Thanksgiving Day Preview: Primetime NFC East

Chris Allen
·11 min read



It’s Thanksgiving and I hope that everyone has a safe and happy holiday. Our timelines will be inundated with pictures of our friends and families cooking with debates on the best dishes going on throughout the day. However, we’ve got football to go with the merriment to keep us awake after we eat. One of the games had to be postponed, but I broke down what we can expect in today's pair of games along with a quick recap of Wednesday’s news.

The Thanksgiving Slate

Houston Texans at Detroit Lions

No running game. No problem. It’s ironic that Deshaun Watson was playing against Cam Newton in Week 11 as Watson took on Newton’s ‘Superman’ role for Houston in their last game. His 0.54 Expected Points Added (EPA) per Pass and +7.7% Completion Percentage Over Expected (CPOE) met or exceed season highs for Watson against a once-formidable defense. Watson faces Detroit’s secondary that has allowed the fourth-highest EPA per Dropback (0.28) over their last month of games. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging 282.5 passing yards with two out of their last four opponents throwing for two or more touchdowns. Keke Coutee re-enters our lives with Randall Cobb going to Injured Reserve, but the primary focus will be on Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks. The Lions have allowed two Top-20 finishes in consecutive weeks to WR1s (D.J. Moore 11-127-0 in Week 11 and Terry McLaurin 9-95-0 in Week 10), but the Texans’ duo has battled for the alpha spot over their last three games. Cooks holds the greater target share (23% to 22%), but Fuller’s ability as a deep threat is a weekly staple in fantasy. Surprisingly, Houston enters Week 12 third in neutral passing rate (63.0%), but are still middling in pace of play (17th). We’ll need Detroit to mount some sort of offense despite being shorthanded, but Watson and his pass-catchers should be in everyone's starting rosters this afternoon.

While the Texans are ready to roll, Detroit is still trying to figure out who will play on Thursday afternoon. Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola have already been ruled out. D’Andre Swift is yet to clear the concussion protocol. T.J. Hockenson and Matthew Stafford are both dealing with injuries, but expected to play. Detroit is limping into their final six games and there has to be some expectation that Matt Patricia isn’t in the Lions’ future plans. They’re on the verge of their third consecutive losing season which hasn’t happened in nearly a decade. Stafford, partially torn thumb ligament or not, threw for just 178 yards in Week 11. It was his worst outing since Week 16 of the 2018 season. Detroit was shut out by the Carolina Panthers for the first time since Week 6 of the 2009 season against Green Bay. The resultant score was surprising, but the offensive play-calling was equally egregious. Despite trailing by two scores for nearly half the game, Detroit maintained just a 52.2% passing rate through the first half. It wasn't until the fourth quarter, when they were down by 17 points, that the run was completely abandoned and Stafford’s overall passing rate of 71.7% appears justified. Despite their aggressive offense (Stafford was tied for third in deep pass attempts through Week 4), Stafford made just three attempts of 15 air yards or more with Marvin Jones and Jamal Agnew as his primary targets. Houston may have just allowed Cam Newton to throw for 365 yards in Week 11, but Stafford’s going to need some Thanksgiving magic to turn around this passing game.

Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys

Alex Smith is set to make his third start for Washington. Since he’s taken over, Washington is 18th in EPA per Dropback (0.101) which is actually second for NFC East teams. Smith has eclipsed 300 passing yards in two of his three games, but his notable problem comes in the red zone. He has just 12 passing attempts from within the 20-yard line since Week 9. Washington’s 41.4% red-zone passing rate puts even tighter restrictions on a team that’s scored just 20.0 PPG this season. Regardless, Smith has been able to maintain the values of the Washington pass catchers as they are ninth in neutral passing rate over the last three weeks (54.0%). Terry McLaurin has remained the WR1 but hasn’t found the paint since Week 9. His 21.0% target share places him at the center of the Washington Offense which should be able to exploit the Cowboys’ defense on Thursday afternoon. Dallas has allowed two or more passing touchdowns in five consecutive games starting back in Week 6. Jared Goff (Week 1) and Daniel Jones (Week 5) are the only quarterbacks who haven't completed a touchdown pass against this secondary. Their defensive front is 14th in pressure rate, but it hasn’t been enough to stop opposing passers as two of their last three opponents have thrown for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. Antonio Gibson also tagged them for 128 yards plus a score the last time they played in Week 7. Washington may have a low-scoring offense, but their pace of play (14th) should provide enough volume to float their primary fantasy assets on Thursday. Dallas’ offense should have enough firepower to keep the game interesting but the real question lies in their quarterback.

Dallas’ offense was fun in Week 11 and Andy Dalton looked functional. The Cowboys maintained their up-tempo pace (65 plays run), but less emphasis was placed on Dalton’s arm. He passed on just 53.3% of their plays which limited his overall passing production (203 yards), but the Cowboys were able to generate 39.3 yards per drive which exceeds their seasonal average of 35.2. However, Dalton had a 70.0% red-zone passing rate which vaulted him into the QB1 conversation for the first time since he left Cincinnati. He was pressured on just 9.4% of his attempts and the hope is their changes on the offensive line have fixed some of their issues up front. However, they’ll have a much tougher matchup with Washington coming to town. They’re seventh in defensive pressure rate (25.2%) and have the fourth-most sacks per game over their last three contests. After Joe Burrow left their Week 11 matchup with a torn ACL, there was a noticeable difference in the Bengals’ offense. Burrow, who was able to feel pressure and navigate the pocket, hadn’t taken a sack throughout the game. Ryan Finley entered the game in the third quarterback and was sacked on the second play. He went on to take three additional sacks as Washington’s defensive front dominated the second half. That’s the fear with Dalton. He took three sacks against Washington back in Week 7 before getting knocked out in the third quarter without even surpassing 100 yards in the box score. However, a functional line has prevailed against them in the past. Matthew Stafford was able to throw for 276 yards and three touchdowns against them in Week 10. Jared Goff is the only passer to top 300 yards against Washington’s secondary with quick passing (2.71 seconds to throw) to neutralize the pass rush. Dallas will need another solid performance from their offensive line and a strong game plan to keep him upright in their second matchup against Washington. With a win, they could take the lead in the NFC East.

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Points of Interest

Houston Texans at Detroit Lions

For the Texans, it’ll be about their running game. Let’s just say Duke Johnson has been disappointing in his two starts. The same player who had been efficient as a runner on limited touches in his previous backup role has the lowest rushing success rate for someone with his workload (25.9%). He has just 75 scrimmage yards since becoming the starter. Detroit is in the Bottom 10 for Rush EPA with at least one rushing touchdown allowed in five consecutive games. David Johnson is expected back from IR in another week, but Duke has one more chance to redeem himself on Thursday afternoon.

For Detroit, the focus will be on their passing game. Stafford won’t have much to work with again, but their game plan can’t revolve around a balanced approach. Adrian Peterson couldn’t manage more than 20 yards on the ground and Kerryon Johnson had greater utility as a receiver than a runner. More involvement from the ancillary receivers (e.g. Quintez Cephus, Marvin Hall) would open up the offense for more deep shots to Marvin Jones should Stafford get into a rhythm. Houston’s secondary has allowed two 300-yard passers in their past three games. With the proper game plan, Stafford should be able to exploit the Texans’ deficiency on defense.

Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys

For Washington, all eyes are on Antonio Gibson. The fear was that J.D. McKissic was going to take over the backfield after their scheduled bye. In Weeks 9 and 10, he was on the field for 75.4% of the running back snaps and handled 50.9% of the touches with an inexplicable 32% target share over that span. However, Gibson resumed the lead role with a 50.0% touch share which resulted in Washington’s only rushing score. The rookie now leads the RB committee in attempts from within the 20-yard line since their bye (11), but we’d like to see him get the start with continued opportunities on Thanksgiving.

For Dallas, their offensive line play along with their passing game will be their key to success. We talked about Dalton, but his connection with CeeDee Lamb seems to be growing. Lamb wasn’t just second in targets last week (19.0%), but he was the only wide receiver to earn a target from within the 20-yard line. Back in Week 6 (Dalton’s first start), Lamb didn’t receive a single target when the Cowboys got into scoring position. If quick passing and after-the-catch athleticism is critical to Dallas’ success, Lamb (leads the team in snaps from the slot) would be the best option against Washington’s pass rush.

COVID-19 Watch Week 12

It’s hard to know what the threshold was for Roger Goodell to cave, but the would-be primetime game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers was moved to Sunday afternoon.

This situation feels eerily similar to the Packers/49ers fiasco from Week 9, but it’s possible that past events have better informed the league on how to react. The decision was met with frustration from the players, but the extra time will allow the proper protocols to be observed as cases continue to rise. The league should now be conducting a review of Baltimore’s staff as it’s been made clear that one of their staff violated the league rules that’s caused the outbreak for the Ravens.

Meanwhile, more notable players were added to the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list on Wednesday which will likely keep them from their Week 12 matchups.

Injury Slants

Savon Ahmed (shoulder) was unable to practice and Tua Tagovailoa (thumb) was limited to start off Miami’s week of practice. Matt Breida should be able to replace Ahmed should he miss time after Breida returned in Week 11. Tua’s benching last week combined with this new injury puts his Week 12 status in question. Ryan Fitzpatrick would be the obvious replacement, but practice reports to close out the week should reveal the Dolphins’ intentions as they prepare for their matchup against the Jets.

Philip Rivers (toe) and Zach Pascal (knee/foot) didn’t practice for the Colts on Wednesday. Rivers left during their Week 11 contest against the Packers, but was able to return and finish the game. Frank Reich said that Rivers will likely be rested to be cautious and is expected to play on Sunday. Pascal’s status is unclear. While he hasn’t been a significant contributor on offense (14.0% target share over the last month), his additional usage on special teams will be an issue as the team gears up to face the Titans for the second time.

Julio Jones (hamstring) and Calvin Ridley (foot) were limited on Wednesday while Hayden Hurst (ankle) and Todd Gurley (knee) were out for the Falcons. Jones missed multiple series in Week 11 due to a hamstring injury, but his limited status on Wednesday bodes well for his Week 12 availability. It’s unclear if Gurley’s current knee injury is connected to his chronic arthritis, but his practice participation to close out the week will be the determining factor for his status against the Raiders.