By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
In the NFL, much is decided in the trenches, in the mud and grass (or, less romantically, on the artificial turf). An offense’s ability to run the ball and protect the passer greatly depends on the large men going toe-to-toe with their (often larger) opposites across from them. This weekly struggle greatly impacts the numbers that appear in your fantasy team’s box score, so understanding it can make your decisions easier and more successful.
Pass protection was not the problem for Nick Foles in Week 1, as the Eagles formidable line held up well against a feisty Atlanta front seven. Regardless, coach Doug Pederson is well aware that his quarterback averaged just 3.4 yards per attempt. Though Nelson Agholor led the team with eight receptions, he was limited to a pitiful four yards per catch. This week, the Eagles will be more ambitious against a Tampa Bay team that struggled to get any kind of pressure on Drew Brees in their opener. The Bucs’ prize free agent acquisitions, Jason Pierre Paul and Vinny Curry, managed one sack between them — JPP dropped a goose egg in the box score. This was with New Orleans getting a subpar performance from Andrus Peat’s injury fill-in, Josh LeRibeus. Now Pierre Paul says his knee is, “jacked up,” which hardly bodes well for his Week 2 performance against an equally stout line.
If that wasn’t enough, the battered Bucs are likely to field a pair of rookies at corner. The combination of one of the NFL’s best pass-protecting walls with a potentially ineffectual rush and an inexperienced secondary is very good news for the struggling Super Bowl MVP’s targets. In Alshon Jeffery’s absence Agholor remains the de facto number one option and he should do a lot more with his opportunities in Tampa. Treat him as a low-end WR2.
Zach Ertz is also a great start in this one, despite a disappointing outing against the Falcons; even Mike Wallace makes for a fine DFS play. Forgive the aging speedster for going catch-less last week – Wallace is just $13 on Yahoo and a fine bet for at least one long touchdown.
QB Matt Stafford, Detroit Lions
On the other side of the coin, Matt Stafford’s protection has really let him down. Entering August, I was optimistic about the Detroit O-line based on their draft pedigree and lack of glaring trouble spots. But the unit floundered in the preseason, and that floundering seems to have extended into the games that count. A lightly regarded Jets’ defense harried Stafford relentlessly in Monday night’s home defeat for the Lions. Expected to be an instant powerhouse, rookie guard Frank Ragnow was pretty much a human turnstile in his pro debut. He surrendered pressure leading directly to a Stafford pick-six, one of the passer’s four interceptions on the night. It’s rare to see a team in disarray after one game, but the Matt Patricia era has gotten off to an unsettling start.
This week’s draw, San Francisco, isn’t “Sacksonville” by any means, but they held Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins to a 55.6 completion percentage and allowed no big passing plays. While the Lions didn’t actually surrender a sack on Monday night, Stafford absorbed four hits, one of them bone-crunching. Center Graham Glasgow struggled and may be no match for San Francisco’s stellar three-tech DeForest Buckner, who amassed seven tackles, 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss last week. He’s likely to wreak havoc again this week. Traveling cross-country to face the 49ers, Stafford could be in for another turnover-marred performance.
RB Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Skeptics may say that even with a lead, Jordan Howard didn’t get a lot of carries vs. Green Bay (15), and that Matt Nagy won’t be as good for him as the relentlessly run-oriented John Fox was. That may be true from a sheer volume perspective, but good running backs put in good situations by good offenses are often more valuable than guys grinding away with only the dim hope of scoring touchdowns. Against the Packers, Howard never faced eight men in the box, which is the mark of a multi-pronged offense. This week Chicago hosts a Seattle squad that just surrendered 142 yards to the combo of Royce Freeman and Philip Lindsay. While I expected Freeman to command a larger share of that pie, the Broncos’ surging O-line definitely opened holes for Denver’s RBs. No back faced more eight-man boxes than Freeman in Week 1, and he still averaged nearly five yards per carry against Seattle (as did Lindsay).
I’m going back to that well this week with Chicago’s line. They had a strong outing vs. Green Bay, helping Howard average 5.5 yards per tote, and left tackle Charles Leno looked absolutely dominant. Guard Kyle Long, a critical but often-injured component of the crew, did sit out the week’s first practice with an ankle injury. Long lived up to his reputation last week and would be sorely missed when Chicago hosts Seattle on Monday night. While any game featuring Russell Wilson has shootout potential, the Seahawks’ pass-catching corps is as depleted as any in the league. This should be a “Jordan Howard game” even if he doesn’t build on his potentially expanded role in the passing game (and he did reel in five-of-five targets vs. the Packers).
RB Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
I’m less bullish about Marshawn Lynch. At the venerable age of 32, the back is already banged up, nursing groin and shoulder injuries. Yes, he’s back to full practice, broke off a vintage touchdown run vs. the Rams and doesn’t show other signs of physical decline, but Lynch finished the game with only 41 rushing yards. Happily, rookie Kolton Miller was not a complete disaster in his first pro start. The left tackle’s run-blocking left a lot to be desired, however. Despite having as much individual talent as any quintet in the league, the O-line’s overall performance hasn’t been elite since 2016 and only center Rodney Hudson played up to his lofty standards in Week 1. Now the Raiders face a Broncos front surrendering just 88 rushing yards per game since the beginning of last season. Sans Khalil Mack, Oakland’s defense stands little chance of short-circuiting a Broncos’ passing game that was explosive versus Seattle. Oakland could get boat-raced in this one, which would absolutely take Beast Mode out of the game. Jalen Richard is the back to benefit if the Raiders are trailing.