It was a glaring issue entering drafts this summer, and now with the first quarter of the season coming to a close, it's proven even worse than anticipated. The severe lack of depth at the running back position has gone epidemic to the point where I struggled to find even one worthy flex option at the position this week. So with the bye weeks under way (no Colts or Steelers this week) be prepared for the worst.
This is the time to stockpile some deeper reserve rushers who could get their shot the next eight weeks of byes. As studs miss time (more almost certainly will) it's crucial to have the next guy in line, as we've already seen with C.J. Spiller, Andre Brown and Michael Bush stepping in and stepping up. Now is the time to collect the deeper handcuffs like Lamar Miller, Shaun Draughn, Jackie Battle, Bilal Powell, etc. Weeks will be won and lost by the guys who cannot even be flexed now but may become must-starts if forced into action.
As for the passing game, the Redskins, Titans and Lions still look like the best teams to exploit in the air. Meanwhile, the Bucs are bucking recent trends. They are proving incredibly physical, and though they've allowed the most passing yards, they've only relinquished four touchdown tosses and have gone from worst (in 2011) to first versus the run. Passers should still have some success moving the ball on them, but don't expect many scores.
No. 2 QUARTERBACKS
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. New England - The math is fairly simple. Fitzpatrick is tied for the league lead with eight passing scores through three weeks. He also has a nice recent history with two games of more than 300 yards versus New England last year. The "improved" Patriots defense was just shredded for more than 500 yards versus the Ravens, including 382 yards and three scores coming from Joe Flacco's right arm. Without C.J. Spiller and with Fred Jackson not 100 percent, if active at all, Fitzpatrick will be a volume quarterback this week as he passes a ton against a Pats defense protecting a lead. Add that all together and it equals a big week.
2. Christian Ponder at Detroit - Ponder will welcome the return of Jerome Simpson to provide another dimension to an already improving passing game. With Simpson adding a deep threat down the sideline and great quickness across the middle, the Lions shoddy secondary will not be able to double Percy Harvin as frequently. Kyle Rudolph's continued progress is just another headache for a defense that has yet to register an interception and just allowed a whopping 378 yards through the air to Jake Locker.
3. Josh Freeman vs. Washington - The Skins gave up more than 300 yards and three scores to Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton in consecutive weeks. Sure, Freeman isn't exactly the most proficient passer out there and plays in a run-first system, but then again, what is Bradford? Until Washington proves it can even remotely stop the pass, starting any quarterback against the Redskins looks like a pretty good idea.
4. Matt Schaub vs. Tennessee - Schaub took an Evander Holyfield-esque licking and he kept on ticking, throwing his fourth touchdown pass last week after having a minor earlobe-ectomy performed via a vicious Joe Mays hit. Up next is a Titans defense that's 30th against the pass and has allowed a league-high 119.0 passer rating with eight scores to just one pick. If you think Arian Foster and Ben Tate set up the play-action well last week, just watch Schaub burn a Tennessee team on which Andre Johnson has historically feasted.
5. Andy Dalton at Jacksonville - The Jaguars may have just given up their first two passing scores of the season, but they also faced two run-first teams in the season's first two weeks. And they gave up those scores to rookie Andrew Luck. Sure, Luck looks more experienced than a rookie at times, but he's still completing 15 percent fewer of his attempts than Dalton. With the likes of Andrew Hawkins and Armon Binns complementing A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, Dalton has been on a brilliant streak with at least 300 yards and three scores in consecutive games. Here's betting he makes it a third straight big-time performance.
6. Matt Cassel vs. San Diego - Cassel has thrown for more yards than Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton, just to name a few. So even though he won't generate a lot of touchdowns, because of the miserable play of the Chiefs defense and the nice assortment of weapons at his disposal, Cassel should produce consistently in the yardage department. With Jamaal Charles setting up the play action, look for Cassel to become more efficient with the ball and possibly post more scores in the process.
7. Alex Smith at New York Jets - Smith should bounce back from an uncharacteristically sloppy performance in Minnesota (two turnovers), and the absence of Darrelle Revis (ACL) in New York will help considerably. With Revis out with a concussion in Week 2 the Jets defense allowed Ben Roethlisberger to burn it for 275 yards and two scores on 24-of-31 passing. Against an invisible Jets pass rush (three games, three sacks), Smith should comfortably find his targets as they separate from average coverage and return to his usually efficient ways.
1. Jacoby Jones vs. Cleveland - Torrey Smith's performance versus the Patriots was inspired and remarkably focused given his awful family loss. But it likely will lead to a serious letdown on the short turnaround. This week will be beyond emotionally and physically draining for Smith and while his play figures to suffer on Thursday night, the production for Jones should rise. The Browns have allowed more than 500 yards and six touchdowns to lesser passers than Joe Flacco, so Jones has a great chance to step up with his chance for extra targets.
2. Andrew Hawkins at Jacksonville - Continue riding the wave? Why not? Hawkins may only have seven combined targets the last two weeks, but the electric slot receiver has a score of at least 50 yards in each. And he added two carries for 16 yards last week for good measure. He has yet to score less than eight points in a week and gets a matchup with a Jaguars defense that struggled badly with the speed and quickness of T.Y. Hilton last week (113 yards and a TD). Let it ride.
3. Tashard Choice vs. New England - No team has opened holes as gaping as the Bills through three weeks. Granted, having the dynamite C.J. Spiller ripping through them helps, but Choice should generate some decent yardage in the event both Fred Jackson and the aforementioned Spiller can't go. And even if either does play, Choice should log plenty of reps as there's no way Jackson or Spiller will be close to 100 percent healthy.
4. Ramses Barden at Philadelphia - Nnamdi Asomugha can't cover both Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, so expect whichever one he's not on to be routinely doubled. While it's less of likely with Nicks expected back in the lineup, there's a chance Barden repeats as the Giants' leading receiver. The huge 6-foot-6 target should now have the confidence of his coaches and his quarterback and has locked down the No. 3 role in New York. If the Eagles defense forces Barden to be the man, Eli Manning will take it and make it happen.
5. Mike Williams vs. Washington - The Redskins are 31st in passing yards allowed through three weeks and have allowed a league-high 10 scores in the air. The Skins have let Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton look like All-Pros and consequently any starting wide receiver with some talent is worth at least a flex against them. Williams snatched touchdowns in each of the first two weeks and figures to start a new scoring streak Sunday.
6. Leonard Hankerson at Tampa Bay - The Buccaneers gave an improved effort last week versus Tony Romo, but they're still dead last in passing yards allowed. If Pierre Garcon (foot) remains out, Hankerson, Washington's leading wide receiver for the last two weeks, should see plenty of targets and have the chance for a nice day yardage-wise. Should Garcon suit up, that may also play to Hankerson's benefit, as it would roll coverage away from him and give the former Hurricane more opportunities for big plays.