Ten most intriguing players of Week Eight

Posted Oct. 26, 2011 @ 5:54 p.m.
Posted By Pat Fitzmaurice

1. Chris Johnson — One of the many frustrating aspects of owning Johnson this season is that the running back appears to be fully healthy, so it's hard not to keep throwing him into the starting lineup each week, even though he's playing like a mere shadow of his old self. The paucity of production is stunning when you consider that this is a guy who had a 2,000-yard rushing season and has scored better than 12 TDs per season. Through six games he has one TD, one 100-yard game, an average of 2.9 yards per carry and a long run of 25 yards. Johnson's season might have hit a nadir last week when he carried 10 times for 18 yards in Tennessee's 41-7 loss to Houston and caught six passes for 27 yards. This week, Johnson and the Titans have a home date with the Colts and their nonexistent run defense. Indy gave up 236 rushing yards to the Saints last week and ranks 31st against the run. If C.J. puts up lousy numbers against a run defense as porous as the Colts', his fantasy owners are liable to kick him out of the lineup for good, past accomplishments be damned.

2. Mike Wallace — This weekend's matchup between the Steelers and Patriots is a gem, and if the Patriots used their Week Seven bye to devise a brilliant offensive game plan for this one (would you expect anything less from the Pats?), the Steelers might need a big game out of Wallace in order to keep up (would you expect anything less from Wallace?). Not only is Wallace the NFL's premier deep threat, sporting a gaudy average of 20.3 yards per catch, but he's also turned into a remarkably consistent performer. His lowest single-game yardage total for the season was a 76-yard performance in Week Six, and in that game he had a 48-yard reception and a 28-yard TD catch. If there's a way to stop Wallace, the Patriots are unlikely candidates to make that discovery. New England is the only team in the league giving up more than 300 passing yards per game, and while part of that is due to the fact that opponents are so often throwing in an attempt to keep pace with Brady and Co., it still would be a stretch to suggest that the Patriots' pass defense is adequate.

3. Drew Brees — The NFL schedule is bestowing upon Brees a generous midseason mitzvah (Hebrew for "good deed"). Last week, Brees was granted the opportunity to pick his teeth with a Colts defense that might have trouble stopping a high school girls' powder-puff team. Brees completed 31-of-35 passes for 325 yards and five TDs, and hardly broke a sweat in doing so. This week, Brees and the Saints visit the cozy confines of the Edward Jones Dome to face the Rams, whose defense is only incrementally less awful than that of the Colts. The only concern for Brees owners is that Sean Payton and his staff might opt to exploit the Rams' 32nd-ranked run defense, which could mean merely good numbers for Brees instead of great ones.

4. DeMarco Murray — Not too shabby for a first NFL start, eh? Murray appeared on this list last week, but a return appearance is certainly warranted. It obviously would be unrealistic to expect Murray to duplicate his 253-yard performance against the Rams in Week Seven, but the upcoming Sunday-night matchup against the Eagles is another juicy one for the rookie running back: The Eagles have tackled like a Pop Warner team this season. In light of Philadelphia's sloppy run defense and its multitude of competent cornerbacks, logic would seem to dictate a run-heavy game plan for the Cowboys. But then again, the fourth-ranked Dallas passing attack isn't just window dressing. Jason Garrett has suggested that another 25-carry day for Murray is unlikely, and it's possible that the Cowboys could give a few more carries to the promising Phillip Tanner, who ran six times for 34 yards and a TD last week.

5. Bernard Scott — Cedric Benson's one-game suspension finally will give Scott the extended audition that his supporters long have been clamoring for, but Scott might have to produce DeMarco Murray-type numbers in Seattle this weekend to have any chance of shoving Benson out of Cincinnati's starting lineup. Benson has continued to give the Bengals and their fans the same sort of reliable mediocrity they've become accustomed to after three-plus seasons. Scott is faster and more explosive, and in many ways he seems to be a better fit for Jay Gruden's offense than Benson, but Scott is also frustratingly fragile and has never been able to make a particularly strong case for an increased role. He could start to make that case on Sunday, but he'll have to do it against a Seahawks run defense that's yielding only 3.1 yards per carry and hasn't given up a run of longer than 21 yards.

6. Cam Newton — In the spirit of the Halloween season, Aaron Rodgers sliced his way through the Vikings' secondary last Sunday in much the same way that Michael Myers slashed his way through Haddonfield, Ill. Rodgers completed his first 13 throws against the Vikings and finished with 335 yards, three TDs and a completion rate of 80 percent. Now, Newton gets to take his turn with the Minnesota pass defense, which again wil be without arguably its best cover corner, Chris Cook, suspended indefinitely by the team after being charged with domestic assault. The Vikings also played without CB Antoine Winfield and S Jamarca Sanford last week, and it's not clear whether either will be healthy enough to return to action. Newton has gone three games without a 300-yard passing day, and he has thrown only one TD pass in his last two games, but an aerial jackpot is there for the taking against the wayward Vikes. And of course, there's a fine chance Newton will add to his total of seven rushing TDs. Do you think Cam already has decided which suit he's going to wear when he claims his Rookie of the Year award?

7. Ahmad Bradshaw — Before enjoying a Week Seven bye, Bradshaw ran for 104 yards and three TDs against the Bills in Week Six. He'll try to pick up where he left off, and with a home game against the Dolphins, his prospects for doing so are encouraging. Although there are no visible signs of an impending mutiny against Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, one suspects that morale was higher among the crew of the Bounty than it is inside the Dolphins' locker room. Bradshaw's big game against Buffalo came with Brandon Jacobs sidelined by a knee injury. Jacobs has been practicing this week, and if he's back, he could put a dent in Bradshaw's workload.

8. Matt Schaub — Even with star WR Andre Johnson out of the lineup, Schaub is still capable of throwing up good numbers. He was clinically efficient in the Texans' blowout of the Titans last week, completing 18-of-23 passes for 296 yards and two TDs. In the three full games that Johnson has missed, Schaub has thrown five TD passes and averaged 310.7 passing yards per game. But is there any question that Schaub owners are eagerly anticipating Johnson's return? It's possible that No. 80 could return from his hamstring injury this week, but we might not know for certain until close to kickoff of Houston's early-afternoon game against Jacksonville. With Arian Foster healthy and wreaking havoc, and with Johnson close to being back, Schaub could be on the verge of some big days

9. Philip Rivers — Most of the conversations about Rivers these days start with the words "What's wrong with …" So let's not buck the trend: What's wrong with Rivers? Darned if I know. That funky throwing motion is suddenly producing fewer TDs and more interceptions. On the bright side, Rivers' completion rate (64.7 percent) and his passing yardage (285.8 yards per game) suggest that he's fine. What's alarming is that five of the six opponents San Diego has faced rank in the bottom half of the league in pass defense. The only good pass defense Rivers has faced is that of the Jets, who held Rivers to a 50 percent completion rate last week, limited him to a season-low 179 passing yards and intercepted him twice. Now Rivers has a return date with the Chiefs, who held him without a TD pass in Week Three and also picked him off twice (something he has done four times this season). The guess here is that Rivers is about to turn in his best game of the season, but at this point, another mediocre performance wouldn't be a total surprise.

10. Ray Rice — The Ravens will be bringing a significant load of anger into their home game against the Cardinals this weekend after an embarrassing 12-7 loss Monday night in Jacksonville. In the aftermath of that debacle, star OLB Terrell Suggs openly expressed his dismay Rice had taken only eight handoffs on the night. Indeed, Rice had carried the ball 48 times in Baltimore's two previous games, but he's gaining 3.5 yards per carry over his last three contests, and after scoring four TDs in his first four games, he's now gone two consecutive weeks without scoring. It's a reasonably safe bet that Rice will run the ball more than eight times against the Cardinals, but with Joe Flacco struggling and the offensive line performing at less than peak efficiency, a heavier workload for Rice might not be enough to repair all of the Ravens' offensive problems.