At this stage of the season, you should take a few minutes each week to look at team defensive stats, both rushing and passing. Which teams are defending the run and the pass well? And which teams are struggling?
Analyzing these stats will help you "play the matchups" and distinguish whose breakout performances were legitimate and whose were a product of circumstance.
Take last week. Miles Austin, Jeremy Maclin and Austin Collie all emerged from nowhere to post huge fantasy games. But has the value of each actually changed?
Before you answer, consider — each was playing a winless team (Chiefs, Bucs, and Titans) that was at or near the bottom of the league in pass defense.
Here's my take on the values of these wide receivers and other players as we enter Week 6 of the NFL season.
Ronnie Brown, RB, Dolphins
A few weeks ago, I expressed concern about Brown's prospects with the Dolphins' offense in the hands of first-year starter Chad Henne. But Henne has emerged and so have the Dolphins.
That's a really good offensive line that I saw on Monday night against a solid Jets defense. Two weeks in a row, the Dolphins have lit up the scoreboard against the Bills and Jets — teams whose defenses had been playing well. Best of all, Brown is the centerpiece of it all, particularly in the red zone. I can see an argument for Brown as a top-five RB.
Cedric Benson, RB, Bengals
Benson is not involved in the passing game, which makes him a little less valuable in PPR formats. But that's about the only negative thing I can say about Cedric these days. He's a feature back on a playoff-caliber Bengals team.
Better yet, his solid performances in tough matchups (76 yards, TD vs. Steelers; 120 yards, TD vs. Ravens) bode well for more appealing matchups, including the Raiders, Browns, Lions, Chargers, and Chiefs in a six-week stretch later this year. Benson is an every-week fantasy starter and is currently my seventh-ranked running back (behind only Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Pierre Thomas, Michael Turner, Ronnie Brown and Chris Johnson).
Go get him.
Austin Collie, WR, Colts
There's nothing terribly special about Collie's skill set, but when one of the best quarterbacks of all time is throwing you the ball six, seven, and nine times, as Manning has to Collie the past three weeks, you don't need to be an athletic freak to produce solid fantasy stats. Consider Collie a flex or third receiver option until Anthony Gonzalez proves he's healthy.
Passing offenses against the Bucs
Saying the Bucs have played poorly against the pass is being kind. They've allowed 9.1 YPA, a truly atrocious number. Earlier this year, I ridiculed the Lions' 2008 pass defense, and their YPA was "only" 8.8.
If YPA doesn't mean much to you, look at it this way. In Week 1, the Bucs allowed three passing touchdowns of 40(+) yards to the Cowboys, including the only touchdowns of the year for Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton. In Week 2, Lee Evans and Terrell Owens each scored from deep; neither has any other touchdowns. In Week 3, the Bucs allowed two more passing touchdowns in the process of getting shut out. In Week 4, Santana Moss had a 59-yard touchdown and Chris Cooley posted his only touchdown of the season. In Week 5, Jeremy Maclin scored on two long touchdowns, his first two touchdowns of the year.
That's five straight weeks where the Bucs' pass defense has been lit up like a Christmas tree, even by wide receivers who haven't scored in any other game.
It's safe to say the Bucs are an ideal matchup for opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers, including this week when Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith pad their stats. If Smith doesn't have 100(+) yards and a long touchdown this week, I'll be shocked.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Eagles
Last week, Maclin showed his ability to get deep against a bad defense. That makes him a matchup starter or a bye-week fill-in, nothing more.
Miles Austin, WR, Cowboys
I had a friendly dialogue backstage this week with my colleague here Mike Salfino and Scott Pianowski of Yahoo! about the value of Austin going forward. I came out of it thinking that Austin may have moved up the list of fantasy wide receivers, but not enough to matter. Yes, Austin looked great last week, but that was largely a result of his getting to play split end against a bad defense while Roy Williams was out with injured ribs.
Austin may be better than Williams, but the Cowboys' significant investment in Williams (both monetarily and the first-round pick they gave up to acquire him) should preclude Austin from playing split end (the X-receiver position) again.
Stash Austin or start him in a pinch, but barring a Williams injury or a surprise benching, don't expect a repeat of Week 5.
Quarterbacks and wide receivers in bad/windy weather
Last week's Bills/Browns matchup was a hideous display of offensive football, and much of it was the result of two bad teams squaring off. But there was a moral from that game that you should remember for the rest of the season — don't play mediocre quarterbacks and wide receivers in bad/windy conditions.
Predicting the weather is tough, yes. But if you can adjust your lineups before kickoff on Sunday, take a minute to check out the weather conditions for all outdoor games being played up north. Don't expect good results if your quarterback or wide receiver is playing in 15-mph sustained winds.