Each week, this column will take a critical look at key statistical trends to highlight pass rushing and tackle matchups to exploit and avoid. We'll be heavily relying on another great feature at FBG this season, the IDP Matchup Spreadsheet that will be generated by Aaron Rudnicki. That spreadsheet will contain weekly average statistical measures to help identify those defensive teams who are facing the best and worst opportunity as the season progresses. While this column will include analysis of tackle and pass rush opportunity and matchup data, it's only a fraction of the data available in the spreadsheet. We hope that the Matchup Spreadsheet and this column will join John Norton's weekly IDP projections, Doug Drinen's Matchup Analyzer Tool and our customizable MyFBG function as useful tools to assist in making weekly line-up and waiver wire decisions.
You are very welcome to a new season of the IDP Matchup column here at Footballguys. I have been penning this defensive diary for the past several years and I am delighted to be able to share some tidbits to help you secure a league title come December.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Dave Larkin. I am a veteran IDP player and what some would call a diehard fan of this game of football that we all love so much.
Defense is my passion. Over the past few years, I have assimilated countless pages of data from various sources to hone my knowledge of the defensive side of the football. Every week I will study film from the previous week’s games and provide you with nuggets of wisdom that will lead you to a championship.
A new season brings with it a new set of players, challenges, and decisions. With no data to underpin this week’s picks from our matchup spreadsheet, I will rely more on offensive line vs. defensive line strengths, team trends and some personal insight.
Without further ado, let’s kick off with this week’s matchups.
Pass Rushing Matchups to Exploit
Detroit pass rushers at Arizona
The Lions wouldn’t be the first team you would name when you think about pass rush. In this matchup, however, against one of the worst offensive lines in the league, they may not need to be elite. Footballguys’ offensive line guru Matt Bitonti has the Cardinals ranked 30th among offensive lines; in other words, they are primed to be exploited.
With no data to go on for this season yet, we can only rely on our eyes and what we know of players. Kyler Murray may be a special talent capable of turning a game with his playmaking ability, but he has a propensity to let his eyes fall to ground levels when scrambling, eliminating downfield options. Teams have been putting a spy on him at times in preseason and, in most cases, it has effectively stymied him.
The Lions have added some horses up front in Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels, who can cause disruption from the edge and interior, respectively. Matt Patricia may not be the most revered of defensive minds, but he has cooked up some decent game plans in the past. Expect the Lions to control the clock on offense, providing their defense ample pass-rushing opportunities.
Key stat: In 2018 the Cardinals allowed pressure on 19.8% of dropbacks, with the league average 15%.
Philadelphia pass rushers vs. Washington
The gulf in class between these teams should become evident quickly in this division clash. On the one hand, you have the Eagles: Carson Wentz is back at the helm, the offensive line is deep and strong, the defensive front is deeper and stronger, and they should be in contention for the NFC East crown. On the other, you have the Redskins and their patchwork offensive line with Case Keenum at quarterback. There’s only one winner here.
The Eagles return the key pieces of a defensive line that registered 8.1 quarterback hits per game last season. That unit will be keen to test out Washington’s line sans All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, who is not expected to play for the team in the foreseeable future. The Vegas line has this game at approximately 10 points in the favor of the home team, so expect the Eagles to establish a lead and flex their muscles on defense.
Key stat: The Eagles applied pressure on 19.3% of dropbacks last season, the highest mark in the league.
Pass Rushing Matchups to Avoid
Houston pass rushers at New Orleans
The trade of Jadeveon Clowney has really taken the bite out of Houston’s pass rush. Granted, the former number one overall pick wasn’t the most consistent down to down threat, but his presence will be hard to replace. J.J. Watt is on the downslope of his career as well. Suddenly a strength has become, if not a weakness, then a question mark.
It may not matter in the Superdome on Monday night. The Saints boast one of the league’s best offensive lines. A cohesive unit with bags of experience, the only weakness may be at center with rookie Erik McCoy, but there is enough quality elsewhere to make up for any shortcomings the youngster may encounter. It all points to a tough assignment for Houston, whose players will more than likely face an onslaught.
Key stat: The Texans led the NFL in sacks allowed percentage last season at 10.9%.
Tackle Matchups to Exploit
Miami defenders vs. Baltimore
Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium houses one of the more generous stat crews, though it should be noted that the number has fluctuated wildly in recent years. In 2018, our most recent data point, the TVO factor (a metric you can learn more about in Aaron Rudnick’s matchup spreadsheet) ranked 10th in the league. That stat crew may have its hands full this week for the visit of Baltimore.
After Lamar Jackson took over as the Ravens’ starter at the midpoint of last season, the team’s rushing attempts spiked. In fact, the surge was enough to place the Ravens as the most run-heavy offense in the league with 527 attempts. That should continue this season, especially considering the full offseason of getting Jackson’s version of the offense installed and perfected.
The Dolphins may not want to admit they are mailing it in, but their moves say otherwise. Brian Flores’ team could keep this one close – Baltimore won’t run away from any opponents – but the likelihood is that Miami’s defenders will be kept busy.
Key stat: The Dolphins ranked fifth in the league in tackle opportunity in 2018 with 52 per game.
Cincinnati defenders at Seattle
Much like the Miami/Baltimore tilt, this late afternoon kick-off may follow a similar pattern. The Seahawks, undoubtedly with a bounce in their collective step after the acquisition of Jadeveon Clowney, will fancy an opening day drubbing of the Bengals. The head coaching contrast is stark, with the uber-experienced Pete Carroll taking on the fresh-faced Zac Taylor, who has the distinct honor of coaching his first regular-season game in the most inhospitable stadium in the league for visiting teams.
The Seahawks haven’t changed the formula that worked for them last season, with a heavy emphasis on the ground game. In fact, Carroll’s offense ran the ball on 52% of plays, more than any other team. Chris Carson should get a big workload, and as a result, Cincinnati’s defenders should be called upon early and often to make tackles. Don’t overthink this one.
Key stat: The Bengals defense averaged 54.6 tackle opportunities per game last season (the league average was 50).
Tackle Matchups to Avoid
Kansas City defenders at Jacksonville
Questions abound in this intriguing 1:00 pm EST clash between Kansas City and Jacksonville. Can Patrick Mahomes II pick up where he left off in his MVP season? Is Leonard Fournette really poised for a bounce-back season? And perhaps most crucially, how effective will Nick Foles be as Jacksonville’s quarterback du jour. If this game turns into an arms race, I know who I’m backing (and his name doesn’t rhyme with sick goals).
The Chiefs defense has its frailties, of that there is no doubt. Adding Frank Clark will not solve the inherent flaws of the unit. The likely script, however, is that Mahomes and the offense do enough to make Jacksonville one dimensional. If the running game is neutered for the Jags, suddenly the tackle production upside becomes a downside for the Chiefs. Call it an educated guess as to what might happen, but it might be the prudent play to bench your Kansas City defenders this week.
Key stat: The Jaguars’ home TVO factor ranked 30th in the NFL last season.
San Francisco and Tampa Bay defenders
The Tampa Bay home stat crew put this one over the edge for me. In 2018, the crew ranked 26th league-wide, consigning them to the dregs of tackle production territory. This game profiles as a high-scoring affair (if Vegas’ over/under line is to be trusted), but these lines can, in hindsight, be way off base when we look back. Week 1 can be fickle.
On that note, it would be advisable to play what you know and trust rather than try to project too much in the first week. The 49ers offense may be touted often as a potential juggernaut, but it hasn’t really delivered on that promise yet. Bruce Arians is touted as the man to turn Jameis Winston into an upper-tier quarterback; that has yet to happen. A watching brief might be the best way to approach this matchup.
Key stat: The Buccaneers allowed 51.8 tackle opportunities per game last season, but only ran the ball on 36.3% of snaps (league average was 40.5%).
Best of luck with Week 1 and make sure to check back next week for more matchup analysis.
If you have any further questions or tricky line-up decisions you need advice with, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you prefer you can tweet me @davlar87.