Instant Impressions: Week 4
Surprising games from Torain, Wells, Ridley highlight high-scoring fantasy week
• Mike Shanahan had his revenge again. You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him. See, this is why we don't believe the hype when Tim Hightower begins the year with two games of slightly more than 100 total yards from scrimmage, and when Shanny gives Hightower glowing reviews. The orange-hued ball coach doesn't like to use just one back, and when that back is a pedestrian talent like Hightower, Shanny's eyes don't take long to wander. Ryan Torain -- left for dead by many fantasy owners after a quiet first few weeks (he was owned in just 57.4 percent of leagues headed into this weekend) -- got the primary carrier's role versus the St. Louis Rams on Sunday and wound up with 135 yards on 19 carries. Meanwhile, Hightower (the subject of a rather large in-game Twitter inquiry among my followers) was not hurt, he just wasn't used as much: eight carries for 24 yards. And Roy Helu had eight carries for 35 yards. You absolutely should pick up Torain if he's available in your league. But now I'm reading all over the place how people have finally figured out Shanny's plan, and Torain will get early-down work, Hightower will play third down and Helu will be the "change-of-pace" back. No. No. No! Shanny doesn't work that way. Things will get shaken up again in the Redskins backfield. I promise.
• Arian Foster, come on down! Even at the game's outset, Foster was the lead back Sunday versus the Pittsburgh Steelers (more on them in a moment): The carries were seven for Foster and two for Ben Tate when, at 7:16 of the first quarter, Tate's groin twinged, ending his afternoon. On that first Texans drive, Tate did contribute a rumbling 20-yard run, and those who started him as a sneaky flex had to be feeling OK. But Tate's injury opened the floodgates for Foster, who wound up with an insane 30 carries. Guess his hammy is all right. One thing that the Tate Experience has taught us, I hope, is that while Foster and Tate are both talented players, the real star in that Houston running game is the offensive line. They are just maulers.
• The Steelers O-line will get criticized after Sunday's loss, and rightly so. Ben Roethlisberger got pummeled, with Mario Williams in particular tormenting rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert. Big Ben has a foot injury that, as of this writing, was still of unknown severity. But how about that Pittsburgh defense? At times it just looked helpless. The Steelers have allowed two 100-yard backs in four games so far this year after allowing three in their previous 85 contests. I wrote about how the Colts exposed Pittsburgh's defense with their rushing stretch plays last Sunday night, and that's how Foster did much of his damage in Week 4. Until further notice, this group isn't scary for your fantasy RBs to run against.
• The Philadelphia Eagles are 1-3, and Michael Vick isn't blameless, but at least he put up his best fantasy game of the young season. His injured right hand wasn't an issue, and he tossed for a career-high 416 yards, but for the umpteenth straight year Philly can't get out of its own way near an opponent's goal line, and Vick doesn't seem to have an answer for that. On another note, remember when we all went bananas on that Monday night game against the Redskins last year when Vick put up 49 fantasy points? (The third-best total since 2000.) Ho-hum -- Aaron Rodgers put up 45 points against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and it almost seemed blasé. That guy is good.
• Welcome to the party, Beanie Wells and Matt Forte. Wells scored three TDs versus the New York Giants, the first time an Arizona Cardinals back has had three scores since '06. Hopefully his fantasy owners trusted him despite his "Mr. Glass" act in Seattle last week. And Forte -- who'd rushed for 119 yards total in three games -- racked up 205 and a score versus the Carolina Panthers in Week 4. The Panthers were a top-five matchup for opposing fantasy backs in '10, and there's no reason to think that's changed this season.
• Rashard Mendenhall scored his second TD of '11, saving an otherwise pedestrian fantasy day, but the bigger news is that Mendenhall pulled a hamstring on his 3-yard scoring scamper and didn't return to the game, despite the fact that the Steelers were within three points, and would tie the game in the fourth quarter. Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore shared carries after Mendy's injury, and as of this writing I don't have any further word on the hammy's severity. But Redman is an obvious candidate to be the TD-maker if Mendenhall can't play next week against the Tennessee Titans, so he's probably worth an add in most leagues. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, this Steelers O-line is really struggling, so I can't guarantee Redman would be a must-start.
• Two top-10 fantasy wideouts suffered injuries of indeterminate severity Sunday. Andre Johnson dropped to the turf as though he was shot after a catch-and-run, and the way he grabbed his lower leg and writhed around made it look really bad. As of this writing, the Texans haven't released the results of an MRI, but early word is that AJ hurt a hamstring, not a knee, which at the moment qualifies as hopeful news. Meanwhile, Vincent Jackson made a tremendous diving catch on a deep ball against the Miami Dolphins and was untouched, so he got up and rushed in for a TD. But he was only in the game sporadically after that, though the early word is that V-Jax tweaked something in one of his legs, as opposed to aggravating his abdominal injury. Fantasy owners are compelled to simply watch helplessly as news about these injuries trickles out.
• The fantasy world was abuzz Sunday morning when the San Francisco 49ers announced that Frank Gore would be active but wouldn't start, and that Kendall Hunter would get the nod. But it was much ado about nothing. Hunter played in the Niners' first two snaps, then Gore came in, and obviously his injured ankle didn't bug him much because it was business as usual thereafter. Hunter made one terrific run after a short catch early in the second half, but the guy was also occasionally returning kicks. Meanwhile, Gore had 15 carries for 127 yards and the game-winning score, rewarding those fantasy owners who stuck with him. Hunter is a good prospect and is well worth owning. But Gore is an every-week play.
• One young tight end exploded Sunday, and two splatted. Jimmy Graham had a whopping 14 targets against the Jacksonville Jaguars and caught 10 of them for 132 yards and a score, and it could have been even better, because I saw at least one bomb down the left sideline that Graham couldn't quite catch in bounds. Alas, Rob Gronkowski and Jermichael Finley disappeared; despite the fact that Aaron Hernandez was out again, Gronk had one catch for 15 yards on five targets, and despite the fact that the Green Bay Packers scored 49 points, Finley caught three of his six targets for 28 yards. All three of these guys are every-week starters until further notice, but such are the vagaries of the tight end position.
• Meanwhile, the first two receivers taken in April's NFL draft, Julio Jones and A.J. Green, just keep on trucking. Jones was awfully tough against the Seattle Seahawks, often tormenting Brandon Browner in single coverage. He had 17 targets to Roddy White's 11, which isn't an indication that Matt Ryan somehow likes him better, but rather that coverage is dictating that Ryan should throw it to Jones. (This is why I didn't consider White a top-five receiver this summer.) Meanwhile, Green made two long grabs against the Buffalo Bills and then almost scored a couple of different times on Calvin Johnson/Dez Bryant-style jump balls. Jones wound up with 11 grabs for 127 yards and Green had four catches for 118 yards. Each guy has made his bones as a top-30 fantasy receiver, and is at least worth flex consideration every week.
• It's probably time for me to be less stubborn on Darren Sproles. As I endlessly pointed out during my many media gigs last week, Sproles had only eight carries on the season through three weeks, and it was mighty hard for me to consider a guy with eight carries to be a must-start in standard-scoring fantasy leagues. Well, the Saints handed Sproles the ball seven times in Week 4 alone (et tu, Sean Payton?), and the little guy ran for 75 yards. Sproles failed to find the end zone for the first time in '11, but he mustered 131 yards from scrimmage on 12 touches. Wow. I mean, it's still very hard for me to say that a guy who gets 12 touches is someone who has to be in all lineups. But it's obvious that I was undervaluing Sproles at least a bit. I finally might just have him as my highest-ranked Saints RB at Carolina next week.
• BenJarvus Green-Ellis got into the end zone against the Oakland Raiders, so maybe his owners didn't notice, but Stevan Ridley is knocking at that door. BJGE had 16 carries for 75 yards and is still usually Bill Belichick's solution when the New England Patriots get near an opponent's end zone. But Ridley had 10 carries for 97 yards and showed pretty good speed for a 225-pounder on a 33-yard scoring scamper in the third quarter, speed that the Law Firm just doesn't have. Like Shanahan, Belichick is never going to make it easy on fantasy owners on a weekly basis. But with Danny Woodhead injured and out of the second half of the Oakland game, Ridley got a bunch of work. Longer-term, he seems like BJGE's replacement, and thus like a must-add in fantasy leagues.
• I guess I'm not smart enough to definitively weigh in on whether Victor Cruz should have been given a fumble with about three minutes left in Sunday's game; Cruz caught a pass, fell down under his own power (presumably to save clock time) and dropped the ball without being touched. I figured it was a fumble, but the referees ruled he'd "given himself up" (presumably a la a sliding QB?), so they didn't award the Cardinals possession. What I'm really interested in here is the fantasy owner's reaction. Had the Cruz play been ruled a fumble, the Cardinals would have run out the clock, and the fantasy goodness would have been over. Instead, the New York Giants kept up their final drive, and Hakeem Nicks owners could perk up with hope. Sure enough, Nicks scored the winning TD on the very next play. And then Larry Fitzgerald owners could perk up, because now the Cardinals would have to throw to try and score again. (Alas, Fitz wouldn't catch another pass.) Funny that Cruz's presumptive bonehead play made the ending that much more hopeful for Nicks and Fitz owners.
• Incidentally, in the interest of full disclosure, Mario Manningham reportedly did not re-injure himself Sunday. Apparently he ran some sloppy routes early and irritated Eli Manning, which got Manningham demoted from two-receiver sets in favor of Cruz. Yikes. That will be something to watch going forward.
• I watch football Sundays in the "war room" on the ESPN campus, and whenever Mark Sanchez does something bad, the wise guys in the room regularly shout, "Broadway Schmo!" There must have been a lot of that last night (I wasn't in the room for that game, as I typically drive home for the Sunday night game). No question the New York Jets missed Nick Mangold at center again, as the Baltimore Ravens put tons of pressure on Sanchez all night. But the guy still went 11-of-35 for 119 yards, lost two fumbles that were returned for TDs, and threw a pick that was also returned for a score. We're only one-quarter of the way through the '11 regular season, so it would be unfair to say that any team's identity is cast in stone. But through four games, the Jets sure seem like they'll rise and fall with Sanchez. They have no running game, and have now passed it 146 times and rushed it 92 times. That's an astonishing count, and against the Patriots next week, one imagines that ratio will be the sort that will be most successful. Certainly nobody feels great about relying on Sanchez in fantasy right now, but Shonn Greene is flat-out MIA.
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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