NFL Skinny: Seeing red

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I wrote about Larry Johnson in a very foreboding tone in this forum a couple weeks ago. To be specific, I concluded my thoughts on LJ with this:

"Simply put, the Chiefs are just a very bad team. They rank 27th in offense and 24th in defense. They have, perhaps, the league's worst offensive line and QB position. Even with 20-30 carries, Johnson's not going rekindle memories of the Priest Holmes/LJ glory days of old."

Two weeks later, after two consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, Johnson sits No. 7 among fantasy running backs. And, well, if you watched Sunday's 28-carry, two-touchdown, 198-yard effort, your mind certainly might have drifted back to images of those Priest Holmes/LJ glory days of yore.

So, is it time to issue a retraction on Johnson? In a time when the nation is divided into red and blue, I've always been firmly painted gray. And my answer in Johnson's case lands somewhere in the middle, as well.

Back in Week 2, I expected Johnson to riddle what was a soft Oakland run defense the previous season. It didn't happen. Not even close – 12 carries, 22 yards. Afterwards, LJ complained about his lack of touches, saying, "I've always needed 20-30 carries (in a game), that's always been me."

The numbers, however, don't back him up. Looking at Johnson's career splits, he averages 4.7 yards per carry in carries 1-20 of a game. His combined clip for carries after No. 20 is at 3.9.

But, in fantasy, more carries equals more production. No matter what LJ averages on those runs beyond the 20-carry mark, it's just padding to his fantasy bottom line. And in the past two weeks, Johnson has averaged 26 carries against two teams ranked among the bottom 10 in the league in yards per carry allowed.

In fact, no discredit to LJ intended, but Denver's run defense was a joke on Sunday. The Chiefs must have been expecting over-pursuit by the Broncos defensive front, because Johnson was able to pick up some large gainers by simply taking the handoff, stepping to his left, and then cutting back immediately to his right. He did this on his second carry of the game, romping untouched (until he was ultimately run down by Champ Bailey and Dre Bly) for 65 yards right through the heart of Denver's defense. I have no idea how 11 defensive players could be that out of position so as to afford a running back a hallway-sized, 60-yard lane right up the middle of the field. Right now, the Broncos are an awful defense. They don't tackle well, they're not physical and Sunday gave every indication that this is a team that does not maintain its assignments – opponents have scored 30-plus points three consecutive weeks.

So, give credit to Johnson for running very physical against a team that was ill-suited to handle it. But, as an offense, Kansas City still isn't out of the woods, although quarterback Damon Huard gives the team its best chance to maximize its potential. Kansas City will travel to Carolina in Week 5, and if Larry Johnson goes for 100 yards or a touchdown against the Panthers, it will be an accomplishment that alluded LaDainian Tomlinson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner in their meetings with Carolina this season. I'm betting against it. But, if he pulls it off, my feelings of gray will definitely turn a shade of Kansas City red.

Week 4: Take 10
A look at 10 significant developments/situations from Week 4

1. From one Johnson to another … I got burned in Week 4 for benching Chris Johnson (vs. Minnesota) in favor of Maurice Jones-Drew (vs. Houston). On paper, it was the right decision. But something happened on Sunday that was unexpected – Johnson became a red zone option. For the first time this season, Flash picked up more than two carries in the red zone (6). He scored touchdowns from a yard out and from six yards deep, territory that was once sole property of LenDale White. In addition, Johnson nearly doubled White's workload (20 to 11) – by far the largest discrepancy in touches between these two this season. That Johnson was able to churn out a tough 61 yards on 17 carries against a very staunch Minnesota run defense, including two short-yardage scores, is a huge statement by the rookie, and pretty much forces his owners to make him an automatic start no matter who the opponent may be.

2. Jones-Drew owners have to be frustrated – I know I am. Sunday marked the third time in four games that MoJo failed to top 10 touches. Not coincidentally, the only game in which he topped that mark, he busted loose for 166 yards from scrimmage on 23 touches against the Colts in Week 3. In his previous two seasons, he's been leaned on more and more as the season marches on, as he's averaged fewer than 10 carries per game in the first half of the season and more than 12 carries in the second half. While head coach Jack Del Rio preserves his diminutive dynamo for another second half run, fantasy owners are going to face hard decisions when contemplating his upcoming matchups. MoJo hosts Pittsburgh next week, and that's going to be easy to take a pass on. But, let's all hope that Del Rio is ready to take the shackles off after that as MJD will see four straight defenses that allow at least 4.1 ypc, including a Week 6 trip to a Denver defense (5.0 ypc) that made Larry Johnson look so youthful and a Week 10 visit to a Detroit defense that yields a league-high 5.6 ypc.

3. David Garrard is one of the more mobile quarterbacks in the league, but he put his legs on the back burner last season as he leaned heavily on MoJo and Fred Taylor in the backfield and supplemented the running game with highly efficient aerial efforts that netted Garrard an 18-to-3 TD:INT ratio. This year, with injuries in the receiving ranks and across the offensive line, Garrard is relying once again on his ability to scramble. He's padded his fantasy numbers with 30-plus rushing yards in two of the past three games. On Sunday, he rushed seven times for 41 yards and a score. Five of those carries and 33 rushing yards came on a crucial drive late in the fourth quarter where Garrard simply willed his team down the field for a go-ahead score. The last three plays of that drive read like this:

4th-8, HOU18 2:27 D. Garrard rushed up the middle for 9 yard gain
1st-9, HOU9 2:00 D. Garrard rushed up the middle for 4 yard gain
2nd-5, HOU5 1:48 D. Garrard rushed up the middle for 5 yard touchdown. J. Scobee made PAT

I was so supremely confident in Garrard heading into the season that I drafted him for more than half of the 10 fantasy teams I'm running. In fact, for one of those teams, I didn't bother drafting a backup for Garrard. That seemed like a grievous error after three weeks, with Garrard sitting on a 1:4 TD-to-INT ratio and an average of 182 passing yards. So I remedied that situation by dealing Thomas Jones and Robert Meachem for Aaron Rodgers last week. Luckily, I was able to attain Rodgers for a sweetheart deal that's not going to impact my running back and receiver depth too bad. Because, as it stands now, Garrard, brimming with confidence, looks poised to turn things around in a big way. And, as for Rodgers, he spent his first week on my squad throwing three interceptions and suffering a sprained shoulder.

5. Speaking of Rodgers, it was a rough day all-around for the Packers on Sunday at Tampa. In addition to Rodgers' rough outing, running back Ryan Grant mustered just 20 rushing yards on 15 carries. I know some of you are ready to write Grant off as a one-year wonder because I've heard it be said. Let me just say, I'm not even close to giving up on Grant yet. Healthy for the first time this season, Grant was in a tough spot in Week 4 at a Bucs defense that has allowed just 3.6 ypc. And, although Grant was mostly shut down by Tampa Bay, he had one carry early on in the game where he ran to the left and hurdled a defender that was coming at him waist-high before going out of bounds. It was all the proof I needed that he was completely over that nagging hamstring injury. Green Bay is also getting healthier along the offensive line with the return of C Scott Wells. If Aaron Rodgers' shoulder injury doesn't knock him out of action in Week 5, I'll wager that Grant goes for 100-plus yards against Atlanta. In fact, Grant's next three games before the bye week could prove lucrative (ATL, at SEA, IND). If I was an owner with running back issues, I'd be checking to see how low the asking price for Grant has dropped.

6. I had Matt Schaub projected for 240 passing yards and two touchdowns in what would be a job-securing effort at Jacksonville on Sunday. Turns out, he was even better than my bullish expectations, throwing for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Protection had been a problem for Schaub in games against Pittsburgh and Tennessee, but Schaub was not sacked on Sunday. And, with time to throw, the Texans signal-caller showed a Steve Nash-like ability to distribute the rock – and thank god for that. I figured that go-to wideout Andre Johnson would be double-covered and tied up, and that proved to be the case. For that reason, I made a last-minute decision to bench Laveranues Coles (and his three touchdowns-to-be) in favor of Texans No. 2 wideout Kevin Walter. A 76-yard, two touchdown effort from Walter helped mitigate the damage from that mistake.

With Johnson blanketed, Schaub found Walter eight times, hooked up with emerging rookie running back Steve Slaton for eight catches, 83 yards and a score and delivered seven passes to tight end Owen Daniels for 87 yards. Schaub garnered a lot of breakout buzz heading into the season, which made him a big disappointment through his first two games. But, to be fair, he faced some brutal matchups. With the options at his disposal, and given time to throw, you have to like Schaub's chances. Next week could turn out to be nearly as fruitful for Schaub as Week 4, hosting a Bob Sanders-less Indianapolis defense that has just one interception and a mere four sacks.

7. More impressed with Jason Campbell I could not be. In Sunday's upset at Dallas, the Washington quarterback showed poise, accuracy, elusiveness and a Tony Romo-like ability to hit receivers on the mark while scrambling. Campbell finished with 231 passing yards and two touchdown passes against the Cowboys. It was the fourth-consecutive game in which he didn't throw an interception and it was his third straight contest in which he posted a 100-plus QB rating. There were worries that Campbell would struggle assimilating to Jim Zorn's West Coast offense, but those concerns should be alleviated now. Something tells me that it's a good week to sit Campbell at Philly in Week 5. But, there's some ripe fruit to be picked after that (STL in Week 6, CLE in Week 7, at DET in Week 8).

8. San Diego's issues with covering opposing tight ends is getting ridiculous. Oakland's Zach Miller victimized the Chargers for 95 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. He became the fourth tight end to score against San Diego this season. In fact, the foursome of Miller, Dante Rosario, Tony Scheffler and rookie Dustin Heller have combined for 22 catches, 296 yards and five touchdowns against San Diego. Miami breakout tight Anthony Fasano is next up for the Chargers. Start him if you got him, folks.

9. If Michael Turner isn't careful, he'll soon start to be labeled a paper player – one who takes advantage of the weak opponents and folds against the stouter ones. That's been the case, thus far, as he's shredded Detroit (5.6 ypc) and Kansas City (5.3 ypc) in his two home games (combined 324 rushing yards and five TDs), while being stymied by Tampa Bay (3.6 ypc) and Carolina (4.1 ypc) in road contests (combined 32 carries for 98 yards and no scores). I mentioned last week that it would be nice to see Turner have success against a strong opponent, and I'm still waiting. He faces Green Bay (5.2 ypc) next, so the expectations should be high for Turner. He'll get one more shot at a stingy run defense before a bye when Atlanta hosts Chicago (3.7 ypc) in Week 6.

While the Panthers shut the door on Turner, backup Jerious Norwood made his typical case for more playing time, rushing three times for 53 yards, including a dandy 40-yard jaunt. Norwood's a beautiful runner with blazing speed. His strides seem to cover about five yards at a time. He's now averaging 6.3 yards per carry for his career, but has garnered more than 10 carries just three times in his career. I understand that he may have an upright running style and his pass protection leaves a bit to be desired. But, c'mon, a 12-plus touch game plan should be a no-brainer at this point for the Mississippi St. product. Someone start printing up the "Free Jerious" t-shirts and bumper stickers. It's time.

10. This spot has become Robert Meachem's parking space. This is where I talk about how Meachem is the most talented Saints receiver not named Colston. This is where I gush about how well he played in the preseason and how he's done nothing but produce in games despite a ridiculous lack of looks. And it was more of the same in Week 4 – three pass targets, two catches, 99 yards and a touchdown. So, to recap, that's now three career games played, six targets, five catches, three receptions of 47-plus yards, and two touchdowns. Like Norwood, Meachem is making a serious case for more involvement.

Week 5 Short List
Players that need to be on your mind heading into Week 5

QB Matt Schaub, Hou (63% owned) – For all the reasons (Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels, Steve Slaton) mentioned above.
QB Chad Pennington, Mia (35%) – Pennington should be an item of interest for those in need of a plug-n-play QB for Week 5. Miami hosts a San Diego defense that has allowed the most fantasy points to quarterbacks. In fact, no starting QB has thrown for less than 247 yards against the Chargers.
QB Brian Griese, TB (58%) – Griese will face his former Denver team in Week 5, and the Broncos have proven untrustworthy, thus far, defending the pass – third-most fantasy points to QBs.
QB Kyle Orton, Chi (24%) – Orton has averaged 234 passing yards and has thrown for five touchdowns in his past two contests. And that was against teams that are way, way more difficult to pass on than his upcoming opponent, the Detroit Lions.
QB Gus Frerotte, Min (17%) – Yet another waiver-fodder QB with an enticing matchup in Week 5 – Frerotte travels to New Orleans on Monday night. Although he has just one scoring pass in his two starts, Frerotte has averaged 36 attempts and 235 passing yards against some stiff competition (Carolina and Tennessee).
RB Correll Buckhalter, Phi (39%) – Buckhalter stepped up with 90 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown on 18 touches in place of an injured Brian Westbrook on Sunday night. It was an impressive effort against a physical Bears defense. If Westbrook can't go in Week 5, Buckhalter is a decent play against Washington.
RB Deuce McAllister, NO (51%) – Like many, I had a believe-it-when-I see-it attitude regarding rumors that McAllister would be heavily involved in the offense in Week 4. Twenty carries, 73 yards and a touchdown later, I'm a believer. His matchup in Week 5 (vs. MIN) is terrible, but there's potential viability down the road.
RB Derrick Ward, NYG (33%) – Ward seems like a decent gamble in Week 5 as the typically run-heavy Giants will likely be more so without the services of suspended wideout Plaxico Burress. That should equate to a healthy backup role for Ward against a Seattle defensive front that can struggle against a physical team like the Giants.
WR Bobby Engram, Sea (54%) – Last call. Engram is expected to return from a shoulder injury in Week 5. He'll immediately step into a starting role and will likely assume go-to duties – Matt Hasselbeck loves the guy
WR Kevin Curtis (54%) – Like Engram, Curtis could play in his first '08 contest in Week 5 after sitting the first month after hernia surgery.
WR Kevin Walter, Hou (43%) – As we saw in Week 4, there'll be weeks where Andre Johnson is drawing double coverage and Walter's strong route running skills will be utilized.
WR Steve Breaston (20%) – Breaston caught nine of Kurt Warner's 57 passes on Sunday for 122 yards. If Anquan Boldin can't go in Week 5 after his violent collision on Sunday, Breaston would step into a starting role against a Buffalo defense that could be without starting corner Terrence McGee (knee). If that's the case, Breaston would likely draw coverage from his replacement.
WR Lance Moore (33%) – With Marques Colston out and David Patten hobbled with a groin injury, Moore tallied seven catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. In a Drew Brees led offense, you'll always want his go-to guy. Right now, that's Moore.
TE Anthony Fasano, Mia (67%) – The Chargers are coming! The Chargers are coming!

QB Aaron Rodgers, GB (shoulder) – Rodgers sustained a sprained shoulder while being tackled on Sunday. He did throw a line drive to WR Greg Jennings for a 48-yard touchdown after suffering the injury, and there's some hope that he can return in Week 5. It sounds like it's a pain issue more than anything else. If Rodgers can deal with the pain, he'll likely be there next Sunday. If he can't, Matt Flynn would get the call behind center for the Pack.
QB Carson Palmer (elbow) – Palmer was an 11th-hour scratch in Week 4. In fact, in my buddy league, my opponent didn't catch the news that Palmer was out in time and started him over his backup Brett Favre – that's a bitter pill to swallow. Palmer said he doesn't need surgery for his elbow inflammation, but his immediate availability is still uncertain.
RB Brian Westbrook, Phi (ankle) – Westbrook couldn't pass the pre-game test on Sunday night, so he sat out at Chicago while Correll Buckhalter filled in (admirably) for him. He's likely to, once again, be marked with a Questionable tag for a home game with Washington in Week 5.
RB Darren McFadden, Oak (toe) – Run-DMC is dealing with a seriously sore turf toe. He could muster just 20 yards on seven carries against San Diego on Sunday. The bye week hits Oakland at the perfect time for McFadden owners.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson, SD (groin) – LT muddled his way through a ho-hum performance for most of Sunday. But, on his game-clinching 41-yard TD run in the fourth quarter against the Raiders, he ran with vintage burst. That run alone should be enough to ease the minds of LT owners considerably.
T Jordan Gross; T Jeff Otah, Car (concussion;ankle) – Both of Carolina's tackles had to leave the game on Sunday against Atlanta. There's a good chance that both will be questionable for Week 5.

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