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Fantasy Playbook: How to Make Sense of NFL Defenses

Which units to avoid and which to take advantage of when setting your lineup

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In fantasy football, volume is—and always will be—king. Players like Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest of the league’s top-tier touch and target hogs, as long as they’re healthy and not on a bye, are going to be in your lineup each and every week. But for everyone else on your squad who isn’t seeing the ball 10-plus times per game, sit or start decisions can be agonizing. There are plenty of things to consider when setting a lineup, but the most important factor might be the quality of defense and/or the individual matchups each player is set to encounter. The strength of a player’s upcoming matchup can be, at the very least, a great tiebreaker if you’re deliberating between two or three guys at your RB2 spot or your flex spot.

Seven weeks into the season, we’ve gained a little bit more clarity on the strengths and weaknesses of each team’s defense and its individual players. After digging into a wide array of stats, I put together a quick guide for defenses and matchups to exploit and to avoid in the second half of the year.

The Bad-All-Around Defenses: The 49ers, Patriots, Colts, and Buccaneers

San Francisco’s been a disaster against the pass. Prior to the Eagles-Redskins matchup on Monday Night Football, the Niners ranked 25th in pass yards allowed (258.6) and 25th in touchdowns (12) while giving up an opposing passer rating of 98.5 (26th). The run defense has gone in the wrong direction, too: We saw Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott rush for 147 yards and two scores against them on Sunday, and on the year, the team has surrendered 134 yards per game (29th) and given up eight touchdowns (tied for 30th).

It doesn’t matter where your receiver stands on his team’s passing game hierarchy: Coming into Week 7, the Niners ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders DVOA against no. 1 receivers, 29th against no. 2s, 27th against other receivers, and 30th against running backs out of the backfield. There is one exception to keep in mind: San Francisco knows how to line up and run with opposing tight ends. We saw Jason Witten make a great one-handed catch against Jaquiski Tartt this week, but coming into the game, as Pro Football Focus’s Scott Barrett points out, the Niners had surrendered an average of just 7.0 points per game to tight ends (tied for first), and ranked first in DVOA against that position. But every other position group feasts on this squad.

The Patriots showed signs of improvement at home against a struggling Atlanta offense on Sunday Night Football, but that game looks like an outlier for what’s been an otherwise terrible defensive performance so far this season. Even after New England mostly shut down Matt Ryan, the team ranks dead last in passing yards (310.0 per game) and touchdowns allowed (tied with the Jets at 15), and they’re second-worst in yards per attempt (8.4) and third-worst in opponent passer rating (103.8). Coming into their matchup with the Falcons, New England ranked 31st per DVOA against no. 1 receivers (and they gave up nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown to Julio Jones), 20th vs. no. 2s, and 21st against other receivers, 13th against tight ends, and 28th against running backs in the passing game. They’re not much better against the run, surrendering 116.4 yards per game (22nd) and 4.8 yards per carry (29th).

The Colts are bad across the board as well. That squad’s surrendered 300.7 pass yards per game (31st), 8.9 yards per pass attempt (dead last), and a 93.5 passer rating (23rd) to opposing quarterbacks, including a 330-yard passing performance to Blake Bortles on Sunday. Coming into that shutout loss to the Jaguars, Indy ranked 20th per DVOA vs. no. 1 receivers, 20th vs. no. 2s, 21st vs. all other receivers, 24th vs. tight ends, and 31st against running backs—and that was before they lost promising rookie safety Malik Hooker, who tore his ACL on Sunday and will miss the rest of the year. The Colts’ run defense has been leaky as well, giving up an average of 124.7 rush yards per game (26th), and they’ve allowed 10 touchdowns on the ground (32nd).

Tampa Bay’s defense seems to play worse each week. Losers of four out of their last five games, the Buccaneers have surrendered 30-plus points in three of those games and now rank 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (294.8), 29th in yards per attempt (8.2) and 28th in passer rating allowed (102.9) and are tied for 22nd in touchdowns surrendered (11). Against the run, they’re 17th in yards allowed (113.7 per game) and tied for 25th in touchdowns (six).

If we’re being thorough, you should probably add the defenses of the Raiders and Cowboys to the not-great-at-anything category.

The Funnel Defenses: The Jaguars, Seahawks, Dolphins, and More

Total balance on defense is an elusive goal these days, and there isn’t a team in the league to completely avoid when it comes to fantasy football. But, while there’s no hard-and-fast rule against sitting your players when they face off against teams like the Jaguars, Seahawks, or Broncos, it’s important to keep track of the strengths of each squad your players are facing. That’s where knowing your “funnel defenses” can give you an edge. It’s a term that was coined by DraftKings and Fantasy Lab’s Adam Levitan that refers to teams that are good against the run but bad against the pass (or vice versa). These teams funnel production into a specific area—i.e., an opponent with a leaky pass defense but a stout run-defending front is going to force the offense to pass the ball at a higher rate, and thus give your pass-catching fantasy player a better chance to score big points.

The Jags are a great example of a run funnel defense right now. The combination of two of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye to go with a fearsome pass rush (which has racked up 10 sacks in two separate games this year and is on pace for a record 75 this year) makes them a very risky matchup for your quarterback or receivers. Coming into Week 7, Jacksonville had given up just 41.4 fantasy points per game through the air (PPR), then held Jacoby Brissett to 200 yards on 37 pass attempts. The Colts’ most prolific pass-catcher was tight end Jack Doyle, who hauled in six catches for 44 yards. However, the Jags have been much less dominant against the run and came into Week 7 giving up an average of 17.1 fantasy rushing points per game to opposing backs (second-most). On the year, they’ve surrendered 138.6 rush yards per game (30th) and 5.2 yards per carry (32nd).

The Seahawks’ defense has followed a similar tack: Seattle’s second in opposing passer rating allowed (69.9), second in yards per attempt (5.6), tied for second in passing touchdowns allowed (5), and eighth in passing yards allowed (190.8)—yet they rank 15th in rush yards surrendered (113.7 per game) and 28th in yards per carry (4.7). The Ravens, Steelers, and Rams have all been suffocating against the pass this year, but all three have struggled to stop the run.

Then, there’s the flip side: The Dolphins have surrendered just 82.3 rush yards per game (fifth) and 3.6 yards per carry (tied for fifth) to opposing backs, but have given up 225.8 passing yards per game (17th) and have allowed an opposing passer rating of 102.9 (28th). The Broncos are similar: They’ve been incredibly stout against the run, surrendering just 3.0 yards per carry (second) and 71.8 rush yards per game (second), but haven’t been as good against the pass as we’re used to, allowing an opposing passer rating of 91.7 (22nd) while surrendering 11 pass touchdowns (24th). The Browns have been stingy against the run, too, giving up 83.7 yards per game (sixth), but they’re awful against the pass, where they’ve given up 14 touchdowns (31st) and have allowed a 105.9 opponent passer rating (31st).

The Individual Matchups

Sometimes you have to dial in even further, especially when looking at which wideouts to start. While knowing whether a team has good pass defense or not is important, it helps to know who your fantasy player will be lined up across from in a specific game. Take the Cardinals, for instance: Overall, Arizona’s pass defense has been terrible—they rank 24th in yards allowed (246.9 per game) and have given up 14 touchdowns through the air (tied for 28th)—but if you’re looking to start a receiver who’s going to draw coverage from cornerback Patrick Peterson, it might be smart to look elsewhere to fill that spot in your lineup.

Peterson has shadowed the opposing team’s top wideout for the majority of every game this year, and on 258 coverage snaps, he’s been targeted just 21 times, surrendering just seven catches (tied for second-fewest) and one score per Pro Football Focus. Opposing quarterbacks have registered a 62 passer rating when targeting Peterson―and when he’s in coverage, he’s held top receivers like T.Y. Hilton (one catch, 16 yards in coverage), Dez Bryant (zero targets, zero catches), Pierre Garcon (one catch, 16 yards), Alshon Jeffery (two catches, 26 yards), and Mike Evans (zero catches, zero yards) in check.

Darius Slay is another cornerback to avoid. Detroit ranks 22nd in pass yards allowed (244.2), but Slay’s shut down some of the game’s top receivers when he’s been asked to shadow them most of the game. On the year, he’s surrendered a 78.4 opposing quarterback passer rating, and in coverage, he held Michael Thomas to one catch for 4 yards, Julio Jones to four catches for 50 yards, and Odell Beckham Jr. to three catches for 30 yards. Minnesota cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Chargers corner Casey Hayward have followed opposing teams’ top wideouts this year, too, and both have proved to be shutdown-caliber defenders.