I had a great article planned this week to highlight New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, complete with a detailed comparison of Gronk and the Detroit Lions' Week 2 matchup with Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. Unfortunately, I got scooped by fellow POD writer Christopher Tomke, so just go read his excellent article instead. It is basically what I was going to write, but just more eloquent and interesting. I'll consider this penance for being lazy and procrastinating my writing schedule.
So in the words of Peyton Manning, "Kill, kill! Omaha." Let's talk about the fantasy football flavor of the day, Jonas Gray, instead. The 24-year-old undrafted free agent from Pontiac, Michigan, broke out in a big way last week against the Indianapolis Colts by rushing for 201 yards and four touchdowns. If you had the good fortune of stashing Gray on your FanDuel team last week, just keep your favorite POD writer in mind as you Scrooge McDuck your money.
Surprisingly, the Patriots force-fed Gray the ball against the Colts. He racked up 37 carries, which accounts for over half of his 69 career carries. This was mainly due to the flow of the game, as the Patriots nursed a lead against the Colts' high-powered offense, but also because the Patriots' "starting" running back, Stevan Ridley, was placed on injured reserve several weeks ago.
Going forward, Gray is projected to serve as the Patriots' primary ball-carrying running back while Shane Vereen handles pass-catching duties out of the backfield mixed in with an occasional draw. However, as many experienced fantasy football owners have discovered the hard way, projecting anything with the Patriots while the Evil One is calling the shots is putting one's fantasy fortunes at risk. Coach Bill Belichick takes sadistic pleasure in misdirection and going against conventional wisdom and does everything in his power -- both legally and questionably -- to keep opponents guessing. It is possible that the Patriots' reacquisition of LeGarrette Blount might result in more of a committee system in the rushing attack, but I doubt that Blount will see much action this week given that he was signed on Thursday.
One problem with planning to face Gray is that there is precious little for the Lions to work with. Looking back at his college tape at Notre Dame is of little value, and his previous work was all limited to mop-up duty or serving as a change-of-pace back. Now, Gray figures to be an integral part of the Patriots' offense and their bell cow on the ground. All Teryl Austin and his defense have to work with this week is the tape of the Colts game. What this reveals is that, while Gray is obviously an effective and physical runner, two other factors came into play and contributed to his career night.
First, the Pats' offensive line had a great night. As noted by Pro Football Focus, more than half of Gray's yardage came on plays where an offensive lineman pulled to serve as a lead blocker. On those plays, Gray averaged 3.2 yards before contact. Think about that. The Lions are averaging 3.2 yards per rush, period. This shows that the offensive line was blowing huge holes for Gray and helping him reach the second level untouched. Gray deserves some credit for hitting the provided holes hard, but he was clearly working with an advantage thanks to his teammates up front.
Second, the Colts run defense had a rough night. As a unit, they are ranked seventh-worst in the league in terms of rushing yards allowed per game, with an average of 127. Against the Patriots, the Colts' front seven was absolutely dominated. Their interior linebackers were unable to shed blocks or plug gaps, allowing Gray to leak into the secondary with regularity.
Fortunately for the Lions, Gray is unlikely to provide an encore this week against the boys in blue. Stopping the run has been the Lions' bread and butter this season, as evidenced by their first overall ranking with only 68.8 yards allowed per game on the ground. The defensive line and linebackers, particularly Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy, have eaten up running lanes all season. The Pats will have a much tougher time controlling the line of scrimmage against this group. If Lions fans are looking for areas of optimism against the Pats, their defense against the Patriots' running attack is a good place to start.
Therefore, I see the Patriots relying much more heavily on their passing game this week. This does not necessarily mean that Tom Brady will be airing out deep balls on every play, but it is likely that we will see more screens and slants this week. Interestingly, even in his breakout game last week, Gray did not receive a single target in the passing game. The Patriots' running back situation seems to be clearly delineated with Vereen operating as a receiver and Gray handling only rushing duties.
While Vereen is a good player in that role, the Lions have been great in protecting against running back receptions this season. Levy and Ziggy Ansah have proven that they are screen killers over the past two seasons. Both players are sideline-to-sideline athletes and sure tacklers, two key skills when defending screens.
So what is the bottom line? I am rather confident in the Lions' ability to shut down Gray and Vereen out of the backfield. Normally, shutting down a team's rushing attack would make me optimistic in general since it makes the opponent's offense one-dimensional and theoretically easier to stop. However, that may not be the case against the Patriots. Tom Brady, Gronk and the Patriots' passing offense have been taking names of late, so I am not sure New England needs much of a running game on Sunday. Here's hoping I'm wrong.