In football as in life, sometimes you just need to embrace the fact that few things are predictable. Often you also have to warmly embrace the hackneyed blog post lede. Mental defeat is a real thing.
Tonight we face the most unpredictable and perhaps treacherous of all fantasy football events: the little-used backup quarterback starting a game, and doing it on the road in Green Bay against a division rival.
That quarterback is Josh McCown. Although we’ve heard growing optimism about the state of Jay Cutler’s groin, there’s a real possibility that during a crucial time in the fantasy schedule just a few weeks before playoffs begin, a quarterback who’s started just two games since 2007 will be trusted to feed Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Gulp? Maybe, but let’s go exploring, as tonight is a litmus test for what lies ahead.
1. Can McCown deliver the deep ball?
The sample size we have to even attempt a measurement of McCown and what we can expect over his handful of spot starts beginning tonight is obviously small. Consider that your standard disclaimer, but the glistening silver lining found in Cutler’s groin injury is that while there’s never good timing for such a problem, there is better timing. And crumbling prior to the bye week as Cutler did definitely falls into the latter category. After going in cold against the Redskins, McCown has now had 15 days to work with head coach and quarterback whisperer Marc Trestman.
So that’s nice, but we need to know McCown’s presence won’t entirely zap Jeffery and Marshall of their vast ceilings. These are two wideouts who have a combined 1,101 receiving yards through seven games, yardage that’s been split almost evenly (Marshall with 540, and Jeffery with 561). That means Marshall is averaging 77.1 yards per game, and after his recent and swift emergence fueled by vertical chucking, Jeffery is even higher (80.1 yards per game).
Though he can certainly go deep and doesn’t at all lack speed, Marshall is often fed an abundance of targets up the middle while being asked to use his wingspan and general length to secure contested balls. That’s why there’s lesser concern of a drop off with him while McCown is under center due to a role which inherently comes with increased opportunities (Marshall has had double-digit targets in five of the Bears’ seven games, with 68 overall).
The concern lies with Jeffery, who needs deep, sailing balls — but accurate deep, sailing balls — to be successful. His emergence started in Week 4, and the stretch that followed drops jaws even when we include a 27-yard dud in Week 6. Over those four games Jeffery has 457 receiving yards at a pace of 22.9 yards per catch.
What’s worrisome then with a quarterback who’s held far more clipboards than footballs during games is the ability to connect consistently on those deep throws that have made Jeffery who he is thus far in 2013. Of that overall yardage during the past four weeks, 63 percent it came on just eight of his 20 total catches. That deep ballin’ included catches for 58 and 44 yards, while Marshall’s longest catch during the same period was a 28-yarder.
Deep throwing is the great unknown that will unfold tonight, though the limited sample size of 20 pass attempts and one half of football we have from this current version of McCown hints at OK things. Although only a modest six of his 14 completions went for 10 yards or more, two of those stretched the field to Jeffery (a 35-yard completion), and Marshall (a 28-yarder).
2. How much will Matt Forte’s role increase?
The answer here also sort of answers the question above, with one subtracting from the other. We can also turn back to that lack of deep passing and general explosiveness without Cutler while attempting to quantifying Forte’s increase in touches.
Again, with the exception of those two completions to Marshall and Jeffery, McCown didn’t connect deep often two weeks ago. That could change tonight after two weeks of practice, but it’s reasonable to think that a conservative approach will still be dominant with a veteran journeyman who has such limited starting experience (even though he’s been in the league since 2002, tonight will only be McCown’s 34th career start). So that adds to Forte being used prominently, and at least temporarily increasing his usage that’s already humming along swiftly at 22.4 touches per game.
Of the 36 offensive plays McCown was on the field for against Washington, Forte received either a handoff or a target on 14 of them, meaning the offense ran through him nearly 40 percent of the time. That sounds terrific for Forte owners on this evening, until we remember that the Packers own the league’s fourth-ranked rush defense, allowing only 83.6 yards per game.
3. Will Eddie Lacy run for 200 yards or 500 yards?
This is not your older brother’s Bears defense. First Brian Urlacher was old and slow, and now he’s still old but retired. Then his veteran replacement D.J. Williams went down, and most recently so did Lance Briggs with a fractured shoulder.
While Jon Bostic may be the future, he’s still young and raw, and earlier today Alen Dumonjic dug into how his inexperienced presence could contribute to the inevitable large numbers tonight from Aaron Rodgers. But the real boom here likely lies with Lacy.
The Bears are currently allowing 117.3 rushing yards per game (23rd), a plunge that’s become a little more steep of late…
- Week 7: 136 rushing yards and three touchdowns combined to Alfred Morris and Roy Helu Jr.
- Week 6: 106 yards and two touchdowns to Brandon Jacobs. Brandon Jacobs
- Week 4: 139 yards and a touchdown to Reggie Rush
Week 5 is absent there, not because I’m a dirty stat skewer, but because running isn’t really something the Saints do well ever. For the record, Pierre Thomas, Jed Collins, and Darren Sproles combined for 57 rushing yards.
Meanwhile, Lacy has averaged 98.8 rushing yards per game over the last four weeks. Owning him will end very well for you tonight.