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Four Downs: Rams offense looks sharp

11/11/2012

One of the few defenses fantasy owners are conditioned to be wary of for their offensive players is the San Francisco 49ers, a team that entered Sunday's home game with the St. Louis Rams having held its opponents to six or fewer points in four of the past five games. Really, there was little reason to be excited about Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Steven Jackson or the wide receivers this Sunday.

Now, after the Rams managed to move the football quite well (458 yards) in San Francisco and produce 24 points in the season's first tie game, it appears to be time to rethink things. After all, Bradford threw for 275 passing yards and two touchdowns, a generally ignored 19-point fantasy effort since he was active in a mere 4.8 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Certainly it helped having not only underrated wide receiver Danny Amendola back after he missed a month because of a shoulder injury, but also a running game. And while the Rams do have a rematch with San Francisco looming, they also have friendlier matchups on the schedule (Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers), which should pique the interest of fantasy owners. Bradford has three really good fantasy games this season, and Sunday was a positive step. He'll move up a few spots in Tuesday's end-of-season rankings to just outside top-20 range.

Amendola was officially targeted 12 times Sunday, catching 11 passes for 102 yards, converting seven first downs. He also broke free for an 80-yard pass play on the first play of overtime, but the play was called back because of a penalty. On Sunday, he went right back to looking like the breakout player he appeared to be when he suffered the injury in Week 5. Put simply, this is a valuable weapon for Bradford and fantasy owners, one owned in roughly half of ESPN's leagues. Bradford managed double-digit fantasy performances sans Amendola, but on Sunday, with deep threat Chris Givens inactive due to a violation of a team rule, Amendola saw twice as many targets as any other Ram, and has a 44.1 first down percentage on his targets this season. All other Rams are at 34.4 percent. Amendola is a difference-maker.

Would I have used Amendola against San Francisco? Nope, though I did add him in advance in a league, as he certainly has become start-worthy in point-per-reception formats. In his five full games this season, his worst reception total in a game is five, and he hauled in 15 passes back in Week 2. Even in standard formats, Amendola is a must-own and casual flex choice, ranking among my top 30 wide receivers, with room for advancement.

Finally, there's the surprising Jackson rushing 29 times for 101 yards and totaling 18 fantasy points, with all of the figures being season-bests. Jackson, 29, is dealing with easily his worst season. He entered Sunday with just one touchdown, he has been ceding carries to rookie Daryl Richardson, and of course there were trade-deadline rumors, as Jackson can be a free agent next summer. The 49ers entered Week 10 permitting the fewest fantasy points to running backs, even better than the Chicago Bears, so chalk this up to a rejuvenated Jackson, an older player looking not only for one last contract, but to compete in a playoff game. That last happened for him in January 2005. Jackson again warrants top-20 running back consideration again.

Second down: While Bradford thrived Sunday, the 49ers' Alex Smith was one of several starters to leave prematurely with a concussion. Smith is not a featured fantasy option to begin with, but the enticing Colin Kaepernick entered and provided 16 fantasy points in relief, most of it coming with 66 rushing yards and a touchdown. Kaepernick now has three rushing scores, and if Smith were to miss time, the youngster would warrant deep-league attention in the right matchup, like Week 12 in New Orleans and for the Niners' rematch with the Rams in Week 13. Another concussed quarterback is Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles. There's no update on his status for Week 11, but given the Eagles' awful offensive line, neither Vick nor rookie Nick Foles, who had 8 fantasy points Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys in relief of Vick, are worth starting in fantasy.

Third down: A quarterback testing conventional wisdom on whether to acquire him is Eli Manning of the New York Giants. He was terrible again Sunday, making it three consecutive games without a touchdown pass. Manning, who entered Week 10 second in the NFL in passing yards, scored just two fantasy points against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, with his average pass traveling a season-worst 7.4 yards downfield. His three-week total is 10 points. Thankfully, Manning owners have no choice but to look elsewhere in Week 11, as the Giants have their bye week. As noted by several ESPN analysts over the past week, Manning's track record and pending schedule make him worth owning for December, but this performance was unsightly. In other Giants news, running back Ahmad Bradshaw had postgame X-rays on an injured foot, but even if he's ready by Week 12, Andre Brown, who scored Sunday for the fourth consecutive week, should be owned in a lot more than 51 percent of ESPN leagues. Want some actual good Giants news? Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks had 9 catches on 14 targets for 75 yards, his best game since Week 2.

Fourth down: Entering Monday, the high scorer for the week is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, with 29 fantasy points. Flacco threw for 341 passing yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for a fourth score. Over Flacco's previous four games, he totaled 36 fantasy points, failing to top 13 in any game. Chalk this performance up to the friendliness that is the Oakland Raiders' defense. The Raiders allowed 42 points (at home) against the Buccaneers in Week 9, and 55 points Sunday. Many expected running back Ray Rice to explode Sunday, which is why the ESPN staff ranked him the top running back for the week, but he was held relatively in check, falling 39 fantasy points short of what rookie Doug Martin accomplished a week before. Instead, Flacco, Torrey Smith and forgotten tight end Dennis Pitta, who hadn't done much since Week 3, starred. Don't get too excited about the Ravens' passing game, as it will face the Pittsburgh Steelers in two of the next three weeks. This performance was about the Raiders defense, and it's mind-boggling to think what Drew Brees and the Saints might do against it in Week 11 against them. Andy Dalton and Brandon Weeden will also get their licks against Oakland, and become sleepers, later in November.