The ripple effects of the Ben Roethlisberger injury are being felt throughout the fantasy landscape. Meanwhile, all the attention in Atlanta is on Julio Jones, but there’s a player on the other side of the ball who has been nearly as dominant in his own way. Fact or Fiction for Week 3 takes a look at Antonio Brown’s prospects with Michael Vick starting for the Steelers and the emergence of Desmond Trufant as one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Fact: Antonio Brown is in some trouble with Michael Vick under center.
There seems to be a prevailing thought that Brown is Brown, and he will be just fine regardless of who is playing quarterback. While I agree that he will remain a very good receiver, I think his chances of being the top fantasy receiver went down alongside Ben Roethlisberger. Without his starting quarterback for the next four to six weeks, Brown is going to struggle to meet that same combination of consistency and ceiling that made him, at worst, the second-best fantasy receiver entering the season.
Vick started three games for the Jets last year and couldn’t have been less inspiring in those outings. He went 38 of 65 through the air for 404 yards, 6.22 yards per attempt, three touchdowns and one interception, and the Jets scored a total of 33 points. He got significant time in relief of Geno Smith in two other games, and if you add those results to his starts, he completed less than 53% of his passes for 604 yards, 5.88 YPA and three touchdowns against two picks. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the fourth-worst quarterback in the league last year. Meanwhile, Roethlisberger was the third-best, and he currently sits atop PFF's rankings for 2015. To say there’s a significant drop-off in quarterback play would be an understatement. Brown went from elite quarterback play to hoping for league average with one hit.
The pictures tell an equally ugly story. Vick took over late in the third quarter and completed five of his six pass attempts for 38 yards. He threw one pass to Brown, and it was nearly intercepted. This may come as a surprise, but that wasn’t Brown’s fault.
The following play was Vick’s final pass of the game. The Steelers held a 9–6 lead just outside the two-minute warning. This was a third-and-nine, and the Rams were out of timeouts, meaning a first down would have ended the game. In other words, the result of this play wasn’t a case of Vick being safe. It was a case of him being impatient, leading to a missed opportunity.
Brown is at the top of your screen, bunched with Markus Wheaton to the right of the formation, just inside the numbers. The Rams are in a zone that gives them two sets of eyes on Brown as he goes into his route. Watch the play all the way through, however, and you’ll see that he’s wide open after coming out of his break on a flag route that would have sealed the win for Pittsburgh if Vick had gotten him the ball.
You can even see Brown signaling for the ball with no Ram in sight to break up the pass. Now, in Vick’s defense, Darrius Heyward-Bey was wide open in space, and when he delivered the ball it looks like his receiver might be able to turn this into a first down. Unfortunately, all that means is that Vick isn’t familiar enough with the offense. The ball can come out at the exact same time if he throws it to Brown, with the difference being that Brown is well beyond the sticks.
The screenshot below shows Brown about to come out of his break. Again, he’s already open. If Vick throws the ball at this point, it’s a game-clinching third-down conversion. Instead, he checks it down to Heyward-Bey, and the Steelers have to settle for extending their lead to six points and giving the ball back to the Rams.
Roethlisberger makes this throw, and Brown owners get another 1.5 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. There will be plenty more missed opportunities like this with Vick at the helm.
Part of the reason Brown has been an elite fantasy asset over the last few years is his connection with Roethlisberger when things break down, as well as the quarterback's willingness to stand in the pocket and extend a play. Roethlisberger never gives up on a play, which is occasionally to the Steelers’ detriment, but frequently to Brown’s benefit. Vick will give up on a play at the first sign of pressure. That’s been a knock on him his whole career, and it showed up again last week.
I’m not going to crucify Vick for this one. It was third-and-21, and the Steelers were only up by six points. If he forced something and threw an interception, the Rams would have ended up with great field position, needing a touchdown and the extra point to take the lead. Still, this play is called with an eye on converting, not just flipping field position. You don’t send all of your receivers vertical if you’re just trying to pick up a few yards.
Brown is lined up in the same spot as the play above. In fact, this is nearly an identical play call, at least to the right side of the formation. For what it’s worth, Brown runs an identical route and again gets open. That’s not really our concern here. Let’s consult the reverse angle to see where Vick torpedoed this play.
There’s very little, if any, actual pressure from Robert Quinn when Vick scrambles left. In fact, Kelvin Beachum does a good job of recovering, and he gets help from Ramon Foster. If Vick stays put, he’ll essentially have a pristine pocket from which to throw. Here’s what the situation looks like when Vick decides to take off.
By running left, Vick is actually the one who creates the pressure. All there’s left for him to do is tuck and run out of bounds.
It’s entirely possible that Vick will improve on some of these alarming elements of his game with a full week of practice as the starter, though he won’t even get that this week with the Steelers playing the Ravens on Thursday night. Expecting him to make that change would also be a bet against history, and that’s not one I’m willing to make. I love what Antonio Brown does as much as anyone else, but the ceiling just isn’t there for him with Roethlisberger on the shelf. I’d trade him for 85 or 90 cents on the dollar.
Fiction: There’s nothing redeeming about the Falcons' defense.
After the Cowboys ran all over the Atlanta defense in Week 3 before the Falcons staged a come-from-behind victory, there’s a widespread belief that the NFC South co-leaders are again among the worst defensive teams in the league. It’s true that they’ve struggled against the run, allowing the most fantasy points to running backs this year. At the same time, however, they’ve held quarterbacks to the 10th-fewest points, and receivers to the fourth-fewest. A lot of the credit for that goes to third-year cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Trufant has been one of the best corners in the league since the Falcons selected him out of Washington with the 22nd pick in the 2013 draft. Pro Football Focus rated him as the seventh-best corner in the league his rookie year. Last season, he climbed up to No. 6. This year, quarterbacks are largely staying away from him, and with good reason. In the last two seasons combined, only six corners have graded better in coverage than Trufant. You’ll likely recognize a lot of their names: Vontae Davis, Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman, Chris Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. That’s it. Trufant has been better than the rest.
Quarterbacks have thrown just seven passes at Trufant this season. He has allowed three receptions for 60 yards, and has limited quarterbacks to a 73.5 rating. Below is an example of some of what Trufant does best.
The following play is from Week 1 against the Eagles. Trufant draws Jordan Matthews, who is lined up in the slot to the left of the formation and runs an intermediate crossing route. Watch as Trufant (No. 21 in red) stays with him stride-for-stride across the formation and breaks up Sam Bradford’s pass.
Trufant lives on the right side of the offense’s formation. When the Falcons met the Giants, it should come as little surprise that Odell Beckham Jr. spent nearly the entire game lined up to the left. Twice Beckham lined up split out wide to the right. Eli Manning threw the ball in Beckham’s direction on both plays, but they were essentially both throwaways. That’s why the official book lists no passes thrown at Trufant in the game.
GIFs for both of those plays are below. Look to the bottom of your screen for the Trufant–Beckham matchup. You’ll see on both that Trufant stays with Beckham through a series of moves, giving Manning no chance to complete a pass to one of the best receivers in the league.
Trufant has molded himself into one of the best corners in the league. The rest of the Atlanta defense may leave something to be desired, but he’ll be a handful for receivers and quarterbacks all season.