Monday Brunch: Deuces running wild

Scott Pianowski

Sundays are all about collecting stories and stats, angles and observations. Mondays are about clearing the notebook. Here are some themes that had my attention during Week 5 of the elegant violence.

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Backfields are more crowded than ever in today's NFL, but let's make sure we spin this the right way. Our decisions become harder to make, sure, but there's still production out there for the shrewd owner to grab.

Check out the scoring from Y! games Sunday and you'll get the lay of the land - 12 of the top 30 backs are No. 2 options (or at least perceived to be the less-desirable runner in the backfield). And while it may seem like a crap shoot gambling on secondary backs as fantasy plays, there are some rules of thumb to follow:

Target secondary backs from teams that are heavily favored. You can be confident that the running game won't be junked by the game situation, and a big lead generally funnels to lots of running late (that's where the easier yards are; defensive fronts get tired and often pack it in at the end of the day). Week 5 hits: Felix Jones (albeit his touchdown came early), DeAngelo Williams (technically the starter but treated like a No. 2 in the fantasy community). Derrick Ward didn't have a gigantic day but he will often apply to this principle.

Target secondary backs who are working behind a nicked-up or short-leash starter. This gets you to Le'Ron McClain in Baltimore (Willis McGahee is nicked), or Sammy Morris in New England (the Patriots clearly don't trust Laurence Maroney).

Consider runners used on third down and at the goal line. Tim Hightower is always a viable play because of this (more on him in a minute), and look how much the Patriots seem to trust Kevin Faulk. McClain applies, again. Deuce McAllister figures to see tough sledding tonight, but he might be worth a shot in other matchups.

Consider players who can catch the ball. This becomes even more important if your spec play is on a team not expected to win. Warrick Dunn steals some value here. Faulk's utility applies in New England.

I know a lot of you pine for the good ol' days where you could roll out two dominant backs and just steamroll over everyone, but the game has been different for a few years now. No worries, we'll roll with it. For my money, I think it's more fun to win a game with a spec-play or a waiver-wire gem, anyway.

Hightower is averaging just 3.1 yards a carry but he's impressed me every week with his physicality, versatility and football IQ. The Cardinals obviously think very highly of him because they use him in so many money spots: on third down, on passing downs, at the goal line. In a keeper or dynasty league, keep this guy under lock and key.

Jones might be the second-most exciting runner in the league right now (I'm not saying second-best, mind you; this is strictly an entertainment call). Whenever I see No. 28 on the field, I'm postponing all other activities until he's out of the game. Jones has barely seen the ball in five weeks of NFL play, and he's already scored touchdowns from 11, 33, 60 and 98 yards away. Get the idea Oakland took the wrong running back from Arkansas?

The Seahawks looked like zombies somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, and the Chargers certainly didn't have their best day in Miami. I'm telling you, friends, there's something to this body clock thing - west coast teams asked to play at 10 a.m. body time often wind up playing like absolute dirt. From a fairness perspective I think the league should consider making some of these games later starts, but organizations have to consider the dynamic, too - perhaps it makes sense to get to the east coast city a day earlier than usual.

Clinton Portis isn't the best running back in fantasy but if I needed just one back to win a real game tomorrow, he's my pick. A consistent pile mover, durable enough to handle a heavy workload (remember he topped the league in carries last year), a handy receiver, and fantastic against the blitz - that's the full package. I'll try not to keep repeating this love letter to Portis every Monday, but if someone is going to play at this high a level, it's hard not to talk about it.

Andre Johnson made all the catches Sunday that he didn't make for Matt Schaub two weeks ago. He's back. The "beast" tag gets tossed around too liberally these days, but when Johnson's on his game he truly is uncoverable, a nightmare combination of size, speed and power.

Ahman Green made some nice sustaining runs as the complement back in Houston Sunday, but he no longer has the home-run gear that Steve Slaton does. Green's never a good bet to stay healthy, but while he's in one piece he figures to take away 30-40 percent of the work from Slaton, and given Slaton's build, that's not the worst thing in the world for everyone involved.

When the Bengals needed a critical 2-point conversion in the fourth period at Dallas, they went with a fade to Ben Utecht. You deserve to lose for decisions like that. (I did love the surprise onside kick, for what it's worth, and I'd write that even if it didn't work.)

Memo to Donald Lee - it's a bush move to do the Lambeau Leap late in the fourth quarter when your team is still trailing in the ballgame. Then again, you've been so invisible this year, maybe you weren't sure if you'd ever make it back to the end zone.

It's not always fun to watch Brian Griese for the course of an afternoon, but I'll take anything over the Jeff Garcia experience. Garcia basically plays hyperball out there, jumpy and frenetic like he's on a caffeine bender, scrambling at the drop of a hat, checking down to a fault. It's hard to watch. The Buccaneers better find a way to stretch the field without Joey Galloway, because they're extremely easy to game plan against right now.

Matt Cassel made some decent throws at San Francisco but he's still lacking in pocket awareness, the knack of finding a safe area to deliver the ball. The best quarterbacks in history can do wonders with a step or two in the right direction - think of Dan Marino at his best - while the mediocre QBs seem to find trouble with their instinctive movement. The New England plan still needs to hide Cassel, limit his exposure over the course of 60 minutes.

Week 6 is probably the least-daunting of the bye weeks, as the Chiefs, Titans and Bills don't have fantasy playmakers at every position. The Steelers will be missed the most, but there's no one on their roster you can't temporarily replace.

If you run reliable routes and catch what they throw to you, they keep chucking you the ball. It's not complicated, but that's why Bo Scaife always winds up beating out the name tight-ends in Tennessee and surpassing everyone's expectations.

It's a shame the Bills can't import J.P. Losman's arm strength and mobility into Trent Edwards; you'd be looking at an elite player. In every other area Edwards gets the check mark.

Mike Walker had a bad drop on Jacksonville's last possession but otherwise he impressed me all night (six catches, 107 yards). Here's a guy who deserves a regular role, no matter who is healthy on the outside.

DeSean Jackson's speed and explosiveness are very real, but he has a long way to go as a technical receiver. It's going to take a while. Be patient, the payoff will be worth it.

• You've heard my LaDainian Tomlinson spin plenty, and I'll revisit it in the Wednesday season ranks, but for today's LT minute, let's consider two quotes of note:

LT: "The toe is a vital part of the foot."

Andy Behrens: "He's not the same. For me, the vibe is like Marshall Faulk in '96. And he's going to keep playing, with no bye in sight."

Make of that what you will. We'll be back in LT court Wednesday.

The sound bytes coaches give us from Monday to Saturday don't mean a lot, but the play-calling and personnel decisions on game day speak volumes. And when the Falcons let Matt Ryan run a bootleg option on fourth-and-goal in the first quarter at Green Bay, that tells us everything we need to know about the rookie's poise and development. Atlanta, you're set at the position for 10 years.

Detroit's no-show against the Bears isn't a validation for Matt Millen, it's a conviction. He's the guy who assembled the roster. Throw a flag at Rod Marinelli as well; he thought his Tampa Bay recyclers would mash up into a defense, but it's arguably the worst unit in the league.

Speed Round: Why would anyone willingly go to work for Al Davis? . . . The Ravens would be wise to keep giving 10-15 touches a week to McClain, who's surprisingly nimble and versatile for his size . . . I started Todd Heap on a bye-ravaged team and somehow got four catches out of it. That just feels like stealing . . . If I'm Plaxico Burress, I'd get my act together. The Giants would like to have you around, big guy, but they clearly don't need you . . . I see eight defenses in the AFC and NFC West, but I don't see one that can consistently cover people. When your wideouts head west, make sure they're in your lineup.