MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
These third-year backs broke out last season by carrying their respective teamsto the AFC Championship Game. But will either have much room to run when theygo head-to-head in Week 9?
After splitting time with Mike Anderson last season and Mike Bell early thisyear, the 2004 second-round pick out of Oklahoma State finally become Denver'smain man--or so it seemed until Sunday, when the time-share reared its headagain in a loss to the Colts: Mike Bell got more carries (15--13) and outgainedTatum 136--27. Mike also ran for two touchdowns, which matched Tatum's seasontotal.
The undrafted speedster also broke free of a time-share this season (he splitthe load with Jerome Bettis last year), but the results have been mixed. Parkerhas rushed for 100-plus yards three times this year but followed thoseperformances with totals of 20, 57 and 47 yards, with just one TD in thosegames. Overall, however, he has rushed for five scores (on just 148 carries),ranking him fifth in rushing TDs.
Denver's and Pittsburgh's defenses hold their opponents to fewer than 95rushing yards per game, so neither back figures to break the century mark. Butas long as coach Mike Shanahan gives him the chance, Bell's the better bet toreach the end zone this week; the Broncos have yet to allow a rushing TD.
THE INSIDE MAN
Owners who feared that K.C.'s Tony Gonzalez was washed up should breathe a lotmore easily
IT LOOKS as if there's hope for owners of Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez afterall. A perennial fantasy stud and one of the game's best at his position, the30-year-old Gonzalez was one of the biggest early-season disappointments, withonly 187 receiving yards through his first five games. While critics thoughtthose numbers indicated a decline in Gonzalez's skills, they were more theproduct of a hamstrung Kansas City offense.
Because ofturnover at offensive tackle--Willie Roaf's retirement on the left side andKyle Turley's back injury on the right--Gonzalez had to block more than inprevious years. Only in the last two games, as Jordan Black and Kevin Sampsonhave settled into the tackle spots, have the Chiefs stressed getting Gonzalezthe ball. In Week 7 he had six catches for a season-high 138 yards against theChargers, then followed that with six catches for 116 yards against theSeahawks on Sunday. Gonzalez owners can expect similar production in the weeksahead. "We feel like we can release him more [on pass plays] now," saysK.C. coach Herman Edwards. "He's a big weapon in our offense, and we haveto get him going."
Like Gonzalez, Broncos wideout Javon Walker is beginning to pay dividends.Though the Denver offense has been surprisingly conservative over the first fewweeks, he has delivered when called upon, including a nine-catch, 107-yard dayagainst the Browns in Week 7 and a TD catch against the Colts on Sunday. He'llput up even bigger numbers as the coaches develop trust in quarterback JakePlummer and his young receivers, such as wideout David Kircus and rookie tightend Tony Scheffler. "You don't know what you've got until you try,"Walker says. "Hopefully we'll make them more comfortable with goingdownfield more."
WES IS MORE
Dolphins wide receiver Wes Welker wasn't on many rosters when the fantasyseason began, but now he's worth a spot--and he'll become more valuable asMiami finds ways to energize its attack. Though he was mainly a returnspecialist when the season started, Welker already has caught 39 passes for 393yards. Says one assistant coach who has faced the Dolphins, "He's the mostunderestimated guy in the NFL. He's legit--faster than you think. He's theirbig-play, go-to receiver."
SEATTLE'S SLEW OFWIDEOUTS
Despite all the talk about multiple receiver formations, Nate Burleson isstarting to look like the odd Seahawk out. The fourth-year man lost hisstarting spot to Deion Branch and was in for only a dozen plays in a Week 7loss to the Vikings, his old team. On Sunday, Burleson caught one pass for 21yards against the Chiefs, giving him a total of eight receptions for 125 yardsin seven games. And it's not that interim quarterback Seneca Wallace isthrowing fewer passes than Matt Hasselbeck, who's out for at least two moreweeks with a strained right knee ligament; Wallace threw 30 times in Sunday'sloss to the Chiefs.
PETER KING ITHINK ...
... it's time to make strategic judgments on the new coaches
THERE ARE sevenrookie head coaches in the NFL this year, but as Week 9 approaches they're notreally rookies anymore. Their offensive philosophies have already become clear,and you can draw conclusions about them that will help solidify your roster forthe stretch run.
Take, forinstance, the Rams' Scott Linehan. I chatted with him one morning last week atthe team's complex outside St. Louis and heard the word balance about 15 timesin 45 minutes. When Linehan, an aficionado of the passing game, got the job, Ithought he'd stick with a bombs-away offense piloted by quarterback MarcBulger, and maybe even reduce Steven Jackson's running role. That hasn'thappened. "Any offense, regardless of coaching philosophy, needs to run towin," Linehan said. The result: In St. Louis's first seven games, Linehancalled pass plays 59.5% of the time (the league average is 55.4%), and over thefinal nine games he plans to rely on the ground game even more. Jackson'sworkload, meanwhile, has been remarkably consistent: 22, 22, 24, 22, 23, 20 and18 carries.
With that inmind, fantasy owners who need rushing help should consider packaging a slightlylesser back and another player--say, Brian Westbrook and a No. 3 receiver--topick up Jackson for the second half. And it might be wise to acquire Jackson'sbackup, Stephen Davis, as an insurance policy.
Owners can gainsimilarly valuable information by studying the other new offensive minds.Observe how Jets coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is not overly loyal to hisbig-name veterans, making plays for relative unknowns like Jerricho Cotcheryand Leon Washington. Notice how Vikings coach Brad Childress, who loves tothrow the ball, loves to possess it even more: Entering Monday night's game,Chester Taylor was averaging 22.8 carries a game, third in the league. Statsand trends don't lie. Use them.
Alge Crumpler isn't the only Atlanta receiver benefiting from Michael Vick'snewfound confidence. Jenkins has had acrobatic TD catches in two straightgames.
The league's best No. 3 wideout came back from a suspension and benching with afive-catch, 81-yard, one-TD game.
He joined Donald Driver and Greg Jennings as Green Bay's multi-TD receiversthis year.
The rookie came within one yard of the first 100-yard receiving game for aHouston tight end.
Peyton Manning's offense looks smoother with quick, strong rookie Joseph Addai(17 carries, 93 yards on Sunday) in the backfield.
His brief window of fantasy relevancy closes when Shaun Alexander steps back onthe field on Monday night.
Reeling from injuries to linebacker Shaun Phillips and tackle Igor Olshansky,the unit takes another hit if Shawne Merriman's steroid suspension isupheld.
Back-to-back stinkers against the Raiders and the Packers--defenses that stopno one--should end any thought of putting him in your lineup.
Read Peter King's10 Fantasy Things I Think I Think and analysis from David Sabino atSI.com/fantasy.
Freed from his blocking load, Gonzalez has returned to his accustomedproductivity
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Welker has emerged as Miami's top pass-catcher.
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