The five most pressing NFL questions in Week 12: Can Alvin Kamara turn in an elite performance?

Matt Harmon

We’re 11 weeks into the NFL season. A few plots have played out to our expectations. Far more has gone far off the chain of our projected storyboard.

Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here, we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL that week. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2019 NFL season will unfold.

We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.

How good will the Alvin Kamara eruption be?

You read it right. We’re not pondering whether it will happen. Just wondering how awesome it’s going to be when it does.

Since the Saints came off the bye two weeks ago, Alvin Kamara has piled up 35 touches. That’s in line with his September workload when he was averaging 19.8 touches per game. Kamara is back to being a full-fledged workhorse considering his teammate Latavius Murray has touch totals of nine and 12 in the Saints’ last two games. With the Saints looking like more of a small-ball offense than ever before, it’s painfully clear that this attack will get its juice through Kamara’s ultra-unique talents.

Kamara has a gorgeous matchup in Week 12 to show off the potential this usage brings to the table. Let’s be clear, we shouldn’t care one bit what the Panthers held Brian Hill to last week. On balance, they’ve been one of the worst run defenses in the NFL this year, ranking dead last in Football Outsiders’ metrics and allowing a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns. Not only is Hill an unproven back, but Atlanta is one of the worst ground attacks in the league with 3.5 yards per carry as a team (27th). Carolina taking advantage of one weak opponent is not enough to change our vision of them as a team.

With this game carrying a 10-point line in favor of New Orleans in their dome, all signs point to a smash spot for Kamara. While Christian McCaffrey has run away with any praise heaped on the running back position here in 2019, Kamara could push him down the stretch.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 17: Runningback Alvin Kamara #41 of the New Orleans Saints takes the field for warm up prior to their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Alvin Kamara looks locked into a massive Week 11 outing. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Is this the week for Cleveland?

The entire season has been a brutal experience for the Browns but the last week has been even more painful than usual. You shouldn’t feel that way after you get a much-needed win in primetime by besting a division rival who has routinely stomped you the last decade, but here we are. Nothing is going to make the Myles Garrett storyline just disappear — that chapter of his legacy is now written in pen — but a convincing takedown of the Dolphins in Week 12 would help shift the narrative.

Even during their solid 2-1 run here since Week 9, the Dolphins remain one of the worst pass-rushing teams in the league. Miami has posted just 1.3 sacks per game in that span (second-fewest in the league) with a mere 28 percent pressure rate.

That extra time for Baker Mayfield will be huge. He’s already started to enjoy a longer clock in the pocket of late. He’s been pressured on just 26.7% of his dropbacks over the last three weeks against some formidable pass rushes, a near 10% drop from their previous outings. The protection hasn’t necessarily been leaps and bounds better but Kareem Hunt’s presence as an outlet receiver (17 targets) is huge. With more time brought on by the Dolphins lacking a pass rush, Mayfield could have his best game of the season.

Odell Beckham also has plenty of upside here ... finally. The production hasn’t been there but in that same stretch mentioned for Mayfield, Beckham is seventh in the NFL with 342 air yards to go with 28 targets. If it’s ever going to happen, this is the week.

We thought we’d be saying it plenty often this year but that’s been far from the case. Nevertheless, play all your Browns this week.

Will Jimmy Garoppolo deliver an encore?

In a truly resilient performance, Jimmy Garoppolo posted a career-best 424 yards and four scores against the Cardinals in Week 11. Sure, Garoppolo had a few of his soon-to-be trademarked brain-farts that turned into picks and it’s not as if Arizona’s defense is a formidable opponent, but it’s the context of the performance that makes it impressive.

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The 49ers were without their outrageously good tight end. Their No. 1 receiver was walking on and off the field while nursing an injury. One of their key runners and starting left tackle missed the game. Through it all, Garoppolo led the team on the comeback and was nails in the game-winning moment.

Jimmy Garoppolo has been under the microscope for San Francisco throughout the season. Over the last three weeks, he’s looked truly awesome in two of three games — both against Arizona. If he keeps playing like that as the season wears on, the 49ers will only continue to look more legitimate as a top-level NFC contender. If the passing game, what many believed to be the weak point of this team, becomes a strength, then we need to reimagine the range of outcomes for this squad.

The Packers fit the bill of an NFC Contender sitting at 8-2 atop their division but have a defense that Garoppolo can exploit. The Packers have allowed the fifth-highest yards per play in the NFL this season. Early in the year, Green Bay’s pass rush made them look like a transformed unit. As that rush has evaporated, the entire stop unit has not been able to keep up. Since Week 8, Green Bay is averaging just 2.3 sacks per game, ranking 22nd in that span. The pass coverage has obviously suffered, allowing 8.1 yards per attempt and a 98.2 passer rating.

Can the Raiders put it on the Jets?

The Raiders controlled the action against the Bengals and the game was never really in doubt but it wasn’t unreasonable to expect better than a seven-point win. Oakland has three-straight wins over the Lions, Chargers, and Bengals. The first two featured a combined 57 points for the Raiders. We know this team is good enough to control and beat weaker opponents. Given where we thought this team would be heading into 2019, that’s not for nothing.

The Raiders get another team that’s also starting to show some life. The Jets have posted 34 points in back-to-back wins against the Giants and Washington. That’s a massive step forward from where they were just one month ago when Sam Darnold was seeing ghosts on Monday Night Football. The Jets are starting to look like a team — albeit, a bad team — that won’t just get rolled over every week.

It starts with the quarterback. Darnold is having a weird year. It’s mostly defined by Mono and the ghost comment, both of which sparked a myriad of internet jokes. However, if you remove the two disaster games against New England and the week following in Jacksonville, on balance, Darnold has not played that poorly. Over those last two wins, he’s managed a 111.2 passer rating and he was awesome in the win over Dallas the week prior to the Monday night disaster.

The Raiders defense is a pushover unit, much like Washington and the Giants were for Darnold, so it might be up to Derek Carr and the passing game to get over on a defunct Jets secondary. Typically, Josh Jacobs is the engine of the offense but New York allows the fewest yards per carry in the NFL. The air is the path to take. Luckily, Carr is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the league of late. Since Week 8, the Raiders’ passing game boasts a 9.0 yards per attempt, the best mark in the NFL. The 79.3% completion rate and 113.1 passer rating are also top-six marks. Carr has been a prime quarterback streamer for fantasy managers and you just need to keep rolling him out with matchups like this week’s tilt.

We know the Raiders are in the thick of the AFC playoff race. If they want to be taken seriously, they can’t afford a stumble against a team like the Jets. Jon Gruden and company need to slam the door shut on any questions.

Will Bill Belichick flummox Dak Prescott?

The Cowboys trip to Foxborough is one of the matchups of the week. It means a ton to Dak Prescott. The Dallas quarterback has all the statistical boxes checked on an MVP-type of resume in 2019. He just needs some big wins and signature moments. A win over the Patriots in Gillette would perhaps launch him into the top tier with Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.

The Patriots pass defense won’t make things easy. New England is still the No. 1 ranked pass defense by Football Outsiders despite their loss to Lamar Jackson a few weeks back. While their own scoring unit didn’t look great off the bye, they suffocated Carson Wentz in Week 11. He completed just 50% of his passes at a measly 5.4 yards per attempt.

It’s always tough to guess how Bill Belichick will defend a great offense but we’ve seen him deploy a specific coverage plan against teams like Dallas before. Belichick undoubtedly knows Dallas is fueled by their pass game at this point. With the Patriots’ weakness as a rush defense, he may well invite them to run on them and lure the Cowboys into a conservative trap they’re all too willing to fall into with their Ezekiel Elliott “establish the run” obsession.

On the back end, we could see them line up top corner Stephon Gilmore on Michael Gallup and bracket Amari Cooper. We’ve seen this approach by Belichick many times over the years against strong receiver duos. Gallup is having an awesome breakout season but would be in for a slog against Gilmore. He allows the lowest passer rating (24.5) among corners this year. Cooper is good enough to beat brackets or avoid a safety shaded his way but it just increases the margin for error.

That still might not be enough to slow down Dak Prescott. The Cowboys passer is playing like a star this year and it’s apparent by how he’s involving his ancillary players. Slot receiver Randall Cobb has 100 yards in back-to-back games. Backup running back Tony Pollard was a big factor as a receiver last week with 4-44 and a touchdown. Even the ancient Jason Witten has been relevant on the occasion here in 2019.

Belichick will certainly make Dak reach deeper into the bag to move the ball on their defense. He will dare players like Cobb, Pollard and even Witten to beat them. The reality is, however, Prescott is playing well enough that he might just elevate them to the point that the Cowboys can do it. Even if this doesn’t turn into a banger from a point-total perspective, it’s hard to see him turning in a true dud performance.

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