DFS Roundtable: Our Defense Mechanisms

What factors do you use to build your defense/special teams portfolio? Do you chase sacks and takeaways, or do you hunt low-scoring games? Are you instantly intrigued when a backup quarterback is pushed into action? And how are you applying those criteria to Week 11?

We're again flushed with numerous strong, value-laden options for our defensive spots. As a caveat, though, many are on the road, which is a no-no for many DFS players and analysts I've spoken to. We all have our beliefs as to automatic plays and fades, of course, and avoiding the road teams is just one of the mechanisms in place to nail down a strong defensive performance.

When so many attractive options are on the table, what factors do you use to build your DST portfolio? Do you chase sacks and takeaways, for example, or do you hunt low-scoring games? Are you instantly intrigued when a backup quarterback is pushed into action? Or is it strictly a question of ownership for you?

Now, how are you applying those criteria to Week 11? Rank for us the following five options, and briefly explain your reasoning for each:

Jacksonville (@CLE)
Detroit (@CHI)
New Orleans (vWAS)
Baltimore (@GB)
Kansas City (@NYG)

Jason Wood: I'm not sure how others do it, but DSTs are one of the first things I slot into my lineups. I feel like most DFS players build their roster of skill players and then take the best defense available with the remaining salary in their budget. I'm not like that. With kickers, I do that. But defenses are usually different; I tend to decide on two or three for the week and stick to them. Is that optimal? I'm sure some of our colleagues will tell you otherwise. But for my process, it works.

In terms of criteria, as with every position, salary comes later. First, I look at my expectations for the position absent cost. I create a ranking of which DSTs I want to play all else equal. Then, I'll let salary factor into my expectations as the final component.

Usually, that tends to lower one or two defenses that would've ranked atop the list low enough that I'm no longer factoring them into my build. And that's fine.

As to criteria, I'm not sure I'm breaking new ground here.

I start each week by looking at the projected totals for each team (using the spread and the over/under). I then take advantage of our fantastic strength of schedule tools (thanks to Clayton and Austin) to triangulate the situations most likely to pay off. I'll then manually adjust for changes to circumstance. That usually comes in the form of a player injury. For example, usually, a defense facing the Cowboys is one to avoid. Strength of schedule and year-to-date statistics tell you that's a bad matchup. But as we saw last week, with Tyron Smith out of the lineup, the Cowboys offense takes a massive drop. So, if Smith misses this week, the Eagles defense will project much higher than the SoS and historical stats might otherwise forecast.

After that, I settle on five or six defenses that look the best. I roll salary on top of my expectations, and roster the two or three that shake out as top options.

Moderator: Interesting process, and thanks for inviting us into it. I notice you didn’t bring up ownership; is that just not an important factor in your builds?

Wood: I don't worry about ownership for DSTs. Maybe I should, but I don't. My view is I'll get differentiation from other spots. I just want my DSTs to deliver points. If 50% of the GPP also owns the same defense, I'll win (or lose) the week with my ability to source differentiated skill players.

Looking at the five defenses you've listed – specifically, their opponents – by expected points (YTD ranking):

Cleveland – 15 (31st)
New York – 16.75 (28th)
Chicago – 19 (28th)
Green Bay – 20 (14th)
Washington – 21.75 (12th)

The first thing that jumps out is that Green Bay and Washington seemingly don't belong with the other three. However, as we know, Green Bay has been a different team since Brett Hundley took over at quarterback. The Packers averaged 27.4 points per game with Rodgers, and are averaging just 16.8 with Hundley. I know Washington hasn't been great offensively, but that's still a team that doesn't belong with the rest of these units, in my view.

As for the defenses themselves, by points allowed (YTD ranking):

Jacksonville – 14.9 (1st)
New Orleans – 18.3 (5th)
Baltimore – 19.0 (8th)
Kansas City – 23.1 (19th)
Detroit – 23.3 (21st)

Once again, there seem to be two tiers here. Three teams are elite defensively, two are mediocre. When matching up the offenses versus the defense, I'm left with:

Jacksonville +30 – 1st in points allowed versus 31st in points scored
Detroit +7 – 21st in points allowed versus 28th in points scored
New Orleans +7 – 5th in points allowed versus 12th in points scored
Baltimore +20 (adjusted for Hundley) – 8th versus 28th
Kansas City +9 -- 19th in points allowed versus 28th in points scored

Baltimore and Jacksonville jump to the forefront, based on their YTD defensive prowess combined with their opponents' struggles. On DraftKings, Jacksonville ($4,000) is the highest priced defense, but they're only 1.7% more of the defensive pool (on the main slate) than the average defense. I'll take that all day long. Baltimore ($3,400) is only 0.8% more expensive than average, so they'll make a fine secondary source of diversification for my lineups. On FanDuel, Jacksonville ($5,600) is only 1.0% more expensive than the average main slate defense, and is thus more than worth it in spite of the high cost. Baltimore ($4,700) is equal to the average cost, which is phenomenal. On FanDuel, I'll be more evenly balanced between the two.

Justin Bonnema: Jason's process is solid. One of the things I look for, first and foremost, is injuries on both teams. I'll use last week's Cowboys-Falcons game as an example. We knew both Dez Bryant and Julio Jones could struggle given the fact they were nowhere near 100 percent. We knew Ezekiel Elliott wasn't going to play, which changes the Cowboys' offense completely in my opinion. And most importantly, Tyron Smith was ruled out. Add all that up and you had reason to believe that the home team, which was already stingy in terms of yards and points allowed, was in a good position to create sacks and turnovers. The results? Atlanta finished as the highest-scoring defense of the week. Eight sacks certainly helped, and you can't go into it expecting that many, but they did create turnovers and they did hold the Cowboys to seven points.

Of course, that's easy to lay out in hindsight. But it's a good lesson in searching for red flags. Other red flags: offensive ranks in sack percentage vs. where the defense they’re facing ranks in sack percentage. Quarterback changes, as you mentioned. And general trends, like, how many big plays are they giving up each week? Where are the flukes? Average points per game allowed, average field position, scoring efficiency or lack thereof. Pace stats (if two teams that sport a slow pace face each other, it’s safe to say it will be a low scoring game).

Applying that to this week, here's how I rank the defenses you mentioned:

Jacksonville @ Cleveland – Pretty easy to make a case for Jacksonville here. The Jaguars defense ranks first in sack percentage and has allowed the fewest points and second-fewest yards, and only the Rams have created more turnovers. Do the Browns even know who their quarterback will be this week? As Jason mentioned, the Jaguars’ price isn't absurd.

Baltimore @ Green Bay – I don’t think Hundley is a good quarterback, and last week didn’t change my opinion. Meanwhile, the Ravens are tied with the Jaguars in turnovers created, and have allowed the seventh-fewest points. They have six sacks over their last two games, while the Packers have allowed the fifth-most. Neither offense is good and the over/under of this game is the second lowest of the week. I’ll caveat this by saying that there is a chance the Packers offense turned things around last week after creating their most points and yards since they lost Rodgers. And for that matter, the Ravens biggest weakness is against running backs. Maybe Jamaal Williams comes in and smashes them. We don’t know, so I’ll keep my exposure somewhat low.

Detroit @ Chicago – The Lions’ defense just gave up 24 points to the Browns – the second-lowest scoring team in the league – after allowing back-to-back games of at least 415 yards. But they do rank second in takeaways (tied with the Ravens, Bills, and Jaguars) and from a purely fantasy football perspective, they have scored at least 13 points in 6 different games this season, and 16 points 3 times. Their salary dropped $500 on FanDuel and $200 on DraftKings, so there is some value worth chasing. Only the Bengals, Browns, and Dolphins have scored fewer points on offense than the Bears.

Kansas City @ N.Y. Giants – I won’t be playing either of these defenses. I think this game has sneaky blowup potential. If I had to choose one, it would be the Kansas City and would only do so when stacking them with Kareem Hunt, which could be a solid GPP play. The Giants are one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and struggle to move the ball in any manner.

New Orleans vs. Washington – I’m expecting this game to be one of the highest-scoring on the slate, so neither defense is in play for me.

Justin Howe: I break from many of these guys in that I don’t really care about projected totals. It’s not a sticky stat, and it’s a wildly fragile one, one that’s routinely blown open at the drop of a hat. We know how much touchdowns tilt things in fantasy football, and they’re not nearly as predictable as we’d like to think. Every week, one small x-factor here or there pops up to turn a sure-thing sack into an unexpected touchdown pass, or a broken tackle will turn a 2-yard run into a 40-yard touchdown scamper. in this situation, the jump is just as monumental. Cough up a quick touchdown drive to Mitchell Trubisky or Tom Savage, and you’ve immediately lost six points. Allow a garbage-time touchdown later, and kiss five more points goodbye.

And little drives us crazier than having a fantasy day blown up by garbage time. How many times have we rostered the “right” defense – the one projected to hold its opponents to the fewest points and batter the crappy quarterback they’re facing – only to see the prevent defense prevent us from cashing in? Too often I’ve paid up for a dominant defensive matchup and watched their 27-3 lead turn into a 34-24 “battle” that costs me those few Points Allowed points I’d been clinging to.

No, I’m exponentially more interested in splash play production. What's the sacks/sacks allowed differential? Does the opposing QB make his hay by throwing tough, Jay Cutler-ian passes into traffic? Do they frequently convert takeaways into pick-sixes or fumble-sixes? (It seems fluky, and it is, but there are numerous defenses that strongly push takeaway returns in practice, and teams like the Saints, Lions, and Eagles have been almost consistently scoring defensive touchdowns.) These are the measures I really care about. Besides, they’re correlative stats: a defense that intercepts a ton of passes probably also bats away quite a few more, which shuts down drives on passing downs. The same goes for units with high-sack outlooks; if they’re going to produce 4+ sacks, they’ll probably shut down 3+ drives in the process.

1. Detroit – The Lions will face a wildly inefficient and sack-prone rookie QB (no team has allowed a higher sack rate over the last three weeks), and they’ve produced well all year. The Bears struggle to move the ball or generate points, and they play at a slow pace, so the Lions boast week-winning upside across the board.

2. Jacksonville – I love the play, but I hate the salary. It’s not necessarily prohibitive, as Jason has pointed out, but there’s strong splash play value (and lower ownership marks) well down the salary spectrum.

3. Baltimore – Jason and Bonnema have nailed down why they’re a strong play: Hundley isn’t very good. Expect lots of low-impact offense from the Packers, with their share of three-and-outs and plenty of sack/turnover potential.

4. New Orleans – Again, I don’t care much about the Vegas projection here. What intrigues me is the splash potential of the aggressive New Orleans secondary, which could seriously capitalize on a heavy-volume Kirk Cousins game.

5. Kansas City – This is a full-on GPP stab, but it’s a shrewd one. On the backs of a dynamic pass rush and aggressive coverage, Kansas City has posted 4 weeks of 10.0+ points thus far, and they led the league last year.

The Chargers will also be a popular Week 11 play, but I’m tempering my expectations. Nathan Peterman is a green-faced rookie, but throughout the preseason and last week, his game was severely limited to short, high-percentage throws to in-stride receivers. There’s probably less of a sack/takeaway outlook then we’re used to seeing from this kind of matchup.

Dan Hindery: I’ve found that the spread is more strongly correlated to high defensive scores than is the implied team total. In short, I look to roster the DST of teams that are big favorites even if the game is expected to be a bit higher scoring. This makes sense from a logical perspective as well. A 17-14 game could simply be slow-paced and feature plenty of running plays. The Baltimore-Green Bay and Detroit-Chicago games fall into this category with spreads of under 3 points. Few fantasy points come from the points allowed (except in the very rare occurrence of a shutout) so we are really looking for games where one team will be forced to pass more than they want to (bonus points if the team has a bad offensive line and/or shaky quarterback) and we can rack up the sacks and opportunities for takeaways. Where we often see big defensive games are when one team jumps out to a big early lead. The opposing offense then has to drop back to pass a lot and the defensive pass rush can pin their ears back and rush the quarterback. A higher-scoring offense then is a benefit because it is more likely to generate this type of positive game flow.

Jacksonville, New Orleans, and Kansas City are all favored by at least a touchdown, making them attractive options. Kansas City has the biggest spread as 10.5-point favorites and is my favorite defense of the week. The Giants’ already-awful offensive line (allowing 2.5 sacks per game) will be without one of its best players, Justin Pugh. If the Giants struggling defense allows an early lead, it could get ugly for Eli Manning and the offense. It is also worth noting that Kansas City has the fourth-best special teams DVOA and dynamite returners matched up against the Giants’ 30th-ranked special teams unit.

James Brimacombe: In my entire fantasy football career, the DST position is one that I always seem to just guess on. Sure, I like to find the potential best matchup on the week, and I do look at sacks and takeaways, but in DFS it always seems to come back to which team got the defensive touchdown that week. That is hard to predict and one that I almost always just take a few stabs at it.

Jacksonville @CLE – This would be my top choice this week just because of how strong the Jaguars defense is and how bad the Browns offense has looked. Hard to argue with that reasoning this week.

New Orleans v. WAS – The Saints have quietly built a very strong defense and no one ever seems to roster them in DFS. They are worth a few GPP plays every single week as they are no longer the team to pick on for offensive players against them.

Detroit @CHI – I like the Lions defense more at home, but I still think they can get to the quarterback this week and cause some disruption and turnovers.

Baltimore @GB – It all comes down to injuries for the Packers, and if Aaron Rodgers was on the field we would never consider a defense against them. Well, no Rodgers this week, so why not take a shot with the Ravens?

Kansas City @NYG – There’s no reason to take Kansas City. Even with how bad the Giants have been this year, the Chiefs defense has still been allowing a lot of points each week.

Jeff Pasquino: Defenses are one of the best ways to gain an advantage each week. No other position hits for GPP value (3x in FD, 4x in DK) more often than defenses. Plus, the range of values from top to bottom (defense #1 in price to the last one) is tighter than most any position, aside from possibly kicker on FD.

The first thing I do is put in a top-price defense on FanDuel and DraftKings when starting to build. Why? The average price then looks more reasonable as only skill players are left. (I stick a top kicker in on FD as well).

As for these defenses, it is going to be tough to get away from Jacksonville this week. Cleveland is just so bad, and the Jaguars are so good on defense, plus the weather is supposed to be unfavorable in Cleveland this Sunday. All of that points to using the Jaguars and moving on. There are reasonable pivots, which have been mentioned.

Off the board: L.A. Chargers – I am not about to trust a Buffalo team on the road starting a rookie quarterback, and the Chargers are cheap and projected to be low owned.

New Orleans (vs. WASH) – I don't like this game to play out like Vegas thinks. Washington is full of injuries, and the Saints will run all day long in this one. Not a big day for Drew Brees, simply because they won't need it, and the Saints are such a strong defense. I can certainly see a path to some mistakes by Kirk Cousins, which pushes the Saints up the list for me.

Kansas City (at NYG) – The Giants may have given up on defense, but the offense is still trying. That said, the weather looks windy and cold for New Jersey, so the Kansas City makes for a solid pivot.

Detroit (at Chicago) – This looks attractive with the Bears stumbling last week at home against the Packers. I am still not totally on board, but the Lions do make some big plays, and Trubisky can certainly implode.

Baltimore at Green Bay – No thank you. I trust nothing to do with the Ravens this season, including their defense. Even without their top two rushers, I expect Green Bay to win this game, so that means to fade Baltimore.



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