Fact or Fiction: Brady bouncing back; be wary of Lions' Stafford
The fortunes of a handful of quarterbacks took a turn in Week 5. One previously left-for-dead legend had his best game of the season, while a maddening-yet-talented gunslinger looked lost with his best weapon injured. We learned something about both quarterbacks that fantasy owners can use to their advantage for the rest of the season.
Fact: Things aren’t as bad as they seemed for Tom Brady, but he’s not all the way back
Brady has his best game of the season last week, going 23-for-35 for 292 yards, 8.3 yards per attempt and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ dominant 43-17 win over the Bengals. All those obituaries written about Brady were predictably premature, but there are lingering concerns surrounding Brady and the New England passing attack. For at least one day, though, everything was perfect.
Let’s take a look at why Brady was able to have so much success against the Bengals. It all started up front, where the New England offensive line had its best performance of the season. All five members of the line received positive grades from Pro Football Focus. Most importantly, tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer had the two best grades in pass blocking, eliminating any speed rushes off the edge. Coming into the game, Brady had been under pressure on a whopping 35.4 percent of his dropbacks. On Sunday night, the Bengals put pressure on him just seven times on 38 dropbacks, or a very manageable 18.4 percent. For the sake of comparison, just one quarterback, Andy Dalton, has been pressured less than 18 percent of the time over the entire season. In other words, the Patriots line kept Brady as clean as realistically possible.
And that meant that Brady was more comfortable last week than he had been all season. Heading into a crucial AFC showdown with the Bengals, Brady had completed just one of his 16 pass attempts that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. He doubled that completion total on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage.
The Patriots opened the game in a traditional I-formation, with Stevan Ridley the deep back, Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell split out wide, and Michael Hoomanawanui on the right side of the line. That Rob Gronkowski wasn’t on the field on the first play from scrimmage should tell you a lot about the Patriots’ mindset. Here’s the look right before Brady takes the snap.
After a playfake to Ridley, Brady sits back in a pristine pocket. In what has unfortunately become a rarity, his receivers had time to run their routes and get open down the field. Below is a sight Brady has barely seen all year: a clean pocket with open throwing lanes.
Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and Hoomanawanui all do their jobs and keep the Cincinnati front four out of the New England backfield. That gives Brady plenty of time to be patient, and LaFell the freedom to read the zone coverage, break off his route, and sit down in a hole 20 yards down the field.
It’s little surprise that Brady was able to hit a receiver deep down the field with this sort of protection, even though he only had three receivers running routes and the Bengals had seven in coverage. Good quarterbacks find receivers when they have the time to do so.
Now let’s fast forward three plays. The Patriots have a 1st-and-10 at the Bengals’ 44-yard-line. This formation is radically different from the one we just looked at. This is a two-tight, two-wide set, though both tight ends, Gronkowski and Tim Wright, are standing up like receivers. Both are tight to the line, and with Edelman and LaFell lined up inside the numbers, this could be seen as a modified bunch formation.
Heading into Sunday night’s game, Wright had been on the field for 17.9 percent of New England’s snaps. He played 19 of the team’s 87 snaps last week, good for 21.8 percent. Wright caught all five of his targets for 85 yards and a touchdown, and he got the night going on this play.
The Bengals are in man coverage here, with a single high safety in George Iloka. Wright reads Leon Hall’s outside leverage and beats him to the inside right off the line. With Iloka shading to Brady’s right, understandable given that that’s where Gronkowski is running his route, Wright is wide open for a big play. Even though Geno Atkins is able to put some pressure on Brady, Wright has already had enough time to beat Hall and get open.
Keep in mind that Brady didn’t just carve up any old defense. According to Football Outsiders, the Bengals ranked first against the pass in DVOA coming into this game. But despite the performance against a strong pass defense, this was just one game, and there are admittedly still issues with the Patriots’ passing attack. The ugly line of the first month of the season could show up once again. The Patriots also still lack speed on the outside, which makes it hard to stretch the defense vertically. At the same time, Rob Gronkowski looks more and more like himself with each passing week, and the Patriots may have found something in deploying Wright alongside him more often than they had through the first four weeks. Brady owners should be very encouraged after what he did on Sunday night. He’ll be a low-end QB1 in Week 6 against a Buffalo defense that is in the middle of the pack in terms of fantasy points allowed per game to quarterbacks.
Fiction: Matthew Stafford is a locked-in fantasy starter without Calvin Johnson
Johnson was active and on the field for 28 snaps last week, but we can still say that Stafford essentially lacked his best weapon. Johnson didn’t have a target in the first half and left the game because of his ankle injury after catching his first pass. Johnson has been a shell of himself because of the injury over the last two weeks and it already sounds like he’ll miss the team’s Week 6 game with the Vikings. If that is indeed the case, Stafford would be no more than a borderline starter.
What’s jarring when you watch the first half of the Lions’ loss to the Bills from last week isn’t just the sheer lack of Johnson targets. It’s that he’s so rarely Stafford’s first read. Let’s take the following play on Detroit’s second possession as an example. It’s 3rd-and-4 on the Buffalo 41-yard-line. The Lions are in a typical third-down look for them. Stafford is in shotgun and has three receivers to his right with Johnson all alone on the left, the short side of the field. Reggie Bush joins Stafford in the backfield as the lone back.
There’s a safety directly over the top of Johnson, but that typically doesn’t scare Stafford, nor should it. Instead, Stafford’s first read is Golden Tate across the middle. Tate drops the pass, and the Lions have to punt. However, take a look at the screenshot below. Johnson actually has a step on Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Unfortunately, he isn’t able to get the same separation, and with the safety looming over the top, Johnson isn’t as likely to win a jumpball with his balky ankle.
One more play from the first half perfectly illustrates how Stafford and the Detroit passing attack are neutered with Johnson out or at least playing at far less than 100 percent. Here’s a 3rd-and-10 right before the two-minute warning. The Lions have the ball at their own 20-yard-line and are again in shotgun. Johnson has company on his side of the line this time, but he is again facing man coverage from a corner with a safety shading to his side.
Look at that press coverage from Gilmore. In most instances, a corner is asking for it if he gets up on Johnson like that. He’s notoriously one of the hardest receivers to jam at the line. More often than not, Johnson will easily discard of the corner in this situation, and pick up the first down. Gilmore clearly isn’t intimidated, likely thanks to Johnson’s ankle. He even manages to divert Johnson off his route, knocking him back after he takes his first step.
In the screenshot above, Stafford has the ball and has already started his drop. The normally overpowering Johnson hasn’t gotten off his original spot on the line because Gilmore stuck him with an effective jam. When Stafford looks to his left, Johnson hasn’t been able to get any separation. Stafford has to check it down for a two-yard loss.
It has to be said that Gilmore was called for a phantom hold on this play, resulting in a Detroit first down. In actuality, it was perfect coverage, and Gilmore had little to fear with Johnson unable to be his usually explosive self.
Stafford had a very good game against the Jets in Week 4 with Johnson banged up, throwing for 293 yards, 8.6 YPA and two touchdowns. However, the Jets have one of the worst pass defenses in the league, ranking 27th in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus. He managed just 221 yards, 7.1 YPA and one touchdown with one interception against the Bills last week. The Vikings don’t present Stafford with a terrible matchup in Week 6, but if he is without Johnson, he’ll likely continue to face many of the same struggles he did last week.