RotoGrinders Matchup of the Week: Week 15
Patriots at Steelers
Vegas-Implied Total: __
Steelers Run D – 16th DVOA / 25th Yards allowed per carry
Patriots Run O – 6th DVOA / 13th Yards per carry
Steelers Pass D – 10th DVOA / 15th Yards allowed per pass attempt
Patriots Pass O – 1st DVOA / 3rd Yards per pass attempt
Patriots Run D – 32nd DVOA / 32nd Yards allowed per carry
Steelers Run O – 10th DVOA / 28th Yards per carry
Patriots Pass D – 24th DVOA / 22nd Yards allowed per pass attempt
Steelers Pass O – 5th DVOA / 9th Yards per pass attempt
LEVEL I – The Research
This is, quite clearly, the game of the week from a DFS perspective – with two teams that rank second (New England) and fourth (Pittsburgh) in yards gained, and that rank fourth (New England) and eighth (Pittsburgh) in points scored. In spite of, impressively, ranking fifth in points allowed, New England also ranks 29th in yards allowed. Even if points are ultimately tough to come by (Pittsburgh ranks seventh in points allowed), there should be plenty of yards available in this game. And while points are a big part of “spikes” in DFS scoring, catches and yards are the foundation from which these “spikes” rise.
The Steelers run one of the most straightforward offenses in the NFL from a “usage” perspective, with Antonio Brown leading the NFL in targets, catches, receiving yards, and percentage share of team air yards, and with Le’Veon Bell leading the NFL in carries (with almost 20% more carries than the next-highest back!), and rushing yards, while ranking behind only Christian McCaffrey in targets per game (for that matter: only 18 wide receivers have more targets per game than Bell this year).
The Patriots are going to make it a priority to limit Antonio Brown in this spot – tilting coverage in his direction as much as they possibly can. Their “point of emphasis” in practice this week will surely be “knowing where AB is at all times.” His last three games against New England:
7-77-0 on nine targets
7-106-0 on 11 targets
9-133-1 on 11 targets
It is worth pointing out (for whatever you feel it is worth) that the first and third lines on that list for AB came with Bell getting injured (playoffs 2016) and suspended (regular season 2015). The middle game for AB came with Bell on the field.
The Patriots have seen less of Bell than they have seen of AB, but the last time they squared off (regular season, 2016), Bell posted 81 rushing yards and 10 catches for 68 yards. The Pats have allowed the most yards per carry in the NFL this year and the third-most receiving yards to running backs.
When Ben Roethlisberger goes away from Bell and Brown, he should be looking primarily toward Juju Smith-Schuster, who has recent target counts (beginning with the most recent) of five, eight, seven, and 10. That’s 20.4% of Big Ben’s targets across those four games. Four of the Steelers’ last five games have been against teams that are tougher to run on than to pass on (Indy, Tennessee, Green Bay, and “Baltimore without Jimmy Smith”), so I’m not ready to call this pass-heavy offense a “trend,” but New England plays at the fourth-fastest pace in the NFL (second-fastest situation neutral pace), so the Steelers should get plenty of plays. This should lead to anywhere from five to eight targets for Juju – with a potential for a spike from there if the Pats jump out to an early lead or do a good job slowing down AB.
Martavis Bryant saw 10 targets last week – which looks promising until you consider that Ben threw the ball 66 times, and Smith-Schuster was suspended. This was still only 15.2% of Ben’s targets, so a more reasonable passing volume projection (40 attempts) would lead to around six targets for Martavis. This is where he has been lately, and where he should remain.
Jesse James saw 12 targets last week – though that was more a function of matchup, passing volume, and the absence of Smith-Schuster than a change in organizational philosophy. He generally lands around three to four targets per game.
Tom Brady will have all of his weapons for the first time in a while, with Rob Gronkowski back from suspension and Chris Hogan healthy. This gives Brady the following stable of often-used weapons – with their general target range listed next to them
The Steelers have been stout against wide receivers this year, allowing the sixth-fewest receptions to the position; they should also return Joe Haden this week, who was playing well before fracturing his fibula.
The Steelers have been equally strong against tight ends – allowing the third-fewest receptions, and the sixth-fewest yards. In all, only five teams have allowed fewer fantasy points per game to quarterbacks than the Steelers have allowed – while they have snagged 13 interceptions and allowed only 16 passing touchdowns.
Because the Steelers regularly have a lead, they have faced the ninth-fewest rush attempts in the NFL from running backs, but they rank 25th in yards allowed per carry. Against similar teams in Buffalo and Atlanta, Brady threw the ball 30 and 29 times, while Patriots running backs combined for 31 and 32 carries. The Patriots also gave 31 rush attempts to running backs in a similar setup vs the Chargers, though Brady threw the ball 47 times in that game. We should expect the early-down carries to be divided at something like a 60/40 split between Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead – with Burkhead taking on more targets than Lewis along the way (Lewis has more carries across the Pats’ last three games, but he has 41 touches to Burkhead’s 40).
This game could surprise along the way, but with home field advantage in the AFC playoffs up for grabs, the likeliest scenario is that both teams play an aggressive brand of football (even if that “aggressiveness” means allowing the matchup to dictate a slightly run-heavy approach), with plenty of yards accumulated on both sides…and hopefully with plenty of scoring as well.
LEVEL II – Pause For Self-Interpretation
LEVEL III – JM’s Interpretation
The “surest bets” in this game are Bell and AB. If salary were not an issue, I would want these two on every roster, as the Steelers are not going to lose their most important game of the season “because they failed to get the ball to their two best players.” Even though the Pats will do everything they can to limit AB’s impact, this is nothing new for the Steelers; we should still expect them to force the issue to him.
In a vacuum (as in: choosing simply between these two guys – without considering who else is available at each position), I like Bell more than AB, as he is absolutely independent of game flow. If the Steelers somehow jump out to a big, early lead, Bell will see 30+ carries; if they fall behind, Bell will be thrown to plenty. Bell also has the most red zone carries in the NFL.
Smith-Schuster is a solid bet: a guy with a respectable floor for his price, and with monster upside if the Pats effectively limit AB. Martavis is a low-floor tourney play only, but he still has slate-winning upside – even if he has not shown it this year. Ben is obviously in a great spot as well. In his last two games against the Pats, he has two total touchdown passes and two interceptions, but he has topped 300 yards both times. Pittsburgh ranks 25th in red zone scoring, while the Pats rank seventh in red zone defense, so it should not surprise us if the Steelers continue to have trouble closing out drives (we don’t often mention kickers in this article, but this is a good setup for Chris Boswell). But the yards should be there for Ben, Bell, and Brown, and if the points come as well, these guys could be monster plays.
Rex Burkhead would be my favorite player on the Pats if he were still cheap, as he should touch the ball around 15 times – with a few catches mixed in, and with one or two scoring chances in close – but his rising price makes him appropriately priced or even slightly overpriced on both sites. Elsewhere on the Pats, you are basically dealing with the same thing you have all the time – but with a tougher matchup. The Patriots rarely take their foot off the gas until deep into the fourth quarter, so they don’t actually need a “shootout” in order to put up points; which means that the difficulty of this matchup actually hurts them more than the “shootout” potential helps them. With that said, Tom Brady has shown against the Broncos, Chargers, Panthers, and Saints that matchup is not a major obstacle. There will be passing yards in this game. There will be points accumulated. With price considered, none of these Patriots players jump out in cash games to me, but Brandin Cooks retains his big-play upside, Chris Hogan retains his scoring upside, and Rob Gronkowski retains his “Gronk” upside. All these guys are viable options in Week 15 tourneys.
What Our Experts Are Saying (NFL Premium)
Rob Gronkowski @ PIT ($7300 DK, $8500 FD, $13,700 FDRAFT) – Gronk’s career game log against the Steelers:
5/72/3 on 5 targets
7/94/0 on 9 targets
9/143/1 on 10 targets
5/94/3 on 8 targets
4/93/1 on 4 targets
Oh, and Pittsburgh’s best coverage LB, Ryan Shazier, is out. Gronk might be the best overall pass-catching option on the slate – at any position.
Tom Brady probably would have gotten top billing here if this slate was a little different; if we had a Giovani Bernard from last week or a Rashard Higgins from Week 3 sort of situation where a min-sal player is a stone lock in cash games, but it isn’t. As such, we are pivoting away from a 40-year old Tom Brady who, admittedly, has not looked his sharpest the last two weeks playing outside in the cold and the wind. Roethlisberger is no spring chicken himself, he has saved his best football for the last month of the season where he is averaging an insane 49 pass attempts per game over the Steelers’ last four games. He is coming off his best game of the season with 66 pass attempts (!!!!) and 506 yards against what was the #1 defense in DVOA in the Ravens. Ben and the Steelers in general looked lethargic to start the year, but I no longer believe that to be the case.
The Patriots have allowed less points over the last month of the season, but cumulatively this is still not a great defense. (24th in pass defense DVOA, 32nd in run defense DVOA). They have allowed the fourth-most passing yards this year and the ninth-most passing touchdowns. The total for this game is pushing 53 which is by far the highest of the week and pretty much all the players from this game are going to be cash and GPP chalk. Ben is not a lock in cash games as I think it is likely that we’ll need to go cheap at QB and TE to fit in the studs, but I do think that if I am going above $6K at quarterback, Roethlisberger is the easy choice given his recent performance, this matchup and the game total.
With Todd Gurley having a tough matchup against the Seahawks, I think it is unquestioned that Bell is the best running back play of the slate. It throws a wrench into lineup construction because this is the first time in a month that we have been forced to consider Bell. The top running backs have been much more reasonably priced over the last four weeks because Bell has not been on the slate, but he is back in a pristine matchup against the Patriots 32nd-ranked run defense by DVOA. He is also playing at home which is huge for all running backs but particularly huge for the Steelers offense in general. I am not sure of the cause, but Roethlisberger simply plays better at home. This is not an opinion; this is fact of the last three seasons of his career. Bell averages one more FPPG on the road, but I always consider it a positive when an RB is a home favorite.
The Patriots defense is an interesting one because they started the year off so poorly and have been able to limit some teams scoring output, but last week they showed that they are still vulnerable on the ground. The biggest thing that Lev has to offer is his gargantuan total of the Steelers offense. Bell has the highest target share of any running back (I don’t really count McCaffery as a running back just quite yet), he has 44 more rushing attempts than the second-place running back and more touchdowns than everyone but Gurley, Kamara and Melvin Gordon. He is a complete back who has 30 targets in the Steelers last three games and I anticipate him keeping the same role that he always has. Bell is a must play in cash games and I think even in tournaments this week. No player on this slate has the ceiling that he does other than his teammate Antonio Brown.
I do not think that very many people will be on the Chris Hogan train this week because he performed so poorly in his return to the lineup last week. Despite only registering one target, Hogan played 90% of the team’s snaps in his return to the Patriots lineup and I would expect that he will do the same this week against the Steelers. Hogan is my favorite play of the entire Patriots offense because of my projected ownership and the role that he served in their offense this season. Despite missing almost half the season, he has the second-most receiving touchdowns on the team and I think that part of the reason their offense has semi-slowed down is that Hogan is an important part of what they do.
The Steelers defense has shaped thing up over the course of the season and they rank 13th in total defensive DVOA. However, Hogan will be mostly matchup with Mike Hilton, who he has a significant size advantage on. Hogan plays around 50% of his snaps in the slot and Hilton plays 96% of his snaps there; the Steelers are vulnerable when Hilton is targeted as he allows a 74% completion percentage in coverage. In a game with a 53 total, receiving options from both sides must be in play and I think Hogan’s combination of matchup advantage, playing time and target volume/touchdown scoring prowess make him the best option especially in tournaments where the public will see his game logs and not value him appropriately.
Which useful trend or statistic stuck out most during your research?
Notorious: Antonio Brown has the largest share of his team’s air yards (46%) of any receiver in the NFL that has played at least games this season. However, if we count the two games that Josh Gordon has played, he has seen 48% of the Browns’ air yards. His massive upside puts him in play even against the Ravens.
STLCardinals84: The Steelers have allowed 278 passing yards and 8.2 yards per pass attempt over the last four weeks. In those four weeks, they have faced the following quarterbacks: Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, Andy Dalton, and Joe Flacco. Good luck stopping Tom Brady and an angry Patriots team in a huge game. While Brady has struggled a bit of late, that is all but certain to end here.
JMToWin: Antonio Brown leads the NFL in targets per game, catches per game, and percentage share of team air yards. Le’Veon Bell leads the NFL in carries and rushing yards, while ranking behind only Christian McCaffrey in running back targets per game.
Stevietpfl: The Steelers rank 2nd in plays per game (67.1), and the Patriots rank 4th (66.6). With both defenses struggling with injuries, this game should be everything we want in DFS this weekend.