Patriots vs Steelers Fantasy Start/Sit: Ezekiel Elliott, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, More

Patriots vs Steelers Fantasy Start/Sit: Ezekiel Elliott, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, More article feature image

Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Diontae Johnson.

It's a true history-making night on Thursday Night Football as Patriots vs. Steelers has the lowest game total of our generation. It has been nearly 20 years since the over/under of a game has been below 31.

The fantasy football implications will be few and far between, and it’s unlikely contending teams are counting on players in this game — but given the injury landscape this late in the season, we must remain diligent.

Both offensive units are allergic to the red zone. The Patriots reach the scoring area 19% of the time while the Steelers are barely any better at 22% — these are two of the four worst offenses in the league. Pittsburgh’s 18th-ranked offense (according to DVOA) is a more encouraging metric, but this team has failed to score 17 points in three consecutive games. Is this supposed to get any better with the erratic Mitch Trubisky filling in for Kenny Pickett?

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We have a modest sample size of both quarterbacks over the last two seasons — Trubisky has averaged 6.7 yards per attempt while Bailey Zappe has averaged 6.9.

Neither quarterback is a fantasy asset in 1-QB formats and they also make it very difficult to feel confident in starting any pass-catcher. Let’s dive into the skill players and determine if any of them should find their way into your fantasy lineup.

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Patriots Week 14 Start/Sit

RB Ezekiel Elliott

Rhamondre Stevenson suffered a high ankle sprain last week against the Chargers, which gives Elliott workhorse-back status for TNF .

The Patriots have no choice but to lean heavily on the run. Stevenson had nine carries in the first quarter before leaving the game last week; Elliott then took over and finished with 21 touches. This type of workload puts Elliott in the RB2 range. Even in a game in which the Patriots badly struggled to move the ball, Elliott was targeted five times and had nearly 100 total scrimmage yards.

The Steelers defense is average against the run, ranking 15th in DVOA and 19th in yards per carry allowed. The Patriots should sustain enough success to keep Elliott heavily involved. If you lost Stevenson, Elliott is an easy 1-to-1 replacement.

I rank Elliott right around RB20 for the week, and I would play him over the starting back of the Texans, Seahawks or Ravens. I would also lean toward the floor of Elliott's workload over the likes of Jerome Ford, D’Andre Swift and Alexander Mattison.

WR DeVante Parker

Parker is questionable for this game (be sure to check the injury report), although I do expect him to play. Parker is the true definition of a what-the-heck flex, but there is reason for optimism if you are desperate for a spot start.

Parker is the last man standing in a receiver room that has dealt with many injuries. Demario Douglas is out, so I expect Parker to lead the team in targets. He had nine targets last week — good for a 37.5% share — which is a huge number for any receiver, but the ineptitude of this offense makes it very unlikely Parker hits paydirt.

The Steelers are the sixth-best team in DVOA defending opposing WR1s, so temper your expectations. I'd only play Parker over receivers with uncertain roles and low floors, like Tyler Boyd, Noah Brown and Wan'Dale Robinson.

Steelers Week 14 Start/Sit

RBs Najee Harris/Jaylen Warren

Harris has not practiced this week, but I do expect him to play — again, make sure to check injury reports on Thursday.

Harris continues to play more snaps and get more opportunities than Warren. Harris has been more explosive in 2023 compared to his 2022 season, creating a chunk gain on a respectable 6.9% of his carries. However, it’s clear Warren is the better bet to flip the field with a long gain.

Harris is the lesser of the two in terms of excitement, but his 13-to-2 edge in goal-to-go situations over Warren this year makes him the better bet to get into the end zone.

It’s difficult to count on Warren to get more than 10-12 touches, but if Harris is dealing with an injury and it limits his workload to any extent, this could be a chance for a Warren spike week. The Patriots defense is undoubtedly a stout unit against the run though, allowing only 3.38 yards per carry to running backs. Only 2.4% of rushes against New England have gained 15-plus yards, which is third-lowest rate in the league.

In a game the Steelers should never find themselves outside of a positive or neutral game script, you can expect a healthy amount of touches for these two backs. On a short week, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Warren push for a 50-50 type workload split, with Harris handling the goal line work. Neither of these players is in a great spot, but they are both still playable.

I rank Harris and Warren as RB2s, but if there is any indication Harris may be on a limited snap count, or if he is ruled out, Warren would be a surefire top-15 RB this week.

WR Diontae Johnson

Johnson hasn't had more than 50 yards receiving in any of the last four games, although he was able to find the end zone in garbage time last week. He is in a better spot against the Pats for a couple of reasons, and I am recommending starting him if you don't have better options.

First, Johnson has been targeted on 32% of his routes against man coverage this season, according to Sharp Football. New England plays man coverage at the second-highest rate in the NFL. Second, in Trubisky’s five starts in 2022, Johnson had a minimum of six receptions in each of those games on an average of 10.2 targets.

Johnson is a solid WR3 play and I would gladly start him over Chris Godwin, Tee Higgins, Noah Brown and George Pickens.

WR George Pickens

Pickens put up 86 receiving yards against the Cardinals on Sunday, his highest mark since Week 7 when he had 107. With that said, his target share is dramatically different when he shares the field with Johnson.

With both receivers on the field, Pickens’ target share drops to 19%, a full 10% below Johnson. In an even smaller sample, Pickens has a tiny 13% target share when Trubiskly has been in the lineup this season.

Keep Pickens on the bench this week unless you are truly desperate for a potential big play in your flex slot.

TE Pat Freiermuth

Freiermuth remains quite involved in the Steelers' passing offense and has shown he is healthy.

In Trubisky’s five starts in 2022, the tight end scored in two of those games, but also had a game in which he was held without a catch. It is clear the volatility of this passing game makes Freiermuth a shaky back-end TE1 start, at best.

The Patriots have surrendered only 6.6 yards per target to the tight ends this season, ranking them the eighth best in the league defending the position. I would opt to keep Freiermuth out of your lineup if you have any comparable option available (like Kyle Pitts, Isaiah Likely or Gerald Everett).

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