Knowshon Moreno may have emerged as the top running back on the Denver Broncos depth chart, but fantasy owners should proceed with caution before plugging him into the lineup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
The fourth-year back emerged from relative obscurity last week after being a healthy scratch in eight of the Broncos' first 10 games.
Facing off against a flailing Kansas City Chiefs defense, Moreno made the most of his opportunity. He ran for 85 yards on 20 carries and was an integral part of the passing game, grabbing four balls for 25 yards as well.
In fact, it was his ability in the pass game that allowed Moreno to get the bulk of the work. According to Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post, Moreno's new-found role expansion is mostly due to his excellent pass-protection skills:
When the Broncos moved [Moreno] up to starter this past week, it was a combination of his improving health, their desire for some size in the backfield and, perhaps most importantly, Moreno's work in pass protection.
With a matchup on tap against Tampa Bay, the worst pass defense in the NFL in terms of yardage allowed, Moreno should continue getting most of the snaps.
Peyton Manning should also have a field day through the air, making all your Broncos receivers must-starts (as if you weren't already doing so).
However, that same matchup is what will prevent Moreno from being anything more than a flex play on Sunday. Though Tampa struggles in pass defense, it's a polar opposite story against the run.
In their first 11 games, the Bucs have given up a league-leading 81.5 yards per game on the ground and just 3.4 yards per carry.
You could poke holes in the Bucs run defense prowess by saying teams simply pass the ball every down to take advantage of the secondary, but advanced metrics don't back that theory up. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ranking, Tampa ranks second in the NFL against the run, giving up 24 percent less production than a replacement-level defense would against similar opponents.
Using some rather rudimentary math skills, you can expect Moreno's production to take a massive hit. With last week's 85-yard performance as a barometer, the Broncos back projects to right around 63 yards if he gets 20 carries this week.
That means you'll need a touchdown for him to be a productive fantasy option. Spoiler alert: That probably won't happen.
Coming into Week 13, the Broncos have scored just six rushing touchdowns on the season, only one of which came in the month of November.
Instead, the Broncos have joined the increasing stable of NFL teams that utilize the pass heavily in the red-zone. Manning has 10 touchdown passes of less than 10 yards this season, six of which have come from one or two yards out.
Moreover, it's hard to expect Moreno to replicate his workload on Sunday. His 20-carry effort against Kansas City was just the fourth time all season a Broncos running back had hit the mark this season. Unless Fox plans on completely blackballing Ronnie Hillman, Moreno is more likely to hit somewhere in the mid-to-upper teens in terms of touches.
With all of those factors accounted for, it's nearly impossible to recommend Moreno to fantasy owners this week. He may defy the statistical evidence to have a big day, but the risk is far too great.
If you can, keep Moreno out of your lineup on Sunday. However, if circumstance forces you to use him, make sure it's only as a flex.