In "Exploit or Avoid," we take a close look at some of the week's more favorable — and tough — matchups for skill-position players. Here's who we like on each side of the ledger in Week Seven:
Bears WR Earl Bennett (vs. Detroit) — OK, so he's a deep sleeper, a player available in roughly 98 percent of Yahoo! leagues as of Tuesday night. But with Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Diego on bye, fantasy owners might be looking for WR reinforcements. Bennett wasn't on my radar at the beginning of the week, but colleague Dan Parr tabbed him as a Week Seven sleeper, piquing my interest. And with Alshon Jeffery out with a hand injury, Bennett could be a nifty roll-of-the-dice play on Monday night vs. Detroit. Bennett, who's slated to return after a hand injury of his own, had six catches for 81 yards in his lone outing against Detroit a season ago. Bennett has good hands and knows how to work open, and while he doesn't have great speed, he has Jay Cutler's trust.
Texans WR Andre Johnson (vs. Baltimore) — In his last two games against the Ravens, Johnson has hauled in 17 passes for 251 yards and two TDs. The Ravens' defense was struggling even before losing top cover corner Lardarius Webb to a season-ending knee injury. This should be a matchup that Johnson — who has had just 17 catches for 239 receiving yards and one TD in the last five games — can win.
Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman (vs. New Orleans) — Notable quarterbacks on bye this week: Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Philip Rivers. That's tough. However, if Freeman is your backup, you should feel a little better. The Saints are allowing 283.2 passing yards per game, and Freeman has thrown for a combined 627 yards and four TDs in his last two starts. Oh, and if you're looking for a bye-week fill-in on waivers, he's available in more Yahoo! leagues than you might suspect.
Patriots RB Stevan Ridley (vs. N.Y. Jets) — The Jets limited the Colts to 41 rushing yards in Week Six. My advice to Ridley owners? Tip your cap, put Ridley in the lineup and make the Jets' defense prove they can stop this running game. The Jets have allowed 169 or more rushing yards in 4-of-6 games. Ridley's a must-play.
Minnesota defense (vs. Arizona) — When these teams met last season, the Vikings sacked Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb four times and forced four turnovers in a 34-10 rout. Well, the 2012 Vikings have a better defense, and the 2012 Cardinals are on pace to surrender 75 sacks. It's no surprise that Pat Fitzmaurice has the Vikings atop his fantasy defense rankings this week.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton (vs. Pittsburgh) — He's on pace to throw for about 4,600 yards and 32 TDs. There are the aforementioned fantasy-starter QBs on bye. So why am I including Dalton on this list? He just didn't play all that well against Pittsburgh in 2012, completing less than half of his passes. The Steelers' pass defense, while not as sharp as it was a season ago, is still allowing the fourth fewest yards per game through the air. What's more, the Steelers are seventh in yards per pass surrendered. This is a defense that usually succeeds in keeping the play in front of it, too, which (theoretically) could limit some of the Bengals' big-play punch. (Though A.J. Green is simply awesome, and that's no theory.) If Dalton is your best option in Week Seven, play him and hope for a rainmaker or two to Mr. Green. But I wouldn't rush Dalton into the lineup expecting a huge game.
49ers RB Frank Gore (vs. Seattle) — With the Seahawks allowing a paltry 3.3 yards per carry and having given up only two rushing TDs all season, Gore isn't an automatic start if you have good RB depth. With the 49ers' running backs not heavily involved in the passing game, and with Kendall Hunter getting about seven carries per contest, Gore's upside is a little limited against stout run defenses like this.
Lions RB Mikel Leshoure (at Chicago) — A little more than a year ago, the Lions, with the speedy Jahvid Best the focal point, racked up 181 yards on just 20 carries in a Monday-night win vs. Chicago. Six days later, the Bears hosted the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, a past tormentor. Well, the Bears did something about their run-defense issues, holding Peterson in check and allowing just 53 yards on 17 carries. And that improvement was no fluke. In the 16 games since the Bears' defense faltered in Detroit, Chicago has surrendered more than 100 rushing yards just four times (1-3 record in those games). Opponents have gained just 74.6 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry in this span. While fantasy owners are better having Leshoure on the roster than not having him, they are probably better off looking elsewhere for RB help in Week Seven.
Cardinals RB William Powell (at Minnesota) — Powell played well in the most extensive regular-season action of his career in Week Six, racking up 70 rushing yards on 13 carries. However, that was against the Bills' defense, which isn't strong against the run. The Vikings, meanwhile, are allowing just 3.7 yards per rush attempt and have allowed just four TDs in 155 opponent carries.
Seahawks WR Sidney Rice (at San Francisco) — Strong, tall and athletic, Rice can stress secondaries when running deep. However, conditions aren't favorable for the Seahawks to connect on downfield throws Thursday night. The 49ers rank second in the league in passing yards per game (183.2) and are first in passing yards per play (6.0), and their pass rush must be respected despite mustering only nine sacks thus far.