Winter is just days away, and with it the frigid conditions in a number of NFL cities. The Chiefs and Broncos already know first-hand, playing through six inches of snow in Kansas City’s blowout win.
While not quite as imposing at Heinz Field, a brisk 30 degrees awaited the visiting Buffalo Bills at kickoff. Along with an impressive showing of traveling fans, the weather did little to quiet them.
Duck mania came to a screeching halt on Sunday night when the Bills shot down the Steelers in prime time, 17 – 10. More things went wrong than right, and despite another elite showing by the defense, the offense could not get out of its own way.
A common denominator in every loss this season: a distinct lack of cadence in the run game. In all six losses, Pittsburgh running backs were limited to 17 carries or fewer. For reference, Benny Snell Jr. had 16 or more rushes by himself in each of the previous three victories. James Conner returned from a three-game absence with varying success on only eight rushes. It’s been a frustrating season for the former Pitt Panther, who has eclipsed 60 rushing yards just once in 2019, compared to nine times last season.
Sunday’s offensive game script was completely out of touch with the current reality of this roster. In a game which the Steelers led for almost the entire third quarter, Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner asked an undrafted rookie to throw almost twice as many times than any of his previous starts. The much maligned wildcat formation also reared its ugly head—the three of those plays netted negative eight yards and a lost fumble on the Buffalo 10 yard line. A whopping five different running backs rotated into the game, and tallied a paltry 47 rushing yards in total. The end result was predictable, and marked the third time this year the Steelers could only muster 10 points or less.
Game script aside, quarterback Devlin Hodges simply did not perform. The throws were often errant or mis-timed. The Bills brought extra men from multiple directions and essentially challenged Hodges to be ready to make snap decisions when that pressure arrived.
It worked. Hodges was both intercepted and sacked four times while being flushed from the pocket seemingly every possession. Despite escaping the impending pressure occasionally, the 23-year-old never looked comfortable. The problems were compounded by the unusually high crowd noise; the visiting Bills fans were incredibly impressive.
Steelers fans were able to match the noise level for most of the evening but were stifled when the Bills converted a 40-yard bomb on the first play after the defensive anthem Renegade was played. It was a tough night for Steelers corner Steve Nelson, who was roasted by Bills receiver John Brown on the play. Nelson was also on the receiving end of Buffalo’s converted fourth down and six in the first quarter.
The offense was unable to produce points, but the defense held up its end of the bargain once more. Punctuated by a forced fumble by linebacker T.J. Watt, Buffalo became the eighth opponent on the year held under 20 points. Aside from Buffalo’s primary target in Brown, not a single pass catcher caught more than a one pass on the night. The sack numbers weren’t there for the boys up front, but quarterback Josh Allen was only able to complete 13 passes. The ‘burgh takes one in the loss column, but the Steeler defense did plenty to get the win.
The final home game of the season didn’t go as planned, but this team still manages to control their playoff destiny… for now. Tennessee’s loss to Houston keeps the Titans at bay for the 2nd wild card spot, currently occupied by Pittsburgh. While the Steelers visit the five-win Jets, Tennessee gets a taller task when a 10 – 3 Saints team looking for a playoff bye comes to town. Hodges will undoubtedly get the start after his first forgettable start, but the leash is getting shorter.
Around the NFL
There is no longer an NFL MVP debate—Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has run away from the competition… literally. That Jackson has already broken the quarterback single-season rushing record with two weeks remaining is impressive in and of itself. That he also leads the league in passing touchdowns is downright absurd. The league hasn’t seen a performance like this, ever—it’s monumental what Jackson is putting together. To put things into perspective: during Vick’s record rushing year in 2006, quarterback Peyton Manning finished atop the league with 31 passing touchdowns. Through 15 weeks in 2019, Jackson already has 33. He threw five of those against the Jets on Thursday night on only 15 attempts.
We’ve discussed the NFC East ad nauseam, but the picture hasn’t gotten any clearer. Dallas was embarrassed by the Bears the week prior, while the Eagles had to go to overtime against the lifeless Giants. The Jekyll and Hyde act continued into week 15. The Cowboys dismantled the Rams 44 – 21, while the Eagles scored 20 in the fourth quarter to take out Washington 37 – 27. Both teams move to a 7 – 7 record on the year, and wouldn’t you know it: they face off in week 16.
What the heck happened to Oakland? Just a month ago, the Raiders were one game out of playoff contention and on a three-game win streak. They’ve lost four in a row and their postseason hopes have all but evaporated. General Manager Mike Mayock has done a decent job in his first year as general manager, but this roster still has a lot of holes, particularly on offense (they get a pass for the Antonio Brown saga). The Jacksonville Jaguars will go down in the books as the final victor in the Oakland Coliseum before the Raiders take their show to Las Vegas for 2020.
Fantasy Forecasting – Championship Edition
Whether you’re a game away from glory or trying to take down your consolation bracket, the tide has washed ashore some useful assets for your final week of fantasy.
If you missed out on the A.J. Brown train, there are still emerging targets in the passing game. In what is becoming a weekly staple of this column, Bears wideout Anthony Miller is still somehow only owned in less than 20% of leagues. What more does he have to prove? He has garnered double-digit targets in three of the last five games and 11 or more fantasy points over the last four. With Kansas City visiting, it’s not difficult to envision the Bears offense playing from behind most of the night. Miller is a strong play in championship week for those dealing with the various injuries at the positon.
Down in Tampa, wide receiver Breshad Perriman (11% owned) appears to resurrecting his once promising career. The former 1st round pick from Baltimore has bounced around the last few years, but suddenly finds himself locked in as the number one option on a high volume offense. With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both out, Perriman is an incredibly tempting option facing a porous Houston passing defense. My gut says Miller is the safer choice, but it’s tough to argue against a guy reeling in four touchdowns over the last two games.
It’s difficult to make it through a fantasy season unscathed, and Dalvin Cook owners are feeling the pain of late. A lingering shoulder injury has kept the star running back in check over the last month, finishing three of the last four games under 30 yards rushing. This is a situation to monitor closely—there are a couple of moving parts at play. If Cook is unable to go against the Packers on Monday, backup Alexander Mattison (39% owned) would be next in line. However, an ankle injury kept Mattison out of commission last week, further complicating the pecking order. Second year Mike Boone (3% owned) stepped in against the Chargers and racked up 56 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Whether you own Cook or not, both of these guys need to be owned. Remember—you can’t take your roster with you into the offseason. Drop the guys you don’t need, pick up Mattison and Boone, and keep your ear to the ground—the payoff could win you your league.