Reading the Defense - Week 13
By Jene Bramel
November 30th, 2011

Situational Updates, Scouting Observations and Waiver Wire Thoughts

Kam Chancellor 3-1 (9 solos in past three weeks)
Chancellor was on his way to being this year's summer DB darling made good through nine weeks, when he was on pace (projecting his seven games over 16 weeks) for nearly 90 solos, a couple of sacks, six interceptions and 14 passes defensed. Over the past three weeks, however, he's been a marginal DB3. I think there are multiple factors in play here. First, the Seahawks defense has limited its own opportunity. Though Seattle faced 56 tackle opportunities in Week 12, they were just over 40 in Weeks 10 and 11. In those two weeks, they faced just 29 rushing attempts total. But Chancellor's play also gives some cause for concern. He's not been the same player in run support. That may be a result of the Seahawks playing more two deep coverage to hedge against their inexperienced corners, but Chancellor hasn't been as sudden filling on the edge and he's missed nearly as many tackles as he's made in the past month - six according to Pro Football Focus. Chancellor's next two matchups could go either way, but I'd lean toward calling Philadelphia and St. Louis at home risky, if not unfavorable, tackle matchups. He gets Chicago and San Francisco in Weeks 15 and 16, both of which have been more inconsistent tackle matchups than you'd expect. If Chancellor cleans up his play, he can get back to his former DB2 with upside expectation. If not, we're in for a mediocre finish that will make him one of the harder to read offseason prospects.

Lawrence Timmons 6-1
The worm may be turning for Timmons. The Steelers are playing better and are on the verge of being as healthy on defense as they've been all season. Timmons is seeing less and less time as a rotational OLB with Jason Worilds play improving somewhat. Timmons has looked much better against the run over the past month and he's not been nearly as tentative as he'd been in October. The matchups aren't great (CIN, CLE, SF, STL) over the next four weeks, but the return of LaMarr Woodley could allow Timmons enough big play upside as an interior pass rusher to make up for the lack of 8-10 solo tackle upside. Proceed with caution, but Timmons is inching back toward a LB2 with LB1 upside expectation.

Kevin Burnett 11-1 / Karlos Dansby 2-0, 3 QH
This is an impressive split, but it's more flukish than injury or evidence that Dansby's play has tailed off. Many of Burnett's tackles came on underneath passing plays over the middle while Dansby was rushing the passer against Dallas' multiple WR sets. This isn't the first week that Miami has done this; it's been part of the defensive game plan for the past month. This is the first week that the disparity in tackles has been so dramatic. It's likely that things regress back next week. Both ILBs remain solid LB2.

Jerod Mayo 3-0 / Trent Cole 0-0
Both players, at least physically, looked on the verge of a late season rebound after flashing improved play (Cole in Week 10, Mayo in Week 11). I don't see much reason to worry with Cole. He was around Tom Brady frequently, but never closed the deal, then rotated out more often after the Eagles fell behind big in the second half. Mayo is a tougher sell. The Eagles ran only six traditional running plays in the first half, limiting Mayo's opportunity, then the Patriots settled into an even softer zone coverage concept in the second quarter. Mayo made a couple of garbage tackles late, but was otherwise mostly uninspired. It's hard to see his opportunity increasing much against Indianapolis this week, and road games against Washington and Denver could go either way. Mayo looks like a LB3 for the rest of this year, with wide variance possible, but a very reasonable buy low candidate for 2012.

Connor Barwin 7-3-4, 6 QH
Despite a solid motor and good athleticism, Barwin had been an inconsistent pass rusher for most of the season. He's shown a better array of pass rush moves and taken advantage of two solid matchups in the past month on his way to 6.5 sacks in his past three weeks. His four sacks had as much to do with Blaine Gabbert's continued abysmal pocket presence than his good play, but Barwin is gaining confidence and has started to be just as productive in a two point stance as he's been as a nickel defensive end. It's likely that he'll be relatively quiet against Atlanta and Cincinnati, but could have strong upside against Carolina and Indianapolis in Weeks 15 and 16.

Kurt Coleman 11-1
To be sure, Coleman is producing like a fantasy DB1. And, with the continued lack of competition from his OLB and secondary mates, that production is likely to continue. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Coleman's on-field play has improved. He's still missing tackles, taking poor angles and reacting slowly in zone coverage. If you're in a redraft league or in the middle of a playoff run in a dynasty league, enjoy the ride. If not, sell high immediately and prepare for Coleman to go the way of Adam Archuleta, Keith Lewis and so many other "productive" safeties with limited all-around talent. I'd handicap Coleman's chances at the starting SS job as no better than 10% for 2012.

E.J. Henderson 9-3, QH / Erin Henderson 1-1
E.J.'s chronic knee issues and Erin's nagging hamstring struggles have made it nearly impossible to predict which Henderson brother will play every down. Fortunately, this week against the option offense of the Broncos, both are probably safe to use. Hopefully, we'll get some clarity on the rare snaps the Vikings will be in nickel packages to apply to future weeks.

Lawrence Sidbury 2-0-2
Sidbury got a mention as a deep dynasty watch prospect in the futures discussion last month, but may be drumming up more interest with his two sack performance last week. Sidbury saw about 10-15 snaps in rotation against Minnesota, in both base and nickel packages, and looked like a fresh-legged body with some skill. He might get more rotational snaps after his strong effort, but his fantasy value will be tied to whether the Falcons' depth chart falls in his favor next year.

Rey Maualuga 6-4
This was Maualuga's tackle output of the season, but I don't think it's a sign that he's on the verge of breaking out. After an eye-opening preseason, Maualuga continues to shed blocks inconsistently. I also wonder whether it's Mike Zimmer's stress on discipline with run fits or a lack of instincts that's contributing to Maualuga's maddening ability to look like he's playing downhill but rarely make a play on the ball. Maualuga has an attractive schedule (PIT, HOU, STL, ARI, BAL) through Week 17, but I wouldn't trust him unless/until his on-field play matches his improved production (should it continue).

Da'Quan Bowers 1-0, QH
Bowers has been better off the snap and has shown flashes of a strong bull rush, but he's being ridden out of running plays too easily and doesn't have an extra gear off the edge. There's potential here, but it'll be a critical offseason for him. If the knee issues don't hold him back, it's possible he'll make the Year 2 leap that most talented 4-3 defensive ends make. If not, he may not have enough natural skill to make up for the loss in lower body strength and explosiveness.

Ashton Youboty 8-0, FR/TD
Once upon a time, I had Youboty high on my personal watch list as a potential "next big thing" among the Tampa-2 cornerback wave. Youboty washed out in Buffalo and bounced around the league before landing in Jacksonville recently. Multiple injuries have given him a chance to start and this week's stat line looks shocking, but maybe shouldn't be that surprising. Youboty is likely to struggle in coverage, but he's got the size and run support profile to run up nice tackle numbers. Six of Youboty's solos (and his FR/TD) were on run plays or because he was around the ball supporting the run. His upcoming schedule (SD/TB/ATL/TEN) shapes up very nicely for his skill set. There have been a handful of prospects for this year's midseason CB du jour, but none of them have stuck. I have a soft spot for guys I've previously had on watch lists - yes, I'm looking at you Albert Fincher and Everette Brown - but I'd bet on Youboty sticking.

Critical Injuries (Bishop, Wilson, Umenyiora) and More
As I finish writing this late Tuesday night, it appears that George Wilson will return and Osi Umenyiora could be out more than a week. That drops Da'Norris Searcy back into a reserve role and increases the snap count of Jason Pierre-Paul. Justin Tuck is also likely to be limited after aggravating his ankle injury last week; he's almost certainly not going to be himself until 2012. Desmond Bishop said his calf was feeling better on Tuesday, but the Packers haven't released the results of his MRI and Bishop was non-committal when asked if he'd be ready to play this weekend. His Thursday comment that he felt a pop suggests a significant re-aggravation of his injury. Hopefully, we'll learn otherwise by the end of the week. I'll have updates on my Twitter feed when they're available.

Playoff Matchup Data

Tackle Opportunity

Though it doesn't have much relevance to upcoming matchups, the tackle opportunity numbers for Indianapolis and Houston remain striking. Through 11 games, the Colts are still on pace for a historically high tackle opportunity faced at 59.0 per game. The Texans remain on pace for a historically low tackle opportunity faced at 42.0 per game. Since 2003, the highest tackle opportunity finish belonged to the 2010 Titans at 57.8. The Colts' pace has them more than nine opportunities per game over historical averages. The Texans are nearly eight opportunities less than the historical average and are near the pace of the 2004 Steelers and 2008 Ravens.

Offenses Allowing Highest Tackle Opportunity

  • New Orleans 57.2
  • Houston 54.5
  • New England 53.8
  • Atlanta 53.5
  • Oakland is 9th at 51.5, but is averaging over 56 per game over the past three weeks.

    Carolina defenders have top four matchups in Weeks 14 and 15. Should an every-down defender emerge opposite James Anderson, he'll be a strong upside target in deeper leagues. The Chiefs defenders (OAK and GB) also get two very strong matchups during the playoff weeks.

    Offenses Allowing Worst Tackle Opportunity

  • Indianapolis 42.2
  • Arizona 45.6
  • Tennessee 46.6
  • There are some single game matchups to worry about here, but no defender faces more than one of these teams between Weeks 14 and 16.

    Most Run Heavy Offenses

  • Denver 66.7%
  • Houston 64.7%
  • Jacksonville 64.4%
  • Oakland 62.2%
  • San Francisco 60.5%
  • Most Pass Heavy Offenses

  • New Orleans 45.5%
  • Detroit 46.1%
  • Tampa Bay 47.5%
  • Washington 48.2%
  • Green Bay 49.4%
  • New England 49.8%
  • Be more willing to play a strong base defensive run defender against Denver, Houston and Jacksonville, while a nickel defensive back might be a nice upside play against the Saints, Lions, Packers or Patriots.

    Specifically, consider Kelvin Sheppard in Week 16 against Denver or Dan Connor in Week 15 against Houston in tackle heavy leagues. Be leery of Donald Butler against DET in Week 16. And watch out for whichever Henderson brother sits in subpackages against Detroit and New Orleans in Weeks 15 and 16.

    Offenses With Most Sacks Allowed

  • St. Louis 3.5
  • Seattle/Arizona 3.3
  • Miami/Minnesota 3.1
  • Pittsburgh/Jacksonville 2.9
  • Washington 2.8
  • San Francisco 2.7
  • Best Isolated Pass Rush Matchups

  • Guy Whimper RT JAX
  • Levi Brown LT ARI
  • Jamaal Brown RT WAS
  • Wayne Hunter RT NYJ
  • Phil Loadholt RT MIN
  • Jeff Backus LT DET
  • A healthy Carlos Dunlap (STL/ARI in Weeks 15/16), Andre Carter (WAS/MIA in Weeks 14 and 16), James Harrison/LaMarr Woodley (SF/STL in Weeks 15 and 16), Chris Clemons (STL/SF in Weeks 14 and 16), Justin Smith (ARI/SEA) in Weeks 14 and 16) all have attractive playoff stretches. Multiple other one-week wonders are possible on the above lists.

    Fewest Sacks Allowed

  • Buffalo 1.4
  • Tennessee 1.5
  • Houston 1.5
  • Cincinnati 1.5
  • Worst Isolated Pass Rush Matchups

  • Duane Brown LT HOU
  • Nate Solder RT NE
  • Michael Roos LT TEN
  • Joe Thomas LT CLE
  • Andrew Whitworth LT CIN
  • David Stewart RT TEN
  • Jason Peters LT PHI
  • Brian Bulaga RT GB
  • Don't bench a stud necessarily, but definitely look for other options if your DL2 faces one of the above matchups in the coming weeks.

    Highest Home Stat Crew Assisted Tackle Rate

  • IND
  • CIN
  • NE
  • WAS
  • SEA
  • BUF
  • PIT
  • NO
  • Lowest Assisted Tackle Rate

  • STL
  • SF
  • PHI
  • If you're looking for solo tackles or your league doesn't give enough points for assists to give them reasonable value, take the following home stat crew tendencies into account.

    For example, the Colts may have faced the league's highest tackle opportunity, but 19 linebackers have more solo tackles than Pat Angerer, who has more assists (58) than solos. Though the TEN and HOU matchups are very favorable in Weeks 15 and 16, Angerer's stat line could very well be a disappointing 2-9. London Fletcher, David Hawthorne, Jonathan Vilma and Jerod Mayo are also at some risk, though not to the same extent.

    Questions from the Forum and Twitter

    What is the 2012 outlook for some of this year's most impressive emerging linebackers like Pat Angerer, Donald Butler and Perry Riley?
    I think Butler and Riley have both established themselves as quality NFL inside linebackers. I'm not as convinced that Angerer has, though I suspect there's a major component of poor defensive morale and poor defensive tackle play contributing to Angerer's on-field inconsistency. But all three aren't without 2012 question marks.

    The Chargers went into 2011 with Butler in nickel packages, only to decide that he'd be more productive if he focused on his base defensive responsibilities only. Ordinarily, I'd argue that those issues would certainly be ironed out in Butler's favor this offseason, but the high likelihood of a coaching change in San Diego this offseason puts Butler's 2012 role in question. Riley has been a solid addition to the Washington front seven, but one has to wonder whether he'll survive the offseason in the Snyder/Shanahan era. Despite my on-field concerns, Angerer may be the safest bet of the three. Today, I'd probably slot Angerer into the LB2 with LB1 upside tier and Butler and Riley into the LB3 with upside tier.

    How will the NYG and PHI middle linebacker situations play out in 2012?
    I have no idea, mostly because - despite the total lack of interest both teams have shown in addressing the MLB position in recent years - I think the poor play of both teams against the run may prompt each team to put a higher priority on improving that position by bringing in an upgrade via free agency or the draft. I certainly wouldn't hold my breath expecting Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, Greg Jones or Mark Herzlich to become a 90 solo tackle prospect and resident of the LB2 tier in the future.

    Will the Bengals continue to use a defensive line rotation into 2012? Are there any sure starters in the mix?
    If Mike Zimmer doesn't find a head coaching job elsewhere, I think it's very likely that the Bengals stick with a rotation next year. Frostee Rucker will be a free agent and is playing well enough to potentially generate interest elsewhere, but Robert Geathers is signed through 2012 and both Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson will still be playing under their rookie deals. I think the Bengals would love to see Johnson and Dunlap consistent enough in all phases to play at least two of three series and all nickel snaps, but that's yet to happen. Inside, Pat Sims will be a free agent, as is end/tackle swing player Jonathan Fanene, so we could see a heavier workload for Geno Atkins and Domata Peko on base downs. Right now, I think Atkins is the most consistent all-around force on the line and more likely than any of the defensive ends to play 700-800 snaps next year.

    What situations should be considered "must watches" for incoming free agents or draft picks this offseason?
    There's room for a strong 4-3 defensive end in Cleveland and Jacksonville. I like the potential opportunity for a linebacker in Philadelphia and New York. I think a better run support safety could be productive in Cincinnati and Dallas. As always, I'll have an extended pre-draft opportunity profile published in late April, after the first couple waves of free agency are complete.

    Can we trust Darian Stewart to continue to be productive through 2012?
    I'm very conflicted on Stewart. At times, he's been beyond bad in zone coverage and lost in run support. At others, he's been very good in both phases. Spagnuolo's defense requires two smart safeties that can run and cover, and I'm not certain which Stewart is the "real" Stewart. With Quintin Mikell's contract, it's unlikely that the Rams will prioritize the other safety position for an upgrade. I think there's a chance that Stewart moves to a reserve role next year, but he's been productive enough that he has to stay on rosters until we know for certain.

    Will T.J. Ward return to form in 2012?
    I'd err on the side of expecting improvement, if only because the talent is there and the surrounding cast is likely to have issues. I think Ward benefited from a more aggressive mix of coverages last year and the absence of D'Qwell Jackson, but I think the pendulum of production swung further than expectation this year. Clearly, I was wrong to push him as the top overall DB target this summer, but I'll stubbornly argue that he isn't and shouldn't belong among the vast group of marginal DB3 players.

    What's your general approach to the defensive back position in dynasty league? Is there such a thing as a "no-brainer" DB keeper?
    The previous two questions are a perfect lead-in here. While I despise the term "crapshoot" when discussing the value of any group of defensive players, there's no denying that it's difficult to precisely project the defensive back position. Subtle coverage scheme changes, the overall trend of a defense and its effect on game situation and run/pass splits against and the fact that most defensive backs start the play outside the box and as much as ten yards off the line of scrimmage all conspire to turn a 5-6 solo per week player into a 3-4 solo per week player. That's a whisker difference on paper each week, but it's the difference between an 80 solo stud and a 64 solo replacement level talent. And, as the T.J. Ward situation shows, the list of "safe" DB1 is extraordinarily short - and still volatile - from season to season.

    That leads to a clear strategy for me. First, err on the side of talent when decisions are close, but make the effort to adjust to scheme and opportunity anyway. Second, hold only the most talented players with reliable track records, i.e. the elite DB tier only. Third, identify good situations early in the summer and be prepared to move on them. Finally, don't be afraid to stream the position (without overreacting to one week wonders) if your early expectations aren't borne out on the field and in the boxscore. That should keep you from holding weak talents with good years through the offseason and strong talents in bad situations deep into the current season. It should put you well ahead of the curve on guys like Yeremiah Bell, Tyvon Branch, Donte Whitner, George Wilson and Kam Chancellor type players in July and August. That class of player is absolutely not a crapshoot - they were all clearly identifiable well before opening weekend of their respective breakout seasons. Be on the right side of those two flex points and you'll be above average with respect to your leaguemates.

    Are there any off-the-radar defensive backs that could finish the year strongly and be surprisingly strong playoff plays?
    I don't think there any identifiable up-and-coming safeties likely to put up DB1 numbers down the stretch, but it'll be worth watching the injury lists to see if another Da'Norris Searcy presents himself this month. Ashton Youboty, as mentioned above, and possibly Antwaun Molden might be attractive targets if you're willing to risk a cornerback in a playoff matchup.

    Who's going to fall off a cliff this offseason as Kirk Morrison, Lofa Tatupu, Stewart Bradley and others have done recently?
    I think Barrett Ruud will have a tough time finding an every-down job next year and I think there's a chance that the Broncos tire of D.J. Williams, who reportedly hasn't been the best locker room presence at times in recent seasons.

    Is there anything to the recent decline of James Harrison, who hasn't had a sack since his three sack outburst in his first game back in Week 9?
    There may be. The Cincinnati matchup in Week 10 wasn't a favorable pass rush matchup, but Harrison would normally have taken advantage of a matchup like the Chiefs. Harrison has been around the quarterback often and the number of pass drops he's faced in the past two matchups has been below average. He faces the Bengals again this week, but at home, then above average matchups in CLE, SF and STL. I haven't seen or heard anything suggesting his back is again a problem, so I think the odds of a rebound are good.

    Remember to watch the IDP Forum and follow my Twitter feed (@JeneBramel) for breaking news and analysis as the week progresses and for all the critical inactives and lineup changes on Sunday mornings. John Norton and I will also be back with Sigmund Bloom to produce our weekly IDP roundtable podcast. The show will be available by Thursday afternoon every week during the season.

    Best of luck in Week 13.

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