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Week 14 TNF and Injury News

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We’re cruising right into Week 14, and the fantasy playoffs have already started for many leagues. Tonight’s contest looks tame on the surface (43.5-point total), but it’s steeped in intrigue on both sides of the ball. I’ve got notes for each team and matchups of interest covered, plus all of the injury news from Wednesday’s practices.

TNF Preview: Steelers at Vikings

Calling any game a “must-win” at this point in the season feels like a given. And, it’s no different for tonight. Both teams are technically still in the playoff picture, but “must-win” extends past the regular season. Mike Tomlin laughed off rumors of Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, but another loss would only further emphasize their roster needs outside of the quarterback position. A shakeup in Minnesota has to be on the table, and a loss would add gas to the fire. So, the matchup itself has ramifications extending well past the goalposts. But let’s focus on the fantasy side of tonight’s contest.

As Dwain McFarland points out, Diontae Johnson is the focal point of Pittsburgh’s offense. His overall target share (30.4%) is already fifth in the league, but his situational usage cements him as the lynchpin to the team’s passing success. Johnson has the most targets on first (41), third (36) down, and one behind the leader when Pittsburgh is in the red zone. He’s even got the lead in deep targets. It’s no surprise Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams are on the same list as Johnson because of their criticality to their team. But, unlike those two, Johnson’s situation is a bit tougher.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line is 29th in run block *and* pass block win rate. Their upfront inefficiencies have dropped Najee Harris to 27th in running back success rate. And Ben’s reliance on quick, intermediate passing (3rd in time to throw, 18th in passing aDOT) limits their ability to stretch the field. However, against the Vikings’ defense, they have a clear path to success.

One play in a single game doesn’t account for an entire season, but it’s not like Minnesota was a juggernaut defense heading into Week 13. Since their bye, they were 26th in EPA per dropback with a league-average pressure rate. They’re 32nd in schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed to wide receivers, with at least one opposing wide receiver finishing in the Top 12 since Week 8. Green Bay had two. Pittsburgh is still top-3 in red-zone pass rate over expectation (PROE). If the Vikings play like they did on Sunday, the AFC North will get interesting after tonight. Hopefully, Minnesota’s offense can respond.

All eyes will be on Cousins and the passing attack with Adam Thielen out. Pat Kerrane laid a valid case against overhyping K.J. Osborn’s path to more work, and the Vikings’ typical game plan isn’t necessarily pass-friendly. They’re right behind the Steelers in PROE (16th) since their bye and 28th in red-zone PROE. Plus, Pittsburgh is 29th in rush EPA. Their blitz-happy nature may stall more than a few drives, given Cousins’ issues when under duress. But, the silver lining for Osborn is how narrow the target tree is in Minnesota.

Minnesota is third in combined target share across the top three players on their team since Week 9 and 10th across the entire season. Their concentrated passing game left Osborn out of the fantasy spotlight after a few splash plays earlier in the year. Now, Osborn’s fallen right into Thielen’s role giving him a clear shot as a flex option. He’ll still need Justin Jefferson to do the heavy lifting for the offense, though.

As we saw on Sunday, Pittsburgh’s pass rush and zone defense have been a problem for enemy quarterbacks resulting in less production from the receivers. However, WR1’s like Tee Higgins (8-114-1) and Keenan Allen (10-112-0) have stepped up to the challenge, and Jefferson is arguably a cut above both players. Assuming Cousins can manage the pocket, they can continue to move the ball at their league-average pace (19th in yards per drive). It may be a lot to ask, but as I said, a lot more hangs in the balance than a win or a loss.

Points of Interest in TNF

For Pittsburgh, I’ll be watching how Roethlisberger distributes the targets. We all know Johnson will get his, but I’m unsure about Claypool’s potential from a fantasy standpoint.

I’m in the “toe is bothering him” camp as Claypool held a 19.1% target share in his previous three games, but last week’s results aren’t very inspiring. McCloud ran more routes and played more snaps, while having the exact same aDOT as Claypool. It could be a 1:1 swap as the sophomore battles injury, but the matchup couldn’t be better for a big night.

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Injuries have plagued Minnesota’s defense, with Eric Kendricks (LB), Anthony Barr (LB), and Camryn Bynum (S) nursing injuries from the previous week. Couple the injuries up front with lapses in their secondary, and teams have been able to get off explosive plays. Jared Goff connected on deep throws to four different receivers last week. Before Detroit, players like Marquez Valdez-Scantling (Week 11) or CeeDee Lamb (Week 8) averaged 85.6 yards on throws of 10 air yards or more. If Roethlisberger gets more time in the pocket, McCloud or Claypool could benefit from a (wobbly) deep shot or two. I think everyone knows who the focus will be in Minnesota tonight.

Osborn is and will be the topic of discussion heading into the game. But I’ll be watching Conklin, who already had a stable role within the offense before Week 13. Well, stable for a tight-end. He was third in targets (14.4% share) and routes run, while tied for first in red-zone targets since their bye. And Cousins went to Conklin before targeting Osborn on the first two drives right after Thielen’s injury. Conklin’s overall usage is conducive to a productive fantasy day, but the Steelers may have other plans.

Pittsburgh is seventh in schedule-adjust fantasy points allowed to tight-ends. Touchdowns are mostly what we care about with the position, and the Steelers have allowed just two all year. However, the opportunity has been there with opposing offenses targeting their tight-ends on 25.7% of their attempts. Conkling finding the paint might be a stretch, but his touch share is worth rostering with Thielen out.

Injury Slants

The longest season ever continues with a slew of players being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list to start the week.

Now, let’s move over to the injured players from Week 13. It’s no surprise they missed practice yesterday, and some are unlikely to play this week. However, we’ll be watching for any change in their status over the next few days.

We got at least a couple returns to practice this week, and the rest of the injury list is mercifully short. We’ve got a few more teams to cover, but most of these guys should be available by the weekend.

It’s probably coincidental that Andy Dalton threw four picks, and Justin Fields’ rib injury quickly healed. The rookie compared his current injury to the one he suffered in college, and he’ll be ready for Sunday. Regardless, Field will be facing a tough Packers’ defense (12th in pass DVOA) that may be getting back Jaire Alexander. Hope he wears an extra flak jacket. Tennessee also welcomed back one of their own.

Julio Jones looked rested after his month-long absence. There is no word on his official status, but easing him back against a weaker divisional opponent would be a fair test of his health. Jones hasn’t played a full complement of snaps since Week 2, with multiple series missed even when available. Ryan Tannehill could use a veteran presence on offense without a credible running game. The Giants have a much more difficult decision to make regarding their offense.

Daniel Jones’ limited participation looks like a positive sign, but he’s still not cleared for contact after seeing a specialist about his neck. It puts Jake Fromm in line to start with Glennon still in the concussion protocol, but we won’t know until later in the week. But it was good to see Sterling Shepard getting back to practice. He was trending in the right direction last week, so we’ll need to see more work out of him before even thinking of having him on our starting rosters Sunday. Dallas may have a similar issue.

Tony Pollard’s foot injury is a concern on its own. But his injury coinciding with the team signing Ito Smith carries a bit more weight. There’s no long-term concern for Pollard, but his explosiveness was what made him the perfect complement to Ezekiel Elliot. We’ll know more later today as the team prepares to face Washington this weekend. There may be some worry in Dallas, but there’s less worry in Green Bay.

Aaron Rodgers did his usual media rounds and commented on his toe having extra time to heal. He’ll be fine for Sunday. Randall Cobb’s DNP is worth monitoring. The team quickly announced him out in the second half against the Rams, and he’s still not practicing to start the week. Also, the Packers listed him with a groin injury, and now it’s a core muscle issue. Green Bay has the depth to address his absence, but we should know more today. We’ve got one more for this week.

Joe Mixon’s illness isn’t COVID-related, so that’s a positive start. However, without knowing the type of illness or if he’ll get back to practice, it’s worth making sure you have alternatives or if Samaje Perine is on the waiver wire.

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