Panthers vs. Steelers: Showdown Strategy, Target Projections, Captain's Picks

I have to admit, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, I’m actually pretty pumped up for Thursday Night Football this week. The Panthers will walk into Pittsburgh the winners of their past three games, while the Steelers have won four straight. It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call this matchup a “Super Bowl preview,” but, well, it’s somewhere on the board. That’s fun. This is also a contest where the short turnaround has had a huge impact on some of the pieces involved. In general, we should all get set for an all-together enjoyable and intriguing Showdown slate on DraftKings.

In this article, I will outline the potential game script for the two possible outcomes of this matchup (we’re like Donovan McNabb here -— we don’t believe in ties). Based on these narratives, I’ll highlight the players who would stand to benefit from the events of the night going down in such a manner. After the hypothetical exercise, I’ll crown a winner, name a Captain’s Pick, and give some locks for the slate.

So, let’s dive in.

Note: All salaries will be Flex prices unless noted as Captain’s Pick prices.


PAT MAYO’S ‘HOT PICKS’


ADAM LEVITAN’S TARGET PROJECTION

JuJu Smith-Schuster

JuJu Smith-Schuster, $12,600 Captain’s Pick, $8,400 Flex — JuJu has been quiet over the past five weeks, but a home game against the Panthers is a nice spot for a breakout. He’ll mostly avoid James Bradberry and Donte Jackson, instead getting a lot of leaky slot CB Captain Munnerlyn.
Projection — 9 targets


SHOWDOWN STRATEGY

If the Steelers win…

In terms of offensive philosophy, this is going to be a game of contrasting styles. While Carolina is usually content to run the football and drain the clock — Ron Rivera’s team had the slowest pace in the league just last season — Pittsburgh is all about volume. Really, it’s a thought process that’s easy to understand given its plethora of weapons. The Steelers are averaging 68.1 plays per game through nine weeks of action, and they’ve needed every single one to keep up with demand. It’s the only way Ben Roethlisberger ($10,200) could rank fourth among QBs in drop backs (362) and, simultaneously, James Conner ($12,200) can lead all non-Todd Gurley RBs in touches (189). In fact, let me amend a prior statement: Pittsburgh isn’t all about volume; it’s all about concentrated volume.

The Steelers, along with the Saints, are one of the easiest teams in football to stack in a full-slate DFS capacity, as the hierarchy of their opportunity shares is so simple to diagnose. However, this trait has the opposite effect in Showdown. Three of the four highest-priced players on Thursday are suiting up for Pittsburgh: Conner, Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown ($11,800). This is partly due to the Panthers taking a more socialist approach to their target distribution; yet, mostly can be attributed to the way Mike Tomlin and Co. have been running their offense for the better part of a decade. The Steelers don’t do running back by committee — at least not until Le’Veon Bell returns — so, Conner leads the AFC in carries since the beginning of Week 5 (88), despite the fact Pittsburgh had its bye in Week 7. Conner’s also played 84.3 percent of snaps in 2018, never dipping below 73.8 percent. It’s that kind of role that allows Conner to rack up an 85.7 percent share of the Steelers’ red zone rushing attempts — a monopoly that trails only David Johnson. In short, there are few things in the NFL as assured as Conner’s workload. Though, the same could be said for Brown’s role, too. You get the picture.

That’s why variance is even more important that usual on a Showdown slate inhabited by Pittsburgh. Carolina has been stout shutting down the slot this season, with Captain Munnerlyn surrendering just 0.26 fantasy points per route covered. Still, JuJu Smith-Schuster ($8,400) ranks 12th among receivers with 75 targets in 2018 and is, for all intents and purposes, the fourth prong of the Steelers’ focused attack. With any of the four as a Captain’s Pick, it’s nearly impossible to get the entire quartet into the same lineup, thus creating differentiation opportunities with which big names make your cut.

However, it’s tight end where the real value lies. The Panthers have been destroyed by TEs this year, giving up by far the most fantasy points to the position entering Week 10. Opposing tight ends have accounted for a league-high 9.4 targets and 6.9 receptions per contest against Carolina, with O.J. Howard putting up TE2 numbers just last week for Tampa Bay. Mike Adams, the safety who has been responsible for checking the tight end on a majority of routes this season, has surrendered a 77 percent catch rate and a league-worst 2.54 yards per route covered. It’s been awful. With this in mind, Vance McDonald ($5,000) is very much in play as the Steelers’ main pass-catching TE, but don’t be so quick to completely disregard Jesse James ($2,400), either. In a vacuum, McDonald is the obvious Pittsburgh tight end to roster, yet, James carries a similar snap load and has seen four red zone targets in the team’s past four games. James might be the zig if everyone else is tailing McDonald’s zag.


If the Panthers win…

Any Carolina win starts and ends with Cam Newton ($9,600). The Auburn product has been an absolute fantasy monster as of late, having thrown for multiple touchdowns in every game since an underwhelming Week 1 performance. With that consistency in his back pocket, Newton now has the rare “double-floor” combination; considering he still also leads all quarterbacks in carries (74), rushing yards (333) and rushing touchdowns (4). It’s the reason Newton is averaging a massive 24.6 DKFP per game, despite the fact he’s only reached the 300-yard bonus once in 2018. Honestly, there’s a case to be made — even with the Steelers’ defense playing as well as it has lately — that Newton is severely underpriced on this slate.

Still, a least one grouping of players has to take a value hit based upon the recent success of Pittsburgh’s pass defense, and it makes sense that it would be Carolina’s receiving corps. Really, there wasn’t a ton of consistency here to begin with. The Panthers have put up just 22.2 completions per game through nine contests and that already small number gets even more microscopic when Christian McCaffrey ($11,400), the team leader in catches (49), extracts his weekly share. Devin Funchess ($7,000) is essentially a touchdown-or-bust commodity at this point, with the converted college tight end having crested double-digit DKFP only once this season without the aid of a score. Now, Funchess is one of just eight WRs who can claim to have a better-than 31 percent share of his team’s targets inside the red zone, but that statistic comes with a rather demoralizing caveat. Of that group of eight, Funchess is one of two that has translated that massive usage into fewer than 10 raw targets. Meaning Funchess is a lot closer to the Zay Jones end of the spectrum than he is the Davante Adams side. Plus, the former Michigan standout was simply straight-up out-snapped by rookie D.J. Moore ($5,800) last weekend. Did Moore do anything with those opportunities? No. However, when it comes to trusting Funchess against Joe Haden, or taking a chance that Curtis Samuel ($4,400) can keep rushing for outlier touchdowns; I’ll put my money on Moore being the receiver to own in a blue jersey this evening. At least you’ve save a little salary if that’s the case.

Anyway, I’m burying the lede. It’s Greg Olsen ($6,400) you want to be rostering. For all the talk of possible re-injury, Olsen has been anything but limited since returning to the Panthers in Week 6, playing almost 98 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in that span. Yes, it would be insane to assume Olsen can continue operating at the hyper-efficiency we’ve seen of him in the red zone the past three weeks — turning each of his three targets in those situations into a touchdown — but, on a per route basis, the veteran finds himself among the elite at the position and the Steelers have been terrorized by tight ends all season long. As perviously mentioned, it’s Carolina that has surrendered the most fantasy points to TEs in 2018, yet Pittsburgh is hot on its heels. In fact, at 9.3 targets per contest to tight ends, the Steelers join the Panthers as the only two teams in football allowing nine-plus targets to TEs on a weekly basis. An Olsen-Newton mini-stack is a cost-effective way to get exposure to a couple of Carolina’s main pieces, without sacrificing ownership on a few of Pittsburgh’s.

Finally, let’s touch on McCaffrey for a moment. The former first-round pick is basically a mirror image of Conner in terms of involvement, McCaffrey actually leading all running backs with a 96.5 percent snap share entering Week 10. However, with their prices so high, and many other talented players at a similar cost, decisions must be made and, while a full McCaffrey fade is next to impossible, he has had issues producing in his last two games as a road underdog — averaging just 13.8 DKFP. It’s simply something to keep in mind when weighing a high-end Panthers stack versus a Steelers stack of equal quality.


THE OUTCOME

With so many Pro Bowl-caliber options at the top of this slate, finding any bit of value at the mid-tier level will be crucial to lineup construction; as will choosing the proper Captain’s Pick. I truly believe Newton ($14,400 CP) is undervalued in comparison to the other big-name players on this slate and — especially in a game-script where I assume Carolina will be playing from behind — the $3K-$4K saved by granting Cam the 1.5x bonus instead of Conner ($18,300 CP), Brown ($17,700 CP) or McCaffrey ($17,100) will be incredibly important. Taking the route of using either Olsen ($9,600 CP) or McDonald ($7,500 CP) isn’t crazy, either; though both obviously come with far more risk.

Final Score: Pittsburgh 31, Carolina 27


I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is theglt13) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.

I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is adamlevitan) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.

I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is ThePME) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.