Week 14 fantasy football metrics notebook: Warning signs emerge from Steelers offense

1 - The Steelers have more offensive issues beyond their run game

Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL in drop rate at 8.6%, which can partially be attributed to where he throws the ball. 36% of Roethlisberger's passes target the short area between the numbers, where the league average drop rate is at it's highest (5.7%).

The above stat comes from Next Gen Stats, and is a follow-up to this post:

The public is hammering the Steelers for their pitiful running game. They’ve emerged as one of the three or four worst rushing attacks in the league, especially in short-yardage. So, you can casually dismiss anyone who tells you all their problems will be solved if they just run the ball more.

The Steelers remain one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league, which has been great for their wide receivers’ volume stats, but they are not an efficient group.

You can blame guys like Eric Ebron or Diontae Johnson for dropping too many passes — and they should haul in a few more of these passes than they do — but where they’re getting targeted is a big part of the problem.

The extremely limited nature of the Steelers’ passing game to the short areas and over the middle has emerged as extremely problematic for the receivers and for the offense as a whole. And let’s be real — if anyone is just looking at Ben Roethlisberger’s touchdown-to-interception ratio and assume he’s having an elite season, they’re fooling themselves. Roethlisberger ranks 17th in EPA per play and is outside the top-25 quarterbacks in the metric the last three weeks. That’s all while getting the ball out of his hands in under 2.3 seconds per throw and averaging just 4.7 air yards per completion.

[Week 14 Fantasy Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | FLEX | DST | Kickers]

Even on some of the drops Diontae Johnson has been hammered for the last two weeks, Roethlisberger’s placement on those key throws has been poor. People always make too much of drops as it is; the Steelers didn’t lose Monday night because of drops. But either way, the analysis is often more complicated than “It’s all the receiver’s fault; hit his hands should have caught it; etc.”

So, yes, should guys like Johnson have hauled in four or five more passes this year? For sure. Is it weird they’ve almost completely marginalized JuJu Smith-Schuster for Eric Ebron, a guy who runs his routes in the same area as the once-prolific receiver? It is. Should they play Chase Claypool on more than the 44 percent of snaps he took on Monday? That’s an easy yes.

All that can be true and we can still admit the quarterback has emerged as part of the list of problems in Pittsburgh.

All of this is picking nits for a team that has just one loss but that’s what we do with a squad that wants to fancy itself as the best in the league. Their defense is good enough to be the strongest part of the team and as the offense ranks 17th in DVOA, it’s pretty clear that’s the case. It just seems to be past time we adjust our expectations for this troubled, yet still talented, offense, and be clear about all of the problems in Pittsburgh.

2 - Cam Akers boasted trustable usage rates in Week 13

Backfield rush attempt share: 78% (21/27)

Routes per dropback: 50% (24/48)

Snap rate: 63.4%

I totally get it. It’s almost impossible to completely put your faith in projecting the Rams backfield, but with that said, Week 13 gave us every reason to think Cam Akers is in the spotlight right now.

As frustrating as it is to try and decipher these types of murky committees when it’s a healthy, strong rushing environment, you still have to try. Only the sheep throw up their hands in a shrug. It was the same way with the Patriots’ backfield in the Tom Brady years. If you got it right, for however brief of a moment in time that was, you profited.

The 2020 Rams present a similar potential. They lead the NFL in rushing DVOA, are fifth in rushing touchdowns, and eighth in yards. There are few, if any, backfields more fruitful for rushing production.

The Rams also love to run the ball as the focal point of drives. They run on first and second down at the ninth-highest rate this year. This is an important point for Cam Akers, who boasted a string of early down success rates of 64.7 percent (sixth among backs with 10-plus carries) in his first audition as the lead back. You can believe that matters a ton to Sean McVay. It shows Akers kept the offense moving.

Could the rug be ripped out from under you at any moment with this running back room? For sure. This group is and always was going to be a hot-hand situation. But just about every variable possible is telling you that right now, Akers’ hands are burning the brightest.

3 - The hidden issue with the Cardinals passing game

Top-5 most routes run from the left wide receiver position this year:

DeAndre Hopkins - 359

DK Metcalf - 255

Michael Gallup - 238

Damiere Byrd - 220

Terry McLaurin - 206

The huge gap from Hopkins to everyone else is insane. That's 85 percent of his total routes. It’s rare to see an NFL receiver even approach 60 percent of their snaps from one side of the field.

We’re getting plenty of analysis around “What’s wrong with the Cardinals’ offense?” Kliff Kingsbury’s overly conservative play-calling, Kyler Murray’s health, and the sudden lack of scrambling have all been brought up routinely.

But we also need to talk about how easy to defend this passing attack has become.

According to one of the football world’s most prolific minds, Chris Brown, we can trace this usage back to Kingsbury’s air raid routes:

Whatever the reasoning, as Brown points out, this plan is turning out to be a disaster for Arizona. If teams know where Hopkins is at the start of every play and he never gets put in motion or is given chances out of the slot, they know exactly where to throw their extra resources. Outside of Murray’s rushing ability, absolutely nothing else scares you about this Cardinals offense. Christian Kirk has flashed but fades away too often. Andy Isabella hasn’t even done the flashing.

So once you figure out how to deal with Hopkins, which is all too easy given the alignment, teams just have to force Murray to not keep the ball himself on options plays. They’ll take their body blows from Kenyan Drake rather than be exposed to Murray’s kill shot. That’s working too.

Murray has no touchdowns and just 61 yards on the ground over his last three games. That’s a number he’s cleared in seven individual games all season.

The Cardinals’ offense might not be fundamentally broken forever. Time is running out on the season, however, and Kingsbury needs to do some adjusting. As well should we with our expectations for their offensive players — especially their two frontline stars in Hopkins and Murray.

4 - Don’t just think of Jalen Hurts as a runner

Jalen Hurts led the nation in yards per attempt (11.5) on non-play action passes

For fantasy, there will be plenty of intrigue around Jalen Hurts, especially at his all-too attractive Yahoo Daily Fantasy salary of $22. Most of the fascination and excitement will be based on his potential as a rusher.

You should be excited about his upside on the ground. He was a prolific runner in college and that’s what first got him on the map at Alabama.

However, you should feel free to expand your imagination beyond his rushing. After all, he may have started as a run-first QB in college but that’s not how he finished it. Hurts’ time at Oklahoma saw him take massive leaps as a passer and as the above stat notes, become one of the most efficient passers in the country even when you take out play-fakes.

Hurts will be taking the field as a starter for the first time in Week 14, so we don’t need to hype up our expectations too much. However, let’s not act like this is Taysom Hill (his likely Week 14 opponent) here. We should feel confident Hurts can provide a boost to the Eagles as a thrower and as a scrambler this week and going forward.

The question becomes: If Hurts does boost the passing game, who from the Eagles’ broken pass-catcher corps gets the stock up? The answer very well could be, no one. The unit is in that bad of shape. Nevertheless, it’s a thought experiment I’ll play out in my Friday “pressing questions” column.

5 - Keep on trusting Cole Beasley

Josh Allen has thrown 71.7% of his passes to wide receivers, the highest rate of any QB in the league

The equation is simple. If John Brown is missing the game, you play Cole Beasley in fantasy that week.

The opportunity for wide receivers in the Bills’ offense is unlike any other. No quarterback is throwing to the position more than Josh Allen. And by this point in the season you should know that Josh Allen’s targets are worth as much as any top-level quarterback in football. The Bills starter leads all quarterbacks in success rate this season.

Beasley has been delivering on those looks all season, as well. Below is a list of random and cherry-picked stats but the point of it all is to show this guy has been good in 2020:

Over the last three weeks alone, Beasley actually has a three-yard gap over Stefon Diggs for the team lead in air yards (135) and has compiled 264 yards and two scores on 22 catches.

There will be some fear in playing Beasley this week against the Steelers. After watching Logan Thomas and J.D. McKissic rip through the middle and shallow portions of their defense on Monday night, I won’t be among the fearful. On the year, the Steelers have allowed the sixth-most yards to slot receivers at 12.4 yards per catch.

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