Instant Replay: McNabb sharp in return
The Eagles' QB picked up where he left off, and was even able to get a breather
Who needs Kevin Kolb? Michael who?Donovan McNabb, who missed the final quarter of the regular-season opener plus Weeks 2 and 3 because of a fractured rib, bounced back in a big way Sunday, capitalizing upon a matchup advertised as remarkably easy. McNabb picked apart a porous Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass defense for 264 yards and three touchdowns, and he did it despite only 21 pass attempts. With that, he put his stamp on the fantasy football world, earning back his owners' trust. Not that anyone should be surprised when an elite talent like McNabb shreds a dreadful defense such as that of the Bucs, who by the way have now served up 12 passing scores in five games. Still, let's hand it to the guy; he wasn't at all rusty after nearly a month on the sidelines, and the flak jacket he wore didn't hinder him on deep passes or prevent him from scampering for 30 yards on two carries. In effect, it was like another week's rest for McNabb, setting him up beautifully for a Week 6 matchup at the reeling Oakland Raiders. Checking the practice reports is always the smart thing to do if you're a McNabb owner, and we've said countless times on these pages that it's wise you always roster a capable backup if you own the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback. But with this significant step forward, one that featured no setbacks, McNabb looks safe to roll each week regardless of matchup. Speaking to those two Eagles backups, Kolb and "that Vick guy," don't read too much into both being left active this week, or either of their brief appearances late in the week. Vick did step in for (by my count in the game log) three Wildcat plays, while LeSean McCoy ran three of his own; such strategy seemed the smart thing to do for a team with a fresh-off-an-injury quarterback. So did lifting McNabb from the game with 5:46 to play, with his team up 31-14. What's most curious about McNabb's early exit: It was Vick, not Kolb, who got the ball in passing (non-Wildcat) situations, though Kolb did sneak in a snap at one point. That might point to Vick being the active backup to McNabb in future weeks, with Kolb the inactive No. 3 quarterback, which further exemplifies how healthy the Eagles must feel McNabb now is. At least I know I'm pretty confident in declaring him officially "back."
These bye weeks call for creative times, and if I had to detail one aspect of the game in which you should most consider altering strategy these weeks, it's with regard to your flex position. Picking the right sleeper, usually a guy who might not otherwise crack your lineup in weeks when all 32 teams play, is a critical aspect to the bye weeks. That's why when a backup running back such as Ahmad Bradshaw steps up with the numbers he had Sunday, it's understandable that the gamblers on him get giddy. The New York Giants' backup -- though one that did catch the eye of smart owners in the 37.9 percent of ESPN leagues in which he started -- dashed 11 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns and added a 55-yard reception for a total of 28 fantasy points.
How many of you would complain about 28 fantasy points coming from your flex spot? I certainly wouldn't. Be aware that Bradshaw now has double-digit carries in four of his five games, meaning he's getting more than enough work to be a useful fill-in when facing a weak run defense. The lesson: Don't ignore your backup running backs, guys like Bradshaw, Leon Washington, Tashard Choice and Darren Sproles, during bye weeks when they face soft matchups. There will be matchups in which even 10 touches by one backup is as valuable as 20 from an every-down back.
I'm full of excitement about the following four players based upon the week's results, and recommend you stick with or trade for them.
• Cedric Benson: I was understandably hesitant to recommend Benson versus the Baltimore Ravens' defense this week. Although it's hard to imagine a roster deep enough to justify benching him, especially during the bye weeks, I just didn't like the matchup. Plus, he has been battling a hip injury, one that seems to place him on the injury report weekly. All he did, though, was snap the Ravens' string of 39 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, a feat that goes a long way toward convincing me his hip is no longer an issue. To that point, Benson, who said in recent weeks that his hip tends to bother him most once he reaches 20 rushing attempts in a game, scored a 28-yard touchdown on carry No. 21, and totaled 40 yards on his final seven carries against the Ravens' physical defense. Let's just say it's no longer crazy to say the phrase, "Cedric Benson, trustworthy fantasy starter."
• Rashard Mendenhall: If the Pittsburgh Steelers seriously want to consider handing Willie Parker back the starting job, they're crazy. With his 93-total-yard, one-touchdown performance Sunday, Mendenhall now has 284 yards and three scores as a starter the past two weeks. He has also averaged 5.5 yards per carry, an encouraging number for a guy whose role seemed perfectly designed as a short-yardage/goal-line/grind-it-out back. That might be Mendenhall's task looking forward, but let's not forget that Parker is a brittle fella whose future likely doesn't lie in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall might yet be "locked in" as starter for good.
• Roddy White: So much for two things: the San Francisco 49ers prevent a stiff defensive challenge, and White is no longer an elite-caliber wide receiver with Tony Gonzalez in town. White beat the 49ers' talented defenders deep multiple times for long catches, totaling eight receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns on the day. There won't be enough balls to go around for both White and Gonzalez to win you every matchup you play, but make no mistake, both of these guys will continue to help each other out defraying defensive attention.
• Nate Burleson: Quarterback changes always bring with them the threat of a shift of preferred targets but apparently not in Seattle. Burleson, who had been the most reliable of the Seahawks' pass-catchers to date (mostly played with Seneca Wallace at quarterback), stepped up with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in Matt Hasselbeck's return to the lineup. He ravaged a bad Jaguars secondary, just as he's supposed to do accounting for that matchup, and the good feelings might very well carry over into future weeks.
Be it due to poor performance, role change or injury, these four players I'm downgrading, looking to trade or cut based on the week's results:
• Fred Jackson: OK, I'll pay the piper on this one. I liked Jackson over Marshawn Lynch for this cozy matchup versus the Cleveland Browns, thanks primarily to his skills as a pass catcher. Yes, Jackson carried the football 13 times to Lynch's 15, but Lynch was the one with six receptions and seven targets, while Jackson had two and three, respectively. Color me surprised, but I absolutely recognize when a backfield breakdown is shifting. This one is.
• Steve Slaton: I hate to put him on this list, being that he's shifting from "Four Up" to "Four Down" and vice versa with the speed of a ping-pong ball, but I place the blame for that firmly on Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak's shoulders. It's Kubiak's fault that he's so foolishly still turning to Chris Brown in goal-line situations, because in Brown's past two games he has fumbled a key ball at the goal line in Week 3 and now been stuffed on two plays at the 1-yard line in Week 5, both of those plays costing his team games. Meanwhile, Slaton seems to be locked in as more of the between-the-20s option, albeit one averaging 3.2 yards per carry to last year's 4.8. He's not running with the same authority as he did as a rookie, and it's a troubling sign that Kubiak doesn't trust him in short-yardage spots.
• Larry Johnson: One must wonder how much longer Johnson will retain his starting role, considering he carried the ball 21 times for only 37 yards Sunday, giving him 2.4 yards per carry for the season, and he has been held shy of 3.0 in four of his five games. Second-year backup Jamaal Charles is averaging 5.1 yards per carry for the year, by comparison, and has seemed the more explosive back the times I've seen him, so there should be a very real chance he'll see an increase in workload in the coming weeks.
• DeAngelo Williams: For the record, I'm not really ready to bail on this preseason first-rounder yet, though his performance to date has me concerned. In particular, he's now averaging 3.7 yards per carry through four games, he lost a key fumble early Sunday, and he carried the football only six of 18 times after halftime, seemingly a minimal part of the game plan after the midway point. Backup Jonathan Stewart, by comparison, had seven of his 10 carries after halftime, including an 8-yard touchdown scamper to win the game in the fourth quarter. It bears watching; Stewart has really taken a huge bite out of Williams' formerly large piece of the running back pie in Carolina.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Calvin Johnson (calf): Knocked from Sunday's game in the first quarter with only one catch for 2 yards, "Megatron" didn't return despite remaining in uniform. It's unclear whether this is related to his thigh injury from Week 4.
• Mario Manningham (chest contusion): He was bumped from the game in the third quarter, but Giants coach Tom Coughlin said afterward (according to The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.) that the injury wasn't serious. Of greater concern to Manningham's owners should be that Hakeem Nicks had another good game.
• Glen Coffee (leg): He left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter, fortunately for his owners after having amassed 66 total yards and a touchdown, and was sent for X-rays on his lower leg or foot. The San Francisco 49ers hit their bye in Week 6, so any extended absence by Coffee might not matter much being that Frank Gore is tentatively scheduled to return in Week 7.
It's safe to say that
• The Cleveland Browns' top two quarterbacks both stink. Not that this is an overwhelming insight; Derek Anderson completed just 2 of 17 passes and was intercepted once. Amazingly, he won the game. Sure, the wind didn't help "DA's" cause, but Browns fans have to be wondering when, not if, the Brett Ratliff era will begin in Cleveland. I'm still somewhat a fan of Mohamed Massaquoi's (one catch for 16 yards Sunday), but the fact remains that he has a quarterback with limited skills tossing him the football, and my interest lies more in his playing for a team that'll have to throw more than this most weeks.
• Eddie Royal isn't simply a decoy after all. After catching only eight passes the first four weeks combined, the second-year receiver topped that number in a single game Sunday, hauling in a team-high 10 passes for 90 yards. He was also targeted 15 times, just seven fewer than he had total in Weeks 1-4. As Brandon Marshall continues to return to Pro Bowl form and Kyle Orton continues what has been a remarkably solid run, it seems this passing offense is every bit as potent as suggested by our preseason prognostications. That'll only help Royal looking forward, even if it does mean he's still playing second fiddle to Marshall.
• The Atlanta Falcons are doing a good job keeping Michael Turner's workload in check, and the back is rewarding them handsomely for doing it. After toting the rock 377 times in 2008, making him a candidate for the dreaded "Curse of 370," Turner finds himself on pace for a more palatable 348 rushing attempts. His yards per carry (3.7) is down from last year's number (4.5), which bears watching, but so far the Falcons seem to have the right idea with the veteran.
One play makes your day
The Oakland Raiders might be a vast fantasy wasteland this season, but owners might regard Michael Bush as a pickup after noticing his nine-point fantasy day versus the Giants, the most points any individual Raiders player has amassed since Week 2. Don't be so hasty, though; Bush might not have even scored the 5-yard touchdown that earned him six of those nine points if not for a terribly blown call by the officials. In the preceding play, Justin Fargas fumbled at the 5-yard line but was initially ruled down by contact (he wasn't). Giants coach Tom Coughlin challenged, but was halted by officials, who explained that the call wasn't "down by contact," but rather "forward progress stopped," which is not a reviewable call. Bush then poked through what seemed to be a sleeping Giants defensive front for his score one that probably shouldn't have been.
Now that wasn't part of the game plan!
• Mike Sims-Walker's owners everywhere are frustrated, especially those who might have snuck out shortly after the start of the 1 p.m. ET games to, oh, pick pumpkins with the family, let's say, and failed to check back in before the 4s. That's because a little over an hour before kickoff of the Jacksonville Jaguars' contest, the team reported on its official Web site that Sims-Walker was a surprise inactive for violating a team rule. That sent countless fantasy owners into a mad scramble to find a suitable fill-in from among the remaining four teams playing at 4 p.m. ET or those involved in the Sunday or Monday night affairs. (Don't even ask about those whose lineups officially lock at 1 p.m.; as a commish of a local league, I actually had the opponent of the Sims-Walker owner complain about a late switch despite the fact that our rules have specifically allowed it since 2007.)
I was as affected as you; I'm a noted Sims-Walker lover who had him on my Gridiron Challenge team, as well as three other teams. But it was my ESPN office-league team that was most affected. Stand-in starter Mike Thomas was the only viable fill-in from free agency, but in order to add a player in an ESPN league, you have to cut either a player who has yet to play or is on bye, leaving me in the precarious spot of having to cut Anthony Gonzalez, Greg Olsen (my only tight end), Donald Driver or Sims-Walker himself. I let Gonzalez go and fortunately led that matchup by 50 points entering the Sunday night game despite Thomas' paltry two points.
• Chris Cooley's owners might be frustrated by his zero-catch -- not to mention zero-target -- outing on Sunday, but there's a simple explanation: He was needed to block on many plays after starting left tackle Chris Samuels got hurt in the first quarter. "It changes how we call plays because now Cooley has to stay in and block more often than getting out," quarterback Jason Campbell told the Washington Post. "That's the reason we couldn't get him involved in the offense, because we had to use him in protection." That leads to one simple reaction: If you're a Cooley owner, check Samuels' game status leading into the Week 6 contest.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Miles Austin: Sunday's leading scorer with 37 fantasy points, Austin stepped up in a huge way as a starter in place of the injured Roy E. Williams. He caught 10 of 15 passes thrown his way for 250 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 60-yard touchdown reception in overtime. Most incredibly, Austin might have had a performance for the ages if not for two dropped touchdown passes. You read that right, he could have had four touchdowns (though in truth the game probably would never have gone to overtime had he caught both). Williams might be back after the Dallas Cowboys' bye in Week 6, but Austin has seemingly earned Tony Romo's trust with this game, likely ensuring at least his inclusion in a rotation with Patrick Crayton. Considering Romo and Williams rarely seemed on the same page in the season's first four weeks, it's not unthinkable Austin might be in for future big games.
• Jeremy Maclin: In a bit of an extension from the McNabb story above, of note was that it wasn't a guy named Jackson, Westbrook, Curtis or Celek whom the veteran signal-caller trusted most on this day it was the rookie Maclin. A starter in place of the injured Kevin Curtis, whose stock continues to plummet, Maclin hauled in six passes on seven targets for 142 yards and two touchdowns, probably earning him a larger share of the receiving workload looking forward. Don't be shocked if Maclin earns the start even in the next game Curtis is healthy.
• Hakeem Nicks: That's back-to-back weeks with a touchdown for Nicks, another rookie receiver whose stock appears to be on the rise. Nicks has capitalized upon injuries to both Domenik Hixon and the aforementioned Manningham, and he had a team-high four receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown Sunday. This one is digging deeper down the list for pickups, as Nicks shouldn't be a roll-every-week fantasy option, but in a passing offense that seems like Steve Smith on one side and a rotation on the other, that means there's a decent "starter's" job yet up for grabs.
The matchups did the talking
• Kevin Smith (95 yards on 23 total touches, zero touchdowns): Give him the benefit of the doubt, because in addition to his shoulder, which is still on the mend, he had to contend with a vicious matchup versus the Steelers, a team that entering the week had allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs (8.3 per game) and had stuffed more accomplished rushers (Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, to name two). That Smith has now played back-to-back games without incident is the more relevant story here.
• Randy Moss (1 catch for 36 yards): I had my concerns about this particular man-versus-man matchup with Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, and apparently my worries were justified. Moss was targeted only four times, as the Broncos clamped down on him, leaving Wes Welker free to haul in eight passes for 86 yards and a score. Such things happen with wide receivers from time to time, depending on the defense's plans and personnel; don't get too worked up over it.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 6
• The Green Bay Packers, who have gotten off to an underwhelming 2-2 start, come out of their bye facing a home game versus the Detroit Lions. Even better news, the Packers totaled 79 points and 931 yards in winning both of their games in 2008 versus the Lions, games in which Aaron Rodgers threw for more than 300 yards with three scores in each. "Load up" doesn't even do justice in describing your suggested strategy regarding Packers players in Week 6
• but just to point out one other thing about those Packers-Lions clashes, on the Lions' side, Calvin Johnson totaled 15 receptions for 231 yards and four touchdowns in those two games, scoring multiple touchdowns in each. In no way should you fear the matchup for either him or Kevin Smith.
• The Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers tangle on "Monday Night Football," and understand that their division battles are traditionally high-scoring affairs, not to mention MNF contests tend to feature a fair share of scoring as well. LaDainian Tomlinson, off to a sluggish start, tends to bring his best to these games; he has 17 total touchdowns and four 100-yard rushing efforts in his past nine games versus the Chargers. For the Broncos, Tony Scheffler stood out with touchdowns in each meeting with the Chargers in 2008, and has five scores in as many games against them in his career. It makes sense that Scheffler has sleeper potential for the matchup; the Chargers have allowed a total of 200 fantasy points to opposing tight ends between this and last season, an average of 10.0 per game.
• The Arizona Cardinals have totaled four 100-yard receiving games (two by Larry Fitzgerald, one apiece by Anquan Boldin and Jerheme Urban) in their past three games versus the Seattle Seahawks, and Kurt Warner has thrown for 995 yards and eight scores in those contests. It's a good week to start the veteran passer.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cleveland Browns, a team they limited to six points and 334 yards total in two games in 2008. The Steelers managed four interceptions in those games, and they might get safety Troy Polamalu back for the contest, further enhancing the defense's matchup.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.