#Trendspotting: Week 15 - Don't Fear the Passing Game in a Blowout

Examining player and team trends to identify valuable DFS options and start/sits in season-long leagues

Something Different This Week

This week, I've gotten rid of the "Weakest Links" section. I've done this for three reasons. A) you already know the weak links; 2) there's a huge game this week, so I wanted to give extra focus to those two teams; D) I "crowd-sourced" some material ideas, and they took me some time to dig into and make graphics.

Yes, that's an obvious Home Alone reference. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Graphics Tutorial and Reader’s Guide

I've gotten feedback that my graphics aren't as self-explanatory and intuitive as I think they are, so I provided a guide at the beginning of a past version of this article.

  • Green text is a good matchup for that team's offensive players.
  • Red text is a bad matchup.
  • All reference to fantasy points assumes DraftKings scoring rules unless otherwise specified.
  • All stats reference the full 2017 season unless otherwise specified.

This week, we'll discuss the following topics:

Follow the Targets

In this section, we'll look at the worst passing defenses and dissect how they allow their fantasy production. This week, we're looking at the defenses that have allowed the most yards per game since Week 10 and how they've allocated their targets, yards, and touchdowns over the course of the whole season.

Team RB Tgt% Yds/Gm Rank TD WR Tgt% Yds/Gm Rank TD TE Tgt% Yds/Gm Rank TD
Baltimore Ravens 18.5% 9 2 60.4% 13 5 21.2% 21 6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 62.7% 14 2 62.7% 32 15 17.1% 11 3
New York Giants 20.8% 27 3 55.4% 25 12 23.8% 30 10
Cincinnati Bengals 24.2% 25 3 54.3% 4 9 21.5% 23 3
Carolina Panthers 22.3% 13 1 61.5% 21 13 16.2% 2 6
Green Bay Packers 23.2% 26 4 58.1% 28 15 18.7% 4 3
Tennessee Titans 22.5% 32 3 53.9% 11 15 23.6% 20 4
Seattle Seahawks 18.5% 2 1 59.1% 27 11 22.4% 15 4
                   
Action Items
  • Julio Jones almost always crushes Tampa Bay anyway. Now, they're a wide receiver matchup so tasty, they've often appeared in this column. He's an elite play, even considering his potentially inflated ownership being off the main DFS slates.
  • Don't sleep on the Philadelphia passing game just because Carson Wentz isn't there anymore. More on this later.
  • Carolina is allowing huge yardage via the air, their alleged top corner allows the most yards in football, and Aaron Rodgers is back. Sign me up for large-field GPP game stacks here.
  • Oh look, Green Bay is here too. About those game stacks...
  • Even their Week 14 date with Blaine Gabbert and a neutral game script couldn't remove Tennessee from this list. Now, they go west again to face an emerging Jimmy Garoppolo.

Funnel Watch

A "funnel" defense is one with a stout run defense but a suspect (or worse) pass defense. These units "funnel" production to the exterior and deep parts of the field (places where passing games focus) and away from the short middle (where the running game typically occurs).

Team PaYd/Gm RuYd/Gm NYd/Att Yd/Rush %PassYd %RushYd
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 276.1 113.2 7.5 4.2 70.9% 29.1%
Houston Texans 241.8 104.5 7.0 4.0 69.8% 30.2%
Oakland Raiders 241.2 109.5 6.9 4.1 68.8% 31.2%
Green Bay Packers 240.3 113.8 6.8 4.0 67.9% 32.1%
Dallas Cowboys 234.2 107.4 6.1 4.2 68.6% 31.4%
Cleveland Browns 232.3 96.0 6.6 3.3 70.8% 29.2%
             
Action Items
  • More reason to play Atlanta passing game players, Tampa Bay allows the most passing yards per game in the NFL and is tied for the highest net yards per pass attempt allowed.
  • Baltimore vs. Cleveland should be interesting. Baltimore's offense is seeing a recent resurgence, but much of that has been a balanced attack with a strong run game. Cleveland allows the lowest yards per carry average in the NFL but can be exploited via the air.
  • The obvious way to handle Jacksonville vs. Houston is to get as many Leonard Fournette shares as possible due to the game script suggest by the point spread, but the way to beat Houston is via the pass. And in order to get way ahead, Jacksonville's air attack will likely have contributed. Don't sleep on Blake Bortles as a cash game play this week in DFS. Also, his leading receiver, Marqise Lee is in play, as is the explosive DeDe Westbrook.
  • Dallas and Oakland play each other this week. Look for that game to feature efficient passing on both sides. 

"Runnel" Defense

Sometimes, the funnel effect can happen in reverse, where a team is very good against the pass but poor against the run (hence, "runnel" defense)

Team PaYd/Gm RuYd/Gm NYd/Att Yd/Rush %PassYd %RushYd
Cincinnati Bengals 213.4 132.1 5.7 4.2 61.8% 38.2%
Los Angeles Chargers 200.3 124.8 5.5 4.7 61.6% 38.4%
Los Angeles Rams 218.7 124.1 5.8 4.7 63.8% 36.2%
Jacksonville Jaguars 174.2 117.4 4.8 4.6 59.7% 40.3%
New Orleans Saints 216.8 114.3 6.1 4.5 65.5% 34.5%
Atlanta Falcons 211.5 108.3 5.6 4.3 66.1% 33.9%
             
Action Items
  • Since Week 5 (after Dalvin Cook's injury), there have been seven occasions where both Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have seen double-digit carries and another where Murray had 16 and McKinnon "only" 9. Last week at Carolina was the only occasion that neither eclipsed 10 carries. Minnesota lost that game, so game script played a role. Against Cincinnati, both backs are in play for GPPs as a multi-touchdown ground game for Minnesota could be in the making.
  • Whether or not to play Kareem Hunt is a huge question in fantasy football this week. After a month of stinkers, Hunt showed up in a big way in Week 14. Certainly, Kansas City would like to be run-based and keep the game close enough to do so, but will L.A.'s offensive momentum allow for that? The way the Chargers allow yardage suggests that Kansas City should be run-based and not abandon that too early. The 4.7 yards per rush allowed by both L.A. teams is tied for the most in the NFL.
  • Houston and the New York Jets will try to run on Jacksonville and New Orleans, respectively, but will they be able to keep their games close enough to make that a game-long strategy?

Are You New Here?

Not all trends last for an entire season. And the best fantasy owners can spot trends as they develop. So this section will discuss newly-developing trends.

Getting Beaten by the Best

Last week, we started off this section with these exact words:

After spending most of the season as a pass defense to avoid, Baltimore has sprung some leaks lately. Note how WR1s (or facsimiles thereof) have fared against them recently:

This week, they still apply, and we have Antonio Brown's huge game on Sunday night to add to last week's chart.

Player Wk Rec Yd TD FPs
Antonio Brown 14 11 213 0 35.3
Golden Tate 13 8 69 0 14.9
Marvin Jones 13 4 90 0 13.0
DeAndre Hopkins 12 7 125 0 22.5
Davante Adams 11 8 126 0 23.6
Rishard Matthews 9 4 70 1 17.0
           

And there's also this...

Action Items
  • If you are upset that Josh Gordon was too highly-owned last week or upset that he didn't do much after the team's first drive, feel free to play him again this week. Considering the last of hype this week, he's a better GPP play than he was last week.

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How Will They Score?

I have a confession. What you're about to see and read is not my idea. This is a concept created by Ben Gretch at Rotoviz and now published on FantasyLabs. However, it's one I wanted to share as it is an interesting way to think about how teams score and allow points and can lead to some surprise/contrarian lineup decisions. For some background, check the intro to Ben's Week 1 column from earlier this year, or get a bullet-point summary below.

  • Take each team's implied Vegas team total
  • Average the percentage of points that team scores via passing touchdowns and the percentage their opponent allows via passing touchdowns
  • Multiply that average percentage by the implied total
  • Do the same for rushing touchdowns
  • An asterisk denotes a home team
  • Passing + Rushing won't add up to the total. There are kicking and defense/specials teams points as well. However, those aren't as predictable, so we're focusing on offense only.

You'll get the hang of it with the help of the charts and some examples.

Passing Points

Offense Defense LV Total Off PaTD% Def PaTD% Pass
New Orleans Saints* New York Jets 31.50 30.81% 48.23% 12.45
Pittsburgh Steelers* New England Patriots 25.00 45.00% 52.80% 12.23
Seattle Seahawks* Los Angeles Rams 25.00 55.41% 40.75% 12.02
Philadelphia Eagles New York Giants* 23.75 49.01% 48.60% 11.59
New England Patriots Pittsburgh Steelers* 28.00 44.02% 38.25% 11.52
Los Angeles Chargers Kansas City Chiefs* 23.75 46.31% 39.45% 10.18
Atlanta Falcons Tampa Bay Buccaneers* 27.00 36.73% 38.46% 10.15
Washington Redskins* Arizona Cardinals 24.00 46.32% 37.85% 10.10
Oakland Raiders* Dallas Cowboys 21.50 43.18% 48.98% 9.91
Carolina Panthers* Green Bay Packers 25.25 34.00% 43.71% 9.81
           
Action Items
  • We'll expand on New Orleans later.
  • If LeVeon Bell is going to score, it's as likely to come via the pass as the rush. Also, play the Pittsburgh passing game. More on that later as well. 
  • Many might shy away from Kirk Cousins was Washington's season spirals down the drain of mediocrity, but last week was his first game without 300 passing yards and/or multiple touchdowns since Week 9. And Arizona is a much better matchup than the L.A. Chargers. Cousins is a solid GPP play, as his ownership is likely to be low since he's priced in "no-man's land" in DFS.

Rushing Points

Offense Defense LV Total Off RuTD% Def RuTD% Rush
New Orleans Saints* New York Jets 31.50 30.81% 17.36% 7.59
Atlanta Falcons Tampa Bay Buccaneers* 27.00 22.45% 26.92% 6.67
New England Patriots Pittsburgh Steelers* 28.00 17.93% 26.29% 6.19
Tennessee Titans San Francisco 49ers* 21.00 37.36% 19.11% 5.93
Dallas Cowboys Oakland Raiders* 24.50 30.38% 17.76% 5.90
Carolina Panthers* Green Bay Packers 25.25 28.00% 17.88% 5.79
Chicago Bears Detroit Lions* 19.25 26.79% 31.00% 5.56
Los Angeles Chargers Kansas City Chiefs* 23.75 16.11% 29.07% 5.36
Los Angeles Rams Seattle Seahawks* 23.00 19.70% 23.81% 5.00
Washington Redskins* Arizona Cardinals 24.00 18.95% 22.71% 5.00
           
Action Items
  • Rex Burkhead may be the forgotten man in the game of the week. The "Brady Redemption" and "Brady Always Crushes Pittsburgh" narratives will be in full effect, but there's always room for a goal-line back who can catch passes in any DFS GPP lineup, especially when said back is on a team projected to score four touchdowns.
  • Anyone still skeptical of playing Todd Gurley in any format needs to look in the mirror.

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New Orleans Saints (vs. New York Jets)

NO vs. NYJ

Commentary

According to Pat Thorman (via ProFootballReference), New Orleans passes at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL in neutral game situations over the past month (59% of the time). The Jets face the ninth-highest rate of passes in neutral situations. Don't sleep on the Saints passing game just because they're a huge favorite. Perhaps the huge GPP-winning upside is low due to the lack of a shootout, but the floor is very secure. 

If you are gung-ho on the New Orleans running backs, the passing game numbers above should actually help your case. Not only does New Orleans pass a lot, but they pass to their running backs 31.0% of the time, the highest rate in the NFL.

Action Items

  • Play unconventional quarterback-running back stacks in cash games to get as much New Orleans exposure as possible. Brees-Ingram and Brees-Kamara are both solid. Brees-Michael Thomas is a great leverage play to stay on an elite offense while diversifying ownership.
  • The running back duo (assuming Alvin Kamara's health) is expensive, but they should each get 15 or more touches in a positive script, with a portion of those coming in the passing game. So they're both worthy of a play in any format, especially Kamara in GPPs because of his uncertain early week health, his explosive ability, and his higher price potentially driving away ownership.

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New England Patriots (at Pittsburgh Steelers)

NE at PIT

Commentary

Pittsburgh hasn't just been bad since Joe Haden was injured; they've been horrible.

Those quarterbacks passing for those numbers has Pittsburgh fans very nervous about the idea of Tom Brady coming to town.

But to whom will Brady be passing? Rob Gronkowski returns from his suspension, and Chris Hogan will be playing his second game back from injury. As former colleague Heath Cummings points out, this is the first week since the Rex Burkhead emergence that he, Chris Hogan, Rob Gronkowski, and Brandin Cooks will all have played in a game together.

So which target is the preferred stacking partner with Brady? The one with the most success against the opponent is Gronkowski. He averages 6.0 receptions, 99.2 yards, and 1.6 touchdowns on 7.2 targets in his career against Pittsburgh.

Action Items

  • When struggling with which pass-catcher to use, it's almost always sound to think "all roads lead to the quarterback." 
  • Stack this game in any way possible. With multiple lineups, include Brady-Gronkowski because of Gronkowski's history. But also include Brady-Cooks because of Pittsburgh's poor secondary and propensity to allow big plays.

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Seattle Seahawks (vs. Los Angeles Rams)

SEA vs. LAR

Commentary

Would it be surprising if you were told that Russell Wilson hasn't thrown for over 300 yards since Week 8? Or that he has only passed that mark three times this season? It's well-known, though, that Wilson is the entire Seattle offense. What he lacks in passing yards, he makes up for on the ground. In terms of his passing acumen, however, who is his favorite target? This is one of the crowd-sourced requests I received this week.

  Week 11 Week 12 Week 13 Week 14
Player Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds
Doug Baldwin 83.8% 15.0% 17.6% 79.1% 9.1% 11.0% 69.4% 25.9% 37.0% 95% 20.7% 28.8%
Paul Richardson 41.9% 20.0% 24.7% 83.6% 21.2% 30.7% 83.9% 14.8% 3.5% 93.5% 24.1% 26.6%
Tyler Lockett 63.5% 12.5% 16.3% 68.7% 3.0% 0.0% 46.8% 7.4% 7.5% 62.9% 17.2% 33.2%
Team Total 74 40 227 67 33 228 62 27 227 62 29 27

Due to his strong finishes in past years, many think that Doug Baldwin is far-and-away the top receiver on this team. But the load has been shared pretty evenly. In DFS, a player with a lack of guaranteed usage but a presence on an elite offense is usually a GPP play. However, with Baldwin being the least explosive receiver on the team, Richardson is in play as well.

The focus on the passing game might be overblown, though. Los Angeles allows 27.2% of its total points via rushing touchdowns, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL (and that's after allowing four passing touchdowns and zero on the ground to Philadelphia last week).

Action Items

  • The chart above shows Lockett's high-usage game as last week. I'm chalking that up to Jacksonville's elite cornerback duo squaring off against Baldwin and Richardson more than Lockett. 
  • Baldwin and Richardson are still on the field more often, making them more desirable.
  • Mike Davis, if healthy, is a GPP leverage play on the Seattle passing game.

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Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. New England Patriots)

PIT vs. NE

Commentary

Since their Week 9 bye, Pittsburgh has been a different team. Actually, they've been the same high-octane team we've become used to over the past few seasons instead of the slow-and-ineffective team they were in the first half of this season. Ben Roethlisberger's per-game averages tell the story:

  • Weeks 1-8: 21-34, 257.8 yards, 1.3 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
  • Weeks 10-14: 30-45, 336.4 yards, 2.8 touchdowns, 0.8 interceptions

Sometimes, the reasons for success are simple. In Roethlisberger's case, his schedule has softened considerably.

  • Weeks 1-8 included: Minnesota, Baltimore (at full strength), Jacksonville, and Cincinnati
  • Weeks 10-14 included: Indianapolis, Tennessee, Green Bay, and Baltimore (without Jimmy Smith)

Another reason for the team's success in the passing game is another simple item. They've thrown the ball to their best player a lot. Let's look at the same splits for Antonio Brown:

  • Weeks 1-8: 11.8 targets, 7.1 receptions, 104.4 yards, 0.4 touchdowns
  • Weeks 10-14: 13.0 targets, 8.4 receptions, 134.8 yards, 1.2 touchdowns

All of these "good part of the season" splits include a down performance at Indianapolis. For example, Brown is averaging an otherworldly 14.5 targets, 9.8 catches, 165.8 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns per game over the last four.

But the narrative associated with Bill Belichick defenses is that he does all he can to take away the opponent's best weapon. This seems to carry to the passing game more than the running game. So how has Brown fared against New England? In five career games (including last year's AFC Championship Game), Brown averages 7.4 receptions, 90.8 yards, and 0.6 touchdowns on 11 targets vs. New England.

It's not his best, but it's far from being shut down. And Pittsburgh still targets him at a high rate, even with the Belichick narrative of extra attention. But if you're a believe in said narrative (or just a DFS player looking for a contrarian play in a shootout game), here's what the other Pittsburgh receivers have done when both were on the field (there was a Martavis Bryant benching and a JuJu Smith-Schuster suspension in this stretch, hence the non-consecutive weeks).

  Week 7 Week 10 Week 11 Week 13
Player Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds
Antonio Brown 92.8% 40.0% 24.3% 95.5% 23.3% 14.8% 97.2% 29.5% 48.2% 100% 38.5% 34.8%
J. Smith-Schusterer 44.9% 12.0% 14.6% 80.3% 23.3% 30.6% 93.1% 18.2% 15.7% 81.8% 15.4% 5.9%
Martavis Bryant 52.2% 8.0% 1.1% 56.1% 16.7% 13.2% 62.5% 9.1% 10.0% 60.6% 15.4% 13.8%
Team Total 69 25 268 66 30 317 72 44 299 66 39 290
                         

Action Items

Don't shy away from Brown. As shown above in the "How Will They Score" section, Pittsburgh should be able to throw in this game. And it shouldn't be game script-dependent. The passing game has been the backbone of the offense for four straight weeks, meaning that a neutral or positive script would likely be a result of the aerial attack, while a negative script would mean more volume there as well. If looking for that low-owned GPP dart, it's Smith-Schuster, especially after Bryant disappointed last week in a huge game for just about everyone else wearing the same color jersey as him and running routes.

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Philadelphia Eagles (at New York Giants)

PHI vs. NYG

Commentary

Arguably the biggest story in fantasy football (and real football) last week was the season-ending injury to Carson Wentz. Traditional league fantasy owners are left scrambling, not knowing what to do. DFS players are licking their chops at a cheap quarterback with good weapons a nice matchup. Speaking of those weapons, what's the "butterfly effect" of Wentz's injury? Can Nick Foles maintain the fantasy value of the rest of the players in this offense? Our own Sigmund Bloom was my first reply when I crowd-sourced topics for this column. And since Sig helped me get the gig here at FBG, when he talks, I'm listening:

Sig raises a good point. We know how Philadelphia plays, we know how Wentz played, but how does Foles fit in? Is he a "get it out quick" passer? A check-down specialist? By looking at every pass attempt of Foles' career and the position played by each target, we were able to figure out Foles' career target distribution. Before the table, here are some assumptions/clarifications:

  • I didn't chart every single Foles game. So when I separated receivers into outside and slot, this was educated guessing.
  • Similarly, for Philadelphia's 2017 target distribution, I assumed that 50 of Nelson Agholor's 76 targets came out of the slot.
  Foles 2017 PHI Avg.
Outside WR 48.8% 46.0% 47.4%
Slot WR 9.9% 11.0% 10.5%
TE 21.3% 28.6% 25.0%
RB 19.9% 11.2% 15.6%
       

Considering the amount of passing to tight ends from both Foles' career and this year's Eagles, there's no reason to shy away from Zach Ertz. This week, especially, Ertz still has a legitimate shot at overall TE1 status. Alshon Jeffery shouldn't be sent straight to the bench either. He's still an elite weapon and still will have his number called by a good play-caller.

Actions

  • Play Foles in cash games; don't be afraid to stream him in your traditional league if you streamed to here, lost Wentz, or don't like your quarterback's matchups this week. Stack him with Ertz in cash-plus, leagues, or GPPs.

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San Francisco 49ers (vs. Tennessee Titans)

SF vs. TEN

Commentary

Has San Francisco found its quarterback of the future? Jimmy Garoppolo has looked fantastic, throwing for 293 and 334 yards in his two starts. He only has one touchdown, but there could be some positive regression heading his way. But who will score the touchdowns? My colleague, Danny Tuccito asked a question along those lines:

  Week 13 Week 14
Player Snaps Tgt Yds Snaps Tgt Yds
M. Goodwin 77.3% 21.6% 33.8% 71.2% 37.5% 31.7%
Trent Taylor 41.3% 16.2% 31.4% 42.5% 9.4% 3.3%
Carlos Hyde 66.7% 13.5% 4.1% 56.2% 3.1% 0.0%
Team Total 75 37 293 73 32 334
             

Hyde's drop in targets is clearly the style of his new quarterback. Prior to Garoppolo, Hyde had seen 6, 8, 9, 11, 3, and 13 targets between Weeks 6 and 12. 

Action Items

  • Now just a single-role running back on a team unlikely to have many favorable game scripts, Hyde isn't a desirable asset. 
  • Garoppolo is a nice GPP play this week who could go overlooked at his price tag. But any quarterback against Tennesse is worth a look.

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Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com