Don't worry about Megatron

Plus good news for Sam Bradford, Ahmad Bradshaw, Frank Gore

Updated: October 26, 2012, 3:35 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I discussed Darren McFadden, Cam Newton, Brandon Lloyd, Rashad Jennings, LaRod Stephens-Howling, some tight end fill-ins if you lost Fred Davis and the Oakland Raiders D/ST. So you won't find discussions of those players in this column. Here are 10 other topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. How Bad Is The New England Patriots' Pass Defense? Pats fans remember this drill from 2011. Despite winning their final eight regular-season games, New England created fantasy stars out of a litany of subpar quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow and Matt Moore were all made to look spectacularly competent. (Heck, Young threw for 400 yards!)

Despite a defense-heavy draft and only one defensive back starting in the same spot as last season, the Pats seem to be right back where they started. Look at the quarterback performances against them the past five weeks:

Over the past five games, the simple act of lining up against the Patriots has made opposing quarterbacks an average of 8.8 fantasy points better than they are against any other opponent.

Against the New York Jets last week, the Pats tried getting away from heavy nickel and dime packages, keeping four DBs on the field on 50 of 84 snaps (thanks to ESPNBoston.com for this stat) as opposed to games against the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills where they played sub packages nearly the entire time. But it doesn't seem to matter. They just can't cover down the field. Again, via ESPNBoston: Opponents have thrown the ball 16-plus yards in the air a whopping 64 times, the most in the NFL, and have completed an astounding 45 percent of those throws. The Pats have allowed a league-high 38 plays of 20 yards or more. The breakdowns are usually as much mental as physical, whether it's Devin McCourty seeming preternaturally incapable of turning around and looking for the ball or a pair of safeties letting Sidney Rice run right past them in a Hail Mary circumstance.

Certainly, the pass rush isn't helping. Rookie Chandler Jones has flashed at times, but he is too up-and-down and seems to disappear late in games. The defensive tackles -- Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love -- aren't getting a regular push into the quarterback's face. Too often, the Patriots know a team has to throw against them, they pin their ears back, and they still can't put heat on an opposing signal-caller.

Still, this mostly boils down to the secondary. Kyle Arrington is miscast as a top corner, and McCourty has deteriorated to the point where he has started at safety of late. Maybe the team misses Steve Gregory, who has been out three straight games with a hip injury, but please don't tell me this is about Patrick Chung, who is also injured but who couldn't cover your grandmother.

The team's 2011 struggles resulted in tons of zone defense, forcing teams to generate mistake-free drives, which the New York Giants eventually did in the Super Bowl. If the Pats go toward a bunch of Cover 2 again in 2012, it might take away the chunk plays, but it likely won't cause fantasy quarterbacks to struggle against them. Suffice it to say that I ranked Sam Bradford a season-high No. 14 on my QB list this week. Give him 8.8 fantasy points above his season average and you'd be looking at a 21.5-fantasy-point day from London.

2. Did Ahmad Bradshaw Really Have Something to Complain About? Late in the third quarter of the Giants' win over the Washington Redskins last week, cameras spotted Bradshaw melting down on the sideline, getting into it with coach Tom Coughlin and running backs coach Jerald Ingram and slamming Victor Cruz in the helmet with some aggressive encouragement. Bradshaw told reporters he was frustrated by his team's play calling. To that point in the game -- essentially through three quarters -- Bradshaw had 11 touches for 52 yards, though only seven touches came on runs. The game was tied 13-13, largely because Eli Manning hadn't played well.

But Bradshaw is a bit late if he expects the Giants to suddenly become a smashmouth team. This season, they've thrown on 60 percent of their plays, and last season, that number was 59 percent. Bradshaw was in the middle of a terrific hot streak running the ball (316 rush yards in his previous two games), so maybe he believed things had changed.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Bradshaw
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireIt appears Ahmad Bradshaw can do a lot more damage up the middle.

However, my critique of the Giants in Week 7 is less about the volume of Bradshaw's 12 totes (and the five that Andre Brown had) and more about the nature. Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6, Bradshaw was stunningly effective running up the gut. The Giants' offensive line moved what had been a fairly impenetrable Niners' front seven, and on runs categorized by Stats LLC as middle runs, Bradshaw had nine carries for 36 yards, some of them backbreakers. (David Wilson chipped in three middle carries for 12 yards.) By contrast, last week against the Redskins, the Giants attempted two middle runs, both by Bradshaw, that netted three yards. Instead, you saw numerous pitches and off-tackle leads; each of Bradshaw's first three carries -- which took him well into the second quarter -- fit those descriptions.

Bradshaw had one perimeter run that worked well Sunday, an inside handoff off countermovement in a shotgun formation. He gained 15 yards toward the left with this gadget-ish play. Otherwise, the Redskins chased down everything the Giants tried to do around the edge, and Bradshaw never got back to the quick-hitting trap plays that knocked the 49ers around so well.

There's reason to be nervous about Bradshaw's feet, and his team's desire to keep him healthy by potentially limiting his workload. (Brown stole a one-yard touchdown versus Washington, though Bradshaw got one of his own later in the game). He wasn't able to practice Wednesday or Thursday, though I don't believe he misses Sunday's game. Still, I'd like to see the Giants use their line's trapping brawn against the Dallas Cowboys and give Bradshaw the chance to pound vertically, especially with tackling-machine Sean Lee out for the year.

3. Another Week, Another Review Of A Disappointing WR. In last week's Hard Count, I looked at Andre Johnson and concluded that while he hasn't been targeted deep as much as in previous seasons, the promise of high volume means I'm not selling low. He responded with nine catches on 10 targets for 86 yards. This week, let's tackle Calvin Johnson. I get many questions from (presumably) neophyte fantasy owners asking whether they should deal Megatron (and AJ), and my simple answer is no. But let's dig into the film and see what we see.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCalvin Johnson has had more than his share of close calls near the goal line this season.

If you watched "Monday Night Football," you saw lots of pictures of a frustrated Megatron decidedly not making catches. His first grab didn't come until deep into the third quarter, and his other two receptions came on intermediate routes in the hurry-up. This week's home game against the Seattle Seahawks has the potential for more frustration. I have Seattle ranked as the fifth-hardest defense for opposing wide receivers to score fantasy points against over the past five weeks.

But I don't care. I'm starting Johnson every week, and I'm not dealing him away. I know this is loser talk, but if you change the wide-open third-down slant Megatron dropped on the Detroit Lions' first drive Monday night to a catch, Johnson conceivably runs right between the two deep safeties for a 76-yard touchdown and we aren't having this discussion. The kooky thing about Johnson's freakish athletic ability is that this isn't far-fetched. I grant you Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman did an alarmingly good job thereafter, and you'd expect more from Megatron, but I take that missed first-quarter opportunity as emblematic. I believe the Lions passing offense is this close. They're out of rhythm. They play well for nearly an entire drive but then do something dumb: a blown O-line assignment, a holding call, a drop, a bad Matthew Stafford decision. But they move it. Stafford is on pace for 4,683 passing yards. Megatron is on pace for 1,579 receiving yards. Neither is far removed from his blistering 2011 results.

The difference has been touchdowns. I went back and watched every red zone pass Stafford has thrown this season. Yes, safeties tend to roll toward Megatron, as they've always done. But the film shows this is just one of those things. Against the St. Louis Rams in Week 1, Johnson jumped in the air to catch a pass on the goal line but was barely in the field of play when he came to rest, giving Detroit the ball on the 1. In Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans, he was gang-tackled by three defenders at the half-yard line. At the start of the Lions' fourth-quarter comeback in Week 6 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Johnson took a short cross and ran to the pylon, only to get knocked out of bounds midleap and see Stafford QB sneak a TD on the next play. That's three plays where he has been tackled at an opponent's 1.

Here's how the Lions' red zone targets have broken down so far this season:

Last season, Megatron had 25 percent of the Lions' red zone targets, and this season he is at 20 percent. That's very close and obviously tweakable. Stafford said after Monday night that he needs to get it to his best player in key circumstances, double-teams be damned. The bottom line? Even if this week's production is limited by a tough matchup -- and that's no sure thing with a player this talented -- you must hang onto Johnson and keep starting him.

4. Who Are You And What Have You Done With Frank Gore? By most measures, Gore was an effective fantasy player in 2011. He finished sixth in rushing yards, fifth in carries and tied for 12th in rushing touchdowns, which added up to being the No. 13 running back in fantasy. In Value-Based Drafting terms, I had him as the No. 26 player in the game.

But Gore's career was trending downward. Yes, he finally played 16 games, the first time he'd done that since 2006, but the 49ers' recipe for this was a bit frustrating. They used Gore less. After averaging 20-plus touches per game for the past five seasons -- including 22.6 in 2010 -- he averaged 18.7 last season, and in the second half of the season, that number dropped to 15.9. He is in his age-29 season, and there were many who predicted a major downfall, not least because of the many backup running backs on San Francisco's roster.

For the record, I had Gore as my No. 13 RB entering the season, higher than anyone else around these parts, but even that's been an underestimate. As of Week 7, he is No. 8 in fantasy points per game among running backs, he is on pace for 1,374 rushing yards, and what's most impressive is the per-carry average: 5.8. Among qualified running backs, that's second in the NFL through Week 7:

Gore is the oldest player on this list. While contemporaries like Steven Jackson and Michael Turner are winding down, Gore is submitting probably the second-best season of his pro career. And let's be clear: This isn't a case of the numbers being inflated by a couple of long runs. Gore doesn't have a scamper longer than 37 yards, yet he leads the league in runs of 10-plus yards with a whopping 23.

How is this happening? ProFootballFocus.com believes it's the Niners' offensive line. PFF rates this unit the best in the NFL and puts its run-blocking skills miles ahead of any other group. According to my calculations based on PFF's game charting, Gore is third in the NFL in average yards before contact, behind only Darren Sproles and Chris Johnson (and let's face it, before his long untouched touchdown run in Week 7, CJ1K wouldn't have been anywhere near that list).

What's great about Gore, though, is not only that doesn't he get touched near the line of scrimmage as often as other good running backs, but he also punishes people who do eventually reach him. Anyone who watched last Thursday's game against the Seahawks saw Gore run over and through a really good Seattle linebacker corps. And even in a sour effort against the Giants a couple of weeks back, he had highlight moments where he danced around Kenny Phillips getting to the outside and where he split the New York linebackers with straight-ahead speed.

So all is wine and roses for Gore's fantasy owners, right? Heck, he is even on pace to catch 34 passes after grabbing only 17 last season. But we're worriers, aren't we? We remember last season's second half, we see Hunter playing well in a relief role, and we know Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James are on the roster. Is Gore a sell-high candidate? Will the 49ers lessen his workload as the playoffs approach? I wish I knew. Only Jim Harbaugh can tell you that.

Seeing Gore have to leave last week's game because of a rib injury is sobering (he's fine for Week 8), but I have to say: His workload hasn't been egregious to this point. He has averaged 16.9 touches per game, fewer than last season. I'm sticking with him. He still has tough-seeming matchups against the Bears, Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, but there's also a sweet-looking affair against the New Orleans Saints. This isn't a fluke, and it's not a result of overwork. I'm riding Gore.

5. Checking In On Andrew Luck. I'm tempted to write the sentence, "Andrew Luck gets it." Because much of the time, he does. On the first play from scrimmage last week against the Cleveland Browns, the Indianapolis Colts ran a sprint-draw look but it was play-action, and the Browns bit. For some ridiculous reason, single-safety-high T.J. Ward rolled away from Reggie Wayne's side, then once the play was clearly a pass, he just turned his back and ran down the field with Donnie Avery, who was already blanketed by Joe Haden. This left Wayne alone running a simple in-cut in the middle of the field, and Luck took his shot for a 30-yard gain. A disastrous defensive performance, yes, but I've watched many quarterbacks this season who either don't see such breakdowns or who are too nervous to make such bold throws. Not Luck. He trusts what he sees.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireAndrew Luck's volume of passes will help his fantasy value, but he is a bit more inconsistent than you would like.

Of course, sometime he shouldn't. The Browns should have picked him off during the two-minute drill at the end of the first half when Dwayne Allen ran a little out and Craig Robertson cut off the route and had the ball hit him in the chest. Most of the time, though, Luck knows what to do. Against the Browns (unlike against the Jets in Week 6), he avoided the big mistake. But there was a single, harmless-looking play late in the third quarter that points out an interesting and unexpected limitation. He drops back and feels possible pressure coming from his right. He rolls left, Wayne streaks across his face in a sea of Browns defenders, open for a moment, but then not. But Luck wants to give his playmaker a chance, so he rears back as he is running left and lets go the most awkward, unathletic throw imaginable, one that bounds off the turf as if thrown by your 7-year-old cousin tossing with his off hand.

I'm sure the Colts had a good laugh about that play in film study this week, and Luck is a pretty athletic dude (running for two touchdowns in the game), but from game to game, amid all the great stuff he does, one common thread I see is that he isn't doing a good job with his accuracy when he is forced to move. He'll take a hit, but as he is firing with a defender on him, he is all awkward foot movements and tics, and it shows in the results. Anecdotally, I could take you play by play through his entire season, and I'll bet 90 percent of the times you think he looks like a rookie when someone is forcing him to move off his spot. Oh, he'll fire the heck out of the ball. It's just usually out of bounds or 10 feet over an open receiver's head.

This is my lone criticism of Luck, and it will probably get better as he ages. He is third in the NFL in pass attempts per game (41.7), and that kind of usage makes him valuable. Alas, his completion percentage is 53.6 percent. As a result, his yards per attempt is 24th in the league, one slot ahead of Sanchez.

We must remember that Luck is doing this with a makeshift offensive line and a below-average receiving corps, so I'm not trying to damn the kid. But it makes sense to me that the Jets were a team he struggled against, because they try to pressure the quarterback so hard. Against the Titans this week (a team with nine sacks in seven games), I'd expect a better result.

Five In Brief

6. Jonathan Stewart: Lead Back? The Charlotte Observer reports that last week's Carolina Panthers game plan -- in which Stewart had 10 carries and DeAngelo Williams had two -- may be a reflection of changes to come, namely that the team may focus more on the power-running game at the expense of their zone-read package. That naturally leads to the supposition that the burly, north-south Daily Show may be highlighted going forward and that the shifty D-Willy may remain the specialty player he was in Week 7. None of this came directly from the horse's mouth, though Ron Rivera did tell reporters after Sunday's game that he wanted to use the Cowboys game to see Stewart "as the workhorse running back." But we don't know whether Rivera meant that retroactively or if his future plans are changing, especially since GM Marty Hurney was fired this week. A matchup against the Bears isn't what the doctor ordered. By my metrics, Chicago has by far been the hardest defense for running backs to score fantasy points against in the past five weeks. So I'm not telling you to start the Daily Show. I'm more saying that I want to see how the workload breaks down again. If Stewart is once again clearly the lead guy, he is going to become quite a steal.

7. The Return Of Titus Young. I was too optimistic about Young's immediate future this summer, recommending him as one of my favorite value plays in fantasy drafts. Through five games, Young had 11 catches, and six of those came in a single game. Ouch. But Nate Burleson is out for the season with a broken leg, which gives fantasy owners a whole new reason to hate me, because I'm advocating adding Titus to your fantasy bench again. It's a blessing in disguise that the Lions will face the Seahawks on Sunday, because that should alleviate any temptation you're feeling to start Young. But better times figure to be ahead. Young got eight targets Monday, and one of the only two he failed to catch might have been a huge play, as Titus had gotten behind the linebackers and there were no deep safeties but Stafford blew the throw. After Burleson went out early in the third quarter, Young made a difficult catch on a slant on third-and-1, had no shot on a deflected red zone pass, dove to catch a poor Stafford throw for five yards, had a lovely 19-yard tippy-toe sideline grab (on which he talked trash despite trailing by 13 in the fourth quarter) and grabbed a running 21-yarder in garbage time. It was good. Of course, if he can't contain his mouth or his temper, he'll get his butt passed by Ryan Broyles on the depth chart. But it was a solid re-beginning for Young.

8. Robert Griffin III As A Passer. I'm not here to get all over RG3. He's awesome. He's fun to watch, fun to own, and even if he is a big-time injury risk, it would probably take quite a lot to pry him from my fantasy team. Nor am I saying that he is not a good thrower. He has a big arm and is not afraid to use it. But the Redskins haven't really let him. Amazingly, Griffin has nine attempts in seven games that have traveled between 21 and 40 yards in the air. Eli Manning has 30. Fellow rookie Andrew Luck has 27. When an NFL team uses a gadget offense and it doesn't work, it is derided. That's what's happening with Cam Newton and the read-option in Carolina. But when an NFL team uses a gadget offense and it does work, it's celebrated as the pinnacle of creativity. The Skins are using all sorts of crazy pistol formations, with tailbacks, fullbacks and H-backs all over the place, and the team has scored nearly 29 points per game, fifth in the league. Plus RG3 is such a bonanza with his legs that he doesn't need 300-yard passing days or multiple passing touchdowns to be great. (And that's a good thing, because he has exactly two of each in seven games.) But I can't help feeling like this offense's margin for error is a bit razor-thin. Because it is a gimmicky passing game. Yes, Griffin showed what kind of wing he has on a zinging first-quarter pass to Josh Morgan that Morgan caught about 15 yards down the field and carried to the end zone. (The play was nullified by an illegal shift.) But more often, we get the dinky-dunky stuff. RG3 is 27th in average yards at the catch, one spot behind Blaine Gabbert. On a day when his legs aren't getting it done fantasy-wise, I'm not sure his arm will pick up the slack. Then again, do such days even exist?

9. Alex Green's Disastrous Day. The box score looks bad enough. Green had 20 carries against the Rams in Week 7 and gained 35 yards. But then you look at the tape and realize maybe the Green Bay Packers were a bit hasty promoting the second-year Green -- who has an impressive raw skill set -- to their starting running back job. The first quarter didn't feature good results, but that didn't seem to be Green's fault; he just didn't have room to run. But thereafter there were plenty of creases, and he never seemed to pick the right one. I'm not saying the offensive line was opening crevasses for him to scoot through, but from the second quarter on, you could see daylight that Green didn't. Also, he had multiple plays where he tried to jump-cut where the hole was supposed to be and skidded to his rump. He basically had one play, a third-quarter shotgun draw, where he showed strong instincts and netted 15 yards. (But it's better, Alex, not to have to come to a complete stop in the hole before you choose your direction and go.) He got two fourth-quarter carries inside the Rams' 10 and did nothing, and on the second one, I had the distinct sense that if he had continued around the right end rather than cutting back, he would have scored. The skills are there, but one wonders if this bad performance has made Mike McCarthy reconsider using James Starks. I want to like Green in a nice matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, but the thought that Starks could horn in on the action makes me rank Green merely as a flex.

10. How Inviting Is The San Diego Chargers Offense? On this week's Fantasy Underground, I called the Raiders D/ST my streaming pick of the week because of its matchup against Brady Quinn and the Kansas City Chiefs. But I wavered, because A) Jamaal Charles can wreck a fantasy owner's best-laid plans; and B) Oakland is still rolling its backup corners out there every week. If you're squeamish about using the silver-and-black, I might also suggest the Browns D/ST, which has played pretty well lately and gets to face Philip Rivers, who gagged away a halftime lead a couple of Mondays ago, allowing the Broncos D/ST to score 28 fantasy points in the process. As mediocre as Rivers has been, he leads a better offensive attack than Quinn & Co., as before Week 6 the Chargers had committed only eight turnovers in five games. That's not horrible. Yes, the sack numbers are bad (18 allowed in six games), but Jared Gaither has used the bye week to rest up and is ready to protect Rivers' blind side. In a vacuum, I think the Browns' D is better than the Raiders'. It's just that the opponent scares me more. Nevertheless, in deeper leagues, I'll take a shot on Cleveland's improved defensive front -- Jabaal Sheard was awesome a couple of weeks ago against the Ravens and has played pretty well since -- and hope that Haden's presence starts showing up in the box score.