Commentary

Unsettled situations clearing up

How running back battles shake out; Marshall, Eli poised for big performances

Updated: September 17, 2011, 2:26 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Five In Depth:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

1. Packers RB shuffle. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, James Starks was on the field for 45 plays in the Thursday night opener against the New Orleans Saints, while Ryan Grant was out there for 16. If anyone had any lingering doubt whether the Green Bay Packers consider Starks a playmaker, this should about settle it. You saw Grant start the New Orleans game, but once Starks got his first carry with 9:39 left in the second quarter, the difference between the two backs was obvious:

Plus I think Starks' so-called pass-blocking "deficiencies" are being overstated, in part because of comments Cris Collinsworth made during the telecast (and I truly do love Collinsworth as an announcer, by the way). On a play-action pass out of a shotgun formation, Starks made his ball fake as planned on the left side, then watched Aaron Rodgers get tackled by a blitzer coming from the right. Collinsworth said Starks should've seen that coming, abandoned the fake and dived to make a block. Watching the tape, it seems to me, if Starks had done this, he would have run Rodgers over.

Anyway, whether it's because Grant is a step slower than he was before his ankle injury last year, or because Starks is simply a more powerful guy at this stage in his career, the younger player has an early leg up in this platoon. It's worth noting that when John Kuhn scored his 1-yard TD early in the fourth quarter, Starks was the halfback behind him in a goal-line situation. Hey, things change week to week. Grant is still 28 years old and has two career 1,200-yard seasons in his past. There will be weeks -- maybe as soon as Sunday versus the Carolina Panthers -- in which the prideful veteran will stake his claim to more carries. But as of this moment, based on what I've seen so far, Starks is the guy I'd rather own.

2. Peyton Hillis has offensive line issues. Kudos to my ESPN colleague and pal Keith Lipscomb, who was at the Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals game Sunday, for calling my attention to this and sending me back to review the game footage. Hillis' mediocre 87 yards on 23 touches wasn't a result of a personal regression, but rather poor blocking. Until midway through the second quarter, Hillis couldn't find a crease against what's supposed to be a fairly average Bengals front seven. He had four carries for six yards, mostly on up-the-gut-style runs, when he finally broke a 17-yarder off left tackle, where Manny Lawson allowed himself to be stiff-armed out of a takedown for a loss. Hillis never had another carry for more than six yards the entire day, and often had to grind through multiple tacklers to get what he could.

If I'm somewhat circumspect about a full-throated endorsement of Hillis this week against a beatable-looking Indianapolis Colts defense, that's why. Much has been made about the left side of the Browns' offensive line, and that left guard Eric Steinbach, out for the year with an injured back, has been replaced by fifth-round rookie Jason Pinkston. But an underreported story is how important the right side of this offensive line was last year:

Unfortunately, in Week 1, it was the right side that was most problematic for Hillis:

Right tackle Tony Pashos missed the Bengals' game with an injured ankle and is out for this week's contest, too. His replacement, Oniel Cousins, isn't a very good player. And the right guard, Shawn Lauvao, struggled during his rookie year in 2010 as a reserve and looked shaky as a starter Sunday. Listen, I still have Hillis rated No. 10 this week, because running backs who get 20 carries (and 23 touches) don't grow on trees. But be careful assuming there's an automatic 100-yard day coming versus Indy.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireBrandon Marshall has a checkered past, but that didn't stop Chicago from acquiring the talented WR.

3. Targeted to a fault? Fantasy owners are rarely going to complain when their starting fantasy wideout gets so many targets, even the TV announcers are like, "C'mon, this is getting predictable." Such was the case (OK, I'm paraphrasing) Monday night, when Mike Tirico evinced surprise about how often Chad Henne looked for Brandon Marshall, especially in the red zone. As a Marshall owner in a couple leagues, I wasn't sad to witness these developments. Marshall tied Roddy White for the most wideout targets in Week 1, with 13. (Antonio Gates had 14.)

Marshall was awesome. It was like last year never happened. The New England Patriots' defense (more on them in a moment) had no answers as Marshall lined up all over the place, getting matched up on multiple corners and safeties at various times. He had five receptions of at least 18 yards and wound up with seven grabs for 139 yards total. The Miami Dolphins took a couple deep shots his way, including a marginally poor Henne pass with about five minutes left in the third quarter and the game still in question on which Marshall made a terrific catch over his head despite illegal contact from the defender (Ras-I Dowling) and lunged to the 1-yard line. It was on the conclusion of this series, in which Henne threw two poor balls for Marshall in the end zone, that Tirico made his comment about forcing it into the big wideout. Frankly, I'm all for it. Marshall looked to be his same unstoppable self from the Denver days.

What can we expect against the Houston Texans? Well, Reggie Wayne put together some nice numbers on paper in Week 1 against the Texans, but we all know it was mostly garbage time. Wayne didn't see any one defender devoted to him: He had Kareem Jackson on him early, but Jason Allen forced him out of bounds on a second-quarter reception and was matched up against him again later in the second. Johnathan Joseph seems to stay on the defensive left side against all formations, and he's the guy Marshall will want to avoid. Given the way the Dolphins moved him around versus the Patriots, I think he'll be able to. Until I see otherwise, Marshall is back to being an every-week starter. He's that talented.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe gap in value between DeAngelo Williams, left, and Jonathan Stewart, right, is smaller than most think.

4. Stew Beef. I'm a big DeAngelo Williams fan. I was all-in on D-Willy in '08 when he ran for 18 scores. But even I have to face one cold, hard fact: He's really only ever put together one complete season in his five-year career. There were the dark days of sharing time with DeShaun Foster in '06 and '07. And there were leg injuries galore in '09 and '10. What Williams showed against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 was a steaming pile of ugly. He had 12 carries for 30 yards and never broke anything bigger than 8 yards. It's simplistic to say his legs aren't under him. I can't really tell that from one game's worth of film. But in the first quarter, Williams had four carries for minus-1 yards and was consistently taken down by a single tackler.

Jonathan Stewart got the first series of the second quarter and on his first carry took a shotgun draw up the middle and turned nothing much into an 11-yard gain in which he carried three guys on his back. Then midway through the second quarter, he turned in the best running play the Carolina Panthers had all day, a cutback run in which he eluded just about every Cardinals defender on the field and gained 29 yards, only to see it called back on a holding penalty. But seriously, you didn't see anything like that broken-field running from Williams in Week 1.

Let's go ahead and not make too much of this. Williams still played more and saw the ball more. He's also the guy making $21 million guaranteed, while Stewart is in the second-to-last season of his rookie deal. I'm still ranking Williams ahead of Stew Beef. But the gap is closing just a bit. Remember, Stewart rushed for 10 TDs in both '08 and '09 in mostly a part-time role. I think he's a sneaky flex play many weeks, and this is one of them. Over the past few seasons, the Packers have been easier to run against than throw against (granted that was before B.J. Raji started doing his best Gilbert Brown impression). Take note of whether mauling Panthers right tackle Jeff Otah is limited by a possible concussion before your make your lineup decision here.

5. The Phoenix Suns of the NFL. Regular readers know I'm a New England Patriots fan. But I get a nervous feeling about this team. The same kind of nervous feeling I often got last year when the defense would allow another long drive, then get rescued (in the regular season) by Tom Brady and the offense. The Pats have nice strength at defensive tackle and middle linebacker, and Devin McCourty is the real deal as their top corner. But I saw a whole lot of feh everywhere else Monday.

Did this squad record a respectable 36 sacks last season, good for 14th in the NFL? It did. But that wasn't thanks to outside pressure. Tully Banta-Cain was the best defensive end/outside linebacker in that regard in '10, with five sacks, and he's gone. The bulk of quarterback pressure from this defense comes (when it comes) from the middle, from Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright (when he's healthy), Myron Pryor and (maybe eventually) Albert Haynesworth. Last year, when they gave you their 3-4 look, it was so-so players such as Banta-Cain and Jermaine Cunningham rushing the quarterback. Now, in their 4-3, you're talking about retreads such as Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis. Really, I don't think we know how good the non-McCourty pass-coverage players are in New England, because too often Henne had all night to throw.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesAlbert Haynesworth and the Patriots' defense struggled against the Dolphins, especially against the pass, Monday night.

Yes, to some extent it's revisionist history to say, "The Patriots built their huge winning streak in the regular season simply by outscoring teams, and only when they met a defense that could stop them did their fatal flaw shine through." Heck, I watched that New York Jets playoff game last year and was as surprised as the next guy. But Mark Sanchez did throw for three TDs and no picks in that game, and Ray Rice did trample the Pats to the tune of 159 yards and two TDs in the Ravens' playoff win in New England back in '09. In both cases, you saw the Patriots' spread-them-out offense run up against a defense that wasn't impressed. In both cases, you saw Brady play poorly and dig a hole that his defense just wasn't equipped to get out of.

Fantasy-wise, I guess all this is to say: I'm at a loss to explain why I'm the only ESPN ranker who wants you to steer far, far away from the Pats D this week against Philip Rivers. The transitive property doesn't apply week to week in the NFL, so it's not good analysis to say, "Man, if Chad Henne can throw for 416 yards against the Pats, imagine what Rivers can do!" But it is good analysis to observe that Rivers went for 336 against New England last year. I'll be surprised if Pats/Chargers isn't a shootout of one degree or another Sunday, and as such, I'd strongly advise against using either fantasy D.

Five In Brief:

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Andrew Mills/US PresswireEli Manning is poised for a much better Week 2 than his Week 1 outing against the Redskins.

6. Eli and the golden fleece. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Jason and the Argonauts were after the wool of some magic ram. I don't know, in my fevered brain there's some connection there. Anyway, I'm surprised how quickly our rankers have given up on Eli Manning. No, he wasn't particularly good against the Washington Redskins. But this is a guy whose memory is shorter than ... well ... my memory, apparently, when it comes to invention history and/or mythology. The St. Louis Rams have lost starting corner Ronald Bartell for the season with a neck injury, and might be without their other starting corner Bradley Fletcher this week because of a toe injury. Suddenly Justin King, who was considered possible roster chaff just a few weeks ago, and the immortal (perhaps literally) Al Harris may be the starters. Harris is 36 and was last seen getting bounced off the Saints' roster last year. I never consider Eli a top-10 QB and I don't this week. But I'll leave him right where he normally falls in my ranks. By the way, it sounds as if Hakeem Nicks may try and give it a go Monday night; if you're inclined to wait it out with him, handcuff Domenik Hixon and plug in Hixon if Nicks winds up inactive.

7. What happened to not chasing touchdowns? I agree that Mike Tolbert should probably be ranked above Ryan Mathews right now, because when you have a job that seems pretty much split 50-50 in terms of workload, you err on the guy who appears to be the clear short-yardage option and who's coming off a three-TD game. But our rankers are going bonkers for Tolbert, wouldn't you say? I was the only one not to put the big guy in my top 20 RBs this week, and I put him 28th (with Mathews 32nd). Nothing I saw out of Tolbert indicates that he's anywhere close to winning a full-time role, and if statistical analysis tells us anything about short TDs it's that they can be mighty fickle. I'll grant you that it's nice to see Tolbert catch nine passes against the Minnesota Vikings (two of which accounted for scores), and there's little reason to suspect Tolbert won't be the primary third-down back against the Pats this week. But to my eyes, Mathews didn't play poorly in Week 1, and in fact showed that he's a far better player than Tolbert is when he gets the ball in space. Combine that with Tolbert having a balky knee, and I'd consider neither of them better than flex material.

8. Cedric Benson runs left. Once again, Keith Lipscomb clued me into this one: Benson had 27 carries against the Browns in Week 1, and 17 of them were to the left side, in the general direction of tackle Andrew Whitworth. Sure, Benson broke his game-clinching run with less than two minutes to play by running right, but that was a go-for-broke play by the Browns, and Benson could've driven a truck through the hole that sprung him for his 39-yard score. I hate it when so-so backs put together so-so days for 58 minutes, then break a long one late to make it look like they had a huge fantasy day. We all know what Benson is. He's a plugger. But against a Denver Broncos' defensive right side that features injury fill-ins Derrick Harvey, Jason Hunter and Wesley Woodyard, I can see a bunch more running left, and a bunch more slow-and-steady success for Benson.

[+] EnlargeMalcom Floyd
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireMalcom Floyd could light up the Patriots' spotty pass defense.

9. Malcom X. That's Malcom Floyd, who is typically the San Diego Chargers' "X" receiver. As I mentioned above, I'm wholly unconvinced that the Patriots' defense will put nearly as much pressure on Rivers as the Vikings did last week, and I think Gates, Vincent Jackson and Floyd can all benefit. Realize this about Floyd's Week 1 performance: He had eight targets to Jackson's three. Sure, Jackson was the wideout with the best chance at a TD, a would-have-been 43-yarder late in the second quarter that Rivers barely overthrew (V-Jax was wide open). But Floyd will usually get the shorter stuff, regardless of his good size/speed combo, and that can add up. A couple of our ESPN rankers say to forget Floyd in leagues that start three wideouts. I'm actually OK with using him in such leagues.

10. Cam or Fig? Part of the radioactive phenomenon that was Cam Newton throwing for a ludicrous 422 yards in his career opener last week will be explained this Sunday. You'll get to see Newton going up against an elite pass defense (and an elite pass rusher in Clay Matthews), and you'll get to see Rex Grossman play versus the defense Newton torched, the woeful Cardinals. Despite the fact that Newton was added in a whopping 53.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues this week -- which I understand -- I can't imagine too many fantasy owners in standard-sized leagues are plugging him into their starting lineups. Right? Right? (Please don't do that.) On the other hand, Peyton Manning owners who've rightly given up on their one-week Kerry Collins experiment could very well look Grossman's way for Week 2. Now, let's not get crazy about Sexy Rexy and his four career starts for the Redskins, in which he has three 300-yard games. If Grossman is one thing, it's a would-be gunslinger who's often a few bullets shy of a full bandoleer. But seeing how wide-open Steve Smith got versus Patrick Peterson and the other Cardinals DBs, well, it makes me believe Newton's performance was more about the defense. If Grossman does his part and goes wild, we'll have our proof.

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.

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