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Monday Night Football Preview: The Ground Game Reigns

Monday night's contest features two of the best running backs in the league. Which one will help get his team back above .500?

Do you enjoy watching large men tote leather, oblonged shapes across an open field? Do you think that throwing said oblonged shape is for plebeians? Then do I have a deal for you! Tonight, you can watch one running back who is a certified boss carry his team on his back for four easy payments of just 15 minutes at a time. But, that's not all. If you call now, you can watch a second, younger, tastier back absolutely free! You can't beat this deal, folks.

Even outside of having two of the biggest workhorses in the entire league in Le'Veon Bell and Arian Foster, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans are very similar squads this year. Both teams are 3-3, both have had their issues throwing the ball, and both have at least one player that could pass as a descendant of the woolly mammoth in Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brett Keisel. The luscious beards alone make tonight's game watchable.

A win for either side pulls that team to within a game of their respective division's lead. A loss drops the team back two games with just over half the season left. Who will come out on top? We can investigate this using numberFire's game projections, available to all premium subscribers. It gives us all sorts of yummy little nuggets, so let's get it popping.

Which Ground Game Finds More Success?

There have to be so many fantasy matchups riding on this contest. I'm sure all of the Dri Archer owners will be watching from the edge of their seats.

Although both Foster and Bell have been able to find holes this year, the defenses they will face can't say the same about plugging said holes. Entering Week 7, the Texans ranked 12th in the league in Adjusted Defensive Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. This is numberFire's stat for measuring efficiency, which you can read more about in our glossary. The Steelers were sitting down in 22nd in that category.

Foster and Bell entered Week 7 as top six fantasy running back options, according to numberFire's projections. Foster was leading the way, projected to finish with 91.94 rushing yards on 18.36 carries. He also had the highest projected number of rushing touchdowns of any back in the league at 0.86. These numbers were probably influenced by facing a defense that allowed Ben Tate to go for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns last week.

This is also the first big test for the Pittsburgh rush defense of the year. Previously, they have faced Tate twice, a Ravens team that insisted on giving Bernard Pierce the ball 22 times, a Panthers team minus DeAngelo Williams in which Jonathan Stewart also got hurt, and the dumpster fires known as the Tampa Bay and Jacksonville backfields. That 23rd-ranked Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play is adjusted for strength of schedule, but I'd have to imagine it'd be even lower if the Steelers had faced even a mildly successful rushing team outside of Cleveland.

Bell's task, as mentioned, is a bit more difficult, although not terribly so. This is a Houston defense that allowed quality running backs in Rashad Jennings and DeMarco Murray to combine for 312 yards in their matchups this year. They both carried the ball more than 30 times, and that's probably an unobtainable number for Bell, who hasn't carried the ball more than 21 times this year.

What Bell has working in his favor is that he maximizes the touches he does get. He entered the weekend second in the league in Rushing NEP and third in Rushing NEP per play among backs with at least 60 carries. The touchdowns will come (assuming this isn't some grand scheme by Todd Haley to flip all Bell fantasy owners the bird); the yards should tonight, as well. Bell is projected at 79.90 yards rushing and 36.63 receiving to go with 0.55 total touchdowns. If he can just find the end zone once (I ain't too proud to beg, bruh), this could be a great night for Bell.

Can Fitzmagic Outduel Big Ben?

Last week was set up perfectly for a little bit of Fitzmagic. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Texans had the ball down five late against Indianapolis, ready to complete a huge comeback. Then fumble welp sadness game over. But now he gets to face the team ranked 26th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Let that beard flow, my brother.

numberFire's projections have Fitz at 238.41 yards on 33.18 attempts (7.19 yards per attempt) with 1.22 touchdowns and 0.84 interceptions. Although that's not going to win you a fantasy matchup, it's at least good enough to support Foster's ground attack. When you have Ryan Fitzpatrick as your quarterback, you should be more than satisfied with that result.

As for his opponent, Ben Roethlisberger - he hasn't quite been himself this year. From 2009-2013, Roethlisberger never finished higher than 8th or lower than 13th in Total NEP, which takes rushing into account in addition to passing. Entering this weekend, Roethlisberger ranked 19th in the category among quarterbacks with at least 60 pass attempts. He also ranked 19th in Passing NEP per drop back among that same group. This is despite having one of the dopest receivers in the game in Antonio Brown. Just a wee bit concerning.

Even more good news for Big Ben: he's facing the league's best pass defense on a per play basis. I'm assuming the presence of JJ Watt and his extremely pedestrian muscle tone has something to do with that. Good times are sure to transpire.

Those two factors combine to put Roethlisberger at 269.96 yards on 39.95 attempts (6.76 yards per attempt) with 1.51 touchdowns and 1.05 interceptions.

Which Team Gets to 4-3?

As numberFire's JJ Zachariason wrote last week, the Steelers are not playing good football right now, and everyone is to blame. But can they get back on the horse tonight?

Of the six most similar matchups on the game projection, the team representing the Steelers won half. Let's look at one of each to try to get a blueprint for success.

To see a scenario in which the Steelers win, we'll look to the Jets versus the Titans in December of 2012. In this game, neither Mark Sanchez (our Fitzpatrick in this scenario) or Jake Locker (Roethlisberger) performed terribly well. Try to contain your shock. The Sanchize threw four picks, and Locker averaged 6.8 yards per attempt on 22 passes. Thus, the game ended in a 14-10 victory for the Titans.

The game was also a very typical affair for now-Jet CJ?K. Johnson had a 94-yard carry. Good! On the other 20 attempts, he gained 28 yards. Superb! While I wouldn't expect Bell to achieve those marks in the same manner as Johnson, those seem like realistic bench marks. That seems to indicate a defensive stalemate. The next comp, however, does not.

To see a blueprint for the Texans, we travel back to November of 2008 for an affair between the Bills and the Chiefs. In this game, the Bills won 54-31. Defense is for losers. The Bills posted 23 points in the second quarter, a number they have surpassed in an entire game only once this year.

In that one, Trent Edwards actually was pretty snazzy, with 273 yards and two touchdowns on 32 attempts. A younger version of Marshawn Lynch rushed 79 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.

The big reason for the high point total was the turnovers by the Chiefs, who represent the Steelers in this instance. Tyler Thigpen threw two picks and the team lost three fumbles. I wouldn't expect Pittsburgh to win if they follow suit tonight. Five turnovers is generally an out-lier (I'm looking at you, Kirk Cousins), so this should be a dandy of a contest.

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