Welcome to Week 7 of the NFL season, also known as the lightest slate of action before the playoffs get started. Six teams are on bye this week, which to the fans means there are only 13 games on tap. To the fantasy owners, however, this means a lot of players aren’t available and quite a few teams will be going deep into their bench to put together a starting lineup.
Athlon Sports is here to help you make all of those important lineup decisions for your Yahoo!, NFL.com or ESPN fantasy football league with our weekly Start and Sit suggestions. Keep in mind these are merely our suggestions as the ultimate decision comes down to you, the owner.
Bye week teams: Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Philadelphia, San Diego
Sneaky Start of the Week
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Tennessee at Buffalo
Hasselbeck will make his third, and probably final, start this week in Buffalo in place of Jake Locker. Locker has been sidelined the past three weeks with a shoulder injury, but he returned to practice this week and Titans head coach Mike Munchak has already said the second-year player will get his job back from the veteran Hasselbeck once he’s healthy.
So if this is in fact Hasselbeck’s last start (provided Locker stays healthy), what better way for him to go out than to get the NFL’s worst defense, no? Prior to last week, Buffalo had given up more than 1,200 yards and 97 points in a span of two games.
While the Bills’ D looked much better in the overtime win in Arizona, this unit still has its share of issues. In fact, this game features two of the bottom three defenses in the entire league, so chances are this affair will feature plenty of offensive fireworks.
I like Hasselbeck to go back to the bench swinging, if you will, as the Bills are allowing the most fantasy points to quarterbacks. If Chris Johnson can take advantage of the Bills’ rush defense (worst in the league), that should open up things even more for Hasselbeck, who has multiple weapons in the passing game in receivers Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright, as well as tight end Jared Cook. The Titans may not win, but if you decide to start Hasselbeck, I think you will at least like that outcome.
Surprise Sit of the Week
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina vs. Dallas
Even though Smith is not currently leading the Panthers in receptions (tight end Greg Olsen is with 22), he’s still Cam Newton’s top target. The problem with this lies in the fact that the Panthers are 27th in the league in passing offense and Newton hasn’t been near as productive this season as he was at the start of his record-setting 2011 campaign.
Smith has a total of 21 receptions in the Panthers’ first five games. He’s still getting it done in terms of yardage (18.5 ypc), but he has yet to find the end zone. Since opening the season with consecutive 100-yard efforts, Smith has averaged less than four catches and 60 yards receiving over the past three games.
Dallas is No. 1 in both total and passing defense and has allowed the fewest receptions and yards to opposing wide receivers. Outside of Brandon Marshall (138 yards) and Anquan Boldin (98) no wide receiver has gone for more than 58 yards receiving against the Cowboys.
The Panthers’ offensive line is in a state of flux without All-Pro center Ryan Kalil, so don’t be surprised if Newton has no choice but to get rid of the ball quickly and for the Panthers to try and do some damage with short, underneath routes, which is not necessarily Smith’s bread and butter. Neither the match-up nor the likely offensive game plan, otherwise known as chuck and duck or tuck and run, bodes well for the dynamic, diminutive wideout.
Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) at Cincinnati
Somewhat quietly, Big Ben is putting together yet another solid, productive season. He’s fourth in passer rating and tenth among quarterbacks in fantasy scoring, and eight of those in front of him have the benefit of one more game played. He has thrown 10 touchdown passes compared to only two interceptions (and has yet to lose a fumble), which is even more impressive considering the injuries and upheaval that the Steelers’ offensive line has already gone through. Roethlisberger is 12-4 in his career against Cincinnati, this week’s opponent, and he has accounted for a total of 23 touchdowns (20 pass, 3 rush) in those 16 games. Provided his patchwork o-line gives him enough time to throw the ball, it should be another productive day at the office for No. 7.
Andrew Luck (IND) vs. CLE
Luck is averaging 300 yards per game and has thrown six touchdowns and just two interceptions at Lucas Oil Stadium. Cleveland is 30th in the league in pass defense (294.2 ypg) and has allowed 15 passing touchdowns in six games. Care to guess where and against whom the Colts are playing this Sunday?
Ryan Fitzpatrick (BUF) vs. TEN
Matt Hasselbeck may have gotten the “Surprise Start” nod above, but that’s not to take anything away from Fitzpatrick or rather his match-up against Tennessee’s defense. As was stated previously, this game features two of the league’s bottom three defenses, not to mention that the Titans are 29th against the pass. Fitzpatrick’s biggest issue this season has been interceptions as he has eight already, but the Titans have only picked off four passes, while surrendering 13 scoring strikes. This Buffalo-Tennessee tilt is what I would call a “Green Light Fantasy Special,” meaning I wouldn’t hesitate to start any of your Bills or Titans here, other than the defenses of course.
Matt Schaub (HOU) vs. BAL
This is not a knock on Schaub, who is a capable passer (12th in passer rating) and does a good job of protecting the ball (4 total turnovers). It’s just that Houston loves to run the ball, as the Texans are sixth in rushing yards and second in attempts. Plus there’s the matter of this week’s opponent, Baltimore, who have gave up a franchise-worst 227 yards on the ground to the Cowboys last week. The Texans strangely went away from the run early in last week's game against the Packers, which contributed to their offense sputtering, resulting in them falling behind early and eventually losing big. I don’t think the coaching staff makes that same mistake twice, especially against a Ray Lewis-less Ravens defense.
Christian Ponder (MIN) vs. ARI
Ponder was flawless in his first four games, throwing no picks and contributing five total touchdowns. In the past two games he has thrown four touchdown passes, but also four interceptions. Arizona is allowing the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks and has picked off more passes compared to aerial scores allowed. This seems like a good week for the Vikings to put more of the offensive burden on running back Adrian Peterson rather than their second-year quarterback.
Sam Bradford (STL) vs. GB
Bradford is coming off of a season-high 315-yard effort, in which he didn’t throw a touchdown pass and also got sacked three times. Oh and the Rams lost too. This week the Rams host the Packers, a team that leads the NFL in sacks (21) and just handled a previously undefeated Houston team rather easily. While he should get plenty of opportunities to throw the ball, I’m just not so sure he will have enough time to pull the trigger.
Trent Richardson (CLE) at IND
So it appears I was a week early in including Richardson here, as a rib injury and a fairly stingy Cincinnati defense held the rookie to just 37 yards on 14 carries. The important thing is Cleveland won, right? Oh yeah, there’s also the little matter that the Browns get the Colts this week. Richardson has insisted all along that he won’t let the rib/cartilage issue prevent him from playing this week. Then again I think pretty much every running back in the league would say the same thing if they had a date with Indianapolis awaiting them. Don’t forget the Colts put up little resistance to the Jets’ ground and pound attack last week, including 161 yards and three touchdowns to Shonn Greene alone. Flak jacket? Check. Momentum after last week’s win? Check. Really bad rush defense on tap? Double check. Talented, bruising young back ready to roll? Oh yeah.
Felix Jones (DAL) at CAR
Thanks to a foot injury suffered by DeMarco Murray, Jones saw his first significant action in some time and made the most of it. He started things off early with a 22-yard scoring run and finished the day with 92 yards on 18 carries. Murray’s sidelined at least this week after the Cowboys discovered he sustained some ligament damage in his left foot, which means Jones will get the start against Carolina. Jones has disappointed many a fantasy owner in the past with his untapped potential and injury-prone nature, but I think this time it will be different. He looked pretty good against the Ravens last week and should find some running room against the Panthers on Sunday. Carolina is allowing the third-most fantasy points to running backs and is giving up an average of 127.4 yards on the ground per game.
Darren Sproles (NO) at TB
Outside of Drew Brees, I could make an argument that the other Saint who has been most impacted by the season-long suspension of Sean Payton has been Sproles. A significant part of the offense throughout last season, Sproles’ usage to start this campaign has left many an owner scratching their head. Through the first five games of 2011, Sproles had already accumulated 57 touches (26 rushes, 31 receptions) on offense alone. So far this season, he’s had 45 (17 rushes, 28 receptions), but it goes beyond just the number of opportunities. He didn’t get a single rushing attempt in the first two games, while he didn’t catch a single pass in the Saints’ third game. Whatever the reason, I think Sproles returns to his more prominent role in the offense beginning this week against Tampa Bay, a team that he had a total of 161 yards of offense (not including returns) against in two games last season.
Shonn Greene (NYJ) at NE
Greene, who was my Sneaky Start for Week 6, exploded last week for a career-high 161 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Indianapolis. Prior to his career performance, Greene had rushed for 217 yards and one touchdown in his first five games. In other words, he nearly quadrupled his per-game average over five games in only four quarters of play. As valuable as Greene was to those owners who stuck by him, I wouldn’t expect anywhere near similar results this week. New England is eighth in the NFL in rushing defense, compared to Indianapolis, who is No. 26. The Patriots are allowing 3.4 yards per carry and have surrendered only two rushing touchdowns. In two games last year against his AFC East rivals, Greene had 144 yards rushing and one touchdown. It may be hard to bench last week’s top-scoring running back, but I just don’t see Greene putting up big numbers this week.
Mikel Leshoure (DET) at CHI (Monday)
Since rushing for 100 yards in his NFL debut in Week 3, Leshoure has collected 96 yards in his last two games combined. Detroit as a team has been inconsistent in running the ball, averaging less than 100 yards on the ground per contest, and this doesn’t figure to get any easier on Monday night in Chicago. The Bears are tops in the league in rushing defense, not to mention scoring defense and second in total defense, and are allowing less than 66 yards rushing per game. They have surrendered just one rushing touchdown and are coming off of a bye headed into this NFC North clash. Leshoure is anything but a sure thing when it comes to his fantasy outlook this week.
William Powell (ARI) at MIN
Even though he didn’t start, Powell was the most productive Cardinal running back last week against Buffalo. Powell finished with 70 yards rushing on 13 carries (5.4 ypc) and also caught a pass. However, I wouldn’t get too excited over Powell’s fantasy value because of two factors. One, unless the Cardinals decide to change it up, it appears that Powell will continue to share the workload with LaRod Stephens-Howling and possibly Alfonso Smith. The bigger reason is Arizona’s opponent this week. Minnesota’s defense has given up just one rushing touchdown so far and the only back to rush for more than 63 yards against this unit has been Maurice Jones-Drew. Powell may be a nice story and could prove valuable down the road, but MJD he isn’t. This simply isn’t the week to expect much from him in terms of fantasy points.
Dez Bryant (DAL) at CAR
Twenty-eight, 21, 200 and two. What do these numbers mean? They are the total number of targets, receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns Dez Bryant has in his last two games. To put it simply, Bryant is going too hot to bench right now, especially against a Carolina secondary that doesn’t have anyone as tall or big as the 6’2, 220-pound target.
Stevie Johnson (BUF) vs. TEN
Johnson is off to a decent, but not spectacular, start to the season with 27 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Don’t be surprised to see these numbers go up quite a bit this Sunday as Johnson and the Bills welcome Tennessee and its 30th-ranked pass defense to Orchard Park. Calvin Johnson, Malcom Floyd and Percy Harvin have already hung 100-yard games on the Titans, and I expect Johnson to follow suit this week.
Josh Gordon (CLE) at IND
Gordon is quickly establishing himself as not only a legitimate deep threat, but as quarterback Brandon Weeden’s favorite target. Gordon has three touchdowns in his last two games, and two of these scoring strikes were plays of more than 60 yards. For the season he is averaging 22.8 yards per catch and is starting to get more opportunities thrown his way. He has a total of 12 targets in his last two games, after seeing 14 in the first four combined. Indianapolis has done a decent job of limiting the amount of damage done by opposing wide receivers in terms of yardage, but the Colts’ secondary has been burned several times on the long ball. If you’re looking for someone to take a flyer on this week, and beyond for that matter, Gordon is certainly a worthy candidate.
James Jones (GB) at STL
Jones has definitely made his presence felt for both his team and those owners who were fortunate enough to get a hold of him. Jones posted his third straight two-touchdown game last week against Houston, and he is second only to Arian Foster in the entire NFL in touchdowns with seven. On the other hand, St. Louis is seventh in the league against the pass and the Rams’ defense has only given up two touchdowns to opposing wide receivers. By no means, am I saying the Rams are going to shut Aaron Rodgers and the Packers completely down, but I wouldn’t be surprised to not only see Jones’ two-TD streak come to an end, but see him shut out, at least when it comes to the end zone.
Anquan Boldin (BAL) at HOU
After a slow start to the season, Boldin has reemerged as a key part of Baltimore’s passing attack. He has 28 catches for 311 yards in his last three games combined and now leads the Ravens in both targets and receptions. The problem I see this week, however, is who will be on the others side, Houston. One, the Texans are still smarting from the whipping Green Bay handed them on their home turf last week. Two, the Texans’ secondary is having the most trouble with the deep passes and wideouts who are vertical threats. That’s why players like Jordy Nelson, Eric Decker, Randall Cobb and Jeremy Kerley have had the most success against their defensive backs. Boldin is not the Ravens’ deep threat; Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones fill that role. So I expect Joe Flacco, who loves to throw the ball downfield, especially when using play-action, to try and follow the same script this week, which makes Boldin a somewhat risky option.
Nate Burleson (DET) at CHI (Monday)
Burleson has settled in nicely as the Lions’ No. 2 wide receiver, as he’s tied with tight end Brandon Pettigrew (more on him below) for second place on the team in receptions (26). He also leads the way with two touchdown catches so far. That’s all well and good, but Chicago’s defense has given up just three receiving touchdowns, and no team’s No. 2 wide receiver has caught more than four passes or had more than 43 yards receiving against it. Undoubtedly the Bears will be focused on slowing down Calvin Johnson, but this doesn’t mean Burleson’s going to be the beneficiary of such attention. You never sit your studs, which applies here to Johnson and Matthew Stafford (unless you have a better option available), but I think discretion is warranted this week when it comes to Burleson.
Heath Miller (PIT) at CIN
Ben Roethlisberger and Miller have been teammates since 2005 and it’s apparent the quarterback trusts his tight end. Miller is second on the Steelers with 25 catches and his four touchdowns tie him for the team lead with wide receiver Mike Wallace. Big Ben inexplicably trusts Miller to get open and catch the ball (25 receptions on 34 targets) when it’s thrown his way. Cincinnati is allowing the eighth-most fantasy points to tight ends, so there’s little doubt in my mind that Roethlisberger will be looking for his long-time teammate over the middle early and often this Sunday night.
Brandon Pettigrew (DET) at CHI (Monday)
As good as Chicago’s defense has been (and it has been VERY good, especially in terms of fantasy scoring as a DST), its one weak spot appears to be defending tight ends. The Monsters of the Midway are allowing the ninth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends, while the 35 receptions by them are the fourth-most. Enter Pettigrew, who is second only to All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson in targets for the Lions. He has 26 receptions, which ties him with wideout Nate Burleson for second, along with 261 yards and a touchdown. Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford is certainly keeping Pettigrew heavily involved as the 6-5, 265-pounder has seven or more targets in all but one of the team’s five games. In two games against the Bears last season, Pettigrew had a total of 14 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. As good a job as the Bears have done pressuring the quarterback (18 sacks) and shutting down opposing wide receivers (3 TD catches), Stafford may have no choice but to look Pettigrew’s way early and often come Monday night.
Benjamin Watson (CLE) at IND
Watson has caught a touchdown pass this season, but he’s also ceding more and more targets to fellow tight end Jordan Cameron with each passing week it seems. Cleveland plays Indianapolis this week and considering the Colts have allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing tight ends, it’s probably best to just stay from either Brown tight end.
Dallas Clark (TB) vs. NO
Remember when Clark caught 100 passes? Yeah me too, it was back in 2009 when he was still in Indianapolis. Clark’s now in Tampa Bay and the only way he’s catching that many passes this season is if it gets expanded to 56 games. He has nine receptions in five games. Case closed.
Minnesota vs. Arizona
Arizona has given up 27 sacks already. Minnesota has collected 15 sacks and has surrendered a total of 20 points in its last two home games. The Cardinals are down to their No. 3 running back as their starter and quarterback John Skelton is getting his first start since Week 1. Any other questions?
Oakland vs. Jacksonville
The Raiders are last among DSTs in fantasy scoring as they have collected a total of four sacks and six turnovers in five games. Fortunately for them, their first game off of the bye is against a Jacksonville team (also coming off of its bye) that has scored one touchdown in its last two games. If there was ever a time to employ the Silver and Black attack in your lineup, it’s this week.
Baltimore at Houston
I don’t need to tell you that this is a Ravens defense that will be playing its first game without Ray Lewis, a future Hall of Famer who’s the unquestionable leader and heart and soul of this team, and Lardarius Webb, one of the best cover corners in the entire NFL, do I? Or that the Ravens will be playing a Texans team that’s champing at the bit to put last week’s disappointing showing, at home and in primetime no less, against Green Bay behind it, right? Or that the Ravens gave up a franchise-worst 227 yards rushing last week and will face Arian Foster and the Texans’ vaunted ground attack on Sunday? Just checking.
Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans
The Buccaneers’ DST put up 18 fantasy points on the board last week against a Chiefs team that had Brady Quinn at quarterback. This week Tampa Bay’s D gets a rested New Orleans team that has record-setting quarterback Drew Brees at the helm. Yes the Bucs have been very good against the run, but tell me again when was the last time the Saints beat a team by running the ball?
Dan Bailey (DAL) at Carolina
Carolina is allowing the most fantasy points to opposing kickers. Dallas’ ground game is coming off of its best effort yet and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten have both picked it up after slow starts. As long as Tony Romo can take care of the ball, Bailey should get a fair number of chances to score some points of his own.
Kai Forbath (WAS) at New York Giants
Forbath won the tryout to be the new Redskin kicker after Billy Cundiff was let go. He then promptly endeared himself to his new teammates by connecting from 50 yards out in the win over Minnesota last week. I think the Giants will bend but not break in the red zone more times than not, giving Forbath more three-point tries rather than solo shots.
Greg Zuerlein (STL) vs. Green Bay
The rookie known as Legatron hit his first bump in the road last week as he missed three field goal attempts. To be fair these are the first misses of his brief career and two of them were from beyond 50 yards (66 and 52 to be exact). Still, a miss is a miss and this first-year kicker has had all of this week to dwell on the fact that he has missed his last three field goal tries. I can’t help but wonder if Rams coach Jeff Fisher may think twice before sending Zuerlein out there for a long one this week against Green Bay. You may want to do the same thing for your lineup.
Jay Feely (ARI) at Minnesota
Feely was almost the hero last week against Buffalo as his franchise-record 61-yard field goal with 1:09 left tied the game at 16. He had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but his 38-yard attempt was tipped at the line and hit the upright as time expired. To be clear, that “miss” isn’t why I’m not high on Feely this week. I just don’t see him getting as many chances against a Minnesota defense that’s tied for ninth in the league in points allowed (19.5 ppg), especially given the Cardinals’ own offensive issues.
— By Mark Ross, published on Oct. 19, 2012