Reading the Defense: Week 4

A weekly look at IDP trends with a mix of metrics, film study and matchup strategy

I'm not much on fancy, well-written introductions and lead-ins during the season. And I doubt many of you read this feature hoping to find flowery prose. That's my way of saying I'm just going to get on with it.

Thanks to those of you who have been loyal readers over the years. This feature won't change much this year. If you're new to the inseason columns, welcome. I'll be transitioning from tiers and draft strategy -- though there will still be tiers featured in the coming weeks -- to team-by-team notes, every-down linebacker tables and discussion, and film study of IDP breakouts and disappointments. Those three elements will be a part of the RTD every week. There will also be a healthy dose of the usual metrics -- tackle opportunity, run-pass ratios, stat crew trends -- and more.

I'm available via email (bramel@footballguys.com) and on Twitter (@JeneBramel). Hit me at either outlet for discussion and suggestions.

EVERY-DOWN LINEBACKERS

When I first began writing this feature years ago, schemes and position were a key part of IDP analysis. They still are. But, back then, there were fewer subpackage snaps and hardly any platoon situations at linebacker. Teams played a base defense -- then usually a 4-3 -- about 65-70% of the time. When they substituted on passing downs, it was almost always to a standard 4-2-5, with a cornerback replacing the strong side linebacker.

That doesn't happen anymore. Teams play a minority of their snaps in the base defense, sometimes as little as 20-25% of their snaps. Those base snaps are multiple fronts, with players switching responsibilities from one snap to the next. The subpackages are more varied than ever. 14-17 defenders may play at least 30-40% of their team's defensive snaps in any given game.

So, over the past few seasons, snap count has become all-important to IDP value. And while there are rotations along every defensive line and substitution patterns of note in the secondary, knowing each team's every-down linebackers has become a key piece of analysis to any successful IDP roster strategy.

I've been producing this table in the IDP Forum for many years. This year, I'm adding it to the weekly RTD. There will be a set of brief notes after the table each week, with extended discussion in the team-by-team notes section to follow.

NOTE: Those listed as every-down in italics are injury replacements who won't be every-down players when injured players return.

TEAM EVERY-DOWN LBs 75-100% SNAPS INJ | SUSP
ARIZONA LARRY FOOTE   [DARYL WASHINGTON] 
ATLANTA PAUL WORRILOW KROY BIERMANN  [SEAN WEATHERSPOON]
BALTIMORE DARYL SMITH, C.J. MOSLEY    
BUFFALO PRESTON BROWN NIGEL BRADHAM [KIKO ALONSO]
CAROLINA LUKE KUECHLY, THOMAS DAVIS    
CHICAGO LANCE BRIGGS, JON BOSTIC    
CINCINNATI EMMANUEL LAMUR, VINNY REY   VONTAZE BURFICT
CLEVELAND KARLOS DANSBY   BARKEVIOUS MINGO
DALLAS BRUCE CARTER, ANTHONY HITCHENS   ROLANDO MCCLAIN, [SEAN LEE]
DENVER ? BRANDON MARSHALL VON MILLER, ? NATE IRVING DANNY TREVATHAN
DETROIT DEANDRE LEVY, TAHIR WHITEHEAD   [STEPHEN TULLOCH]
GREEN BAY A.J. HAWK, CLAY MATTHEWS JULIUS PEPPERS ? BRAD JONES
HOUSTON ? BRIAN CUSHING, WHITNEY MERCILUS BROOKS REED  JADEVEON CLOWNEY
INDIANAPOLIS D'QWELL JACKSON, JOSH MCNARY ERIK WALDEN JERRELL FREEMAN, [ROBERT MATHIS]
JACKSONVILLE PAUL POSLUSZNY    
KANSAS CITY JUSTIN HOUSTON, TAMBA HALI, JOSH MAUGA JAMES-MICHAEL JOHNSON JOE MAYS, [DERRICK JOHNSON]
MIAMI JELANI JENKINS, JASON TRUSNIK   KOA MISI
MINNESOTA CHAD GREENWAY, ANTHONY BARR    
NEW ENGLAND JEROD MAYO, ROB NINKOVICH, DONTA HIGHTOWER   JAMIE COLLINS 
NEW ORLEANS CURTIS LOFTON JUNIOR GALETTE, RAMON HUMBER DAVID HAWTHORNE
NEW YORK GIANTS JACQUIAN WILLIAMS, ? JON BEASON    
NEW YORK JETS DAVID HARRIS, DEMARIO DAVIS, CALVIN PACE QUINTON COPLES  
OAKLAND ? KHALIL MACK, WHOMEVER IS HEALTHY AMONG >>>>   SIO MOORE, NICK ROACH, MILES BURRIS
PHILADELPHIA DEMECO RYANS TRENT COLE, CONNOR BARWIN MYCHAL KENDRICKS
PITTSBURGH LAWRENCE TIMMONS, SEAN SPENCE, JASON WORILDS   RYAN SHAZIER, JARVIS JONES
ST. LOUIS JAMES LAURINAITIS, ALEC OGLETREE    
SAN DIEGO DONALD BUTLER   MANTI TE'O 
SAN FRANCISCO PATRICK WILLIS, MICHAEL WILHOITE AHMAD BROOKS  NAVORRO BOWMAN, ALDON SMITH
SEATTLE BOBBY WAGNER K.J. WRIGHT  
TAMPA BAY LAVONTE DAVID, DANE FLETCHER   MASON FOSTER 
TENNESSEE WESLEY WOODYARD DERRICK MORGAN  [ZACH BROWN] 
WASHINGTON PERRY RILEY, KEENAN ROBINSON, BRIAN ORAKPO, RYAN KERRIGAN     

TEAM-BY-TEAM NOTES

You'll find a little of everything here. Mostly, I'll be noting depth chart changes and analyzing any scheme or role changes from the previous week's games. I'll also use this section to take an in-depth look at why certain players may be over- or under-performing. I'll try to get through every team each week as often as possible.

ARIZONA

The Cardinals' safeties put up huge numbers against San Francisco last week. That included Tyrann Mathieu, who really didn't see his role increase much yet still had six solos in 15 snaps. That's the ridiculous efficiency he showed last season in his push for full time duty. It shouldn't be long until we see the same occur this year. The 24 tackles among the four safeties also bode well in the long term for Deone Bucannon, especially if the rookie can get into the starting lineup this year.

ATLANTA

I warned about the series-for-series rotation between Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo last week. The rotation continued in Week 3 and the stats finally caught up, with Bartu managing only one solo and one assist. If you rolled the dice on Bartu, hopefully the fumble recovery helped you survive the decision.

BALTIMORE

Last chance for Terrell Suggs this week. The Cleveland offensive line is often a difficult matchup for edge rushers, but Suggs didn't get near Brian Hoyer all day. Carolina's offensive line hasn't been great and the Ravens are at home. If Suggs doesn't show something in pass rush this week, he's not even trustworthy as a matchup play. Lardarius Webb finally made it back on the active roster in Week 3, but played only four snaps. It should be expected the Ravens would work him back into the rotation slowly, but it's clear Webb isn't ready for an expanded role yet.

BUFFALO

Keith Rivers will reportedly be ready to practice this week, but I sincerely hope the Preston Brown show gets renewed for a few more episodes. Brown had some struggles in coverage but has been solid overall. He's been trusted with every down duty over Brandon Spikes and Nigel Bradham. But you'll want to watch the practice reports closely this week for any prospective depth chart changes.

TAPE REVIEW | JERRY HUGHES: Jerry Hughes is struggling. It only took one snap to see direct evidence of his disappearing act, as Hughes was lost behind the mass of left tackle King Dunlap. Teams seem to be sitting on his edge rush and daring him to counter. Hughes won't be successful as a power rusher, so he'll need to develop a rip/swim move or spin to get his edge rush open more often.

CAROLINA

Roman Harper and Charles Godfrey were rotating heavily again last week. Harper had his most productive week (two solos, five total tackles) against Pittsburgh, but avoid this situation. There's not enough upside to fade the risk, even if Thomas Davis' injury is worse than feared. I hoped I had Charles Johnson too low by ranking him in the DL2 tier this summer. Now it looks like I had him way too high. If the pass rush disappears as his tackle counts did, he has very little fantasy value.

CHICAGO

Jon Bostic got a chance to play every down with Shea McClellin out and looked more like a linebacker than he has at any point in his Chicago career. He still overran plays and struggled in coverage at times, but his athleticism translated a little better than previously. His upside is dependent on his role when McClellin is healthy. Bostic (and D.J. Williams, who was also moving well) made Lance Briggs look slow. Briggs looked to be in a great spot for a renaissance, but he's not quick enough to take advantage of the less instinctive competition.

Kyle Fuller is going to pick up where Charles Tillman left off. He and Jason Verrett were my favorite rookie corners, with Bradley Roby and a handful of others a tier behind. Fuller's ball skills were again on full display on Monday night. He might be a sneaky pick to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Another rookie, Brock Vereen, may finally get his shot to play in the base defense, after the top three Chicago safeties left the game with injury and will be working to recover on a short week.

CINCINNATI

Vontaze Burfict was on the sidelines and very vocal last week. Marvin Lewis said he expected Burfict to begin practicing soon, which is a promising sign Burfict will be cleared to play in Week 5 after the Bengals return from their bye. It's hard to draw too much from the boxscore against Tennessee. Emmanuel Lamur and Vinny Rey played every down until the Bengals pulled starters late in the game.

Geno Atkins is getting healthier.

Carlos Dunlap attracted lots of attention from the Tennessee offensive line, but still managed a sack last week. Most impressive, however, were the five non-sack tackles, three of which came when Dunlap chased down a scrambling Jake Locker. If his effort continues to be this consistent -- and he stays healthy -- Dunlap will finish the season as a top five defensive lineman. 

CLEVELAND

There's nothing new in the rotation between Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey. It's a series for series rotation, with each player seeing time in the nickel package. Neither player is making a push for a full time role yet. If you're in a shallow sack-heavy scoring system, you might be able to put Barkevious Mingo back on the free agent list and come back to him in Week 5. There's still upside in Mingo and the Week 5-7 matchups are strong. With a week to heal, he could be back in good from in Week 5. If you're holding him in deeper leagues, stay patient.

DALLAS

Blame me for McClain missing Week 3 after I wrote of my concern that he'd turn back into a pumpkin soon. He's not yet been cleared to return to practice as of Tuesday. That'll keep Anthony Hitchens inside and in an every-down role if Justin Durant stays sidelined. Hitchens took full advantage with the 10-3 line against St. Louis. That's an Audie Cole line, however, as it was more due to poor surrounding cast and high tackle opportunity than elite linebacker play. The same holds for Bruce Carter's 9-3, INT/TD line.

DENVER

The Broncos elected to use a 2-4-5 base against the Seahawks last week. That put Demarcus Ware and Von Miller as standup outside backers and both Brandon Marshall and Nate Irving on the field nearly every down. Irving put up a second consective strong stat line. This week, it might be the beginning of a useful trend. But don't get too excited. Danny Trevathan started practicing last week and will likely be back in Week 5. If the Broncos are shifting to a 2-4-5 nickel, it may be Trevathan and Marshall as the backers. I haven't seen anything to suggest Marshall will play much in the base defense when Trevathan is ready to take over full time. Now's the time to get Trevathan rostered. Don't wait through the Denver bye week.

DETROIT

No linebacker is safe this year. Stephen Tulloch tore his ACL celebrating a sack and is done for the season. Tahir Whitehead took his place in the middle and played every down. He goes from a very talented strong side backer with scheme and snap count issues to a potential LB2+ if he sticks in that role. Given the current Detroit depth chart, it's likely Whitehead will stay in that role, with Ashlee Palmer taking over outside. Go get Whitehead immediately. I'm growing more nervous by the week with Ezekiel Ansah's durability. If he can't stay healthy enough to practice and consistently take more than 30-40 snaps on game days because his conditioning isn't good enough, he'll never reach his elite potential. He's too talented to sell, but let's hope his injury frustrations end soon.

GREEN BAY

Jamari Lattimore finished with a 7-2 line but, like Jasper Brinkley, Joplo Bartu and others in Week 2, his strong day came on just 60% of the snaps against Detroit. It's also not a sure thing that he'll stay the starter when Brad Jones is able to return. Julius Peppers had his first strong game in a Green Bay uniform, as he grows more comfortable in a hybrid role. Many of his better snaps came in a three point stance, however, so don't rush to get him back in lineups yet.

HOUSTON

If Brian Cushing comes out of the 58 snaps he played in Week 3 well, he might be cleared to resume an every-down role this week. Cushing opened the game in the dime package and only gave up 13 snaps last week. Many of those came after the game was decided. His 8-9 line is boosted by the high assist count, but he's around the ball and won't have much competition for tackles. I'll be watching the Houston writers for any confirmation of an increased role for Cushing. 

J.J. Watt, everyone.

Don't you wish he'd actually eaten that Ray Rice sized burrito a couple of years ago...

INDIANAPOLIS

Jerrell Freeman hasn't practiced in two weeks. It's rare to see a player return with just a week of practice in these situations. Expect to see Freeman go through a week of limited practice, then take the next week of practice as game prep. Barring a surprise, that puts Week 5 as the earliest we'll see him. Josh McNary is playing every down in Freeman's place and hasn't been productive. That's partly due to poor run fits and coverage struggles and partly due (at least in Week 3) to well below average tackle opportunity and rush attempts faced. He's not talented enough to earn the benefit of the doubt, however, even in deeper leagues. Err on the side of betting on LaRon Landry if you're looking for upside in Freeman's absence.

JACKSONVILLE

Paul Posluszny is fighting through multiple nagging injuries already, most notably a knee injury which limited him at times against Indianapolis last week. His numbers haven't yet suffered, but it may be a fight to get him through the coming weeks without a week off. Johnathan Cyprien was back last week, but not quite himself. He should bounce back in San Diego this week.

KANSAS CITy

Justin Houston and Tamba Hali both hit the sack board this week as hoped after the tough matchup against Peyton Manning in Week 2. It was also reassuring to see Dontari Poe break through with a sack and a half. The strong play has always been there, hopefully the Week 3 line is the beginnings of a self-correction to stat lines that match the on-field play.

There's now a report that Eric Berry's ankle injury is a high ankle sprain. He didn't practice at all last week, which means he may have a higher grade injury that could be a 3-4 week concern. Ron Parker, who has cornerback eligibility, started at safety for the Chiefs but didn't pay off.

Also, my favorite edge rusher in the 2014 draft is starting to have an impact. Ford had multiple pressures in the second half on just 12 snaps. If the Chiefs choose not to re-sign Justin Houston, look out for Dee Ford as a breakout player in big play leagues in 2015.

MIAMI

At this point, I'm certain I have a better sense of the capabilities of the Miami linebackers than the Dolphins do. No, Jelani Jenkins wasn't perfect last week. But he is (and has been since last year) the most athletic and dynamic linebacker on the roster. Hopefully, his ten solo, 1.5 sack performance with an added forced fumble and safety cement his position as the every-down weak side linebacker for 2014 and beyond. It's been two weeks of Jenkins and Jason Trusnik in the nickel over Philip Wheeler, which has me 90% confident we'll see Jenkins in all packages even when Koa Misi returns. 

MINNESOTA

Chad Greenway has a broken hand and a painful rib injury. He missed some time last week but will continue to play through the injuries. He didn't miss any tackles as a direct result of his injuries in New Orleans, but he wasn't his usual rangy self either. Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton are going to see a small bump in expectation until Greenway is right. That may not be for another couple of weeks. I'm not a fan of Blanton -- as discussed after Week 1 -- but as the competition for tackles decreases, Blanton upside improves. If Greenway is forced out for an extended time, Gerald Hodges (6-1 in less than 50% of the snaps last week) will shoot up weekly rank lists.

NEW ENGLAND

Jamie Collins Sr was back last week, though not playing every down in his return from a thigh injury. That put Dont'a Hightower in an every-down role as a base outside linebacker and nickel inside linebacker. It also meant Chandler Jones went back to a 3-4 end role. I expect Collins will return to an every down role as soon as this week. But it's terrible news for Jones. Redraft leaguers should strongly consider selling high at the first opportunity and not worry about whether and when Bill Belichick will move Jones into a more fantasy friendly role. Dynasty leaguers should be patient or be willing to buy low.

NEW ORLEANS

If you're growing frustrated with Kenny Vaccaro, stay patient. Vaccaro may prove to be the player this year who prompts John Norton to look at me and say, "It's hard to know where patience ends and stupidity begins." But the competition for tackles in New Orleans is poor. Vaccaro missed seven tackles in Week 1, rebounded with a solid 5-2 line in Week 2, then saw just 14 rushing attempts from running backs and only 41 tackle opportunities total in Week 3. I won't argue if you look at the Dallas and Tampa Bay matchups in the next two weeks and decide to move on. But I'm holding for now.

Your patience with Cam Jordan was rewarded last week as he put up his first sack. The tackle numbers still aren't there, but I'll give the benefit of the doubt due to the low tackle opporutnity here, too.

NEW YORK GIANTS

I recommended grabbing Jameel McClain, filling in for the injured Jon Beason, as a Week 3 flyer, expecting the Texans to run the ball often. The game script didn't cooperate, but McClain hit with a 9-2-0.5 line. Surprisingly, Beason looks likely to return this week. If you rode him to a nice number in Week 3, you can send McClain back to the free agent list with a congratulatory pat on the behind.

You can see Jason Pierre-Paul on the verge of feeling fully comfortable. He continues to play the run very well, which is a good indciator his neck and shoulder aren't limiting him. But the elite edge rush and closing speed aren't there yet. It's hard to call it rush at this point, but I still think there's upside to burn here. And Pierre-Paul gets Washington's sieve-like offensive line in Week 4. The solid tackle numbers give a nice floor and make starting him an easy call this week.

Stevie Brown will be benched for Quintin Demps this week. Brown hasn't been terrible on a snap-to-snap basis, but the handful of coverage mistakes and poor angles he's taken in run support have been critical and led to multiple touchdowns.  

NEW YORK JETS

Ah, Demario Davis. It's nice to see things finally click for a long time favorite of mine. I'll have no problem jumping back on this bandwagon. Not much else of note on the Jets, but man is it fun to watch Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson.

OAKLAND

Miles Burris continues to start in the middle for Nick Roach, who should now be considered out indefinitely. Hopefully, his symptoms resolve and he can be cleared to return from his concussion soon because Burris continues to be terrible inside and hasn't been able to take advantage of a great fantasy opportunity. Kaluka Maiava worked in Sio Moore's spot and wasn't much better. That meant lots of value for Tyvon Branch last week. Unfortunately, there's more shuffling coming in Oakland, with Branch out for months with a foot fracture and Burris seen in a walking boot at an early week charity event.

Usama Young will likely replace Branch. The Raiders have no current viable option to replace Burris and Moore and Roach if all three cannot go. It would put Maiava in the middle and give him and Khalil Mack every down roles. Charles Woodson gets a big bump and Young is a solid add in deeper leagues. The big winner here will be Moore, who should be able to take advantage of the added opporunity as the only player with sideline-to-sideline range in the back seven.

PHILADELPHIA

With Mychal Kendricks out, the Eagles rotated Emmanuel Acho, Casey Matthews and rookie pass rusher Marcus Smith II at inside linebacker. The note on Smith is interesting, but there's nothing of value here until Kendricks returns. There's been no new information on that front and I'm crossing my fingers this isn't going to be a 3-4+ week injury. The potential for Kendricks to sit through the Week 7 bye is making me nervous, though.

Duuuuun Dun. Duuuuuuun Dun. Dun dun dun dun dun dun.

We're going to need a bigger boat.

PITTSBURGH

The Steelers lost two starting linebackers, Ryan Shazier (2+ weeks, MCL sprain) and Jarvis Jones (IR-return, wrist surgery), as well as Ike Taylor (IR, broken arm) last week.

Shazier's absence gives Sean Spence a shot to show the all-around play he flashed in the preseason. He's a solid short-term add and a tremendous story. Not many players would have recovered from a catastrophic knee injury that involved nerve damage. Most would never have walked the same again. Spence looked better this preseason than he ever had in a Pittsburgh uniform. 

With Jones out, the Steelers will use a mix of Arthur Moats and, possibly, newly re-signed James Harrison. Neither have any value, even in deeper sack-heavy leagues.

ST. LOUIS

After preaching patience and a recommendation to hopefully buy low on Quinn last week, he laid a complete and total egg against Dallas. Quinn was held in check, as was the entire Rams' defensive line, at home against a Dallas offensive line that's been inconsistent. 

TAPE REVIEW | ROBERT QUINN: Quinn's first step is still there, but he struggled to gain the edge on Tyron Smith. The Cowboys were content to let Quinn come upfield and Smith was often quick enough and strong enough to let Quinn begin to turn the edge then drive him into the turf. Quinn showed a good inside move at times, but often ran into a guard in those situations. It wasn't a great game for Quinn, but I think it was more the matchup against an elite athletic tackle rather than an injury or motor concern.

SAN DIEGO

Manti Te'o joined the long list of linebackers out for an extended time with a foot fracture. There's no plan to put him on injured reserve but he'll be out for multiple weeks. It'll be Kavell Conner replacing Te'o and as inconsistent as Donald Butler has been, Conner may be worth a flier in case he sees an every-down role. Jerry Attaochu was active but played only one snap due to lingering injuries that kept him from practicing last week. When he returns to health, big play leagues should consider taking the flyer on him.

SAN FRANCISCO

Nothing of note on the Niners this week.

SEATTLE

Not much of note on Seattle either.

TAMPA BAY

The Bucs may get Gerald McCoy back this week. It may not help much. Michael Johnson was active but very limited and Mason Foster will miss more time recovering from his dislocated shoulder.

With Foster out, Dane Fletcher played middle linebacker and took all the nickel snaps alongside Lavonte David. Fletcher managed only a 2-2 line on 61 tackle opportunities and 36 rushing attempts. He's not a fantasy option except in the deepest of tackle heavy leagues. David sat for 12 snaps with the game already decided in the fourth quarter and still managed a 7-1 line with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. David and Dashon Goldson will have increased value until Foster returns.

TENNESSEE

Wesley Woodyard was back atop the Tennessee tackle leaders against Cincinnati. Woodyard remained the strong inside linebacker for much of the game, with Avery Williamson stealing some base snaps from Zaviar Gooden even before the game got out of hand. I still think the SILB job will belong to James Anderson in short order. Neither Gooden nor Williamson have impressed. 

WASHINGTON

Washington stacked the box to stop LeSean McCoy last week. That frequently pushed McCoy outside the tackle box or had him caught behind the line by a penetrating line. The majority of the solos against McCoy were made by Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo, Jason Hatcher and DeAngelo Hall. Don't worry much over the 1-1 effort from Perry Riley. He's still playing every down. And don't overreact too strongly to the team leading tackle count from Brandon Meriweather.

I'm well behind the trend here, but I'm very impressed by Jason Hatcher. I didn't think the scheme was a fit for him and the offseason knee issues had me even more worried. He's been fantastic this year. It may not hold up, but he's firmly in the tier of startable 3-4 defensive ends right now.

INSIDE THE METRICS

If you're a long time reader of this column, you know about tackle opportunity and you know about stat crew anomalies. I didn't write about either much last season, but I'm going back to the roots of the RTD and making metrics a regular feature again this year. 

The power of the data in this section will grow exponentially as the season progresses and our sample size increases. In time, the tackle opportunity data and pressure metrics and run-pass ratios will be helpful in matchup decisions, waiver wire pulls and more.

***This section will be back soon. Most of my time will be spent reviewing games over the first couple of weeks of the season. Luckily, you have access to a crazy amount of data in Larry Thomas' IDP Matchup Sheet. Make sure you're checking that out every week.

Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our weekly IDP podcast here every Thursday for injury updates, player analysis and matchup discussion. Check my article page on Sunday morning for notes on every team's key injuries, depth chart changes and IDP expectations. Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel.