1. Ryan Mathews — Funny how we thought the only thing Mathews owners had to worry about was the oft-injured running back’s health. Turns out that his little fumbling problem is another major cause for concern. In San Diego’s 27-3 loss to Atlanta in Week Three, Mathews coughed up a fumble inside the Falcons’ five-yard line early on, and the roof quickly caved in on the Chargers. That fumble obviously left a bad taste in the mouth of Norv Turner, who unexpectedly chose to start Jackie Battle against the Chiefs last week. Mathews didn’t get much work until late in the game, when the Chargers had things under control on the way to a 37-20 victory, and he finished with 14 carries for 61 yards, plus two receptions for 21 yards. Battle carried 15 times for only 39 yards, but he caught four passes for 42 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. Will Mathews be back in the starting lineup this week? And if so, will he get a substantial majority of the carries, or will he find himself locked in a time-share with Battle? Mathews owners are hoping their man isn’t too deep in the doghouse, because the Chargers are about to face the Saints’ league-worst run defense, which is giving up 186.8 rushing yards per game.
2. Brian Hartline — And to think that I used to refer to him as “Brian Flatline.” What are we to make of the video-game numbers Hartline produced in Miami’s 24-21 loss to Arizona last week? Despite being matched up against a Cardinals pass defense that features stud CB Patrick Peterson, Hartline caught 12 passes for 253 yards, including an 80-yard TD (the product of a blown coverage, but never mind). Before this year, Hartline had played three professional seasons without recording a 100-yard game. Through four games he has had two of them and is averaging 113.8 receiving yards. Has the ghost of Don Hutson taken up residence in Hartline’s body? What’s clear is that the heretofore lightly regarded receiver has become rookie QB Ryan Tannehill’s go-to guy, having been targeted a team-high 48 times so far. Hartline again should be a busy man on Sunday when the Dolphins visit Cincinnati.
3. Chris Johnson — How rude of the downtrodden running back to spring back to life while we were all busy shoveling dirt onto his career. C.J. suspended the reading of his own eulogy by running 25 times for 141 yards last week against the formidable Houston defense. But how “real” was the performance? He racked up much of that yardage after the Texans had built a big lead en route to a 38-14 win, and at least one member of the Texans noted that some of Johnson’s longer runs came after Houston had subbed in several special-teamers on defense. But is it possible that Johnson was somehow able to function more effectively with QB Matt Hasselbeck playing in place of the injured Jake Locker, and that the QB change bodes well for Johnson, at least in the short term? A difficult follow-up test awaits this weekend, as C.J. visits Minnesota to take on the Vikings, who are allowing only 85.3 rushing yards per game.
4. Julio Jones — Roddy White went berserk last week in Atlanta’s 30-28 come-from-behind win over Carolina, but his young colleague, the estimable Mr. Jones, had a quiet day, catching one pass for 30 yards. Jones was dealing with a hand laceration that he sustained in Week Three, and Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter told the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this week that Jones’ right hand still isn’t 100 percent. But wounded or not, would it really be surprising if Jones roared back with a vengeance this week in a game with substantial shootout potential? The Falcons face the Redskins, who are allowing 326.2 passing yards per game and already have given up a league-worst 11 TD passes.
5. Rashard Mendenhall — A Pittsburgh running game that was barely adequate last season with Mendenhall as the lead back became downright dysfunctional with Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer sharing the load during Mendenhall’s recovery from a torn ACL. The Steelers currently rank 31st in rushing and are gaining a woeful 2.6 yards per carry. Mendenhall is now ready to go, but will he be able to restore some balance to a dangerously lopsided offense? His first test comes at home against the Steelers’ in-state rivals, the Eagles, who rank 12th against the run and have yielded only one rushing touchdown through four games.
6. Reggie Wayne — The old man has been having a nice season so far, quickly developing effective chemistry with rookie QB Andrew Luck. The 33-year-old Wayne has caught 23 passes for 294 yards and one TD over his first three games, and last week’s bye gave him a chance to rest his weary bones. He and the Colts have a home date against the Packers this weekend, and who knows what to make of Green Bay’s performance against top receivers so far this season? They have faced two: They shut down Brandon Marshall in Week Two, and they let Marques Colston go off for 9-153-1 last week. The Packers bracketed Marshall; they couldn’t afford to bracket Colston because of the Saints’ numerous other weapons. We’ll see if Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers thinks little enough of Donnie Avery, Coby Fleener, T.Y. Hilton et al. to give Wayne the bracket treatment.
7. Marshawn Lynch — Lynch isn’t a man; he’s a machine. The Skittles connoisseur has carried the ball at least 20 times in each of Seattle’s first four games and is averaging better than 100 rushing yards per contest. His worst game thus far was an 85-yard rushing day in the Seahawks’ opener. Lynch owners are rightfully salivating over a Week Five matchup against the Panthers in Charlotte. Carolina’s run defense is as soft as goose down, allowing 4.9 yards per carry. Prepare for “Beast Mode.”
8. Jeremy Maclin — Some of us were expecting a career year from Maclin, and things were looking good when he opened the season with seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland. But Maclin sustained a hip injury in that first game, aggravated it in Week Two, sat out in Week Three and was a nonfactor in Week Four, catching only one pass for seven yards in Philly’s win over the Giants. Will the hip injury linger and deflate Maclin’s numbers in the weeks to come, or is the young receiver on the cusp of being fit and productive again? Maclin and the Eagles visit Pittsburgh this weekend to face the Steelers, who rank third against the pass.
9. James Jones — Would it be inappropriate for James Jones owners to send Greg Jennings’ groin a thank-you card? Jones caught a pair of TD passes last week and figures to play an enhanced role while Jennings recovers from his injury. The Packers visit Indianapolis this week, and Aaron Rodgers does some of his finest work in domes. The Colts rank 15th against the pass, but the Indy cornerbacks can be had. There should be sufficient opportunities for Jones to contribute on Sunday, though the enigmatic receiver can be maddeningly prone to drops and concentration lapses.
10. Matt Forté — Forté returned from a sprained ankle last week and gave his fantasy owners a pre-Halloween scare by hobbling off the field after an eight-yard run on the Bears’ first play from scrimmage, but he returned after having his foot re-taped and finished with 52 rushing yards on 13 carries. The Bears were wise to use Forté lightly in what quickly turned into a blowout of the Cowboys. Now that he has demonstrated himself fit for duty, it’s reasonable to expect that the Bears will loosen his reins when they visit Jacksonville this weekend and face the Jaguars’ 30th-ranked run defense.
- Ryan Mathews
- Brian Hartline
- Julio Jones
- Rashard Mendenhall