Thursday Night Football DFS Breakdown: Steelers vs. Browns
Thursday Night Football DFS Breakdown: Steelers vs. Browns

This article is part of our Showdown/Single Game DFS Breakdown series.

Despite beating the Bills 19-16 last weekend, the Browns have been arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL this season, heading into Thursday's Week 11 game against Pittsburgh at 3-6, with two wins coming in the first four weeks. Unable to blame their struggles on injuries to key players, the Browns are still 3.0-point home favorites against the Steelers, who could blame their 5-4 record on the early season loss of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but they've actually been thriving, coming in on a four-game win streak after beating the Chargers, Dolphins, Colts and Rams, respectively. Interestingly, Thursday's game is the first of two games these teams will play over the next three weeks, for whatever that's worth (nothing).

QUARTERBACKS

Following the Week 9 loss to the Broncos, RotoWire's Jerry Donabedian outlined in his Hidden Stat Line article just how awful Baker Mayfield ($9,000 DK, $15,000 FD) was up until that point in the season:

  • Updated Baker Mayfield ranks among 33 qualified passers: 33rd in completion percentage (58.7), 18th in YPA (7.2), 31st in TD rate (2.6), 32nd in INT rate (4.4), 23rd in sack rate (7.8), 28th in QBR (35.6), 19th in PFF grade (70.7).

He bounced back slightly in Week 10, completing 26 of 38 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns against a tough Bills defense, and while he didn't turn the ball over for the second consecutive game, his 6.3 YPA was his sixth time in the past seven games under 7.0 (for reference, Sam Darnold has gone over 7.0 in three of his last five). He's surprisingly the most expensive player on FanDuel, though three other players, including two teammates, are more on DraftKings. Meanwhile, the Steelers have been solid against quarterbacks this season, including holding the Rams' Jared Goff to 243 yards and zero touchdowns last weekend, though Goff isn't nearly as good as Tom Brady and Russell Wilson, who lit them up in Weeks 1 and 2, but no quarterback has scored more than 21 DraftKings fantasy points against them since Wilson. Mayfield's price on FanDuel seems tough to stomach, especially with running backs capable of matching him, not to mention just using his receivers instead, but he makes for a more reasonable play on DraftKings, even if you're still forced to pay down elsewhere if you want to combine him with his weapons.

Meanwhile, Mason Rudolph ($8,400 DK, $14,500 FD) is the second-most expensive player on FanDuel but the seventh-most on DraftKings, as similarly to Mayfield, his skill position teammates sit above him. The Steelers have been fine using Rudolph's arm, as he threw 36, 35 and 38 passes in the past three games, respectively, though with corresponding 7.0, 5.5 and 6.4 YPAs, it's clear he's not being asked to do much, which contributed to his total of 684 yards and four touchdowns over that span. If there's one thing we can focus on in terms of Rudolph it's that he spreads his targets around pretty significantly, so if you want a piece of the Steelers' aerial attack, he's likely to be the safest. Unfortunately, safety is his biggest positive, as his upside is fairly limited, which keeps him from being a standout captain/MVP option. Mayfield has at least shown upside at points that will make some people consider him, though neither quarterback seems best suited for the 1.5x multiplier.

RUNNING BACKS

One reason to not be as optimistic about Rudolph's passing volume is the return of James Conner ($10,800 DK, $14,500 FD), the most expensive player on DraftKings and second-most on FanDuel. The Steelers could certainly utilize him, as they've been using a combination of Jaylen Samuels ($8,800 DK, $10,000 FD), Trey Edmunds ($3,200 DK, $7,00 FD) and some guy named Tony Brooks-James ($800 DK, $5,000 FD) while Conner sat out with a shoulder injury, but it's clear the team prefers to use Conner as much as possible when he's healthy, as we see with their carry trend:

Week-by-Week Carries     12345678910
PlayerPosAvgTotMinMax@NESea@SFCinBal@LAC-MiaIndLAR
James ConnerRB13.9971023101113101416BYE23--
Jaylen SamuelsRB5.740014230103-BYE-814
Trey EdmundsRB4.317012-----0BYE1124
Benny SnellRB4280170132017BYE5--
Tony Brooks-JamesRB3.5716------BYE-16
Devlin HodgesQB2.5523----23BYE---
Mason RudolphQB1.91304-1430-BYE032
Ben RoethlisbergerQB0.510110----BYE---
Diontae JohnsonWR0.2201001000BYE010
Johnny HoltonWR0.1101001000BYE000
Vance McDonaldTE0.1101000-00BYE001

Only one game this season has a player gotten more carries than Conner, and that happened in Week 6 when he hurt his shoulder. Now that he's without an injury designation, there's every reason to think they'll go back to heavily relying on him, which will cause many to consider using him as captain/MVP.

Samuels has mostly been used as a pass catcher, but even his available targets will likely decrease because of Conner's return, and his salary is priced as if he's still the starter. If you think he gets enough receiving volume to outscore some of the wide receivers, that's certainly in the realm of possibilities, but he isn't going to have any goal-line work and his minus-0.6 aDOT shows that a long touchdown reception is highly unlikely. Edmunds and Brooks-James, if the latter is even active, are extreme long-shots and unlikely to make any kind of impact unless Conner and/or Samuels get hurt.

The Browns' backfield situation has been pretty clear for most of the season, with Nick Chubb ($10,600 DK, $14,000 FD) dominating the touches. The return of Kareem Hunt ($5,800 DK, $9,000 FD) last week was supposed to eat into Chubb's work, but that didn't happen, with Chubb rushing 20 times for the fourth consecutive game while racking up 116 rushing yards and catching two of four targets for five receiving yards. That's not to say Hunt wasn't used, but it was much more as a pass-catcher, as he caught seven of nine targets for 44 yards while adding 30 rushing yards on four carries. The expectation is that Chubb will continue to get most of the carries, and while he didn't see a big drop in targets last week, that could come if Hunt keeps getting worked out wide and in the slot. There are plenty of mouths to feed in the Browns' passing game, which actually helps Chubb's status as their primary ball carrier. Chubb's captain/MVP ownership may not be quite as high because of hesitations about Hunt, who isn't really a safe 1.5x multiplier option, though people who believe in the Browns shouldn't be called crazy if both backs are rostered together. If anything, it pretty much takes Dontrell Hilliard ($2,400 DK, $6,000 FD) and D'Ernest Johnson ($600 DK, $5,000 FD) out of the picture, though the latter wasn't really in it anyway.

WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS

Hunt's addition to the passing game doesn't seem likely to help Odell Beckham ($9,200 DK, $11,500 FD) or Jarvis Landry ($8,000 DK, $12,000 FD), though both were heavily targeted last week when Mayfield threw at least 38 passes for the third time this season. Beckham continues to be priced on DraftKings for potential rather than production, as he is the third-most expensive player on the slate despite two games with at least 100 yards this season and zero touchdowns since Week 2 when he had six catches on 10 targets for 161 yards and a TD against the Jets. He's been targeted fewer than 10 times in five of his past seven games, but his 11.2 aDOT (the highest among Browns wide receivers) will continue to remind people that he can still get targeted down field and has the speed to break it for a touchdown. Meanwhile, Landry is more expensive on FanDuel because he's scored a touchdown in consecutive games, but he's also been significantly more targeted, with 33 in the past three games, including at least 10 in each. Landry's 9.1 aDOT naturally keeps his potential yardage upside lower than Beckham's, but their cumulative stats are so similar that it's a wonder why he's decently cheaper than Beckham on DraftKings. The two top wideouts are also getting a significant share of the target pie, as Landry's 77 targets and Beckham's 79 are 62 and 64 more, respectively, than the next three non-running-back pass catchers on the team (Chubb is third with 36).

Coincidentally, the two wide receivers who have been targeted 15 times this season, Damion Ratley ($1,800 DK, $5,000 FD) and Antonio Callaway ($2,800 DK, $6,000 FD) were both inactive last week (the fourth consecutive inactive game for Ratley), and while Callaway is expected back Thursday (head coach Freddie Kitchens described his absence as a one-game benching), it's tough to get excited about a player whose best game came in the week before the benching, catching four of five targets for 56 yards at Denver. [Editor's note: Callaway was waived Thursday]. He seems like the clear no. 3 wide receiver, but he's also likely to be the fifth, sixth or seventh option for Mayfield. Interestingly (or not), tight end Demetrius Harris ($4,200 DK, $6,500 FD) is the only player other than Beckham and Landry to be targeted multiple times in the past three games:

Week-by-Week Targets     12345678910
PlayerPosAvgTotMinMaxTen@NYJLAR@Bal@SFSea-@NE@DenBuf
Kareem HuntRB9999------BYE--9
Odell BeckhamWR8.879612111097611BYE7612
Jarvis LandryWR8.6775137791065BYE101310
Nick ChubbRB43617447416BYE154
Antonio CallawayWR3.81535----34BYE35-
David NjokuTE3.571661----BYE---
Damion RatleyWR3152523532-BYE---
Ricky Seals-JonesTE21406-02316BYE02-
Rashard HigginsWR1.87133-----BYE211
Dontrell HilliardRB1.814042-0303BYE420
Demetrius HarrisTE1.71504112020BYE342
D'Ernest JohnsonRB0.8704240010BYE000
Stephen CarlsonTE0.5101------BYE-10
Pharaoh BrownTE0.4301010101BYE0-0
Taywan TaylorWR0.3101-100--BYE---
KhaDarel HodgeWR0.1101000000BYE010

I don't think there's much to that, especially since he maxed out at four targets during that span, but he's trending in the right direction, having been targeted six times in the first six games. The potential return of Ricky Seals-Jones ($3,600 DK, $8,000 FD) could hurt slightly, though it's not like his upside was that great anyway, with his 5.8 aDOT the lowest on the team among non-running backs. 

The most obvious thing about the Steelers' pass catchers this season is about how disappointing JuJu Smith-Schuster ($8,600 DK, $10,500 FD) has been, though that was a pretty direct reaction to Roethlisberger's injury. While he still leads the team in targets (57), receptions (36), receiving yards (503), air yards (591) and touchdowns (three, tied with two others), he has just one game with at least 100 yards and he's had three or fewer receptions five times, including each of the past two games when he was targeted five times in each. He remains their best receiving option, but the Steelers just don't throw enough, nor in upside situations, to make Smith-Schuster a reliable option at his price.

As mentioned earlier, Rudolph has been spreading his passes around, with James Washington ($5,600 DK, $9,500 FD), Diontae Johnson ($6,400 DK, $8,500 FD) and Vance McDonald ($5,400 DK, $7,500 FD) each targeted well over the past three games. Washington and Johnson have each had solid games over that span, while McDonald continues to be more of an underneath bail-out option who doesn't provide much in terms of long-play optimism. Washington's 15.1 aDOT is very solid, and his 542 air yards are the second-most on the team, which is probably why he's more expensive than Johnson on FanDuel, as he doesn't rely on volume as much. Then again, Johnson has three touchdowns (the same as McDonald and Smith-Schuster), and his 46 targets, 30 receptions and 363 receiving yards are second on the team. If you have the expectation that the Steelers' won't be passing enough to get significant value out of Smith-Schuster, paying down for Washington or Johnson makes sense in terms of exposure of that part of the offence, while McDonald is a low-yardage tight end who leads the team in red-zone targets (eight), as well as targets inside the 10-yard line (four).

None of the Steelers' receivers seem like safe captain/MVP choices, but obviously players like Smith-Schuster and Washington can break long plays at any moment. For those who build more lineups trying to be optimal, a focus on the Pittsburgh backfield and non-receiver positions seems like the right path.

KICKERS

Neither the Browns' Austin Seibert ($3,800 DK, $9,000 FD) nor the Steelers' Chris Boswell ($4,000 DK, $9,500 FD) have been particularly great this season that they warrant any more consideration than the fact that Thursday's game is expected to be close and not high scoring (the total is only 41.5). The Browns' continued struggles on offense should give Seibert more opportunities, which we saw in Week 9 against Denver when he made all four of his field-goal attempts, but he only got two last week against Buffalo. The Steelers' defense is solid, so it wouldn't be surprising if they kept the Browns out of the end zone enough to give Seibert multiple opportunities again.

Meanwhile, Boswell has scored double-digit fantasy points in four of his last six games, though his lowest output during that span was the 5.0 he had just last week. If the Steelers can get Conner to move the ball down field, Boswell's opportunities will follow, but as always, kickers are probably better off for cash games because they're more reliable than the players in their salary ranges.

DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS

The Steelers ($5,200 DK) defense has been quite solid this season, and they've scored at least 11.0 fantasy points in every game since Week 2. They benefited from touchdowns in three of their last four games, a span that also saw them pick up 15 sacks and 14 turnovers, so there's surely going to be interest in them against Mayfield, even if he's been safer with the ball lately. In fact, there's an argument to be made that they're the safest captain option because of their recent floor and price.

The price of the Browns ($4,600) defense is surprising given they've scored more than nine fantasy points twice this season, with the last one coming back in Week 4 at Baltimore. They've been particularly bad at forcing turnovers, with zero interceptions and just two fumble recoveries in the past five games, so the similarities in price to the Steelers is a bit puzzling. Then again, those with multiple lineups should certainly keep them in their builds, if only because of the extremely variant nature of turnovers and defensive touchdowns, and the fact they aren't likely to be highly owned.

The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire. Andrew M. Laird plays in daily fantasy contests using the following accounts: FanDuel: kingmorland, DraftKings: andrewmlaird, Yahoo: Lairdinho.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrew M. Laird
Andrew M. Laird, the 2017 and 2018 FSWA Soccer Writer of the Year, is RotoWire's Head of DFS Content and Senior Soccer Editor. He is a seven-time FSWA award finalist, including twice for the Football Writer of the Year Award.
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