Slow starters

Why Darren McFadden, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning have struggled so far

Updated: September 21, 2012, 4:11 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast, Field Yates and I take in-depth looks at Robert Griffin III, Jamaal Charles, Wes Welker, Joe Flacco, Dennis Pitta and more. In order to provide you, the trusted fantasy consumer, full value, I won't be double-dipping about them for this column. You can listen to the latest Fantasy Underground ("Subverting the Tyranny of the Box Score Since 2012") here.

So here's an entirely new set of guys and situations I investigated this week. See that? I do twice the work, because I love you so much.

Five In Depth

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

1. Darren McFadden's Slow Start. I've read a fair amount of pontificating this week about the suitability of the Oakland Raiders' zone-blocking scheme to Run-DMC's game. The stats are these: According to the San Jose Mercury News, under Tom Cable's zone schemes, McFadden rushed for 856 yards in 25 games, good for only 34 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. Under Hue Jackson's power-blocking schemes, McFadden had 1,771 yards in 20 games, which translated to 89 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry. With Dennis Allen and new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp going back to zone blocking, Run-DMC has 54 yards on 26 carries. On the surface of things, it looks like the system could be the problem.

Through two weeks, what I see on the game film is simple: McFadden has nowhere to run. Again and again, he is cracked by a San Diego Chargers or Miami Dolphins defender at the point of attack. Even if Raiders linemen had been matched man-on-man rather than assigned "O-line routes" -- an oversimplification of what zone schemes are supposed to accomplish, but it helps draw a distinction -- I find it difficult to believe that McFadden would have suddenly run wild. Oakland was just stuffed. The Mike Shanahan/Arian Foster style of gap-control, cut-blocking and intricate timing isn't exactly exotic, and I can't see an inherent reason McFadden can't succeed if it's working properly. Heck, as the Mercury News points out, that's basically the scheme that Reggie Bush used to rack up 172 yards rushing against the Raiders last week.

[+] EnlargeShaun Phillips
AP Photo/Ben MargotDarren McFadden has more receiving yards (105) than rushing yards (54) in two games this season.

There were other circumstances limiting McFadden's effectiveness during those early years with Cable, namely his health. He battled bad turf toe injuries his first two NFL seasons. Plus, the line itself has been injured early this season. Stefen Wisniewski missed Week 1 with a calf injury, and Khalif Barnes came out midgame in Week 2 after hurting his groin.

Proclaiming that the blocking scheme is the only variable is silly. Could it be a contributing factor? Absolutely. Foster's patient running style isn't for everyone, but it's often required of a back running behind a zone system. Watch Foster or Bush glide at a 45-degree angle, often touching one of his linemen, then hit a crease and, boom, he's off. McFadden often likes to be a whirling dervish, a la Adrian Peterson.

I'm not saying the system isn't a factor. I'm just saying it's not the only factor. That Raiders line couldn't have budged the interior of that Miami defensive front if it had been given a backhoe. The sledding probably won't be great this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers either. However, because McFadden is such a threat to catch the ball, he has to be in your lineup. Going forward, observe DMC's patience and see if he is missing creases if and when they finally start showing up.

2. Josh McDaniels: Offense Killer? We'll never know the true story of how decisions get made on the New England Patriots. It might be the most tight-lipped organization in sports history. You certainly won't get a straight answer about why Wes Welker suddenly found himself behind Julian Edelman on the depth chart in Week 2 (but not Week 1), a topic Yates and I tackle at length in the Fantasy Underground podcast. But there's weirdness here that goes beyond Welker.

Why did Danny Woodhead play so much in the second half when Stevan Ridley had done strong work in the first? ESPN Boston reports that Woodhead played 17 snaps in the Pats' first nine series against the Arizona Cardinals last week and 20 snaps over the final three possessions. Yes, New England went no-huddle a bunch, and that's sometimes a situation that plays to Woodhead's strengths. But it wasn't working for him Sunday, especially not on a third-quarter third-and-6 play in deep field goal territory, when the team ran a curious toss-sweep with Woodhead instead of Ridley on which Woodhead was perhaps supposed to lateral the ball back to Tom Brady. The play lost 9 yards and took the Patriots out of field goal range.

Also, saying nothing about Welker's playing time, why has the team apparently decided to use him differently when he is on the field? He is an elite slot receiver, maybe the best in league history, yet McDaniels is sending Welker far down the field in more patterns than I can remember. Welker's average yards at the catch last season was 6.7, which was 88th in the NFL among qualified pass-catchers. On Sunday, it was 10.6. That is a one-game sample, but Welker only outdid a 10.6 downfield average once in 16 contests last season. I don't remember many seam routes for Welker in 2011, but he ran several Sunday.

For that matter, I've been a bit frustrated to see the routes that Brandon Lloyd has run. Again, I'll give the requisite disclaimer about small sample size, but Lloyd's yards-at-the-catch average this season is 7.8, a far cry from his 11.6 in 2011 and 15.9 in 2010. In both of those seasons, his plays were almost exclusively called by, you guessed it, Josh McDaniels. It seems to me that using Lloyd on a wide receiver screen isn't the best use of his abilities, though I understand NFL offenses also want to cross up their tendencies.

Saying all this is to conclude ... nothing. It's too early, but I don't like much of what I've seen from McDaniels through two games. He seems to be outclevering himself, especially with the Welker/Edelman mess.

3. Let The Aaron Rodgers Panic Begin? I have fielded more Twitter missives and chat questions over the past week about whether to bench A-Rod than in the past two seasons combined.

But let's take a moment to see if what's ailing the Green Bay Packers' offense is real and potentially fatal. Let's start with a few key statistics, comparing Rodgers' first two games of 2012 with his historic 2011 campaign:

The first four rows in this chart are a reflection of something that Packers fans no doubt have felt through two weeks: The offensive line is shaky. Rodgers is often under duress and has less of a chance to let his receivers get down the field. The yards-at-the-catch stat is particularly alarming. In 2011, Rodgers with sixth among qualifying quarterbacks. In 2012, he's 30th.

There are mitigating factors. First, the Packers have played games against two pretty good defenses, the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears. The 49ers' defense speaks for itself, and while I'd argue that the Bears' defense isn't elite any longer, it is very familiar with Rodgers. Although to be fair, in two games against the Bears last season, Rodgers was sacked a total of twice for five yards; last Thursday night, Chicago got him five times.

Rodgers was also without his best receiver, Greg Jennings, for Week 2. (Missing the sure-handed Jennings probably enhanced that drops-per-attempt stat a bit.) Plus in the Chicago game, Green Bay seemed fixated on establishing Cedric Benson, giving him 24 touches from scrimmage, more than any running back had in a single game during the 2011 season.

Finally, while I can't say I noticed a real change in play calling, Joe Philbin is out as offensive coordinator and Tom Clements is in.

Nevertheless, I'm fixated on the pass protection. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse had a couple of high-profile blown assignments that led to sacks in Week 2, including a blown one-on-one speed rush by rookie Bears lineman Shea McClellin in a shotgun formation, which looked just awful. But right tackle Bryan Bulaga was just as guilty, allowing two sacks, and he struggled much worse than Newhouse against the 49ers. (Left guard T.J. Lang hasn't been particularly good either.)

As the Packers prepare for a Monday night game against a Seattle Seahawks defense that has seen Chris Clemons and Red Bryant become unheralded studs coming off the edge, it's fair to wonder if Rodgers might be in for another long night.

I'd imagine the Packers are preparing another game plan in which shorter throws are the norm, and if they don't have Jennings -- whose groin injury figures to make him a game-time decision -- they'll potentially be lacking in wideout playmakers. Still, I trust Rodgers so implicitly that I probably would start him against the '85 Bears. Seattle's run defense has been rugged enough that I don't think Green Bay enters the game hoping to give Benson anywhere near the same number of touches as Week 2. They'll sink or swim (and probably swim) with Rodgers.

4. Peyton's Place Is On Your Bench ... This Week. I'm not overly freaked about Peyton Manning's Week 2 performance against the Atlanta Falcons, including those three first-quarter interceptions. The conversation about Manning's arm strength -- which was exacerbated when the Denver Post reported that Brock Osweiler was warming up to throw a Hail Mary if needed -- is probably overstated. Instead, I focused on two other factors: Peyton's chemistry with his receivers and the wobbliness of his throws.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/David GoldmanPeyton Manning had his ups and downs against the Falcons on Monday night.

The latter is easy to describe. Manning threw some ducks, and not just the ones that were picked off. But it's revisionist history to proclaim that Manning always threw tight spirals with the Indianapolis Colts. Having spent some time throwing footballs in my distant past, I can say that a wobbly throw doesn't always (or usually) have that much to do with arm strength. Often as not, the problem is mechanical and related to shoulder, body position or grip. While I certainly never saw Manning throw a pass Monday night that made me go, "Wow, that's the second coming of John Elway," neither did I think any of his misguided passes were particularly loopy or late in arriving. They simply wobbled. I'm not saying that the phenomenon isn't related to the mechanics of Manning's four neck surgeries. I'm simply saying I don't believe it's all about a lack of power.

The main problem on Manning's second and third picks came in the space between his ears. On the second, he threw into triple coverage trying to hit Jacob Tamme. He saw something that wasn't there. If Thomas DeCoud hadn't intercepted it coming across his zone, there's a decent chance William Moore would have gotten it playing man on Tamme. There was no window. Manning's third pick was another awful misread against two deep safeties, where Brandon Stokley was simply never open. No arm in the world would have completed those passes.

But the first pick, the one that got the snowball rolling downhill, is more interesting. Tamme was the intended receiver, and I had the impression that Manning expected his tight end to drift right. The throw wasn't great, and Moore came across Tamme's face to pick it off. But Manning seemed to hesitate just a bit and tried to finesse the ball into a spot where he didn't seem to believe Tamme should be. A yard farther to the outside, and the pass probably would have dropped in the bucket. And that's interesting to me, because there were other nonintercepted passes where Manning seemed to expect route adjustments that never came. Eric Decker had one in the third quarter on a square-in that Manning talked to him about, where the quarterback seemed to expect the wide receiver to cut harder toward the center of the field. Demaryius Thomas didn't come back as hard as Manning expected on a left-sideline route. In short: chemistry. There were plenty of positive plays, and Peyton wound up producing a decent comeback. But that eyes-closed, same-page stuff we saw all those years in Indy isn't there.

But you know what? None of this particularly explains why I have Manning ranked a season-low 15th on my QB list this week. No, that's all about the matchup. Johnathan Joseph is playing lockdown corner, and the Houston Texans' pass rush has been nasty. Things may get better at home in front of a crowd that's more respectful of Manning's no-huddle, but I'd rather not find out with him in my lineup.

5. DeSean Jackson's Contract Makes Him Good Again. Sadly, all the nasty things people said about Jackson last season were pretty much true. They said he was dogging it because he wanted a new contract, that he wouldn't go over the middle, that he was afraid of getting hit. And this summer, Jackson admitted it. He told ESPN's Lisa Salters, "I let it get to me, even though I tried not to let it. I was trying to protect myself from getting hurt. Now I'm just giving it all." In other words, woof-woof, he was a total dog.

[+] EnlargeDeSean Jackson
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesDeSean Jackson may finally be becoming a more all-around wide receiver.

As Jeremy Maclin has struggled with a hip injury, Jackson looks like a different player. Gone is the dude who seemed to remember his helmet-to-helmet hit from Dunta Robinson the last time he effectively ran a crossing route (two years ago). He has shown a wider array of routes and effort in two games this season than he did all last year.

On Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, the Philadelphia Eagles didn't send Jackson deep until there was a minute left in the third quarter. To that point, his six targets came on a variety of short outs and stops, a fade and a wide receiver screen. In 2011, he had only 79 targets where the pass traveled 20 yards or fewer in the air. So far this season, he already has 15 such targets, which projects to 120 for the season.

By the way, on that first deep ball Michael Vick threw Jackson's way? It squeezed into a window over the corner and next to the safety, and Jackson took a huge shot from Ed Reed but bounced right up.

Don't get me wrong: It's not as if the Eagles are sending D-Jax over the middle to get his clock cleaned. I didn't count a single crossing pattern on which Vick targeted a pass for Jackson in Week 2. Perhaps that's as it should be, since Jackson weighs 175 pounds soaking wet. But seeing his target length come down and his target total come up? That's the kind of transformation that Mike Wallace underwent last season, turning him into a far more complete receiver. Maybe it took many millions of dollars to get Jackson to make this metamorphosis, but I'm optimistic about what I've seen through two weeks.

Five In Brief:

6. Marshawn Lynch Is A Man. No rusher I've seen this season has made more out of less than Lynch. He doesn't do it by outsprinting you, that's for sure. Against the Dallas Cowboys last week, Lynch ran over some good run defenders. It would be a mistake to contend that the Seattle Seahawks' offensive line is some kind of road-grading, spectacular unit. It's fine, but Lynch just pounds people. He started slow in the first quarter Sunday, bottled up by what is normally a really tough Cowboys front seven. But beginning with the first play of the second half, Beast Mode was back. He took glancing blows from Marcus Spears and Sean Lee. He put his hand on Danny McCray's helmet and was like, "Uh, no!" and shoved him out of the way. He made Gerald Sensabaugh look silly in the open field. And he gained 16 yards before DeMarcus Ware finally crunched him. Lynch's other really big gainer -- a 36-yarder later that quarter -- was more a matter of finding a secondary seam and getting through to the second level untouched, but this dude was a punisher for the rest of the contest. For sure, Lynch is an emotional, momentum runner who can disappear when things aren't going his way, but when he's on, like he was in the second half against Dallas, he can carry your fantasy team. According to ProFootballFocus, Lynch is first in the NFL in missed tackles created through two weeks (14) and tied for fifth in average yards after contact (3.4).

[+] EnlargeFitzgerald
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireLarry Fitzgerald was limited to just one catch for four yards against the Patriots.

7. Is The Lack Of An Elite QB Catching Up With Larry Fitzgerald? Of the 53 wideouts who had at least 10 targets after Week 2, Fitzgerald had the lowest target conversion rate, catching just five of the 13 passes thrown his way. Considering he hasn't been credited with a drop yet, let's not blame him, shall we? The Arizona Cardinals may be 2-0, but they haven't exactly been an offensive juggernaut. They're in the bottom five in rushing yards and passing yards per game, and their quarterbacks have completed 55.6 percent of their attempts while rarely throwing the deep ball, as zero of their attempts have traveled more than 30 yards in the air. Fitz has only three targets that have gone more than 20 yards and has caught none of them. So why do I still have Fitzgerald easily ensconced in my top 10 fantasy receivers this week? Because the small sample size is exaggerating the problem. Bill Belichick is noted for scheming away an opponent's top receiving weapon -- who can forget Antonio Gates' oh-fer in Week 2 of the 2011 season? -- and he gave safety and linebacker help to the corner guarding Fitz on almost every play. In Week 2, the lone target I saw when the defender in coverage didn't have help came when Fitzgerald got an end zone target, but Devin McCourty stripped the short pass away. That one might have been on Fitz. Otherwise, four targets for one catch and four yards? I'm yawning that one away. Kevin Kolb will play again against the Eagles on Sunday, and I admit that's a little gross. But considering how much single safety high I saw Philly play against the Ravens last week, there could be shots to Fitzgerald where he is single-covered. If that happens, I say he wins. Start him.

8. Fantasy-Altering Injury Pandemic (Part I). Let's not oversell it and say Ryan Tannehill played great in Week 2, but he looked athletic getting out of the pocket and making throws on the run, and Brian Hartline produced nine grabs for 111 yards. Sorry, Miami Dolphins fans, but I'm not ready to chalk that up to offensive greatness. The Raiders are decimated at cornerback. Top cover man Ronald Bartell is out until at least November after breaking his shoulder blade in Week 1, and Shawntae Spencer was hurt in the fourth quarter last week and is out at least a month with a sprained foot. The Raiders have signed a couple practice squad players, and beat reporters say the team is trying free safety Michael Huff out at corner. The Raiders have produced little pass rush -- two sacks in two games -- which tends to expose a bad secondary even further. The Steelers' passing game gets a big green light from me this week. I have Ben Roethlisberger a season-high 11th on my quarterback list, and Wallace and Antonio Brown are inside my top 20 wide receivers. Drawing a straight line between absentee starting corners and fantasy glory for opposing passers and receivers doesn't always work perfectly, but I like these odds.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
Jeff Curry/US PresswireThe loss of Brian Orakpo will hurt the Redskins' defense and boost the Bengals' offense this week.

9. Fantasy-Altering Injury Pandemic (Part II). Through two games, the Washington Redskins defense has allowed the third-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. That would be excusable Week 1 versus Drew Brees, but giving up 23 points to Sam Bradford is a red flag. I look at the personnel in that secondary, and I see flammable materials. DeAngelo Hall yaps a lot, but he is far beyond his prime, and nickel man Cedric Griffin hasn't been the same player since he tore both ACLs. (I like the other starting corner, Josh Wilson, just fine.) That's to say nothing of problems Washington has at safety, between SS Reed Doughty and FS Madieu Williams (remember him, Minnesota Vikings fans?). All this is to say that the season-ending injuries suffered last week by LB Brian Orakpo and DE Adam Carriker not only weaken what seemed to be a pretty decent front seven, but they also potentially expose a bad secondary. Those two injured players accounted for 14.5 of the Redskins' 41 sacks in 2011. Defenses will be able to focus more intently on Stephen Bowen at the defense's first level and Ryan Kerrigan at the second. I love A.J. Green every week but even more so Sunday. Plus, for the first time this season, I put BenJarvus Green-Ellis in my top 20 running backs.

10. Fantasy-Altering Injury Pandemic (Part III). As of this writing, Steven Jackson was questionable to play in Week 3 because of his injured groin, but if you're an S-Jax owner, I'm not sure you want him to go. Amazingly, when the St. Louis Rams take the field Sunday, they'll have backups starting at four of their five offensive line spots. Center Scott Wells broke his foot Week 1 and is out for the season; Robert Turner, previously a special teams guy, is now starting. Rookie LG Rokevious Watkins hurt his ankle in practice leading up to Week 2 and is out for the season; journeyman Quinn Ojinnaka will start for him. LT Rodger Saffold is out for at least four weeks with a ligament strain in his knee, meaning the immortal Wayne Hunter -- whom New York Jets fans ran out of town on a rail this summer -- will have Bradford's blind side against the Bears on Sunday. Moving into Hunter's place at right tackle is journeyman Barry Richardson. The only regular starter in his normal place is RG Harvey Dahl. Suffice to say that whatever momentum the Rams built in Week 2 seems unlikely to continue in Chicago. The Bears' defense looks great to me, and there isn't a single Ram I'd feel good about using.

ALSO SEE