Second place. Some people, mostly elementary school children in the 1990s, will tell you that it — not first place — is the best. Their nonsensical argument also will include theories on how first is actually the worst and that third place somehow correlates to having excess body hair on one’s chest.
Anyway, I only bring this up to offer consolation to fans of both the Steelers and the Browns. There is no division in football quite as separated as the AFC North, a four-pronged race where we already know who’s finishing No. 1 (Baltimore) and who’s bringing up the rear (Cincinnati). There’s no shame in this, but tonight’s battle between Cleveland and Pittsburgh doesn’t quite have the luster that some might have been expecting back in August.
No worries. There’s still a Showdown slate to make thing interesting. Let’s break it all down.
Note: All salaries will be Flex prices unless noted as Captain’s Pick prices.
Cleveland BrownsAs always, when we’re talking about the Browns, the conversation begins with the viability of Nick Chubb ($10,600). The sophomore RB comes into this evening’s contest as one of just three players with more than 900 yards rushing so far in 2019, joining the likes of Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey. Chubb and McCaffrey are also the lone two running backs averaging more than 100 yards per game, and the pair lead all qualified men at their position in yards per attempt (5.3). In essence, Chubb’s production is about the only thing that’s gone to plan in what’s been a disappointing campaign for Cleveland. Still, for owners, despite the success, there was always the slight worry about what the presence of Kareem Hunt ($5,800) possibly could mean for Chubb’s value. Well, after last week’s win over Buffalo, I think it’s safe to say most of those fears have been quelled. Though Hunt was on the field for a notable 55.1% of the Browns’ offensive snaps in Week 10, Chubb actually exceeded his season-average by playing 81.2% of the team’s plays.
This duopoly was brought to life by Cleveland utilizing 20 or 21 personnel on a massive 43% of its snaps — a grouping the Browns had yet to use even once this season prior to last weekend. So, for the fourth straight game, Chubb reached 20 carries, while Hunt found his role in the passing attack, racking up nine targets. Pittsburgh’s been pretty stout against RBs, surrendering a mere 3.9 yards per attempt and 5.0 yards per target to the position through 10 weeks; yet with the Steelers’ inability to pile up points, I don’t think we ever get into a situation where Chubb’s been scripted out of this contest. He’s a safe DFS option. As usual.
Baker Mayfield ($9,000) is a bit of a tougher sell. After struggling with the likes of Tom Brady and Russell Wilson early in the year, Pittsburgh hasn’t conceded 20.0 DKFP to an opposing QB since the beginning of Week 3. Now, it might seem easy to cherry pick that particular segment of time, however, it’s important to remember two things: Mayfield is not even comparable to either of those two quarterbacks, and Minkah Fitzpatrick joined the Steelers’ secondary following their Week 2 loss to Seattle. Fitzpatrick has been a turnover machine following his trade from Miami, and he’s helped Pittsburgh shut down established pivots such as Lamar Jackson, Philip Rivers and Jared Goff. In fact, across the team’s past three games, the Steelers have allowed QBs to muster a paltry 5.4 yards per pass attempt.
Still, specific to Mayfield’s weaknesses, that’s not even the most daunting aspect of Pittsburgh’s defense. Steelers D/ST ($5,200) get pressure on quarterbacks. Like, a lot of pressure. According to Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric, Pittsburgh is actually the best unit in the AFC when it comes to getting to the QB (10.2%). This is bad news for a pivot that ranked dead-last in quarterback rating under pressure from Week 16 of last season through Week 6 of 2019. Simply put, Mayfield hasn’t shown the capacity to consistently make plays outside of the pocket. That’s a difficult trait to swallow considering, on top of that, Mayfield is completing only 40.0% of his red zone passes and is averaging a measly 0.37 fantasy points per drop back. It’s unimpressive stuff.
Mayfield’s struggles obviously have impacted Odell Beckham ($9,200), too. While the QB apparently was honest when he promised to get Beckham more involved before last week’s narrow victory over the Bills, the wideout still wasn’t able to translate his 12 targets into much of anything from a DFS perspective. Really, at this point, there’s no reason Jarvis Landry ($8,000) should be the cheaper option of the duo. Landry has more receptions than Beckham (45). Landry is producing more yards per target than Beckham (9.1). Landry is scoring more PPR points per touch than Beckham (2.68). Landry’s just been better. He also has had several more high-leverage opportunities. Landry’s one of only seven players who has garnered at least 30.0% of his team’s red zone targets, with Landry’s 13 pass-catching chances inside the opponent’s 20-yard line absolutely dwarfing Beckham’s total of five. Honestly, aside from name value, there’s not a single justifiable reason for Beckham’s price point to have remained so high.
With Antonio Callaway ($2,800) back from a one-game suspension and sure to mess with Rashard Higgins’ ($4,400) workload, Landry’s the lone Browns WR I feel has any sort of floor on this slate.
Pittsburgh SteelersWith James Conner ($10,800) being removed from the Steelers’ injury report altogether, it’s safe to assume the 24-year-old running back will be back to his normal workload this evening against the Browns — a squad that has been quite generous to opposing running backs so far this season. Cleveland enters tonight’s AFC North tilt having surrendered 4.70 adjusted line yards per carry — the fifth-worst mark in all of football — while also having allowed opponents to rack up 134.9 rushing yards per contest overall. That has to be music to the ears of Conner, who consistently has been able to take advantage of the rare positive matchups he’s seen in 2019. Between starting the year with the gauntlet of the Patriots, the Seahawks and the 49ers, then missing Pittsburgh’s past two games, Conner’s not exactly lived up to the hype in season-long formats.
However, when faced with a lower-tier rushing defense like Miami, Cincinnati or the Chargers, the University of Pittsburgh product has been able to manage 28.1 DKFP per start. The Browns certainly fall into that category, and it makes Conner more than deserving to be the slate’s highest-priced option. Jaylen Samuels ($8,800) surely still will be involved for the Steelers; yet, with his salary needing to reflect Conner’s recent injury woes, the former North Carolina State RB simply is too expensive to be viable.
Samuels isn’t the only Pittsburgh player with a regrettable price tag, either. JuJu Smith-Schuster ($8,600) also seems avoidable due to his hefty salary. Again, this is not really the young wideout’s fault, but you don’t get fantasy points for being a victim of circumstance. Smith-Schuster’s hauled in three or fewer passes in five of the seven contests Ben Roethlisberger’s been unable to start for the Steelers this season. In the past three games the wideout’s played not against a horrendous Dolphins secondary, he’s been held to an average of merely 4.6 DKFP. Sure, by running 61% of his routes in the slot, Smith-Schuster mostly will be able to avoid the Browns’ dynamic corner duo of Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams, but it’s just not enough incentive to make me pay up for a player who’s fate almost entirely is in the hands of Mason Rudolph ($8,400). The QB still is producing only 6.7 adjusted net yards per attempt and a league-low 4.7 air yards per completion. He’s not equipped to raise the ceiling of talented WRs and, in Pittsburgh’s past two matchups, he’s been looking in other directions.
Big picture, the Steelers have targeted their running backs in the passing game at a higher rate than any AFC team going back to the beginning of Week 3 (30%). That volume obviously has to limit Smith-Schuster’s upside. Yet, more recently, there’s been a influx of opportunities to both James Washington ($5,600) and Dionte Johnson ($6,400), with the former out-targeting Smith-Schuster 11-to-10 in Weeks 9 and 10 combined.
That makes Washington an interesting DFS option in the mid-tier, but the more appealing name might be Vance McDonald ($5,400). The tight end has seen 14 targets the past two games, and while that level of involvement has translated into only a microscopic 2.9 yards per pass attempt in his direction, Cleveland has proven itself to be susceptible to the position in 2019. In fact, for the season, the Browns have conceded an eye-popping 9.3 yards per target to opposing TEs — the fourth highest mark in all of football.
Finally, as mentioned above, this has all the makings of a nice spot to use Steelers D/ST. Though it’s insane to believe Pittsburgh can continue forcing a turnover on an NFL-high 24.3% of opponent drives, the team has registered three or more takeaways in five consecutive games; a span that has seen the Steelers rack up at least four sacks four different times. With Cleveland ranking inside the bottom 10 in the NFL in yards per drive (28.6), points per drive (1.63) and turnovers per drive (.152), there’s no reason to think Pittsburgh’s defense won’t rise to the challenge once more.
THE OUTCOMEThough they’re the home team — and favored — I don’t give the Browns much of a chance to win this evening’s game. I believe Pittsburgh will be able to successfully run the ball with James Conner ($16,200 CP) and control Cleveland’s offense with its ferocious pass rush. That’s why Conner and Steelers D/ST ($7,800 CP) are my top two choices for a Captain’s Pick on this slate. Jarvis Landry and Vance McDonald are also in nice spots for DFS viability.
Final Score: Pittsburgh 24, Cleveland 13
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