Moving into Week 9, we should be aware of players’ production but intimately aware of their opportunity. Opportunity is the driver of production but does not perfectly explain it. Outlier plays can mask general inefficiencies and lack of opportunity. Finding where production is most fragile and attacking those edges should lead to sizeable advantages, while others fain over box scores.
Miami @ Chicago
The Bears started the season tumultuously, but have recently found an offensive identity that suits them well. Fields has shown progression, and the staff has shifted to build an offense adapted to the personnel available. Miami, glad to have Tua Tagovailoa back, has shown offensive prowess throughout the season. This matchup could fly a slightly under the radar but should shape up to be an interesting game.
When Miami traded for Tyreek Hill this offseason, Mike McDaniel was busy planning who to orchestrate an offense around two elite playmakers at wide receiver. His offensive scheme has been an unabashed success. While utilizing three quarterbacks, Miami has averaged the 7th most offensive yards per game and enters week nine with a 5-3 record. Hill and Waddle combine for 53% of the targets on the season. One may suspect this concentration on two targets could impact their efficiency, Hill averages 3.74 yards per route run (YPRR), and Waddle averages 2.85 YPRR. For context, Ja’Marr Chase has a YPRR of 2.01 this year and had a YPRR of 2.65 last year. The Miami passing attack is surgically slicing and dicing teams weekly. Tyreek Hill has four games of 160+ receiving yards. No matter who matches up against these weapons, Hill, Waddle and McDaniel will find a way to succeed.
The ground game could be slightly different this week than going forward for Miami. The Dolphins made moves at the trade deadline to bolster their roster. These moves involved trading away Chase Edmonds and trading for Jeff Wilson. Jeff Wilson is familiar with the offense from playing under McDaniel in San Francisco, but I expect it to take some time to fully integrated him into the offense. This leaves Mostert as the clear backfield leader for at least this week.
Chicago also made a move to bolster its offensive weaponry, trading for Chase Claypool. While many believe the price to have been steeper than deserved, we need not concern ourselves with these particularities in fantasy. Claypool provides Fields with a second NFL-caliber receiver. Having more weapons through the air could move the Bears to pass more, but, as with Jeff Wilson, Claypool needs time to become immersed in the offense. Of late, the Bears have unleashed Fields on the ground, totaling 60 or more yards on the ground in each of his last three games. This deployment could open up more lanes for their running backs to plow through.
David Montgomery began the season as the clear starter, but Chicago has since moved to a hot-hand approach. If the Bears’ coaching staff truly intends to apply this approach, they should realize that one plays hand is scorching hot while the other’s is approaching frostbite levels of ineptitude. Khalil Herbert has one less carry than Montgomery on the year but has accumulated 202 more rushing yards. The comparison is slightly hyperbole, but only slightly. Herbert has been an all-around more productive back on significantly fewer snaps.
An intriguing difference between these defenses is how effective they are against the run. The Bears have allowed an incredibly high EPA per run play. If this level of success continues against them, it would be historic. The scheme and offense adjusting to trades looked likely to allow Mostert to succeed, but defenses this porous only come around once in a blue moon.
Hill and Waddle both have paths to success. Hill has seen 12 or more targets in six games. Waddle has seen this many targets once. Accordingly, take Tyreek Hill over Jaylen Waddle (+4.5). Mostert’s path to success has fewer obstacles than Montgomery, so back Raheem Mostert over David Montgomery (+1).
Carolina @ Cincinnati
Carolina travels to Cincinnati after a gut-wrenching loss and near comeback against Atlanta last week. P.J. Walker connected with D.J. Moore for a 62 air-yard touchdown in the final seconds only to miss an extra point and game-winning field goal in overtime. Cincinnati also experienced disappointment last week. The Bengals entered as field goal favorites but lost by 19 points, scoring their only 13 points in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals looked lost offensively without Ja’Marr Chase last week. They must find a grove this week against the Panthers. To find themselves, Tee Higgins must step up in Chase’s absence. This season, Higgins has mustered an impressive 2.13 YPRR and a respectable 21.3% targets per route run. All this despite his nagging injuries this season. Now healthy, Higgins has to find his form from last year when he averaged a higher YPRR and TPRR. Higgins is one of the best receivers in the NFL and has to step up with Chase out to show his true Alpha-ness.
The most concerning part of the game last week for the Bengals had to be the offensive line. They failed to protect Burrow and open up space for Joe Mixon. Mixon averages only 1.52 yards before contact, less than the Rams’ line affords Darrell Henderson. Bengals fans were assuredly hoping Brian Burns would get traded before the deadline. Unfortunately for those fans, Burns was not traded and remains a line-wrecker on the Carolina defense. Working a quick passing game and finding opportunities to take shots when the line affords Burrow the time is critical to this matchup.
The Panthers looked destitute after losing Mayfield, Darnold and Corrall. Beyond all hopes, P.J. Walker has orchestrated a win and a near win in his three starts. No one will mistake this former XFL quarterback for a franchise cornerstone, but he has lived up to his word to get the ball into playmakers’ hands. In the last two weeks, D.J. Moore has seen 10 and 11 targets. Moore has regained his impressive form and productively of years past with Walker under center. Moore has produced with a collage of questionable quarterbacks; Walker would only be the next in the bunch. Look for Moore’s command of targets to continue, as other than him Carolina is bereft of offensive talent.
Carolina and the Bengals have rather average defenses. Last year both teams managed to sport defenses that allowed very similar EPA per pass play. The Bengals have assuredly been better, but if we regress these to the mean the difference is small. The discrepancy between these teams becomes more apparent when looking at success rate. The Bengals allow a successful pass play on 43.1% of pass plays compared to the staggering 51% success rate the Falcons allow. This should give the Bengals more leeway in game planning and may let secondary or tertiary pieces succeed in addition to Higgins.
With Burrow poised to bounce back, look for Joe Burrow (+1.5) to prevail over Justin Herbert. D.J. Moore and Tee Higgins will serve as focal points of their respective offense’s passing game, but a four-point cushion for Moore is too much to justify. Take D.J. Moore (+4) over Tee Higgins.
Week eight got off to a rocky start with the Broncos vs. the Jaguars. The read on the Broncos was misguided in places but correct in others. Wilson did struggle against the Jaguars' defense, but Jeudy appears to have become Wilson’s favorite target of late. The Jaguars let backers down immensely. Lawrence had one of his worst games of the year, throwing for 133 yards on 31 attempts. Given the performance from Lawrence, Kirk had no chance to match Jeudy, who had an impressive game with a touchdown.
The spread on the Tennessee and Houston matchup led me to believe the game could teeter either way. From the jump, the Titans controlled this matchup. Interesting PFF research identified the Titans as one of the best scripted teams in the NFL, and I should have accounted for this. Getting into a positive game script let the Titans throw only ten times and run Henry 32 times. The comeback attempt allowed Cooks to overcome the 1.5 points given to Woods. This uneven matchup brought the week to 1-3.
Back-to-back down weeks have me reconsidering where to look for matchups, but the process remains sound. Moving into week nine, the board looks ripe with opportunities to back players with decidedly higher median projections than their opponents. Agree or disagree with my picks, join me in the TopProp streets this week, where you can put your money where your mouth is.
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TPRR is courtesy of the 33rd Team and Sports Info Solutions and success rate data is from rbsdm.com.