@MagicSportsGuy breaks down this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup: Don’t set those NFL DFS Thursday Night lineups without it!
Steelers @ Browns
CLE -2.5, O/U 40
Implied Team Totals: PITT – 18.75 | CLE – 21.25
Pace and Play Calling
Not a game we need to worry too much about on the full-slate (PITT, 19th – CLE, 26th in scoring per game), but there are a few options.
Pitt runs the 30th most plays per game (58), CLE 24th (61.1). Both teams operate at or just above league average pace, with CLE being on the plus side of the spectrum; not playing Phil Rivers slow, but a long way from Arizona. CLE will speed it up some, playing at the 9th fastest pace in the first half, and throws at the 12th fastest pace.
If CLE could get an early lead, we could see PITT get out of their run-heavy offense/slow pace (24th overall). This could fly over the low implied total (2nd lowest in Week 11). CLE plays at the 7th fastest pace with a lead of 7+. Of course, that is a very small sample size, considering their season.
The more likely scenario is it stays close, which keeps both teams in more conservative play-calling modes. The game opened with a 41 implied total and has since moved to 40 with 75% of the money coming in on the UNDER (only 44% of bets).
This matchup sets up well for PITT, with CLE 28th in adjusted line yards (4.78 per carry). Buffalo cost themselves the game last week by only rushing the ball 13 times with their RBs against this defense that had been allowing 135 rushing yards per game and was without stud DE Olivier Vernon (out again this week). The Bills were even dumber by giving Frank Gore five of them for 12 yards (2.4 YPC). In a close game, Devin Singletary only got eight carries but picked up 5.2 yards per attempt, which shows the Browns did not improve their run D. They simply got let off the hook by poor play calling/player usage.
James Conner will be back, which is good news for the Steelers running game. In seven games with Conner, PITT averages 88 rush yards per game (66 in 2 games without). He has three RB1 games in his last four, averaging 28.1 FPPG on DK. The one “bad” game got 11 carries for 55 yards and a TD but zero targets. The lack of passing game was strange (averaging 4.6 per game) and the biggest cause for him not producing. In his three ceiling games, he has caught 18 of 19 targets for 166 yards and two receiving TDs. PITT targets their RBs at a 26.5% rate this season (5th).
Jaylen Samuels (27% target share, last 3) should go back to his usual complementary role to Conner, mixing in on passing downs and to give Conner a break. PITT was highly criticized when Conner was injured while getting his season-high 23rd carry in a game that PITT had in-hand. I see no way they run the wheels off him again in his first game back and the playoffs looking like a legit possibility. Prior to the 23 carry explosion, Conner’s ceiling game was 16 carries. His usage will be a big factor on the showdown slate, as Jaylen could become a low-owned slate winner two weeks after being the highest owned player this season. The issue with Samuel on DK is price, after being the starter for two weeks, DK has him as the 5th most expensive player, which is odd for the RB2.
Benny Snell is OUT again, which makes Trey Edmunds the RB3 and not in-play.
Mason Rudolph is exactly what you would expect, ranked QB25 at 13.1 FPPG. His “ceiling” game is 16.9 FP in week four vs CINN, so it is hard to envision him being a thing outside of the showdown slate. CLE has not been great in pass coverage either but is healthier and just held similar QBs in terms of experience/skill level (Josh and Brandon Allen) to an average of 230 yards and one passing TD.
Coming off their Week 7 bye, JuJu Smith-Schuster has caught 11/163/1 on 20 targets (18% target share/34% MS Air yards). He also leads in weighted opportunities (20.6% RZ target share). All that sounds ok, but when you look at the stat that puts money in our pockets (fantasy points), he has been terrible, with four of his last six games under 6 FP on FanDuel.
James Washington has emerged, with 17 targets since the bye, nearly matching JuJu’s production (11/80/1) on 28% MS Air yards. He even saw his first two RZ targets last game when he posted his best game as a pro (6/90/1). Both Washington and Dionte Johnson have difficult matchups against Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams on the outside, with JuJu getting T.J. Carrie for the majority of his routes in the slot. Browns will get safety Eric Murray back, which helps their depth with Jermaine Whitehead cut for being a lunatic. Both Washington and Johnson are boom or bust plays with so many passing options on a low volume offense.
Like Washington, Vance McDonald has a pulse lately, with a team-high 14 targets in his last two. It only yielded 8/41/1, but he is in the same mix as the other three for showdown.
The defenses are going to be popular in the showdown. Steelers D has been red hot all season, scoring double-digit FP on DK in seven straight. They have three games over 19 FP on DK, which is one more than JuJu. They have only allowed 16.7 PPG in their last three (4.5 YPP), which has moved them to the 3rd overall DVOA, behind NE and SF (13 sacks, 11 turnovers). A big reason for the success, like most good defenses, is a good pass rush. PITT is 3rd in sacks, 2nd in adjusted sack rate, and is first in PFFs pass-rush grade. Among all QBs with 300+ dropbacks, only Minshew has a worse passer rating than Baker. This matchup will likely come down to this matchup, with the CLE offensive line playing much better (lowest pressure rate, last four games).
After writing up the Steelers D, it’s a tough sell for Baker Mayfield, who has just one game over 20 FP. He, like Odell Beckham Jr., has had a brutal schedule this season, the worst per DVOA, which has led to the mediocre production. There is some hope if you have somehow made the fantasy playoffs with one of these two, as they finish with games against CINN, MIA and AZ (28th, 31st, 32nd).
Cleveland’s Opponents DVOA
New England, 1st – SF, 2nd – LAR, 3rd – DEN, 6th – NYJ, 11th – BUFF, 13th – BAL, 14th – TENN, 16th
The only games against teams outside the top-14, CLE posted 27 PPG. Unfortunately, PITT just gets added to the list of top defenses, making it a clean sweep in the top-4, and you can make an argument they are playing as well as any defense this season after holding the Rams to 12 points.
Odell Beckham keeps drawing top CBs, which of course is correlated to how good their opponents have been. Last week it was TRe’Davious White, who shadowed Beckham for 85.4% of his snaps and 10 of 12 targets (3/27). This week, he will see all the PITT CBs, who do not shadow. He can certainly beat any of these guys one-on-one and has the skills to get open when they play zone. Collectively, Steven Nelson, Joe Haden and Mike Hilton have been terrific, but OBJ should have more success than he did against White, who is as good as there is right now at CB. Bob Woods posted 7/95 on 11 targets against this secondary while Cooper Kupp was shutout, which gives OBJ some hope with him operating more on the outside like Woods. We have full faded the superstar in five of his last six games, but this is the week to get some exposure.
Jarvis Landry has been fantastic for us over the past few weeks, getting 33 targets while averaging 17.8 FPPG on DK. Last season against this same scheme/secondary, Landry averaged 7.5/72.5 in two games. He remains a value on DK ($5.7k) but is less desirable on the ½ PPR FD ($6.4k).
Kareem Hunt was someone I basically ignored last week, which ended up being a big mistake, as he replaced Dontrell Hilliard as the pass-catching/3rd-down back. Hunt played 38 snaps and only got four carries (which was my fear). What I did not count on is 23 pass routes and a 24% target share, the highest rate for any running back last week. He was the value play of the slate, getting 14.4 DK points at min salary, which allowed you to play CMC and Thomas as well as missing either the Singletary or Montgomery chalk flop. The price is still reasonable, assuming he gets that kind of passing work, which should make him very popular in the showdown. If he really is the passing-down back, he could get scripted out if CLE gets a lead, making him a solid fade in the large GPPs. One game is not enough for us to have clarity on his long term usage, and PITT has been lights out against RB receptions (6 in last three games).
Nick Chubb got 20 carries for his third straight game, as well as four targets, which is right in-line with his usage “Pre-Hunt.” He also got 8 RZ touches but just couldn’t punch it, which prevented the monster fantasy game. Still, considering the matchups and negative game scripts, he has been very good (RB5). Steelers are 15th in adjusted line yards and 11th in rush DVOA – allowed over 6 YPC to Gurley last week – so I have no doubt Chubb can put up another solid game, especially if he can end the three-game TD drought (PITT only allowed 4 RB TDs this season and the FEWEST FPPG to RBs in their last four games).
Rashard Higgins played a season-high 47% of CLE’s offensive snaps last week, with CLE running 56% of 3WR sets. He got more snaps with Antonio Callaway being a healthy scratch for “disciplinary reasons.” Freddy Kitchens said it was just a “one-game thing,” so expect he and Higgens to share time when they are in 3-WR formations. Higgins does not have the speed Calloway has, so they seem to favor him opposite OBJ. Too bad they can’t figure out a way to use Higgins more, as he is the much better receiver/football player. Last season, he was 7th in yards per target, 12th in FP per target, and Mayfield had a 118 passer rating when targeting him (18th), and 122 this year (7 targets). Baker had a 73 passer rating when targeting Calloway (2018) and (not making this up) a 19 passer rating this season (15 targets). I know passer rating is flawed, but when looking at apples to apples in comparison it can be helpful.
Ricky Seals-Jones (knee) practiced in full on Wednesday, but he’s a game-time decision. If he is held out, Demetrius Harris could be a cheap punt for the showdown. If RSJ goes, he’s a nice “lower owned” play with some decent upside. PITT allowed (OUR BOY) Gerald Everett 8/68 on 12 targets (Pitt has allowed the 6th highest % of FPPG to TEs).
Preferred “Core” Plays
(All Formats/Full Slate)
*As usual, I will update with Showdown slate exposure rankings on Thursday*
Exposure ranks + Expected Ownership
- James Conner – 50%
- Odell Beckham Jr. – 57%
- Nick Chubb – 30%
- Jarvis Landry – 44%
- Steelers – 30% (stack w/ Conner)
- Mason Rudolph – 30%
- JuJu Smith-Schuster – 30%
- Hunt 15% (Stack w/ Rudolph + Pitt WR)
- James Washington -17%
- Vance McDonald – 23%
- Baker – 35%
- Boswell – 14.5%
- Browns – 30% (Stack w/ Browns)
- Rashard Higgins 14% (stack w/ Baker)
- Jaylen 26%
- Austin Seibert – 13.7%
- Diontae Johnson – 14% (stack w/ Rudolph)
- Ricky Seals-Jones is a strong play if he is active (Stack w/ Baker). Would put him in the James Washington/Vance range in terms of exposure. If he is OUT, Demetrius Harris lands below Dionte Johnson in ranks, but he is a fine punt if you MME
For more insight into NFL DFS Thursday Night, refer back to Benny’s NFL DFS Monday-Thursday Slate Breakdown for his take on Steelers @ Browns!