THE OVERWHELMING MAJORITY OF FANTASY ANALYSTS DO NOT CONSIDER
DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS WHEN CREATING PROJECTIONS.
Sometime between the end of the preseason and the first week
of the season, fantasy owners and analysts alike shift gears from
not caring one iota to what their players' matchups look like
to making it their primary consideration when setting about 70
percent of their lineup. A tough three- or four-game stretch for
a player at the beginning of the season or end of it shouldn't
surprise fantasy analysts, yet most of them are.
Defense may not matter as much as it used to, but let's not pretend
as if it does not matter at all. Not accounting for it on some
level suggests a belief that NFL games are like seven-on-seven
drills. I realized as early as 2004 that I didn't like the idea
of my players having to face the Ravens or the Steelers, especially
during the fantasy playoffs. Certainly, my approach has evolved
quite a bit from that initial premise, but I think my track record
of success speaks for itself (finishing in the black in each of
the 20-plus seasons I've played fantasy football) and suggests
there is substantial value in putting a fair amount of weight
into "the matchup." The key is giving potential matchups
the proper amount of weight to a player's evaluation. By itself,
it will not transform an RB3 into an every-week RB1 or turn a
perennial WR1 into a bench option, but it is helpful for fantasy
owners trying to find values.
That brings us to our focus for the next two weeks. With defenses
operating out of sub-packages (nickel, dime, quarter, etc.) almost
70 percent of the time in today's game, it makes sense to take
a look at what each team will probably look like in base and sub-package
personnel. Furthermore, it helps to have an understanding of how
each veteran defensive player who will be in those packages in
2021 graded out and/or performed last year. With the help of sites
like Pro Football Focus, Sports Info Solutions and Pro Football
Reference, we can do that.
Defense is a team endeavor, so the process is never as easy as
spotting a player with a weakness and exploiting that shortcoming
repeatedly. An important part of coaching in any sport is the
ability to maximize players' strengths and mask their weaknesses,
so players either will get help from the scheme or benched if
they continue to struggle. Nevertheless, the goal of any good
offense is to isolate the weak link in the passing defense as
often as possible or take advantage of what may be a "soft"
side of a run defense (assuming that matches up with the run-blocking
ability of the offensive line). It is also important to understand
that no defender lines up across any offensive player on every
play, so we are playing odds and not dealing with virtual certainties
(i.e. shadow cornerbacks usually only "shadow" about
50-60 percent of the time).
Let's get to some fundamental points about Preseason Matchup
Analysis before we start:
1) My color-coding system has never been about last year's results
or last year's "strength of schedule." My PMA color-coding
has always been predictive, not reactive;
2) The color-coding in this four-part series is based
on last year only because we have no information about
this season. Last year's color codes help set the stage for this
year. Film analysis and advanced analytics help us predict what
3) Base defense is typically deployed on likely running downs,
so the content below for "Base" will be primarily how
front-seven defenders stack up against the run. Similarly, sub-packages
focus on slowing down passing games, so my thoughts for that area
will focus primarily on coverage players.
Note: Try not to get too caught up in 4-3 or 3-4 (or even
the base defense, for that matter.) Defenses rarely ever line
up in a standard package anymore and most of them use "multiple"
fronts at that. There are "over" and "under"
concepts in the front seven, for example. In the secondary, teams
are engaging in traditional man or zone coverages as well as man
match and zone match coverages. Those concepts are just the
tip of the iceberg. Fantasy managers also need to get over the
thinking that the opponent's best cover corner mostly lines up
opposite the offense's top receiver.
The purpose of this article is simple, even if the execution
of it is not: attempting to identify what defenders present fantasy
owners with an opportunity for success. There is a heavy amount
of subjectivity that goes into my color-coding when I analyze
matchups in advance of the Big Board. It is my hope this process
will reduce a lot of that and give my readers a look under the
hood, so to speak.
SHAD - A CB that shadowed
receivers in roughly half of the team's games last year and/or
is likely to do so (again) this season. Green box - Player graded 80 or higher in that
particular discipline per PFF (100 point scale) White box - Player graded between 70 or 79.9
in that particular discipline Yellow box - Player graded between 60 or 69.9
in that particular discipline Red box - Player graded 59.9 or lower in that
Italic (player name) - Rookie Bold print (player name) - Over 30 years of age
or will turn 30 by the start of the season
Grades - Pass rush (PR), coverage
(Cov) and run defense (RD) Catch % - Catch percentage allowed in player's
coverage Percentages (left, right, etc.) - How often a
defensive back lined up at left or right cornerback or in the
slot. For safeties, time at free safety or in the box is included
to provide insight as to how often he is asked to help against
the run as opposed to how often he plays center field.
Base: Last year marked the second consecutive season
that Baltimore was a little forgiving on running games in terms
of the yards it allowed on a per carry basis. However, 2020 was
also the second straight year Williams missed multiple games. It's
not a coincidence, even if his run defense grade doesn't quite reflect
it. Whenever Williams is off the field or injured, Baltimore should
be considered a middling run defense. It also didn't help matters
Campbell and Wolfe also were on the sideline for multiple games.
Another key reason the run defense struggled was the presence of
two rookie inside linebackers - neither of which had an offseason
to acclimate to the pro game. (Rookie defenders struggled as a whole
league-wide in 2020.) Better luck in the health department from
Williams should be enough to get the Ravens back to their usual
perch inside the top 10 run defenses, even though all three starting
linemen are in their early-to-mid 30s.
Once Queen and/or Harrison settle in, the run defense should
improve. However, there are two important points to consider before
putting too much weight into "base" personnel. First
and foremost, Baltimore utilized the nickel package on almost
60 percent of its snaps last season (league average was around
50 percent), so the above table does not represent the team's
primary defense. Secondly, DC Wink Martindale's unit played with
three linebackers on the field on only two percent of the snaps
Sub: Even as Peters (28 years old) and (especially)
Smith (32) get a bit older, few defenses boast three corners as
good as what the Ravens have. Receivers combined to score 11 touchdowns
in 2020, marking the fourth consecutive year opposing wideouts have
managed 12 or fewer against Baltimore. Humphrey is one of the few
corners in the league who has the versatility and ability to shadow
a receiver all over the field if the game plan calls for it or line
up opposite an athletic tight end. Averett played well near the
end of the season (albeit against the Jags, Giants and Joe Burrow-less
Bengals). If that was an indication of things starting to make sense
for him, the Ravens could have the best foursome at cornerback of
any team in the league.
Elliott plays more deep safety than Clark; while neither is an
Ed Reed-type ball-hawk, they also aren't a duo offensive coordinators
can target with much confidence. When combined with the Ravens'
league-high 44.1 percent blitz rate in 2020, offenses typically
don't have that kind of time anyway. Offensive coordinators will
most likely begin this season trying to attack Queen and/or Harrison
as often as possible with running backs until that well dries
up. (Queen was drafted in large part due to his coverage skills
and athleticism, so it's likely only a matter of time before he
shows a dramatic improvement.) In case it wasn't obvious by now,
Baltimore has the personnel and creativity to be multiple and
put together game-specific strategies the likes of what most fans
expect only from the Patriots.
Base: There was a time when the Bengals had an
up-and-coming front four with Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Carl
Lawson serving as the anchors. They are all gone. It is just as
well, as Cincinnati was dreadful against the run and pass last season.
The new crew is highlighted by big-ticket free-agent additions from
the last two years (Hendrickson and Reader). The latter played only
five games and barely finished in the yellow as a pass-rusher and
run defender. They need him to be the green run defender he was
in his final year as a Texan in 2019 if this run defense hopes to
show any real improvement. Hendrickson broke through in a big way
with 13.5 sacks for the Saints last season. He's always been a talented
pass rusher, but can he come anywhere close to repeating last season
without the likes of Cam Jordan opposite him?
Ogunjobi has been unable to repeat the promising form he showed
in 2017 with the Browns. The Bengals would love for that to change
so they have the option of picking their spots with 32-year-old
Mike Daniels. Hubbard opened his career with 15 sacks over his
first two seasons but flat-lined in that area in 2020 with only
two. He is a solid run defender and should be a capable complement
opposite Hendrickson as a rusher. Bynes and Pratt easily played
the most snaps at linebacker and figure to be busy again since
the team did not add any legitimate competition. Wilson should
eventually bump Bynes from the lineup - Cincinnati used two-linebacker
packages over three-quarters of the time last year - with a little
better injury luck. (It's hard to tell how much the virtual offseason
- not to mention foot and concussion issues - affected him as
a rookie after he was drafted in the third round last spring.)
Sub: The Bengals have assembled an interesting cornerback
group made up entirely of big-ticket free-agent signings from the
last two years. Waynes ($14 million annual average value) never
got a chance to earn his salary after a weight-lifting incident
ended his season in August. He was an average cover man at best
in his five years with the Vikings, but the size of his contract
suggests he will get every chance to prove Cincy right. If his time
with Minnesota is any indication, he might be the weakest link in
this secondary, especially if the Bengals try to justify his contract
by making him a shadow. Awuzie ($7.25 million AAV) struggled along
with the rest of his Dallas teammates in eight 2020 contests, but
his three previous seasons indicate he may end up being the better
investment. Hilton ($6 million AAV) not only emerged as one of the
best nickel corners in the league during his four-year stay with
Pittsburgh, but he is an exceptional blitzer for a defensive back.
Bates may be the best player that most casual fans don't know
about or appreciate nearly enough. The fact he has been such a
standout on such a lackluster defense over his first three seasons
speaks to how good he is. There is a chance this pass defense
could be sneaky good if everyone plays up to their potential.
However, the odds of that happening are not great. The only realistic
way it happens in 2021 is if Ossai can put his incredible athleticism
to work right away and emerges as a legitimate complement to Hendrickson.
Base: There's very little Garrett does not do
at an elite or near-elite level, which means he will command a
few double teams. For the first time in his pro career, Garrett
MAY have someone opposite him who can take advantage of all of
those guaranteed one-on-one opportunities with Clowney. At worst,
Clowney has proven to be a very capable run defender, so running
outside the tackles could prove treacherous for most offenses.
Elliott flashed early but struggled last year after about the
first month. He figures to benefit greatly working alongside 31-year-old
Jackson, who may not be the force he once was in Denver but can
help get the most out of Elliott. Whether that duo is an improvement
against the run over Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi (Bengals)
is debatable. They should be better getting a push up the middle
against the pass, however, and that figures to be a good thing
for a Cleveland team that should play with the lead a lot in 2021.
The 2021 season could mark the first time in a long time the Browns
defense rivals that of the Steelers and Ravens. This potentially
bold call has little to do with the addition of Clowney. It has
more to do with the arrivals of Owusu-Koramoah, Newsome and Johnson.
Owusu-Koramoah was arguably the draft's top coverage linebacker
- one who is more than capable of setting a tone with his physicality
and can blanket an athletic tight end. Ward has largely proved
to be worth the No. 4 overall selection in 2018 when he has been
on the field. With that said, he hasn't played more than 13 games
in a season yet due to injuries. Combined with Williams' injury
woes (12 games in the last two years combined), it became necessary
for the Browns to invest more resources into the secondary. Hill
was the primary slot corner for the Rams last year and should
hold those same duties for Cleveland, while Newsome may relegate
Williams to CB4 duties.
Either way, the Browns enter this season with a cornerback foursome
that rivals any in the league. Add in Owusu-Koramoah's coverage
ability and there's not a great matchup for most receivers or
running backs against the Browns. Delpit is essentially a rookie
after missing all last season, although he handled free safety
duties very well for LSU a couple of seasons ago. Johnson will
likely play a lot more in the box in 2021 than he did in 2020
because Delpit is at his best playing center field, but do not
be fooled into thinking Johnson's grades are a fluke. Pro Football
Focus has given him an 80-plus score in coverage in three of his
four NFL seasons.
For the most part, it's business as usual along the Steelers'
front seven. Bud Dupree (Titans) is the only loss among the team's
primary defensive linemen and linebackers. Tuitt was the only
one of the first six names in the table above to struggle versus
the run in 2020, but he has a long track record of holding up
well in that area. He made up for it somewhat with a career-high
11 sacks (almost half of his total from his first six years combined).
In short, Pittsburgh should be a top-five run-stopping unit yet
again, especially if the Steelers don't have to play without Bush
(ACL) for 11 games again. The presence of Alualu (or the absence
of a true fire-hydrant nose tackle like Casey Hampton or Joel
Steed back in the day) is about the only thing this defense needs
to get its run defense back where it is accustomed to (sub-4.0
YPC and less than 100 yards allowed per game).
Sub: While it is mostly a coincidence that Pittsburgh
didn't lose a game with a healthy Dupree last year, it is at least
somewhat telling the defense gave up an average of 17.1 points
with him in the lineup and 28.7 after his injury (including the
playoff loss). Highsmith was hit-and-miss in his stead, but that
is hardly surprising for a rookie in a year where he didn't have
the benefit of a normal offseason. He should prove to be a capable
replacement sooner than later. The Steelers' third-ranked pass
defense wouldn't seem to be a potential problem, but it is. If
32-year-old Haden begins to fade or gets hurt, there could be
trouble. Pittsburgh did not bring back fellow starter Steven Nelson
and lost slot corner Mike Hilton to Cincinnati. The decision not
to re-sign Nelson (yet) could be troubling; Layne has logged a
total of 98 coverage snaps in two years and mostly struggled when
given the chance. Sutton may end up being a capable replacement
for Hilton in the slot, although Pittsburgh will most likely miss
the extra boost Hilton provided to the pass rush as a blitzer.
The best player in the back third of the defense is Fitzpatrick.
He can play corner in a pinch, but he shines in center field.
This is notable because Fitzpatrick may need to play some corner
if one of the first three players gets hurt. If it wasn't already
obvious, the Steelers are lacking depth in a big way at cornerback.
Maybe 2020 sixth-round draft pick Brooks steps up after playing
in only two games as a rookie. Potentially making matters worse,
Pittsburgh loves to blitz (40.3 percent rate last year). If they
blitz at a similar rate in 2021, the Steelers could fall into
the middle of the pack against the pass.
Base: The Bears didn't bother to upgrade last
year's rather pedestrian defense, making things more difficult
for first-time DC Sean Desai. When Hicks is healthy, the run defense
will be stout more often than not - even if his run grade doesn't
always reflect it. Mack has never dipped below an 83.5 run defense
grade in PFF's analysis, giving this defense two run-stopping
stalwarts. Goldman, who opted out of last season, is yet another
solid run-stopper. Edwards was excellent in a reserve role in
2020 but has rarely ever been anything but a part-timer since
entering the league in 2015.
Smith was billed as a very athletic linebacker who should excel
in coverage but could struggle against the run due to his size
coming out of the draft in 2018. That has proven to be true so
far and maybe to an extreme. PFF slapped him with a 39.8 run defense
grade - good for the fifth-worst mark in the league for a linebacker
who played at least 250 run defense snaps. Trevathan was one of
the worst full-time linebackers in the league last year and seems
unlikely at age 31 to recapture the form he showed so often in
his first four seasons in Chicago.
*- 2019 grades and stats with Bears
** - 2019 grades and stats with Steelers
Sub: Chicago stands a chance at rediscovering its
run defense. The same may not be true about the Bears' potential
for stopping opposing passing games. Johnson was one of the few
defensive rookies in the league to fare well for the bulk of 2020
and should be a mainstay of this defense for years to come. Trufant
was typically a good cornerback - if not very good at times - during
his seven-year stay in Atlanta, but he struggled along with the
rest of his teammates while playing only six games with Detroit
before going on injured reserve late last season. If he can turn
back the clock to his best Falcons days, the Bears might be OK.
(With that said, Trufant is not going to be a one-for-one replacement
for Kyle Fuller.) If he's not, it's hard to see how they will hold
Burns never got it going in Pittsburgh, Shelley was mediocre
in 153 coverage snaps last season and Kindle Vildor was more bad
than good as a fifth-round rookie. Jackson had a rough year by
his standards in 2020, but he should bounce back in a big way
so long as the front seven is consistently putting heat on quarterbacks.
Base: It was a near impossible ask for new GM
Brad Holmes to overhaul one of the worst defenses in recent NFL
history in one offseason, but he deserves kudos for doing as much
as he did to give the run defense a chance for new DC Aaron Glenn.
The trade for Brockers along with the selections of second-rounder
Onwuzurike and third-round Alim McNeill gives the front four a
chance (especially Brockers). Flowers' return (he was limited
to seven games due to injury last season) is a big deal; he is
unquestionably the best player on this defense and has been stellar
for the better part of the last four seasons, including the last
two on a pair of bad Detroit defenses.
The defensive line will need to be good since little was done
to fix the problems at linebacker. Collins is the best of an average-at-best
crew, but he is 31 and would probably be better suited to be a
rotational player at this point. Tavai offered some hope as a
rookie in 2019 but was so bad last season that Shaun Dion Hamilton
- who barely saw the field last year in Washington - could end
up replacing him this season. What it all means is that most teams
should be able to gash the Lions with outside runs. Running inside
will be a bit more challenging than it was in 2020, however.
Sub: Oruwariye flashed at times last season. Okudah
rarely did, which is almost unthinkable for the third overall pick
in the 2020 draft. Was it the scheme? Poor pass rush? Based on how
good he was in college, it seems more than reasonable to expect
a big jump from him - especially with a full offseason. The Lions
did their best to fortify the secondary this spring, bringing in
Dunbar to challenge Oruwariye and Okudah if they repeat their 2020
S Duron Harmon moved on to Atlanta, robbing the secondary of
one of the few players that performed decently a year ago. Walker
was a solid player during his first two years in Detroit, so he
probably deserves the benefit of the doubt after a disappointing
2020. (It's hard for a safety to grade well when the front seven
can't pressure the quarterback.) Anzalone was a big addition;
he is a solid coverage linebacker and will need to be once again
after Detroit surrendered an unthinkable 10 receiving touchdowns
to running backs. He's not good enough to solve the Lions' woes
in that area by himself, but it is a start.
Base: The well-traveled Joe Barry takes over
for Mike Pettine as the defensive boss, promising he learned a
few things during his four-year stint as the assistant head coach
and linebackers coach with the Rams under Wade Phillips and Brandon
Staley. Clark is not Aaron Donald by any means, but he is a force
to be reckoned with in the middle of the Green Bay defense. Lowry
has been a steady performer for five years with the Packers but
has watched his run defense grade drop in three consecutive seasons.
Lancaster more than held his own on the opposite side of Lowry
as a run defender, but he is not a player opposing running games
need to fear.
Martin was a surprise impact performer, but it's tough to consider
him or Barnes a strength at the moment. While Za'Darius Smith
didn't quite play at the same level he did in 2019, he is still
arguably the best player on this defense in the front seven. He
has consistently graded as a middling run-stopper over six seasons,
but it is important to note his presence is much more important
to the pass rush. Gary finished 2020 with a bang and likely earned
himself a promotion as a result, especially considering Preston
Smith had a down season. Either way, Green Bay now has three outside
linebackers who can bring the heat.
Sub: While Alexander (5-10, 196) isn't quite
as big as Jalen Ramsey (6-1, 208), fantasy owners should not be
surprised if Barry opts to use him at the "star" - former
Rams DC Brandon Staley's name for the defender in his defense
that can line up across from the team's most dangerous threat
and mostly erase him from the game plan. Despite being PFF's top-graded
full-time cornerback, Alexander didn't shadow after Week 7 in
Most Green Bay fans will only think of King getting burnt by
Scotty Miller in the NFC title game now when they hear his name,
and there's a real chance he gets bumped to a reserve role following
the arrival of Stokes. With that said, the 2021 first-round pick
will be picked on a lot this year because Alexander is just that
good. Sullivan was unable to carry over his success in a part-time
role in 2019 into 2020, but he still has a good grasp on the slot
job. Expect a bounce-back campaign from him. Amos and Savage have
proven to be interchangeable between free safety and in the box.
The safety position is a strength of this defense.
* - 2019 grades with Vikings
** - 2019 grades with Ravens
Base: The Vikings knew they were entering a transition
year last season, but HC Mike Zimmer could not have imagined things
going as poorly as they did. Things should be considerably different
in 2021, especially against the run. Pierce and Tomlinson are
significant upgrades on Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson in the
middle of the defensive line. Pierce was supposed to be around
to prevent a run defense collapse last year, but he opted out.
Tomlinson (two years, $22 million) was a significant addition
and has been a stalwart against the run since entering the league
with the Giants in 2017. The front four ultimately could not withstand
the season-long absence of Hunter (neck). In 2019, he was PFF's
sixth-ranked edge player overall and inside the top 12 as an edge
run defender. The team also added Sheldon Richardson earlier this
week, further bolstering the interior of their defensive line.
Weatherly returns to his original team (2016-19) after a one-and-done
stint with Carolina but is easily the most replaceable projected
starter up front. Kendricks (11 games, calf) and Barr (two games,
pectoral) combined to play 13 games, further crippling this once-proud
unit. Surratt will not be handed anything as a third-round pick
this spring, but he is a spectacular athlete and two-time All-ACC
performer. He will be given every chance to keep Nick Vigil and
Ryan Connelly in reserve roles. As with the case with most rookies,
he will get tested relentlessly early on as a run defender if
he earns the job. Not only have Kendricks and Barr earned a ton
of respect, but Surratt is also fairly new to the linebacker position
(started his college career as a quarterback).
Sub: Zimmer has a knack for getting the most
out of veteran corners, so no one should be surprised if Peterson
turns back the clock this year in the same way Xavier Rhodes did
in Indianapolis last season. Entering his age-31 season, it would
be unrealistic for Peterson to return to his former glory, but
even the 2020 version of him would be a huge upgrade over some
of the youngsters pressed into duty last season. Dantzler more
than held his own as a rookie - he did not surrender a touchdown
in his coverage in his final seven games after giving one in each
of his first four outings - and will undoubtedly benefit playing
opposite a veteran like Peterson.
Continued improvement from Dantzler - assuming he can hold off
a challenge from recent free-agent signee Bashaud Breeland - and
a bounce-back season from Peterson would give this defense the
kind of cornerback play Zimmer had become accustomed to prior
to last season. Alexander returns from a short stay in Cincinnati
and might have the edge for the slot job over 2020 first-round
pick Gladney, who was one of many rookies who needed an offseason
last year. Regardless of who wins that job, he should expect to
have a bullseye on his back. Woods will likely be a slight downgrade
from Anthony Harris, but Smith is closing in on 10 years of erasing
mistakes in the passing game. Much like the run defense, the pass
defense should finish inside the top half of the league if the
football gods grant Minnesota better injury luck this season.
Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has appeared as a guest analyst on several national sports radio shows and podcasts, including Sirius XM's Fantasy Drive, FantasyPros and RealTime Fantasy Sports. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.