- Bill Barnwell
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So our gambit of playing Matt Schaub (26 points) over Peyton Manning (21 points, six thanks to a one-yard plunge in the fourth quarter) paid off last week, as we won our game by exactly one point. If you joined us, congratulations.
If not, well, what we'd like you to notice is that Schaub was available in nearly 8 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues before his game last week. No such luck anymore, but the point isn't that you should have grabbed Schaub last week; you need to be looking forward to next week and the week after, locating and procuring ideal matchups before the rest of your league does.
With that idea in mind, we have a proposal. You know that last spot on your bench? The one you have Kevin Smith or Chris Henry or other assorted detritus sitting in right now? You don't really need a No. 4 running back or a No. 5 receiver you're never going to play. Darren McFadden is not going to have a huge second half. Marc Bulger is never going to be that guy from the Martz days again. Let them go.
Make that your matchup spot. Each week, dedicate yourself to finding the free agent with the best available matchup, regardless of position. Sometimes that can be a defense; other times, it can be a second-string running back. Either way, grab that guy and get him in your lineup. Then, once you've gotten your big week out of a Schaub or a Donte Rosario-caliber guy, don't feel the need to hold him, waiting for his next big matchup four weeks from now. Simply let him go and sign the next guy. If someone grabs Schaub? Don't weep. Someone gets to play the Lions, Chiefs or Bengals every week. When Schaub is grabbing two points on the bench against the Titans in Week 15, you can be using Jake Delhomme against Denver, Kerry Collins against Houston, or Bulger (for a week) against Seattle. All three rank among the four worst pass defenses in football, and chances are one of them will be available in your league.
There are a few lower-profile players with great matchups this week who represent ideal places to start using this strategy.
Best and worst matchups for Week 9
Kyle Orton (Bears, plus-16 percent): Since Orton has been averaging 238 yards and nearly a touchdown and a half per game, he's not available in most leagues. If he's on your bench, though, this is the week to start him: He's up against the Lions, and he's in Chicago. We'll discuss the player you'll want to pair him with later.
David Garrard (Jaguars, plus-15 percent): The David Garrard who magically avoids interceptions is back, as Garrard has now gone 150 attempts without giving the ball away. Remember: In most leagues, two interceptions take a touchdown away, so it's not always what you earn, but instead what you save. We're confident that Cincinnati and its defense, which has picked off a total of four passes and recorded six sacks in eight games, shouldn't come close to an interception Sunday. By the way, do you think Antwan Odom wishes he'd taken a couple million dollars less to stay in Tennessee right now?
Peyton Manning (Colts, plus-14 percent): We missed you, Peyton! Sure, the tipped passes that led to picks against Tennessee could've used a little more velocity. And hey, you may be undergoing your 83rd knee surgery as we type this. But we still love you when you play the Patriots! You used to beat up on them when they had a good secondary. And now, sure, you're on one leg and Marvin Harrison appears to think it's his job to cover cornerbacks and not the other way around, but their secondary is terrible! We feel like Chris Berman. You can do this, guys!
Tyler Thigpen (Chiefs, minus-13 percent): Even by Tyler Thigpen standards, this is going to be rough. Tampa has the third-best pass defense in football by defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), a significant step up from the Jets' secondary that allowed Thigpen to have a nice day. This could be seriously ugly. As in, you might want to consider just leaving the quarterback slot empty instead of playing Thigpen. Or start Troy Smith or something.
Kerry Collins (Titans, minus-13 percent): The good news is that Collins doesn't have to face his own pass defense, which is the best in football. The bad news is that he has to go up against the Packers' pass defense, which is the second best. They may even get Al Harris back. That can't help.
Derek Anderson (Browns, minus-12 percent): Anderson had a good game against the Giants, a team that raw data said should've eaten him alive. Of course, data doesn't pass block. This is a good example of how paying attention to the nature of a matchup can determine its reliability -- the Giants' defense is built around its pass rush, and while no one could have expected them to do as well as they did, the Browns' offensive line is excellent. They were able to handle the Giants' pass rush pretty comfortably, giving Anderson time to exploit a secondary that looks good when there's a steady rush, but is exposed as mediocre when no one gets home.
This week, Anderson plays the Ravens, who have a good pass rush, but rely much more on their coverage to shut down opposing quarterbacks than the Giants. As a result, Anderson's offensive line won't matter as much, and he's much more likely to have a bad game than he was against the G-Men.
Adrian Peterson (Vikings, plus-19 percent) and Chester Taylor (Vikings, plus-16 percent): Last year, the Vikings went up against the Raiders, who had the worst run defense in the NFL in 2007. Adrian Peterson was hurt and did not play. Chester Taylor was healthy, and he ran for 164 yards and three touchdowns. The Raiders' rush defense DVOA, for reference, was 16.7 percent.
This week, the Vikings go up against the Houston Texans, who currently have the worst rush defense in the NFL. Adrian Peterson is healthy as can be. He's at home. Oh, and the Texans' rush defense DVOA is 23.1 percent, nearly seven points worse than the Raiders' D. (Since it's a metric analyzing defense, higher numbers are bad, while negative numbers are great; Baltimore's league-leading rush defense has a -35.7 percent DVOA.) If there's a game this year where Adrian Peterson is most likely to challenge his single-game rushing record, it's this one. Taylor could get the spillover.
Matt Forte (Bears, plus-12 percent): When Forte went up against the Lions in Week 5, he disappointed, picking up only 61 total yards. Granted, he scored two touchdowns, but it was the Lions! If you want to earn a bid to the Pro Bowl, stop by Ford Field first. Forte gets a second crack at the Lions this week, but he'll do so at home, where he should do better. We'd be shocked if he only had 61 yards again.
Earnest Graham (Buccaneers, plus-12 percent): We'd push this matchup up further if it weren't for Jon Gruden's desire to make sure as many skill position players as possible get significant playing time for Tampa Bay this year. Warrick Dunn's status is unknown at the time of writing, which is why he's projected at 9 percent, and why Graham isn't higher than Forte. Kansas City did a good job against Thomas Jones last week, but they were ripped to shreds by Leon Washington; indeed, they're the worst defense in the league in the passing game against running backs. Graham isn't Dunn, but he's a capable receiver and could break a big play on a screen or two. He's certainly faster than LenDale White.
LenDale White (Titans, plus-10 percent): Hey, speak of our buddy! We actually like White's matchup more than Chris Johnson this week, for a couple of reasons. As we mentioned, the Green Bay pass defense is excellent -- that's also the case when they defend against backs in the passing game, where they're fourth-best in the league. That should stifle Johnson some. The Packers' rush defense is 29th in the league, and Green Bay's weakness is on the interior of their line, where White should do most of his damage.
Jamal Lewis (Browns, minus-15 percent): Lewis always gets up for games against his old teammates, but just because you get really psyched up for a game of pingpong doesn't mean you can beat a wall. In this case, the Ravens' rush defense is the wall.
Kolby Smith (Chiefs, minus-15 percent): Another 2007 Raiders story: Last year, after Larry Johnson went down, Priest Holmes filled in but retired the week before the Chiefs played the Raiders. We recommended Smith, who was the team's third-string back and had 10 carries for 19 yards in his career up to that point, solely because he was playing the Raiders. Smith ran for 150 yards and two scores. He didn't get above 83 yards in a game the rest of the season. The point isn't that the Raiders were terrible (although they most certainly were); it's that Smith happened to come into the lineup at the perfect time.
This year? It's the exact opposite. Smith is the last back standing in Kansas City, and he's up against the Buccaneers and their third-ranked rush defense. This is one of those matchups that screams 11 carries, 37 yards. You know the ones. Like Ron Dayne against the Colts in their first meeting in 2006. Or Tiki Barber versus the Saints in 2003.
Ryan Grant/Brandon Jackson (Packers, minus-12 percent): Tennessee's rush defense is too good for Grant, and while Jackson will try to get involved in the passing game, there's no way he'll pick up huge numbers against their excellent pass defense, even though they're "only" 14th against running backs. There are way better options out there.
Clinton Portis (Redskins, minus-11 percent): Bench the NFL half-season MVP? OK, probably not. Pittsburgh's rush defense is second in the league, though, so you can't expect Portis to have a huge day. With Pittsburgh's blitzing strategy, Portis will also be called upon to pass block a lot, so you might see an increase in carries for Shaun Alexander this week in order to give Portis a breather or two. Our fearless prediction: 19 carries, 68 yards, no TDs.
Rashied Davis (Bears, plus-17 percent): Of course you want Rashied Davis in your lineup this week! This is the matchup guy we're talking about! Davis is owned in exactly 17.4 percent of leagues as we write this, and he's gotten more attempts in his direction than any other Bears receiver. Brandon Lloyd is still hurt, Devin Hester has had quad issues and is a complementary target, and Marty Booker can't catch. Davis is the Bears' No. 1 receiver and isn't going anywhere. The Lions have the worst pass defense in the league and they're the worst defense against No. 1 receivers by a large margin. Not only is Davis a must-play, he could very easily have the best day of any receiver in fantasy football this week. Go ahead! Have 20 points for free!
Reggie Wayne (Colts, plus-14 percent): Just don't bench this guy in the process, even if you feel like giving up on him after two lackluster performances. Wayne just faced the two best pass defenses in football, and now he's facing a team that ranks 26th. Do you really think Ellis Hobbs is going to shut him down?
DeSean Jackson (Eagles, plus-12 percent): Speaking of unlikely No. 1 receivers, that's basically Jackson's role in the Eagles' offense until Kevin Curtis is back to 100 percent. That will not be this week. Jackson is playing the Seahawks, whose secondary is 29th in the league against the pass and, specifically, second-worst in the league against No. 1 receivers. Marcus Trufant has a broken hand and can't guard everyone, but the Seahawks simply should be better than this. They aren't. Get Jackson in there.
Braylon Edwards (Browns, minus-10 percent): Edwards has been hot potato-ing passes all year long, even against mediocre pass defenses. The Ravens have the sixth-best pass D in the league, and Chris McAlister is still inspired to win back his starting job from journeyman Frank Walker. None of this information we just typed sounds like it ends with "Edwards has a huge day," does it?
Greg Jennings and Donald Driver (Packers, minus-10 percent): This is going to be an interesting one. There are four potential matchups here, combining both Packers receivers and Titans corners Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper. The best matchup for the Packers involves the 34-year-old Harper against Jennings, who has the speed to burn Harper deep. Ideally, the Titans want Jennings against the quicker Finnegan, while allowing Harper to go up against the craftier, more experienced Driver. We suspect it'll end up being a mix of all things, and that the pass rush of the Titans and their intelligent coverage schemes will depress both receivers' numbers.
Antwaan Randle El (Redskins, minus-8 percent): Randle El goes up against his old friends Monday night, and the issue here is placement. Randle El is in the slot enough that he should struggle; Pittsburgh does a great job of handling slot receivers, and they do well against No. 2 guys in general. Santana Moss is a much more likely target, so Randle El should have a pretty quiet game altogether.
Greg Olsen (Bears, plus-15 percent): Olsen is another member of the Bears who's a good pickup this week. As bad as the Lions are against No. 1 receivers, they're even worse against tight ends, which they are also the worst team in football at stopping.
Chris Baker and Dustin Keller (Jets, minus-10 percent): It doesn't matter which one is on the field in upstate New York; the Bills have the second-best defense in the league against tight ends. Neither Baker nor Keller will trouble them too much.
Bill Barnwell is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.
Bill Barnwell runs through some of the best and worst matchups for fantasy football in Week 9.