When you’re in eight leagues and your day job involves breaking down the fantasy prospects of every player for every game, it’s inevitable that football is never far from your mind. And since many of the same dilemmas I encounter are ones you the readers bump up against as well, I thought it might make sense to share some of my thought processes with you. There’s no rhyme or reason to the topics to be discussed here, other than at some point they popped into my head, kicking to the side lyrics from some obscure ‘80s song ("I had another dream about lions at the door/They weren't half as frightening as they were before”) and commanding my attention.
Perhaps the toughest decision we as fantasy football coaches make when setting our lineups is whether or not to bench our studs when they face a particularly difficult matchup.
Multiple examples were on display in Week 11, with Darren McFadden facing the Steel Curtain, Arian Foster taking on the Jets, and Andre Johnson visiting Revis Island. The results were mixed: Foster got his against the Jets, but McFadden did nothing in Pittsburgh and AJ was beached on Revis Island.
These decisions will take on more importance as we enter the fantasy playoffs: Cedric Benson against the Steelers; Ray Rice against the Jets; Michael Turner against the Packers; Adrian Peterson against the Giants; Reggie Wayne against the Chargers; Larry Fitzgerald against the Panthers; Terrell Owens visiting Revis Island.
By no means is what follows an exhaustive statistical analysis of stud players against stud defenses; I’ll leave that to the guys with their own slide rules. But here’s a quick and dirty analysis of what top backs and receivers have done against top five run and pass defenses, respectively—with a little bonus Revis material as well.
STUD BACKS vs. TOP-5 RUN DEFENSES
Thus far this season we’ve had 32 matchups between backs who currently rank in the top 24 in fantasy points and the top five defenses against running backs. In seven of those matchups, or slightly less than 25 percent of the time, top 24 backs have matched or exceeded their season average in fantasy points.
Of course, since top-end backs score more than other backs even a reduced showing by your stud might be better than your other alternatives. While RB1s (top 12 scoring RBs) scored about 80 percent of their season average against top-five run defenses, that would still put them at an average of 12.5 points per game—better than the 11.5 ppg RB2s average regardless of defense.
On the other hand, RB2s only held 67 percent of their scoring average against elite defenses, losing 3.8 ppg off their usual 11.5.
Of the five defenses examined here, the Steelers were the toughest against typical starting backs in holding them to less than two-thirds (65.6%) of their average production. They were followed by the Giants (71.8%), Jets (73.0%), Packers (80.1%), and Falcons (80.4%).
It should also be noted that no back bested his season average more than once against an elite defense; Rashard Mendenhall (vs. ATL), Adrian Peterson (vs. GB), LeSean McCoy (vs. NYG), Chris Johnson (vs. NYG), Arian Foster (vs. NYJ), Cedric Benson (vs. PIT), and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (vs. PIT) all turned the trick once.
Conclusion? Don’t run scared of a top run D if you’re holding an elite back—or, always start your stud. But as you drift down into the RB2s, if you have another viable option they definitely should receive starting consideration.
STUD RECEIVERS vs. TOP-5 PASS DEFENSES
To date, we’ve seen 30 matchups between top 24 wideouts and top-5 pass defenses. And, much like their running back counterparts, wide receivers reached or exceeded their average point-per-game totals right around 25% of the time (7 for 30) when facing top-end defenses.
While there’s less of a gap between how WR1s (74%) and WR2s (72%) fare against elite Ds, you’ll also notice that overall wideouts have less success against top defenses than running backs do.
Like RBs, no WR had more than one game against a top defense in which they bested their average. But it’s notable that the top two defenses—New Orleans and San Diego—put some serious clamps on elite wideouts.
For starters, neither team has allowed a wideout to even make it to their season average; the Saints have faced Roddy White, Mike Wallace, Mike Wiliams, Lary Fitzgerald, and Percy Harvin while the Chargers have faced Fitzgerald, Brandon Lloyd, Dwayne Bowe, Andre Johnson, and Kenny Britt.
Further, the Saints are holding top wideouts to an average of 58 percent of their usual numbers; the Chargers are even better in limiting starting wideouts to half of their per-game average.
The other three top 5 defenses aren’t quite as tough. Carolina is giving up 79 percent of the typical numbers of a top-end wideout; Oakland is allowing 84 percent; and the Bears are barely slowing elite receivers, surrendering 92 percent of their typical average.
Conclusion: the Saints—who are slated to face White and Williams again as well as Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Terrell Owens, and Anquan Boldin—and Chargers—with rematches against Bowe and Lloyd as well as dates with Reggie Wayne and Terrell Owens still on the docket—are to be feared. The other three top 5 Ds... well, have at 'em.
REVIS, NNAMDI, AND THE CHAMP—PLUS TALIB and the surprising rams
Calvin Johnson mustered one catch against Revis and the Jets; Dwayne Bowe lit up Champ and the Broncos like a Christmas tree. There are plenty of external factors that come into play in each situation, but there are also some straight numbers we can look at to help determine just how comfortable you feel running your elite receivers up against this quartet of corners.
Let’s start with Darrelle Revis. Opponents complete 37.1 percent of the passes thrown his way; only Oakland’s Stanford Routt (35.2) has a more impressive completed-against percentage. But while quarterbacks have a 58.6 QB rating when throwing at Routt, when throwing at Revis that number is a healthy 90.7. Moreover, when you complete a pass on Revis it goes for yardage; his 18.1 yards per catch against is the most among all corners. Revis has also given up three TDs, a relatively high number for a shutdown corner. Bottom line, if your elite receiver has a quarterback confident enough to throw at him (in that Detroit game, Megatron was targeted just four times), you should be okay. Revis faces the Bengals, Pats, Steelers, and Bills yet this year; while it’s tough to see Brady or Big Ben shying away—especially Roethlisberger to deep threat Mike Wallace—expect Carson Palmer to pick whichever of his receivers isn’t being covered by Revis. That will also likely hold true for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Surprised at Routt’s numbers? They’re right there with those of Nnamdi Asomugha: completion percentage (Nnamdi 40.0, Routt 35.2), QB rating (Nnamdi 57.7, Routt 58.6). But Routt has given up a couple touchdowns; Asomugha has yet to be scored upon.
Champ Bailey has been playing hurt and not getting much safety help, but despite the sweet pick he made last week against the Titans the numbers suggest he’s lost a step. Opponents are completing 62 percent of passes thrown Champ’s way, and while that’s not awful it’s also a significantly higher rate than either Asomugha or Revis. Champ has also given up four touchdowns—not all of them to Dwayne Bowe—and quarterbacks throwing in his direction have a QB rating of 106.5. Suffice it to say that Bowe’s showing shouldn’t be viewed as an aberration—outstanding news for Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, and Bowe redux.
It’s worth noting that while Aqib Talib isn’t a shutdown corner yet—the five touchdowns he’s allowed suggests he still takes too many chances—he’s heading in that direction. His completion percentage against of 58.7 is solid, as is his QB rating against of 87.3. Those numbers are strikingly similar to those of Tracy Porter, another cornerback widely viewed as up-and-coming. So while Talib might pick Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, or Shaun Hill you shouldn’t necessarily bench Boldin, White, or Megatron.
Finally, one thing I didn’t expect when plowing through these numbers: would you believe that Ronald Bartell and Bradley Fletcher of the Rams both rank in the top 10 in completion percentage against (47.8 and 48.4, respectively), and foes have a QB rating of 65.3 and 68.3 throwing at them. Those numbers should be of concern to owners of Fitzgerald, Bowe, Brandon Lloyd, and Marques Colston.