thing about football is that there's often more than meets the eye. I'll be sharing this in greater detail in this week's Gut Check where I profile the Tennesse running backs against L.A. It's amazing to me that even former players--turned-analysts can look at a game and discount the strategic context and play designs when authoring conclusions that are so superficial.
But this is why the NFL missed on Chubb as an easy first-round value. Scouting processes in the league are often problematic. This evaluation of Devonta Freeman is actually twice as long and meaningful as an AFC team's report on Russell Wilson that was shared with me privately.
A collection of RB buzzwords that do not come together to paint an illustrative picture of a prospect. https://t.co/1xBpZt5Ita— J Moyer (@JMoyerFB) November 4, 2021
Players and coaches get frustrated with the media in two ways and it's a no-win situation for them. The first is when the media discovers something happening that the team would like to keep private and cannot. The second is when media analysts draw firm and sweeping conclusions about team and player performances that are far more nuanced than their portrayal.
Neither of the plays below is a perfect example of this behavior but they illustrate how one's first glance at a highlight without contextual explanation can give millions of people the wrong impression. This deep pass to Justin Jefferson could easily give the fan an impression that Jefferson beat Marlon Humphrey straight-up and made the cornerback look like a fool. After all, Ja'Marr Chase had some huge plays against Humphrey in recent weeks.
However, you'll see that Humphrey was taking direction from a teammate and the Bengals exploited that direction.
Great analysis by Mark Schlereth about communication by Elliott to Humphrey that anticipates logical but wrong guess on this route and leads to a season-long TD for Justin Jefferson #Vikings #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/YLo8dVfq5a— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
Another example is this Lamar Jackson interception. One could look at the play below and wonder how he could target a receiver where there was a safety with no responsibilities other than running to the ball and undercutting the target. However, most football fans don't understand how defenses disguise coverage, especially in the NFL. One of the most common forms of disguise is "hybrid coverages," where one side of the field is playing a different type of coverage than the other.
Perfect for ex. of a hybrid coverage—S on right is C2 like responsibility. S in left is more M2M/Qtrs— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
Jackson thinks he has C2 across & tries to split safeties with post but S on left doesn’t widen with drop. W/no deep WR in his area, he makes great play. #RavensFlock #Vikings pic.twitter.com/R0NAzpdeoI
Even the best quarterbacks have moments where they see a pre-snap indicator of coverage that turns only to apply only to half of the field. While this is a mistake on Jackson's part, there's a difference between an unforced error and a forced error. Many defensive minds within the league would tell you that this interception is a forced error and a lot of the credit should go to the defense rather than total blame on the offense.
I'm not always going to have the right answers or even consistent answers to every situation. Scouts often have to interview players and coaches to understand how players are coached to execute against specific schemes. Still, it's valuable for fantasy GMs to learn where the general public, including media analysts, can make inaccurate assessments that, on occasion, you can leverage for your benefit.
9. James Conner's Afternoon Delight
Chase Edmunds suffered an ankle injury on his first play of the game, opening the door for Conner to have the best Week 9 of any fantasy runner. The fact that Arizona beat the 49ers' 4-3 defensive looks with gap plays up the middle, is a good indicator of how well the offense played. Gap plays between the tackles have an inherent edge against 3-4 units. Inside or outside, Conner earned space to operate.
Even the zone runs had the potential for big gains, especially when the 49ers were in nickel. n
Conner with the chunk gain and the biggest gain he 49ers gave up this year pic.twitter.com/vYvwBWbDJf— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 8, 2021
The Cardinals also exploited the 49ers' attempts to get aggressive with Colt McCoy and paid dearly.
Conner even showed off his quickness, vision, and contact balance on the short gains and losses. With 10 touchdowns this year and Edmonds potentially out for at least a week, Conner has elite upside against Carolina and Seattle before the bye week, if it takes that long for Edmonds to recuperate. Keep an eye on Eno Benjamin as a fill-in with bye-week value for those desperate for points.
If you've been reading my work, you know Benjamin has contributor value if given an opportunity.
10. FRESH FISH: WEEK 9
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for the weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than our players to face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," I provide my weekly shortlist of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
Special of the Week: Daniel Sorenson
The Chiefs' safety has been a red carpet for coverage busts and giving up red-zone receptions that lead to touchdowns.
Here's the rest of the list.
- The Chargers' defense is as friendly of a unit as I've seen of the teams in the league with good offenses.
- As long as Love is playing, you should target defenses that face him. He's inaccurate and the longer he plays, the more likely you'll see him fall into quicksand and make game-changing mistakes for the defense.
- Sam Darnold still has difficulty seeing and anticipating the location of key defenders in coverage. He's tricked too often for a starter. He needs at least a year off to sit behind a top veteran so he can develop into a competent manager of the game. I want defenses that face the Panthers.
Thanks again for all of your feedback on this column. Good luck next week and may your bold call come true.