3 Week 12 Storylines to Watch: The Search for Pass-Catching Replacements

A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, and Zach Miller all sustained injuries last week, creating voids for both the Bengals and Bears. Who will step up?

In Week 11, Dak Prescott continued his quest to become the NFL MVP with another strong showing against the Baltimore Ravens while Jameis Winston led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a road win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

We also witnessed the Green Bay Packers record their fourth-straight loss, falling to the Washington Redskins.

As we move towards Week 12 we will discuss a few key injuries from last week -- and the fallout from them moving forward -- as well as a marquee matchup in the AFC West.

Life Without A.J. and Gio

One of the most significant developments from Week 11 was A.J. Green's hamstring injury. While early reports are that the injury is not as serious as initially anticipated, the NFL’s leader in receiving yards per game has already been ruled out for this week's game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Throw in Giovani Bernard's season-ending ACL injury, and Cincinnati is now down their two most targeted pass-catchers.

Below is a table showing the Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics for all Bengals’ pass-catchers with 10 or more targets through Week 11.

Name Pos Rec Tar Rec NEP Rec NEP/T Catch Rate
A.J. Green WR 66 100 75.72 0.76 66.00%
Brandon LaFell WR 33 55 35.57 0.65 60.00%
Giovani Bernard RB 39 51 18.29 0.36 76.47%
Tyler Boyd WR 33 50 21.20 0.42 66.00%
C.J. Uzomah TE 17 29 14.73 0.51 58.62%
Tyler Eifert TE 16 25 19.38 0.78 64.00%
Jeremy Hill RB 9 13 3.43 0.26 69.23%
Tyler Kroft TE 10 12 5.73 0.48 83.33%

Brandon LaFell, who saw nine targets last week following Green’s injury, will now likely be forced into the vacated lead wide receiver role in Green’s absence. Tyler Boyd should also see increased action, but neither has been particularly effective so far. Perhaps the best bet to assume a larger workload is Tyler Eifert.

Eifert has played at least 80 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in each game since Week 8 and has seen 23 targets, second-most on the team during that span. He also ranks 12th in Reception NEP per target (0.77) among 42 tight ends with 20 or more targets.

While Eifert, LaFell, and Boyd are all capable NFL talents, there’s no question that the Bengals’ passing game is going to suffer in Green’s absence. And while the Bengals are hopeful he can return in 2016, with the playoffs all but out of reach at this point, they may err on the side of caution with their offensive centerpiece.

Chicago's Apocalyptic Week

As if the Chicago Bears needed any more bad news after losing Alshon Jeffery to suspension last week, Zach Miller's broken foot in Week 11 has put the Bears’ passing game in nuclear meltdown mode for the foreseeable future. And that was before we learned about Jay Cutler possibly being done for the season as well.

Miller currently leads the Bears in both receptions and receiving touchdowns and is second on the team in targets and receiving yards. With both Jeffrey and Miller now out for at least the next three games, Chicago is without 39 percent of their team’s catches, 43 percent of their receiving yards, and half of the team’s receiving touchdowns.

The chart below shows the efficiency for all Chicago pass-catchers with 10 or more targets:

Pos Rec Tar Rec NEP Rec NEP/T Catch Rate
Alshon Jeffery WR 40 72 53.00 0.74 55.56%
Zach Miller TE 47 64 43.28 0.68 73.44%
Cameron Meredith WR 33 45 22.56 0.50 73.33%
Eddie Royal WR 32 42 25.55 0.61 76.19%
Kevin White WR 19 36 10.41 0.29 52.78%
Josh Bellamy WR 6 10 6.65 0.67 60.00%

Both Eddie Royal and Cameron Meredith are likely to see a bump in target share.

Ben Braunecker is likely to be Miller’s immediate replacement. An athletic, undrafted rookie from Harvard, Braunecker has seen just one target this season, but that should change as soon as this week against the Tennessee Titans.

The devastating loss of multiple key offensive contributors in back-to-back weeks has essentially anointed Matt Barkley as savior of the season. It's clear that the fate of the 2-8 Chicago Bears has all but been sealed.

Mega Matchup at Mile High

In a battle between AFC West rivals, the Chiefs meet the Denver Broncos in one of the most intriguing matchups of Week 12. With both teams tied for second place in the division with identical 7-3 records -- just a game behind the division-leading Oakland Raiders -- Sunday night’s clash takes on extra importance.

The Broncos currently boast the best per-play defense according to our NEP metrics when adjusted for strength of schedule, with the Chiefs ranking seventh in the same category. Both teams have also struggled on offense, ranking in the bottom-third of the league in Adjusted NEP on a per play basis.

Combined with a 39.5 point over/under, all signs are pointing to a defensive struggle.

A key matchup to watch for is the Kansas City run game against the Denver rush defense. Although the Broncos do have the top-rated defense according to our numbers, they have struggled against the run, ranking 25th when adjusted for strength of schedule.

Despite having posted fairly inefficient Rushing NEP metrics so far -- 22nd among 27 running backs with 100 or more carries -- Spencer Ware has posted 75 or more total yards in seven of his nine games this season and will likely be counted on heavily in this game.

For those who enjoy critical division games with playoff implications, this game should satisfy your craving.