Steelers vs. Browns sit/start tips for Thursday night football

The NFL knows us too well. They drop us into the season like a fantasy battle royale match with a potential Super Bowl contest. Then, we get another banger after they pit Patrick Mahomes against Justin Herbert in Week 2.

I need a breather. The season is a marathon, not a sprint.

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The league decided to help us with that. This game might not be a future playoff matchup — a way to ease us into the weekend instead of an adrenaline rush — but it still has some weight to it. And there’s still some fantasy intrigue despite the relative lack of star power in this game.

The Battle for the AFC North Starts in Cleveland

My Bengals fandom has me disgruntled (read: embarrassed) at the prospect of being last in the division. But tonight’s winner will sit alone atop the AFC North. At least, until Baltimore plays. I was certain Cincinnati would cruise by Pittsburgh, but the Steelers offense still has some firepower.

I was concerned Diontae Johnson‘s role wouldn’t evolve with the new offense. Ben Roethlisberger‘s “grip it and rip it” approach resulted in Johnson having an aDOT of 8.8. For reference, Cooper Kupp‘s was 8.6. We’ll take a 28.8-percent target share all day. But we need targets *and* yards. He only had half that recipe for success.

Johnson’s 618 air yards ranked 25th among his peers. Again, primary slot receivers like Christian Kirk had similar metrics. This offense needed more verticality, and Mitchell Trubisky has been up to the challenge thus far.

The Steelers still have a pass-friendly offense, and Trubisky is top 12 in air yards per attempt (8.0). So we can say this offense is progressive. It’s also aggressive. Trubisky’s 14.1% deep-ball rate is well ahead of his predecessor’s (10.1%). But given their matchup, he may not have to look downfield much to come away with his second divisional win.

To their credit, Cleveland’s put together a strong offense. They’re fifth in EPA per play, and it’s not like one big performance tips the scales. They’ve been consistent.

The Browns have averaged 36.3 and 44.9 yards per drive to start the season. Both marks would have them in the top 8. However, they’ve required a “dink and dunk” approach to the passing game.

Jacoby Brissett has completed only one pass over 20 yards. He’s 26th in aDOT but still 20th in completion percentage over expected. Their backfield is “The Engine” of the offense, which is the only way they’ve been able to generate explosive plays.

Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are top-10 in runs of 10 or more yards. They’re both top-12 in EPA per attempt. But Pittsburgh’s was 12th in rush EPA allowed before losing TJ Watt. Plus, the Browns will be without Jack Conklin.

The Browns RB duo has been a fantasy boon so far this season. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

Any successful attempts to short-circuit Cleveland’s running game may leave them without answers. Regardless, there are still some fantasy options for us to consider as we head into Week 3.

Don’t Bench These Guys

Last week left me with more questions than answers. A couple of Week 1’s top performers disappeared while others are trying to get on the radar. But tonight’s contest sets up well for a few players.

So, if you’re on the fence, let’s see if I can help.

Kareem Hunt

Hunt led the backfield with two scores in Cleveland’s opener. However, his Week 2 dud made fantasy managers remember this is still a split backfield. Yet, Chubb’s monster performance didn’t come at the expense of Hunt’s usage:

Situation

Chubb

Hunt

Early Downs

16

13

Red Zone

6

2

Short yardage

3

0

Third Downs

1

0

Targets

3

2

We knew what to expect from this backfield during the draft season. Nothing’s changed. The only shift was Chubb deciding he would convert half of his red-zone touches into touchdowns. No big deal.

Regardless, Hunt’s role is secure. Both are top-12 in rushing success, but Hunt has been the more efficient receiver. Pittsburgh was 12th in rush EPA allowed during their last AFC North battle. If the defense stymies their run game, Hunt has a path to fantasy utility.

Pat Freiermuth

I’d start Pat Freiermuth without much hesitation, but fantasy managers are fickle. I’m not throwing any shade since I’m the same way. I’d at least glance at the waiver wire if I saw my tight end with just 22 yards. But we have to look past the box score with such a volatile position.

Freiermuth’s 71.8% route participation ranks eighth among all tight ends. Solid route utilization is a good start, but it doesn’t help if they only get a cardio workout. We need targets.

Luckily, the sophomore boasts a top-5 Targets per Route Run (TPRR) at 30.4%. So, he’s running routes and earning looks at a higher rate than Travis Kelce. OK, cool. But we need some efficiency or an ability to create after the catch. We can’t rely on Trubisky’s arm.

Again, Freiermuth comes through.

He’s third in YAC per reception. Plus, Freiermuth leads the team in red-zone targets. I get we may be pressing our luck by tying ourselves to an anemic offense. But there’s no doubt about his usage and potential production as a starter on your roster.

Chase Claypool

I’ll be honest. I’m not as sure about Claypool compared to the previous two recommendations. He’s yet to score a touchdown. If anything, we should start the #GetClaypoolOver50YardsInAGame challenge first.

I’ll workshop the title, but you get the idea. Claypool’s been tough to even roster. Anyway, I’m curious about his usage and how it fits into tonight’s game.

Hop back to my rant about routes and targets from earlier. Claypool has run the same number of routes as Johnson. However, the third-year starter is mostly running wind sprints. His TPRR is down at 17.1%. But, at least for tonight, I’m less concerned about the number of targets and more interested in their location.

Claypool leads the team in slot snaps, with 10 of his 11 targets coming from the interior. Garrett Wilson saw 10 of his 14 targets after running a route from a similar position. One of his Week 2 touchdowns also came while lined up close to the formation.

Claypool’s route participation already indicates he’ll be out on the field. He’ll also have the matchup to exploit, making him a potential flex option.

It May Be Time to Let Go

It’s been two weeks, and we’re still hoping some of these guys show us something. And you don’t have time to wait unless you’re undefeated. If you need roster spots, put these guys back out on the waiver wire for now.

David Njoku

“[Njoku’s] ability to generate explosive plays with his athleticism, speed and run-after-catch ability along with his productivity as a blocker on the line of scrimmage is a difficult combination to find in a single player.” – Andrew Berry, GM of the Cleveland Browns.

We’ve been bamboozled, hoodwinked and led astray. The Browns gave Njoku a hefty extension, making him the sixth-highest-paid tight end, and fantasy managers took the bait. We expected a late-round steal and got left holding the bag. And there’s not much hope on the horizon.

Again, let’s go back to routes and targets. Njoku has positive route participation (74.3%) but an abysmal 11.5% TPRR. Harrison Bryant, Njoku’s direct competition, sits at 25.0%. Bryant also has a 21.0% air yard share. Njoku only has 17 air yards.

Njoku did have one red-zone target as they battled the Jets. So, a rumble into the end zone is possible. But I’d rather take my chances with any other option on your waiver wire.

George Pickens

I can see the vision for Pickens in a future version of this offense. He profiled as a classic X-receiver in college, primarily playing on the perimeter and asked to routinely beat press coverage. And the Steelers are asking him to do the same now. But it’s not turning into fantasy production.

The Steelers have used 11 personnel on 73 of Trubisky’s 78 dropbacks. It’s why Pickens’ route participation is 92.3%. However, Trubisky is 28th in passing success rate. Pittsburgh’s wide receivers have the league’s fifth-highest rate of contested catches. And Pickens is yet to run a single route from the slot.

His target utilization (8.3%) is similar to Olamide Zaccheaus‘s (8.6%).

You’re not starting Zaccheus. Keep Pickens out of your lineup.

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