• Last week, fantasy owners were without Melvin Gordon and Leonard Fournette. This week two more running backs join the ranks of the injured: James Conner and Matt Breida. How can owners replace them in the first week of the playoffs?
By Michael Beller
December 05, 2018

Last week’s target and snap report examined the impact that two injured starting running backs would have on the final week of the fantasy football regular season. Unfortunately for some owners—but fortunately for others—that construct remains relevant this week. Two backs who missed last week, Melvin Gordon and Kerryon Johnson, could be out again in Week 14. Two more who didn’t, James Conner and Matt Breida, will be out after suffering injuries last week. Gordon and Conner owners are almost invariably in the playoffs, while Breida and Johnson owners who did make it will feel their absences in Week 14. We can’t make any of them healthy, but we can help you figure out what to do with what’s left behind in Los Angeles, Detroit, Pittsburgh and San Francisco in this week’s Target and Snap Report

We’ll take the backfields newly in flux first, and then proceed to the two that we’ve already seen operating for at least a week without their starters.

The Steelers without James Conner

This one hit the fantasy community like a thunderbolt on Tuesday morning. Conner suffered a sprained ankle late in the Steelers’ 33–30 loss to the Chargers in Week 13. While he remained down on the turf for a while, he seemed to walk off the field in decent condition. His status only seemed safer when the team downplayed the injury, saying it was no more than a contusion. Less than 24 hours later, the team ruled him out for its Week 14 meeting with the Raiders without any gradual steps in between. It was a possible land-speed record in going from “No, no, he’s fine,” to “he’s out.” Truly impressive work by the Steelers.

With Conner out, the assumption is that we’ll see a heavy dose of Jaylen Samuels. The Steelers under Mike Tomlin have typically ridden a workhorse back, and while employing someone like Le’Veon Bell makes that uniquely possible, Conner and DeAngelo Williams have also become feature backs on the fly in Pittsburgh. Samuels could have an opportunity to do the same. He handled both of the running back touches after Conner got hurt last week, including a 10-yard touchdown reception that briefly tied the game. All told, he has an 11.4 snap rate this season, totaling 12 carries, nine targets, seven receptions, 85 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. If any back in Pittsburgh takes on Conner’s role in full, it will be Samuels.

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Having said that, there’s no guarantee the Steelers treat Samuels the way they did Williams when he had to take over for an injured or suspended Bell in the past. Take a look at Samuels’s season-long stats again. Yes, Conner has proved himself capable of being a true workhorse, but Samuels hasn’t shown anything, at least in actual games, that suggests he can step right into that role. What’s more, Stevan Ridley began the season as Conner’s primary backup, and while he hasn’t played since Week 10, he still has more carries on the season than Samuels. Tomlin said on Tuesday that the Steelers would take a committee approach, though they could eventually lean on a hot hand. It’s tough to take coachspeak at face value, but that’s not exactly an endorsement of Samuels as Conner by a different name.

If you’re lucky enough to have Samuels on your team, you’re almost certainly playing him this week. Ridley may have a role for the Steelers, but he cannot be trusted in fantasy leagues. The bet here is that Samuels handles a 3-to-1 share of the touches out of Pittsburgh’s backfield, which makes him an easy RB2, but not quite the locked-in RB1 that Conner was before his injury. As for Week 15, don’t assume that Conner will be miss that game simply because the Steelers ruled him out for Week 14 so early in the week. Even without Conner, the Steelers will be double-digit favorites in Oakland. In other words, they’re confident they can win with or without him. That might not be the case when they host the Patriots in Week 15. Remember, the Ravens enter this week just a half-game behind the Steelers in the AFC North.

The 49ers without Matt Breida

Breida could be approaching an unofficial record for most days spent on the injury report followed by playing that week, but we won’t add to it in Week 14. He aggravated his ankle injury in warmups last week, and has already been ruled out for Sunday’s matchup with the Broncos. Of all four backfields hunting for new answers this week, San Francisco’s is the cleanest.

Breida attempted to play last week after aggravating the ankle problem, but got just five carries and three targets. Jeff Wilson Jr., an undrafted rookie out of North Texas, took over as the lead back for the 49ers, running for 61 yards on 15 carries and catching eight of nine targets for 73 yards. Wilson played just shy of three-quarters of the team’s snaps, while Kyle Juszczyk had a 51.3% snap rate. Alfred Morris was a healthy inactive for the second straight game.

It’s not only possible, but likely that Morris will be in uniform this week, and that could eat into the touch share Wilson saw last week. Still, even with Breida healthy in Week 12, Wilson played 39.1% of the 49ers’ snaps, totaling 41 yards from scrimmage on seven carries and one reception while Morris watched from the sidelines. There’s little to no doubt as to who’s in control of this backfield in Week 14.

From a volume standpoint, Wilson is easily the safest bet among players in the four backfields we’re discussing in this week’s Target and Snap Report. Even if the Broncos go into San Francisco and control the game, as the 5.5-point spread suggests they might, Wilson showed signs of being game-script proof by doing as well as he did with those nine targets last week. The 49ers trailed by at least two scores in what was eventually a 43-16 loss to the Seahawks for the final 43 minutes and 41 seconds of game action, and Wilson still piled up 23 touches. Negative game script isn’t going to slow him down on Sunday.

The Chargers without Melvin Gordon

First, let’s address the possibility that Gordon suits up this week. The Chargers are reportedly considering that option, with Gordon supposedly healing quicker than expected. At the same time, last week’s win over the Steelers all but guaranteed them a playoff berth. The Chargers have realistic Super Bowl aspirations, and while those could be made stronger by chasing down the Chiefs and winning the AFC West, they have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl as a wild card with a healthy Gordon, than by doing so as a division winner without him. On top of that, the Chargers opened as two-touchdown favorites at home over the Bengals this week, and that’s with the oddsmakers assuming Gordon will not play. Playing Gordon this week is immaterial to the Chargers’ chances of winning and, frankly, reckless. In other words, bet on seeing a committee of Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson again this week.

Ekeler led the backfield as expected in Week 13, but was a total bust. He played 49 of the team’s 63 snaps, totaling 13 carries and eight targets in the process. All he had to show for that was 21 rushing yards, five receptions and 22 receiving yards. Jackson, meanwhile, played just 14 snaps but made the absolute most of all of them, running for 63 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, and turning his lone target into a 19-yard gain. Jackson rode nine touches to 14.2 fantasy points in standard leagues, and 15.2 points in PPR formats. Ekeler slogged his way to 4.3 points and 9.3 points, respectively, on 18 touches. It’s safe to say that the division of labor in the backfield won’t be the same this week.

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Jackson is going to eat into Ekeler’s touch share in Week 14. Quite simply, he earned it. Just how much he will do so is unknowable, but a few contextual factors in this game point to both being flex-worthy. The first is that in a game where the Chargers were underdogs against a division leader, led for just about four minutes of game action, and needed 33 points to win, Ekeler and Jackson combined for 21 carries and nine targets. Second, the game script is likely to favor them this week, with the lowly Bengals limping into Los Angeles. If the Chargers do indeed meet the oddsmakers’ expectations, they’ll play a large chunk of the afternoon with a multi-score lead in a game where they have an implied total of 31 points. Ekeler may still lead the team in touches given that he’s the more capable receiver, but Jackson has to get double-digit carries in this game, and big lead could push the script more in his favor. The backs are near-locks for double-digit touches, and they could both get to 15-plus if the game plays out as described above. That possibility alone has both Ekeler and Jackson on the flex radar this week.

The Lions without Kerryon Johnson

Johnson has missed the last two games with a knee injury, and while the Lions are still mathematically alive for a playoff spot, realistically they are going to miss out on the postseason. Johnson has emerged as a key piece of their future, and it’d be foolish for them to risk his health in essentially meaningless games, even if they think he’s healthy enough to give it a go. The Lions haven’t shut him down just yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did. At the very least, there’s no reason for them to push him at anything less than 100% when the outcomes of their games have no bearing on their making the playoffs.

That’s all to say that we should expect to see LeGarrette Blount in command of the Lions’ backfield once again this week when they visit the Cardinals. Blount has started both games that Johnson has missed, running for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries in the Week 12 loss to the Bears, and picking up 61 yards on 16 totes in last week’s loss to the Rams. All other Detroit running backs totaled 13 carries in those two games, and it’s likely Blount would retain that same brand of carry share on Sunday if Johnson sits for the third consecutive week.

Should that be the case, Blount could be in line for a big day. The Cardinals are ranked 26th against running backs in standard leagues in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric, aFPA. He’s always in danger of being game-scripted out of the action since he provides nothing in the passing game, but the Lions opened as one-point favorites over the Cardinals this week. Even if they don’t win, it’s unlikely they’ll get beat to a point where Blount would fall out of the gameplan. If Johnson is out this week, Blount will be on the RB2 and flex radars.

As for Riddick, he’s really only a consideration in full PPR leagues. He has 28 receptions and 33 targets in his last, though he has turned all those looks into just 200 yards with zero touchdowns. He has 10 carries for 44 yards in the two games Johnson has missed.

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