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NFL Skinny: Hightower, lower expectations

Brandon Funston
Yahoo Sports

Also See: Sunday Scene | Monday Brunch | Week 11 leaders

Since Arizona rookie running back Tim Hightower was anointed the team's starter by head coach Ken Whisenhunt a few weeks back, I, like many of the fantasy pundits out there, have been singing a whole lot of sunshine about Hightower's fantasy prospects for the remainder of the season. But after two games of observing Hightower's new role, it's time for me to mix in a heavy dose of the blues to his second-half song.

On Sunday at Seattle, Hightower carried 11 times for just 35 yards and failed to record a catch for the first time in his brief 10-game career. The sub-par performance came on the heels of the uninspiring 50 yards from scrimmage he netted on 19 touches (13 carries, 6 receptions) in Week 10 versus San Francisco. He also failed to find pay-dirt in each of the past two weeks, his first two-game scoreless streak of the season.

The crux of Hightower's problem, which was very evident on Sunday, is that quarterback Kurt Warner is in an unbelievable zone right now. And Whisenhunt is just selling out to the magic of Warner's right arm. Against Seattle, Warner threw more times on first down than the team opted to run the ball (18-to-16). And on the six plays (non-fourth downs) that the team needed one or two yards for a first down, the Cards threw the ball each time. Those numbers point to a team that is abandoning the idea of the need to keep a defense honest. In fact, if you divide the team's 10 games into halves, you'll notice a decided pass-heavy evolution. In the team's first five games, it ran the ball 43 percent of the time, and that includes the crazy 56-35 shootout loss at the Jets in which Warner was forced to the air 57 times compared to just 15 rush attempts. In the past five games, the Cardinals have dropped to a 35 percent run rate. Not coincidentally, eight of the team's 11 rushing touchdowns came in the first five games, five of those going to Hightower.

Going forward, there is unlikely to be a major evening-out correction, especially considering that while Warner has thrown more often in the past five games, he's being sacked half as often as he was in the first five games (6 to 12). And in a system that is all about the pass, we're likely to see a lot more of J.J. Arrington in the backfield. His excellent pass-catching skills give Warner a fourth viable threat (after Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston) for opposing defenses to concern themselves with. On Sunday, Arrington scored on a four-yard draw play and later on a six-yard dump pass. The former second-round pick from Cal has amassed 11 touches in two of the past three games, and I think that's a reasonable workload expectation going forward.

So where does that leave Hightower? Well, considering his daunting run schedule ahead – Giants, Philly, Minnesota, and New England in four of the next five weeks – and the fact that the team is sailing along nicely in a pass-heavy environment, I'm seriously re-adjusting my expectations. He went from consideration as a top 15, must-start fantasy back to an Earnest Graham fringe-starter type. As for Warner, let's not prolong the inevitable … hand this guy the MVP right now!

Week 11: Take 10
A look at 10 notable developments/situations from Week 11

1. Speaking of Earnest Graham, Week 11 is the last we'll see of him this season after he suffered an ankle injury against Minnesota. This means Warrick Dunn will be asked to take on a more featured role the rest of the way and, other than a Week 14 date with Carolina, his road ahead looks relatively smooth. Dunn is still available in more than a third of Yahoo! leagues. He's of particular interest in Week 12 as he'll get a shot at the Detroit Lions and that run defense that has allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to running backs – it's pretty amazing to consider that there are actually three teams worse than the Lions in that department. Against a much tougher Minnesota run defense on Sunday, Dunn handled 20 carries for a mere 53 yards, but tacked on a healthy 65 yards on four catches. In the past five seasons with Atlanta, Dunn's solid receiving skills were mostly ignored as he averaged a mere 2.05 catches per game. This season in Tampa, however, he's averaging more than three receptions per game over his past eight contests. For that reason, he sits among the top 20 among running backs in receiving yards. He also sits just outside the top 25 among backs in rushing yards. Dunn's on pace for more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, a benchmark that he should fly past if he can stay healthy these final six weeks.

2. Like Arizona's Tim Hightower, Brandon Jacobs has one of the toughest run schedules ahead. But in Jacobs' case, you can take the paper that that upcoming schedule is printed on, fold it up into a sleek-looking, aerodynamic shape and let it take flight from the top of the Chrysler Building. In Week 11 against Baltimore, the Giants proved that they, not the defense, will dictate their offensive philosophy. Despite the fact that the Ravens defense came into the contest yielding the fewest fantasy points to running backs, Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 31 carries, 210 rushing yards and two Jacobs touchdowns. Jacobs now has 11 rushing touchdowns, all coming within the past eight games. And he's scored two touchdowns in four of those games, including each of the past two weeks, against Philly and Baltimore, respectively. Jacobs sat at No. 13 on my Big Board prior to Week 11. Assuming a minor knee tweak on Sunday doesn't prove to be anything more than that, I'm thinking that his placement there is at least 4-5 spots too low.

3. For the second consecutive week, Tennessee quarterback Kerry Collins threw for 200-plus yards and multiple touchdowns, something that he failed (in both departments) to do in his previous eight games. We might see more of Collins' arm this coming week against the Jets. Opposing teams have been throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the Titans' running game, hoping to slow the Flash-and-Bash combo of Chris Johnson and LenDale White. It's worked in that Tennessee has averaged 3.5 yards per carry or less in five of the past seven games, including the past two weeks. As Tennessee keeps pulling out these narrow victories, expect teams to keep trying to suppress the run in any way possible. That should continue to work to Collins' favor over the next month as he'll face the Jets, then the super-softy contingent of Detroit, Cleveland and Houston.

4. Maybe Ryan Grant is just a second-half kind of guy. After netting eight touchdowns and an average of 106 yards from scrimmage in the final eight games of '07, Grant's momentum seems to be picking up steam with each passing week. I've used this forum to preach patience on Grant a few times and those that showed perseverance with Grant are starting to reap the rewards. Grant has reached at least 75 rushing yards in six straight games and has scored a touchdown in three of his last four. On Sunday, Grant enjoyed his best day of the season, rushing for 145 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries against Chicago. He'll meet these same Bears again in Week 16 and, before that, he'll see three reasonably nice matchups (New Orleans in Week 12, Atlanta in Week 14 and Jacksonville in Week 15). Only a Week 13 date with Carolina looks like a potential pitfall on paper. But, remember, before running wild against the Bears on Sunday, he'd averaged a respectable 80 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry the previous two games combined against the run-stuffing likes of Minnesota and Tennessee. Grant has certainly made a strong case for starting fantasy work, regardless of the opponent.

5. As much as I love Maurice Jones-Drew, I'll be the first to admit that he's an enigma to me. Despite rushing for just 13 yards against Tennessee in Week 1 and averaging just 21 rushing yards at home this season prior to Week 11, MoJo picked up 66 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Titans on Sunday … and on my bench. He's now found pay-dirt nine times in his past six games and is tied with LenDale White for the league-lead with 11 touchdowns. At this point, I don't think I'll be benching the mighty mouse in a tough matchup against Minnesota in Week 12. He now has 37 career touchdowns in 41 regular-season games. And now that head coach Jack Del Rio is feeding him regular carries – 72 carries in the past five games compared to 43 in the first five games – MoJo could be a major climber on the final Keys to Success board as, arguably, only Ronnie Brown and LaDainian Tomlinson will see a kinder schedule among featured backs than MJD from Weeks 13-16 (Houston, Chicago, Green Bay and Indy)

6. Since I mentioned LT, it's only fair to give him props for a 97-yard from scrimmage, TD effort against Pittsburgh that will go down as the best fantasy performance by a running back against the Steelers this season. LT really gave us no indication that this was coming, especially when you consider he was coming off a Week 10 performance in which he posted just 78 rushing yards and no scores against a Kansas City defense allowing the most fantasy points to running backs. LT is looking more and more explosive as the turf toe becomes a thing of the past and there would certainly seem to be a renewed hope that he can salvage himself from a potential bust label this season with a strong finish.

7. The New York Jets thought highly enough of tight end Dustin Keller to use a first-round pick on him in April. He was easily the most-skilled receiving tight end to come out of the '08 draft crop, catching 68 passes for 881 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior season at Purdue. Last week, Keller showed off his skills with a career-best six catches, 107 yards and a touchdown. On Thursday, his encore consisted of eight catches and 87 receiving yards, playing a clutch role in the Jets' 34-31 victory at division-rival New England. Keller did score back-to-back touchdowns in Weeks 3-4, but, for the most part, his role had been of the limited-use variety, seeing five targets or less in seven of the team's first eight games. Things have taken a dramatic positive turn for Keller these past two weeks, obviously. To put the production of his past two games into perspective, only Jason Witten has produced a better two-week receiving yardage total at the tight end position (206 yards combined in Weeks 1-2) than Keller's combined 194 yards.

8. We got into a little verbal sparring match on the Fantasy Football Live Show on Sunday, with colleague Brad Evans pledging unconditional love to Carolina's DeAngelo Williams while Chris Liss and I argued that things could turn on a dime in the Panthers' backfield and rookie Jonathan Stewart could once again start seriously stealing De-lo's production. Turns out we were all right as Stewart put to rest concerns about a nagging heel injury by torching the Detroit Lions for 130 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. That was one more tote than Williams, but Williams logged the better fantasy day, rushing for 120 yards and two scores. Assuming we are back to early-season mode in Carolina, where there's a fairly equitable split of touches between these two backs, with Stewart getting most of the goal-line work, that could be a bit alarming for Williams owners who have enjoyed three straight 100-yard rushing performances. After all, Williams was a fantasy non-factor in five of the first six games of the season. But there's reason to believe that these two backs will both be viable going forward. While Williams might not see much work around the goal line, the opponents that he'll see in the coming weeks have been particularly prone to giving up big plays on the ground. Those opponents – Atlanta, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Denver and the New York Giants, all rank among the league's top 13 in running plays allowed of 20-plus yards, and three of them rank among the top five. Of Williams' six rushing touchdowns, all but one have come from at least 10 yards out, with four going for 25-plus yards.

9. Speaking of Carolina, Steve Smith owners have serious cause for concern after Jake Delhomme managed just 98 passing yards against a Detroit defense that came into the game allowing the second-most fantasy points to quarterbacks and the most to receivers. Smith caught six passes for 59 yards against the Lions, which was well short of most everyone's expectations. Let this past week serve as a reminder that the Panthers, with two healthy backs in tow, will run all day long, if they can. Only the Oakland Raiders attempt fewer passes per week than the Panthers. And the problem going forward for Smith owners is that the team should be able to run like crazy against three of its next four opponents (Atlanta, Green Bay and Denver each allow 4.9 yards per carry).

10. I had high hopes for Antonio Bryant in Week 11. In fact, I ranked him at No. 21 at the position in our weekly expert rankings, which was 13 spots higher than the Yahoo! expert consensus. Bryant finished with a modest five catches for 59 yards against Minnesota, vindicating my colleagues' position on him heading into Sunday. That said, Bryant nearly had my back, as half of his eight targets against the Vikings came in the red zone, and he also had a 27-yard touchdown catch called back. Facing Detroit in Week 12, I won't hesitate to put this heavily-targeted wideout among my top 20.

WEEK 12 SHORT LIST
Players that need to be on your mind heading into Week 12

Waiver Wire

QB Gus Frerotte, Min (28% owned in Plus leagues) With a predictably sub-par effort (138 yards, 1 TD pass) against Tampa Bay in Week 11 out of the way, Frerotte's schedule now enters official cakewalk territory. The upcoming five-week stretch against, in order, Jacksonville, Chicago, Detroit, Arizona and Atlanta rates as the kindest in fantasy for quarterbacks. Frerotte has thrown a TD pass in six straight games and has averaged 297 passing yards in two games this season against divisional opponents that he'll meet again in the coming weeks, Chicago and Detroit.
QB Matt Hasselbeck, Sea (44% owned) Hasselbeck completed 17 of 29 passes for 170 yards, a touchdown pass and three interceptions on Sunday in his first game since Week 5. Other than a couple ill-advised passes into traffic that resulted in picks, Hasselbeck looked healthy enough. And some rust was to be expected after such a long lay-off. Sans a particularly daunting schedule ahead, Hasselbeck is at least worthy of an insurance claim in fantasy leagues, especially with his receiving corps getting healthy once again.
QB Joe Flacco, Bal (41% owned) In the past five weeks, only Matt Cassel, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Tyler Thigpen and Donovan McNabb have posted more fantasy points at the quarterback position than Flacco. The Ravens' rookie did throw two interceptions on Sunday against the Giants, his first since Week 6, but he mitigated the damage with 57 rushing yards. He has yet to throw for 250 passing yards and he rarely throws more than 30 times in a game, but he's done a very Ben Roethlisberger-esque job of turning limited opportunities into bankable fantasy numbers – 7 pass TDs, 1 rush TD in past five games.
QB Shaun Hill , SF (18% owned) There's limited upside with Hill, considering he doesn't have a strong arm, but he's been accurate and makes quick decisions, and that has produced positive results in his three-game body of work this season. Since taking over for J.T. O'Sullivan in Week 8, Hill has completed 59 percent of 83 passes for 593 yards, five touchdown passes and two interceptions. In week 11, he threw for two scores for the second-straight week, and also chipped in a rushing touchdown. His remaining schedule is not terrible, so he's a credible backup plan for fantasy owners.
RB Peyton Hillis, Den (44% owned) Hillis garnered 10 carries, 44 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns in his debut start at Atlanta on Sunday. Tatum Bell and P.J. Pope shared in the workload, combining for 11 carries. But Hillis looks like he's going to continue to get at least a 50 percent stake of the carries for the foreseeable future. And, most importantly, as we saw with Michael Pittman earlier this season, he'll be the guy at the goal line, a role that has proven fruitful. Hillis also offers impressive receiving skills, as he showed in Week 9 when he hauled in seven passes for 116 yards and a touchdown.
RB Chester Taylor, Min (58% owned) At a clip of 4.5 yards per pop, Minnesota is tied for third in the league in rushing yards per carry. For the past couple seasons, it's been an elite piece of real estate for running backs. Last season, we witnessed Taylor fill in for an injured Adrian Peterson for two games (Weeks 10-11) and score four touchdowns and average 120 rushing yards. Peterson owners and those with a secured playoff spot should be looking to pad their benches with upside types like Taylor, guys that could step in and make an immediate impact if forced into a starting role.
RB Correll Buckhalter, Phi (54% owned) Buckhalter belongs in the same camp as Taylor, a high-upside backup. Not only should every playoff-bound Westbrook owner secure the services of Buckhalter, if he's available, but anyone else with room to maneuver should do the same. Buckhalter has already flashed his worth in a featured role this season, averaging 118 yards from scrimmage and scoring a touchdown in each of the three games in which he handled the pigskin at least 15 times. In his past four games, he has combined for just 13 touches (9 carries, 4 receptions), but three of those touches have gone for 20-plus yards, including a 44-yard reception at Cincinnati on Sunday.
RB Antonio Pittman, StL (27% owned) On Sunday, Pittman topped 80 rushing yards (14 for 95) for the second time in the past four games. With Steven Jackson already ruled out for Week 12 (quad), Pittman will likely shoulder the backfield load again against a Chicago defense that has been middle-of-the-road in fantasy against opposing running backs. If you are in a pinch for a RB in Week 12, Pittman at least offers the promise of 15-plus touches.
WR Mark Bradley, KC (47% owned) Mentioned here last week, Bradley added three catches and 54 receiving yards on Sunday, giving the '05 second-rounder from Oklahoma an average of 60.5 receiving yards, in addition to two touchdowns, in his past four games.
WR Justin Gage, TEN (31% owned) Gage's 147 receiving yards and two touchdowns on Sunday worked out to be the best fantasy day for a wideout in Week 11. Injuries and a run-heavy team approach have made Gage hit-and-miss in fantasy this season – he's scored three touchdowns in the past two games and started the season strong with 59 yards and a score in Week 2 and a 92-yard effort in Week 4. With his health in good standing at the moment, he's a feather in the cap for any fantasy owner.
WR Ronald Curry, Oak (3% owned) I'll admit, I have a soft spot for Curry. He's stuck in the worst situation (Oakland) that any receiver could imagine, but he turned his predicament into six catches for 73 yards on Sunday at Miami. The Raiders' remaining schedule is not too daunting for receivers, and there's some games in there (Denver, San Diego and Houston, for example) where Oakland could be chasing a lot of points early. Curry isn't going to be a difference-maker, but he's worth keeping an eye on, especially now that Javon walker is out for the season. I'm a big fan of his talent and I keep hoping that it can overcome Al Davis' cesspool of a team.
WR Dustin Keller, NYJ (31% owned) The top tight end picked in April's NFL Draft is on a two-game roll that has amounted to a combined 14 catches, 194 receiving yards and a touchdown.
TE Zach Miller, Oak (43% owned) Miller ranks eight among TEs with 430 receiving yards and has gone for 42-plus yards in six of his past seven contests.

Injuries

RB Earnest Graham, TB (ankle) Graham suffered a severe enough ankle injury on Sunday against the Vikings that head coach Jon Gruden was able to make a quick determination that Graham was going to miss the remainder of the season.
RB Brandon Jacobs, NYG (knee) Jacobs said a knee injury suffered on Sunday that resulted in some swelling "wasn't bad." He's going to have a precautionary MRI and will probably be limited in practice this week, but the initial expectation is that he'll be good to go for Week 12.
WR Calvin Johnson, Det (quad) Megatron tweaked his quad at Carolina on Sunday, but it's not expected to cause him to miss anything other than some practice time.
TE Tony Gonzalez, KC (ankle) Gonzo sprained his ankle against New Orleans, but was able to continue to play on it after it was taped up.
OT Orlando Pace, StL (quad) Pace suffered an MCL injury at San Francisco and could be lost for the season. He'll get an MRI this week to gage the severity, but this would be a major blow for Rams running backs Antonio Pittman and Steven Jackson, who has been sidelined the past couple weeks with a quad injury and has already been ruled out for Week 12.