Monday Night Football
Pittsburgh @ Washington
Vegas Projected Score: Steelers 26.5, Redskins 23.5
Steelers-Skins is a high-value DFS target game with the third highest Vegas total (50) of Week 1. Most attractive in Washington's offense is the passing game, where Kirk Cousins was lethal at home last year with a 16:2 TD-to-INT ratio and 271-yard average compared to a 13:9 TD-to-INT ratio and 249.5-yard average on the road. Cousins caught fire when DeSean Jackson got healthy, finishing as the overall fantasy QB3 behind Cam Newton and Russell Wilson from Week 9 on after Jackson missed most of the first eight weeks with a hamstring injury. D-Jax was healthy all camp and is in his contract year. Pittsburgh's personnel is subpar in the secondary and OLB Bud Dupree (groin) was recently sent to I.R., dealing a blow to their pass-rush rotation. The Steelers traded for ex-Browns bust CB Justin Gilbert at final cuts, showing their desperation. With a soft early slate (vs. PIT, vs. DAL, @ NYG, vs. CLE, @ BAL, vs. PHI, @ DET), I like Cousins to start his franchise-tag season hot. ... The Redskins' backfield looks like a situation to avoid with Matt Jones coming off an AC sprain of his left shoulder that cost him the final two preseason games, while UDFA Rob Kelley shined and Chris Thompson solidified himself as the Redskins' passing-game specialist. A PPR sleeper, Thompson could end up with a bigger role than most expect in a pass-first offense. Kelley had a big enough preseason (38-198-1, 5.2 YPC) that some beat writers believe he earned an early-down tag-team role with Jones. I'm fading Washington's running game against a Pittsburgh run defense that finished top five in DVOA last season.
So, in all likelihood, the Redskins are going to need to lean on Cousins to move the ball on offense. Yet another reason to like Cousins are Washington's matchup advantages in the passing game, where Jordan Reed draws a Steelers defense that allowed the sixth most catches, 12th most yards, and ninth most touchdowns to enemy tight ends last year. The true focus of the Redskins' offense, Reed boasts an absurd 109-1,218-12 receiving line in 17 career games played with Cousins. Reed is my favorite Week 1 cash-game tight end in DFS. ... My favorite DFS tournament start is of course DeSean Jackson, who always goes underowned despite his weekly blowup potential. Last year's Steelers allowed the seventh-most completions of 40-plus yards (12), and this year they are promoting SS Robert Golden into the starting lineup despite major struggles early last season while planning to use rookies CB/S Sean Davis and CB Artie Burns extensively in sub-packages. Beneath the bright lights on Monday night, this is a green-light game to tee up Jackson. ... Pierre Garcon and slot man Jamison Crowder will vie for leftover scraps as chain-moving possession receivers. Even as Jackson and Reed combined to miss nine games last year, Garcon cleared 60 yards in just 4-of-16 games and topped 70 yards twice.
Whereas Cousins may go underowned as a Week 1 DFS play, Ben Roethlisberger is likely to go overowned based on his big-name appeal, fantasy-star perception, and people seeing "against the Redskins" on the schedule. Roethlisberger, though, has massive home-away splits over the past two years, where his passing-yard average dips from an incredible 347.6 yards with a 39:11 TD-to-INT ratio at Heinz Field to 287.4 yards with a horrific 14:14 TD-to-INT clip on the road. Losing Martavis Bryant is also a concern for Roethlisberger, who has averaged 331.2 yards with 43 touchdowns over his last 22 games with Bryant versus 269 yards with 35 TDs in Ben's last 22 games sans Martavis. And the matchup isn't quite as good as some may believe against a Washington defense that boasts an underrated pass-rush duo in Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith and might compete for the NFL's stingiest cornerback tandem in RCB Bashaud Breeland and LCB Josh Norman. ... The higher-floor and stronger bet on Pittsburgh's side is DeAngelo Williams, who will make starts at Washington, versus Cincinnati, and at Philadelphia before Le'Veon Bell (suspension) returns in Week 4. Williams will be a top-ten RB1 play in all three weeks after averaging 22.9 touches for 122.2 total yards with 11 TDs in nine full games last year, and leading all NFL running backs in snaps played by more than 100 during that period. The Redskins' biggest defensive vulnerability is on the ground, where they ranked 22nd in run-defense DVOA last year and did little to upgrade their front-seven personnel this offseason.
It will be a disappointment if Antonio Brown doesn't set records this season. He has finished as the No. 1 fantasy receiver in back-to-back years, and the Steelers are missing 178 targets from their 2015 roster, freeing up even more opportunity for the game's least-coverable wideout. While Ben's past road struggles are a concern, Brown's overwhelming volume should cover up any drops in overall passing-game efficiency. Including the playoffs, Brown has a 138-2,004-11 receiving line on 193 targets in 15 games where Le'Veon Bell has been inactive. Brown's stat line is 152-2,039-12 over the last 16 games in which Roethlisberger has played at least 70% of the Steelers' offensive snaps. While matching up with Norman and Breeland isn't ideal, Brown remains Pittsburgh's best means of creating big plays and will be heavily targeted. ... The Steelers have moved Markus Wheaton back outside and inserted second-year UDFA Eli Rogers at slot receiver, where he arguably has the best pure matchup of any Steelers skill-position player. Rogers will square off inside with either third-round rookie Kendall Fuller -- who is coming back from microfracture surgery -- or third-year UDFA Dashaun Phillips, who was said to be beating out Fuller at one point. Washington's strong boundary corners could funnel targets into the middle of the field, where Rogers and Jesse James run routes. I'm betting Wheaton struggles and think Rogers and James are interesting low-cost DFS and deep-league plays.
Saturday Update: Wheaton (shoulder) missed practice all week and has been ruled out for Week 1. Wheaton's absence should translate to a few more targets thrown at Brown, Rogers, and James. The Steelers' other starter at outside receiver will be either preseason disappointment Sammie Coates or speedy special teamer Darrius Heyward-Bey, neither of whom is a viable fantasy option against Norman and Breeland. Priced at or near the minimum on DFS sites, James has become a very attractive Week 1 sleeper. He is available on most season-long waiver wires and is an excellent fallback option for Rob Gronkowski owners.
Score Prediction: Redskins 27, Steelers 24
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Los Angeles @ San Francisco
Vegas Projected Score: Rams 23, 49ers 20.5
The Rams and 49ers meet in a clash between Los Angeles' grinding, run-centric offense and San Francisco's talent-barren roster. The Niners did show they were capable of executing a Week 1 Monday night fluke last year, stunning the playoff-bound Vikings 20-3 before losing 11 of their final 15 games. The 49ers pulled that upset on the back of Carlos Hyde, who will again be the offensive centerpiece under Chip Kelly. Concerns for Hyde include matchup and game flow, which could become problematic if/when Todd Gurley gets going. Kelly's Eagles ranked dead last in the NFL in time of possession in each of his three years in Philadelphia, and the talent cupboard is much emptier in the Bay Area. Kelly's up-tempo offense can impose its will when it's getting first downs and scoring quickly, but this Blaine Gabbert-quarterbacked unit may struggle to move the sticks against a Rams team that last year finished seventh in run-defense DVOA and eighth against the pass. I'm viewing Hyde as a boom-bust RB2 and Gabbert as a non-option. ... I'll be paying attention to No. 2 back Shaun Draughn's Week 1 usage. A favorite of 49ers RBs coach Tom Rathman, Draughn averaged 4.2 catches per game in six starts alongside Gabbert last season. Even though Hyde stayed on the field on third downs in preseason games, one beat writer told me he expects Draughn to play in most passing situations. Hyde has also battled persistent injuries in the pros, making Draughn stash worthy in season-long leagues.
After slot man Bruce Ellington tore his hamstring, Gabbert's three-receiver set will be made up of Torrey Smith, Quinton Patton, and perhaps Jeremy Kerley. Smith played 50 preseason snaps and was targeted once. In eight starts with Gabbert last year, Smith averaged 3.9 targets and 40.1 yards per game. ... Patton looks more involved in the offense and is less likely to draw Trumaine Johnson, the Rams' franchise player who could end up shadowing Smith. Patton is a sneaky bet to lead the 49ers in targets. ... Sub-package receiver snaps are up for grabs between journeyman Kerley, sixth-round pick Aaron Burbridge, and 28-year-old Rod Streater, who wasn't going to make the Chiefs before the 49ers traded for him on September 3. ... Beyond Hyde, the 49ers' best fantasy play is Vance McDonald, whose weekly PPR finishes were TE4, TE4, TE31, TE40, TE3, TE26 in his final six games with Gabbert at quarterback last year. The 49ers' talent shortage at receiver should force Gabbert to lean on McDonald between the numbers. Although the Rams are historically tough on tight ends, coverage-maven WLB Alec Ogletree has been kicked inside to replace James Laurinaitis, and FS Rodney McLeod (Eagles) moved on. After the Rams cut Akeem Ayers, I have no idea who their starting SAM linebacker is going to be.
In DFS, at least, Week 1 is the time to roster Todd Gurley before he faces the Seahawks, Bucs, and Cardinals in his next three games. All three of those teams finished top nine in run-defense DVOA last season. San Francisco ranked 23rd. The 49ers are counting on rookie DE DeForest Buckner and sophomore DE Arik Armstead to turn things around up front. They lost run-plugging NT Ian Williams (ankle surgeries) for the season. Particularly if the 49ers' offense struggles to stay on the field as Kelly's teams often do, Gurley would be set up for an enormous workload. I realize these are potentially meaningless stats, but the 49ers were out-snapped 178 to 112 in the second and third preseason games, which is when teams play their starters the most. Even though his Eagles didn't bottom out until year three, Kelly's teams finished 12th (2013), fifth (2014), and third (2015) in rushing attempts against. After torching San Francisco (20-133-1) last Week 8, Gurley should have every opportunity to repeat in this rematch.
On a team that would love to emerge from every game with Case Keenum having attempted in the range of 16-21 passes, the lone Rams pass catcher worth taking seriously is Tavon Austin until further notice. A gadget guy with scintillating YouTube highlights, it is perhaps notable that Austin averaged 7.4 touches per game on the road last year versus 5.6 touches at home. As Austin is utilized in concert with Gurley, it should come as no surprise that Austin was more productive with Gurley on the field in 2015, averaging 62.2 total yards per game with eight touchdowns in Gurley's 12 weeks as the Rams' lead back compared to 40.3 yards with one score in the first month. As will usually be the case this year, Austin is a boom-bust fantasy option.
Score Prediction: Rams 23, 49ers 17