Fantasy Football

Lineup calls: Cassel's lighting it up

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Michael Harmon

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Shout it from the rooftops. Set your lineups early! Those pesky Thursday night games have returned! On Thursday, NFL fans and fantasy owners will welcome Thursday football back onto the radar. The enigmatic Bears will travel to San Francisco to kick off the four-week race into the fantasy playoffs (for most of you, anyway). Jay Cutler and the offense have performed well in spots, but what happened to the defense? Will seeing a lean and mean Mike Singletary on the other sideline inspire this unit? As for the 49ers, isn't it only appropriate that Patrick Willis plays for Singletary? What about Alex Smith? Have the 49ers found their long-term quarterback, or is that guy still enjoying the college life? Whatever the case, I'm intrigued to watch this one. I went to a Chicago-San Francisco game some years ago, only to watch Cade McNown fail to move the ball past midfield. I still have nightmares about that game. Anyway, enjoy the fact that there are only two teams enjoying their bye this week. Options from the Giants and Texans can only take up so many roster spots.

Top 10 Quarterbacks

(Not named Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre or Kurt Warner)

Jay Cutler at San Francisco

Cutler rebounded from his Week 8 shutout performance with a three-touchdown effort against the Cardinals. It was his fifth multi-touchdown game of the season. I expect to see the Chicago offense come out firing on Thursday night against the 49ers. The secondary can be beaten, provided the offensive line can provide any level of protection for Cutler. Might the breakout game for Greg Olsen in Week 9 launch a huge second half?

Mark Sanchez vs. Jacksonville

Sanchez returns from the bye week to find a fabulous matchup on the slate. The Jaguars have generated only eight sacks all season while allowing three touchdown passes per interception (15-to-5). The decided lack of a pass rush will allow Sanchez to operate downfield, playing effectively off Thomas Jones' efforts in the running game. Sanchez produced five total touchdowns (three passing and two rushing) in the final two games prior to the bye.

Joe Flacco at Cleveland

Fantasy owners saw Flacco shut out for the first time this season in Week 9 against the Bengals. He passed for 195 yards with two interceptions, his second two-interception game against Cincinnati this season. He has a tremendous matchup on paper this weekend against the Browns on the road, having passed for 342 yards and a touchdown in the Week 3 meeting.

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Cincinnati

Roethlisberger's second touchdown pass to Hines Ward against the Broncos was a gift for fantasy owners (or a nightmare, depending on which side your were on). It was Roethlisberger's fourth multi-touchdown effort in his past five starts. I don't expect to see the Pittsburgh offense slowed this week at home. The emergence of rookie Mike Wallace as a complement to Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller pushes the chess match to a new level. Roethlisberger passed for 276 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the first meeting between these AFC combatants.

Matt Ryan at Carolina

Ryan's been hit-or-miss in recent weeks, as his turnovers and touchdowns have evened out. In the past two games, he's tossed four interceptions against two touchdowns. This is a great spot for a rebound, but road games always present a little element of danger. He passed for 220 yards with three touchdowns (one interception) in the first meeting between these teams. I expect to see Michael Turner run wild this weekend. It'll be interesting to watch how drives finish.

Matt Cassel at Oakland

The Chiefs have been in the news frequently because of a number of negative stories, but Cassel's quietly put together a strong run of late. He's thrown multiple touchdown passes in four of his last six games and now has two additional receiving options in Chris Chambers and Lance Long. The number of sacks allowed by the offensive line is disconcerting, but the Oakland defense is hardly dominant.

Donovan McNabb at San Diego

McNabb struggled last week against the rapidly improving Dallas pass defense. He failed to connect with Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson downfield, thereby producing a weak day for fantasy owners (227 yards with a touchdown, four sacks and two interceptions). McNabb becomes a midline play this week against the Chargers, a pass defense that's played quite well overall this season. The Chargers have surrendered 179.6 yards and 1.38 touchdowns per game. It'll take the home run ball for McNabb to produce a huge game, but I love the trusty tight end Brent Celek.

Alex Smith vs. Chicago

The San Francisco offensive line has been decimated by injuries, so there's some concern that Adewale Ogunleye and the defensive line surmounts consistent pressure upfront. However, I still expect Smith to find success downfield against the struggling Chicago secondary. Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and perhaps Jason Hill (longshot, of course) will find spots in the Chicago zone. Smith's thrown six touchdown passes since returning to the lineup.

Matt Hasselbeck at Arizona

Do I expect a huge effort from Hasselbeck this weekend? No. However, I do anticipate that the Seahawks come to play this week against Arizona, unlike the last time these teams met. Hasselbeck's tossed multiple touchdown passes in three of the six games he's completed in 2009. The litany of receiving options could make for a decent day against the Arizona secondary. If nothing else, owners have to be encouraged by the involvement of T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Week 9.

Vince Young vs. Buffalo

Young enters this week's matchup against Buffalo with the hope of a three-game winning streak. The Buffalo defense flies around and creates havoc in the secondary, generating turnovers in buckets on occasion. The reason Young appears here is the weak Buffalo run defense. If the defensive ends cannot pinch the edges, he could post a sizable rushing effort. Remember, 40 rushing yards equals 100 or more passing yards in most leagues.

Quarterback Sleepers

Josh Freeman at Miami

Freeman excelled in his first NFL start in leading the Buccaneers to a huge win against the Packers. He passed for 205 yards and three touchdowns, looking comfortable in the pocket all day long. He takes aim at a banged-up Miami defense this weekend, a unit that'll start two rookie cornerbacks and may be without several other starters.

Chad Henne vs. Tampa Bay

On the other side of the equation, Henne's a solid plug-in play against the Tampa Bay defense. The Buccaneers have surrendered 216.5 passing yards and 2.25 touchdowns per game. Tampa Bay did well to harass Aaron Rodgers last weekend, but the Miami offensive line is far more cohesive than the Packers' unit.

Trent Edwards at Tennessee

Edwards returns to the lineup against the revitalized Tennessee pass defense. We'll be monitoring the status of Terrell Owens as the weekend approaches, but I'm intrigued to see Edwards' return. Will he pick up on the downfield efforts put forth by Ryan Fitzpatrick and keep Lee Evans involved?

Quarterback Flops

Carson Palmer at Pittsburgh

Palmer's one of the more difficult players to chart this weekas he goes up against the Pittsburgh defense. He obviously has significant weapons at his disposal (Cedric Benson, Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and the developing Andre Caldwell), but the Pittsburgh defense is starting to raise its game. The Cincinnati offensive line protected Palmer fairly well in the first meeting, surrendering just two sacks. However, he still generated a mediocre stat line with 183 passing yards and a touchdown.

Kyle Orton at Washington

Orton's efficiency had put him on fantasy radars as a solid plug-in option. He was efficient in the early part of Monday's game against Pittsburgh, but ultimately threw three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown. It doesn't get any easier this weekend against the top-ranked Washington pass defense (159.9 yards and 0.88 touchdowns per game).

David Garrard at New York Jets

Garrard's been one of the more maddening quarterback options in 2009. He's excelled in a few spots and left us flat in others. This week, he faces the second-ranked Jets pass defense coming off its bye week. He's completed one touchdown pass in his past four games.

Top 10 Running Backs

(Not named Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Cedric Benson, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Ronnie Brown or DeAngelo Williams)

Pierre Thomas at St. Louis

Thomas has scored in back-to-back games, amassing a total of 27 carries for 141 yards (40 receiving yards) against the Falcons and Panthers. He's on the mark for another big effort this weekend against the woeful St. Louis run defense. The Rams have surrendered 134.8 rushing yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game. Even with Mike Bell and Reggie Bush (see the sleepers below) eating into the workload, Thomas posts another big day in Week 10.

Thomas Jones vs. Jacksonville

Jones brings an active streak of three 100-yard games into this week's matchup against the middling Jacksonville run defense (119.8 yards per game). The definition of durability, he's seen his touches increase markedly following Leon Washington's injury and Mark Sanchez's battle with turnovers. Sanchez will find success against the terrible Jacksonville secondary, thereby opening running lanes for Jones to plow through.

Ricky Williams vs. Tampa Bay

The Dolphins' past two opponents played the Wildcat fairly well, but Williams still averaged four yards per carry with a touchdown on his 15 attempts (three catches for 44 yards). He's averaging 80.5 total yards per game (5.4 yards per carry) and has scored seven times overall. The Buccaneers possess one of the worst run defenses in the game, having surrendered an average of 163.4 yards. Williams and backfield mate Ronnie Brown run wild in this battle for Florida.

Joseph Addai vs. New England

My prediction of a 1,000-yard bounce-back season for Addai is failing miserably, but fantasy owners have to be happy about his frequent end zone visits (seven total touchdowns already). I don't know that he finds the painted grass this weekend against the Patriots (two rushing touchdowns allowed), but he should be successful in-between the tackles as New England works to slow Peyton Manning. The Patriots allow 112.4 rushing yards per game.

Laurence Maroney at Indianapolis

Injuries thrust Maroney back into the starting lineup, and he's making the most of it this time around. He's scored in three consecutive contests while averaging 82.7 yards per game. Indianapolis rates as a middle of the road run defense, surrendering 108.1 yards and 0.75 rushing touchdowns per game. I don't believe he posts a huge game, but the banged up Indianapolis secondary will have its hands full with Tom Brady and the passing game. Efforts to aid the replacement cornerbacks could yield sizable running lanes for Maroney.

LeSean McCoy at San Diego

McCoy was slowed on the ground somewhat by the surging Dallas defense last week, but he continued his strong effort to aid the passing attack (five catches for 61 yards). With Brian Westbrook still a question mark because of a concussion, McCoy rates as a fantasy starter this weekend against a struggling San Diego run defense. The Chargers are surrendering 130.1 rushing yards per game.

Tim Hightower vs. Seattle

Hightower saw his four-game scoring streak come to an end against Chicago, but he still amassed 88 total yards on 16 touches. In fact, his 77 rushing yards against the Bears established a new season-high mark. This week's matchup against the Seahawks is more difficult, particularly with Seattle seeking to avenge an earlier home debacle. Hightower generated 58 yards of offense on 17 touches, but he did find the end zone. I expect to see him involved in the passing game to aid those of you in PPR leagues and to have a shot at another goal-line plunge.

Marion Barber at Green Bay

Barber joins fellow bruiser Brandon Jacobs on the list of disappointing backs in the 2009 season. He's failed to eclipse 60 rushing yards in a game since Week 2 and has only scored once in his past four games. Despite his recent struggles, I'm putting him on the map for a strong effort against the Packers. Increased efficiency in the passing game should translate into more running lanes, and Barber maintains a sizable workload. It'll pay off for fantasy owners this week against a slumping Green Bay defense.

Justin Fargas vs. Kansas City

Darren McFadden's trying to return from injury, but it appears he's a longshot for Sunday's game against the Chiefs. As such, the hard-running Fargas remains the lead option in Oakland. Kansas City allows 136.3 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown per game to rank 28th in the NFL. Do we ever want to endorse Oakland offensive options? No, but this is a good spot to slide Fargas into a Flex role.

Jamaal Charles at Oakland

Charles remains the lead back in Kansas City following Larry Johnson's release, although Kolby Smith (see sleepers below) does eat into the workload. Charles has averaged a robust 6.9 yards per carry in limited work during the past two weeks and possesses the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Oakland allows 161 rushing yards and 1.63 rushing touchdowns per game. There's opportunity here.

Running Back Sleepers

Kolby Smith at Oakland

While Jamaal Charles probably takes the bulk of the workload, Smith's on the radar as a second option and potential goal-line back. He excelled as a runner for the Chiefs during his 2007 rookie season and represents a sneaky play this weekend.

Reggie Bush at St. Louis

Bush had quietly scored in three consecutive games heading into the Week 9 game against Carolina. He didn't extend his streak, but he did pile up seven receptions for 37 yards while adding 16 rushing yards. He's a potential Flex play in all league formats this week with a matchup against the Rams on tap. St. Louis surrenders 134.8 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game to opposing rushing attacks. The Saints' three-headed monster could shine.

LenDale White vs. Buffalo

We preach a lot about finding and exploiting advantageous matchups in the fantasy realm. This week's matchup against the atrocious Buffalo run defense puts the slimmed-down White back onto the fantasy radar. Buffalo's allowed 173.6 rushing yards and 1.5 rushing touchdowns per game. Might the former powerhouse back make a dent in fantasy lineups this week?

Running Back Flops

Ryan Grant vs. Dallas

Grant narrowly missed the 100-yard mark (96) and scored for the second time in three weeks in last weekend's inexplicable loss to the Buccaneers. He remains a workhorse for the Packers and will undoubtedly see a sizable number of touches against Dallas to fend off the pass rush (anything to help the line at this point). However, the Dallas defense has been playing better of late and has been strong against the run overall (103 yards per game and only three rushing touchdowns allowed).

Rashard Mendenhall vs. Cincinnati

Mendenhall joins Grant on the "temper expectations" list this weekend with a tough matchup against the Cincinnati run defense on tap. Ben Roethlisberger and company should find time to operate downfield, and that will open running lanes for Mendenhall (or they can run that stretch play to the right all game again). However, we can't anticipate another huge performance in this spot. The Bengals rank second in run defense behind the Steelers, allowing just 83.9 yards and 0.5 touchdowns per game.

Kevin Smith at Minnesota

Perhaps my enthusiasm for Smith's potential coming into the season was a little too over the top. He's played fairly well, but the Detroit offense hasn't progressed much at all, particularly with Calvin Johnson's injury and apparent disconnection with Matthew Stafford. Although Smith rushed for 83 yards on 24 carries in the first meeting with Minnesota, I'm not expecting a repeat performance. The Minnesota defensive line is playing too well right now, and I see running room to be sparse on Sunday.

Top 10 Wide Receivers

(Not named Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston, Roddy White, Randy Moss, Reggie Wayne, Chad Ochocinco, Vincent Jackson and Wes Welker

Braylon Edwards vs. Jacksonville

Edwards takes aim at a weak Jacksonville secondary (am I understating it?) coming out of the bye. With zero pass rush to speak of, Mark Sanchez will be able to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball downfield to Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller. Edwards has averaged 48 receiving yards per game in four contests with the Jets. I expect to see him stretch the field and post a big game this weekend.

Miles Austin at Green Bay

At this juncture, is there any way to stop Austin? He didn't pile up receptions in Week 9 against the Eagles, but his lone grab, a 49-yard catch and sprint to the end zone, just made the announcers and fantasy owners shake their heads in disbelief. He's scored in four consecutive games and will be a threat for another end zone trip this weekend against the Packers. The Green Bay pass rush has failed miserably often this year (see last week's debacle at Tampa Bay), leaving the secondary exposed. If Tony Romo has time to throw, he'll post big numbers.

Hines Ward vs. Cincinnati

Ward rebounded from a quiet Week 7 effort to catch seven passes for 44 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos in a huge road win. He piled up receptions early in the season, but Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target has become a red zone menace in the past several weeks (four touchdowns in his past four games). Ward's caught four or more passes in seven of eight games this season, including a four-catch, 82-yard game against the Bengals in Week 3. He matches or eclipses those numbers in front of the home crowd.

Sidney Rice vs. Detroit

Rice entered the Vikings' Week 9 bye with a streak of seven consecutive games in which he'd recorded at least three receptions (two grabs in Week 1). He's a home run hitter who will be front and center against the atrocious Detroit pass defense. The Lions allow 263.1 passing yards per game and have already surrendered 19 passing touchdowns. Brett Favre's shoulder is rested following the bye week, so another huge game is in the offing.

Devin Hester at San Francisco

Hester owners were moderately worried during the pregame warmups, but he came through for them in fine fashion once again in Week 9. He caught six passes for 94 yards in the blowout loss to Arizona, his fourth consecutive game with at least 81 receiving yards. The Chicago defense is awful, but Jay Cutler's growing more and more comfortable with his downfield options. Hester offers owners fireworks on Thursday night.

Nate Burleson at Arizona

Burleson's quietly put together a strong season in Seattle, his efforts lost somewhat in the acquisition of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the veritable laundry list of injuries. He's averaged 5.6 receptions and 70.2 receiving yards per game. I expect to see him involved early in this game against Arizona (two catches for 40 yards in the first meeting). If the Seahawks are going to make any bid to stay in the divisional race, the offense has to generate a strong effort this weekend.

Donald Driver vs. Dallas

Driver scored for the second time in three weeks against the Buccaneers, his seventh game with at least four receptions this year. His ability to cut off routes and willingness to go over the middle will be paramount this week in a game that the Packers need desperately.

Steve Smith (CAR) vs. Atlanta

The running game's come alive with DeAngelo Williams, but that's hardly been enough to jumpstart Jake Delhomme in the passing attack. However, the Panthers have been able to get the ball into Smith's hands the past three weeks. He's averaged 4.3 receptions and 73 receiving yards during this period, so perhaps there's hope of a small second-half surge. Either way, I expect to see him perform well this weekend. Smith caught eight passes for 131 yards in Week 2.

Derrick Mason at Cleveland

Mason wasn't shut out by the Bengals again, but his three receptions for 31 yards hardly caused a stir in the fantasy realm. However, it was the steady veteran's seventh game with at least three receptions this season. His best game of the year came against the Browns in Week 3 when he caught five passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. I'm expecting a much more efficient effort out of Joe Flacco this week and for Mason to be a frequent target.

Dwayne Bowe at Oakland

Bowe's come alive in recent weeks for Matt Cassel, producing three efforts with at least 74 receiving yards in his past four starts. He also caught 17 passes during this four-game stretch. The arrival of Chris Chambers and the development of Lance Long will help open up the passing game and offset the question mark that is the running game right now. Bowe caught five passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in his first matchup with Nnamdi Asomugha back in Week 2.

Wide Receiver Sleepers

Chris Chambers at Oakland

Chambers made a splash in Week 9, just several days following his acquisition by the Chiefs. He caught three passes for 70 yards, including two touchdown grabs. He's on the radar for a WR3 play this week against the dysfunctional Oakland squad. In deeper leagues using PPR scoring, owners might take a look-see at rookie Lance Long, who caught eight passes for 74 yards against the Jaguars.

Jerricho Cotchery vs. Jacksonville

Cotchery returned from his injury to post a solid effort in Week 8 against the Dolphins (three receptions for 70 yards). He's completely healthy following the Jets' bye and will be matched up against the woeful Jacksonville secondary. The Jags will have their hands full trying to slow down the running game, and the weak pass rush will give Mark Sanchez time to operate.

Justin Gage vs. Buffalo

Following a quiet stretch while working with Kerry Collins, Gage has popped back onto the radar with Vince Young under center. He's recorded seven receptions in the past two weeks for 138 yards. As such, I'm putting him on the radar for this week's contest against the Bills. Buffalo's been opportunistic, piling up turnovers with a gambling secondary. Those gambles sometimes don't pay off.

Sammie Stroughter at Miami

Stroughter brings a streak of four consecutive efforts with three receptions into this week's battle for Florida. His touchdown reception against the Packers in Week 9 was the rookie's first NFL touchdown. He'd topped 60 receiving yards in the two weeks prior to the Green Bay game. He's on the radar this weekend against the injury-depleted Miami defense.

Wide Receiver Flops

Mike Sims-Walker at New York Jets

Sims-Walker was invisible in Week 8 against the Titans, generating just two catches for nine yards. He rebounded with a fabulous six-catch, 147-yard performance, including a 61-yard touchdown against the Chiefs. He draws a tough one-on-one matchup against Darrelle Revis this week. That's a difficult proposition, so evaluate your options carefully.

Eddie Royal at Washington

Royal piqued fantasy owners' interest by getting involved early in Monday's loss to Pittsburgh. He finished the game with five receptions for 74 yards to crush his anemic efforts of the previous two games. Can we bank on that level of early efficiency and involvement this week? I'm not convinced he excels in man-to-man coverage against Carlos Rogers and what has been a strong Washington pass defense (159.9 yards per game with seven touchdowns allowed in eight games).

Santana Moss vs. Denver

I'm encouraged by the fact that Moss has been more involved in the Washington offense the past several weeks. He's amassed 11 receptions for 121 yards in the past two games. However, he faces a difficult matchup this weekend against Champ Bailey. The Steelers worked short slant routes effectively against the Denver secondary, but that's the outlier of the sample set. He's no better than a WR3 this week.

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