Tuesday December 15th, 2015

No players are on a better hot streak, from a real-life or fantasy perspective, than Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson. The duo has achieved something that not even Tom Brady and Randy Moss did back in 2007 when the latter set a record with 23 touchdown receptions. Meanwhile, the mighty Steelers have the league’s toughest assignment on tap with the Broncos paying a visit to Pittsburgh in Week 15. Will the Wilson-to-Baldwin magic continue? What’s behind the duo’s breakout? And should you actually think about fading the Steelers this week? Find out in this week’s edition of Fact or Fiction.

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Fact: Being stuck in the middle with Doug Baldwin is a good thing

Baldwin found the end zone three times in Seattle’s blowout win over Baltimore in Week 14. He scored twice against Minnesota the week before that. Baldwin’s first three-touchdown game of the season came in a Week 12 win over the Steelers. That gives him eight scores in his last three games, the first time we’ve seen a receiver on such a run in 11 years. The last guy to do it was Drew Bennett, who turned the trick for the Titans in 2004, coincidentally enough in Week 12 through 14. Before him, the last receiver to achieve the feat was a guy named Jerry Rice, once in 1993 and once in 1987, the season he scored 22 touchdowns in just 12 games. That’s not bad company for a guy who had 15 touchdowns in the first four years of his career.

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The fifth-year receiver’s last five games were better than any full season of his career to this point. In that time, Baldwin has 30 catches for 515 yards and nine touchdowns, which translates to 21.1 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Baldwin’s emergence has mirrored Russell Wilson’s turnaround this season. Wilson has thrown for 1,411 yards and 17 touchdowns against one interception in that stretch, a 16-game pace of 4,515.2 yards, 54.4 scores and 3.2 picks. The Wilson-Baldwin relationship is a symbiotic one, with both playing their best football of the season thanks in part to the performance of the other. They’ve also been able to take advantage of a not-so-subtle change in Baldwin’s deployment by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

The middle of the field has typically been Russell Wilson’s favorite area to attack, going back to his 2012 rookie season. During his first three years in the league, Wilson’s quarterback rating on passes in the middle of the field was 107.3, compared with a total rating of 98.6. That pattern has held true this season. Through Week 14, Wilson’s passer rating across the middle is a robust 121.1, which is doing the heavy lifting for his overall 110 rating.

That would seem to bode quite well for Baldwin, who does all of his work out of the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, every single one of Baldwin’s 77 targets this season has come with him beginning his route from the slot. That does not, however, mean that he finishes the route in the middle of the field. In Seattle’s first eight games, 16 of Baldwin’s 40 targets were in the middle of the field. It appears that Bevell used Seattle’s Week 9 bye to go back into the lab. Since then, 18 of Baldwin’s 37 targets have come across the middle.

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Baldwin’s results on these targets have been steady all season, which is to say they have been among the best in the league. He has totaled 28 receptions for 444 yards and eight of his 11 touchdowns across the middle. Wilson’s passer rating when throwing to Baldwin in the middle of the field is 132.2. The success of sending Baldwin over the middle is even more pronounced when looking at his recent hot stretch. Wilson threw the ball his way in between the hash marks nine times in the last three games. Six of those passes ended with Baldwin in the end zone, including all but one that traveled at least 10 yards in the air.

Let’s take a look at a few of those touchdowns. The first is from Seattle’s Week 13 win over Minnesota. After a Teddy Bridgewater interception late in the first half, the Seahawks had a first-and-10 from the Vikings’ 20-yard line. Here’s the look at the snap, with Baldwin circled:

Baldwin runs a simple deep crossing route against the Vikings’ zone, which had just a single high safety in the middle of the field. This was basically a layup for Wilson once Baldwin cleared the linebackers.

There’s nothing altogether special about Baldwin’s route on this play. He executed it correctly, but any receiver in the league could have done that. The difference, however, is he wasn’t getting as many of these opportunities earlier in the year. Now that he is, he’s cashing in on them.

We can find a play where Baldwin’s route running did create the scoring chance in last week’s drubbing of the Ravens. At this stage, the game was well in hand with the Seahawks leading 28–6. They had the ball on Baltimore’s 16-yard line and were looking at a second-and-seven. Here’s the formation at the time Wilson took the snap.

You see that this time, Baldwin is actually outside the numbers with a pair of tight ends on the field. What you won’t see in the impending GIF is Wilson reading the Ravens in man coverage and making a call to his linemen. We can’t be sure what, if anything, Wilson checked to, but we do know that Baldwin was his first read on the play. The receiver screws Lardarius Webb into the ground with a juke the outside before breaking back across the middle for one of the easiest touchdowns of his life.

Now that Thomas Rawls is out for the season because of a broken ankle, the Seahawks will likely rely on the passing game even more than they have over the last month. Baldwin has played like a WR1 for five weeks and has a WR2 floor for the next two weeks. He’s clearly Wilson’s favorite target, and with Jimmy Graham also on the shelf, he should continue to dominate the middle of the field, which has been wildly lucrative for him and his quarterback. The Seahawks host the Browns on Sunday and the Rams in Week 16. Baldwin should be in your lineup for both games.

Fiction: The Steelers are in trouble in Week 15

With all the issues the Broncos have had on offense this season, from Peyton Manning’s payment to Father Time suddenly coming due to C.J. Anderson’s early-season struggles, how is it possible that they’re 10–3 and in command of the AFC West? The best defense in the league can cover up a lot of blemishes.

By essentially every metric with even a shred of meaning or predictive power, the Broncos have been the premier defense of 2015. We can begin with the traditional numbers. They’ve surrendered the fewest points, total yards and passing yards. They allow just 4.3 yards per play, tops in the league. They’re giving up 84.3 rush yards per game, third best in the NFL, but they lead the league with just 3.3 yards per carry against. Quarterbacks have amassed just 6.1 YPA against them, second to the Panthers by a hair (6.0). Denver has 44 sacks, top in the league, and 23 takeaways, tied for seventh.

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Advanced stats love the Broncos, as well. According to Football Outsiders DVOA, the Broncos have the best overall defense, the best pass defense and the sixth-best run defense. Pro Football Focus also grades them as the No. 1 defense, rating them first against the run, second in pass rush, and third in pass coverage.

In other words, the Broncos have a phenomenal defense that could carry them all the way to the Super Bowl. That still should not scare fantasy owners who are invested in the Steelers.

Pittsburgh hosts Denver on Sunday in the marquee game of Week 15. This could very well be a playoff preview, potentially as early as the first round, with it being entirely realistic that the Broncos and Steelers land as the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the AFC bracket. The Broncos have made a living out of keeping strong offenses in check this year. They held Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 10 points. Derek Carr had two of his worst games of the season against Denver, with the Raiders scoring a total of 25 points (though they did win one of those games). Even Tom Brady and the mighty Patriots managed just 24 points against the Broncos, New England’s second lowest total of the year.

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Yes, Ben Roethlisberger & Co. will have their hands full on Sunday. Top corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, along with safeties as T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, present Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant with brutal matchups. The team’s pass rush will make life tough for Pittsburgh’s offensive line, and the front seven will give DeAngelo Williams one of his stiffest challenges of the year. None of that matters. Pittsburgh is just as good offensively as Denver is defensively. You don’t shy away from players this talented in an offense this potent because of a matchup, even if it is against the best defense in the league. The floor may not be as high, but the ceiling remains fixed above all others. It’s imperative to trust your studs this time of year. The four on Pittsburgh’s roster should be universally started in all fantasy formats.

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