Do Defenses “Allow” RB Targets? (Fantasy Football)

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It was Week 11 this season when this question first hit me. The Washington Football Team played the Cincinnati Bengals and the narrative around the game was that Washington’s RBs would be less involved in the passing game because the Bengals’ defense “didn’t allow very many RB targets”. Putting it bluntly, I didn’t buy into this line of thinking. My thoughts were that if a team uses their RBs in the passing game, they are going to use their RBs regardless of the defense they face. I immediately DM’d my editor and told him that I was going to research this after the season but that I was sure that Washington’s RBs would have a great day against the Bengals’ subpar defense. Antonio Gibson and JD McKissic combined for just six targets in that game after averaging over 10 total targets-per-game during the season. A terrible thought entered my mind: Maybe I was wrong.

My Process

So it was time to dig. I looked at the last two seasons, focusing on two different types of matchups:

  1. Teams that throw the ball to their RBs the most when they play the defenses that allow the fewest RB targets
  2. Teams that throw the ball their RBs the least when they play the defenses that allow the most RB targets.

Basically, I wanted to see if, like WAS vs CIN, a defense that allows few RB targets would slow down teams that love to throw to their RBs, and on the other side, if a team that rarely throws to their RB will do it more against a defense that allows a lot of RB targets. The results were not at all what I expected, but more on that later. I looked at the specific matchups between the top-5 and bottom-5 in each category over the last two seasons. Here are the teams:

2019- Fewest RBs Targets Allowed Targets Per Game 2019- Offenses With Most RBs Targets Targets Per Game
BAL 4.8 LAC 11.4
CAR 5.1 NE 10.4
MIA 5.3 CAR 9.6
SF 5.4 NO 9.6
CLE 5.6 CHI 9.2
2019- Most RB Targets Allowed Targets Per Game 2019- Offenses With Fewest RB targets Targets Per Game
KC 8.6 LAR 3.8
IND 8.2 TEN 3.9
TEN 8.1 BAL 3.9
DAL 7.9 HOU 4.9
WAS 7.8 BUF 5.0

2020- Fewest RBs Targets Allowed Targets Per Game 2020- Offenses With Most RBs Targets Targets Per Game
PIT 4.5 WAS 10.1
CIN 5 LAC 9.8
DAL 5.1 NO 8.9
NO 5.1 SF 8.5
CLE 5.2 IND 8.4
2020- Most RB Targets Allowed Targets Per Game 2020- Offenses With Fewest RB targets Targets Per Game
NYJ 7.9 TEN 3.6
TB 7.8 BAL 3.9
NYG 7.8 LAR 4.4
LV 7.6 DEN 4.5
SEA 7.4 NYJ 4.7

In the last two seasons, there were 43 instances of these opposite gameplans playing each other and the trends are pretty clear, though strange.

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Do Defenses “Allow” RB targets?

The data brings me back to my original question. My thought was that defenses had very little to do with RB targets, if a team throws to their RB, they’ll do it no matter what. That could not be more wrong.

When a team that leads the league in RB targets plays a defense that allows the fewest targets to RBs, RB targets drop between 3-4 targets-per-game. These matchups took place 21 times in the last two years and the stats show that the defense dictates the number of RB targets. In just two of those games, the RBs saw an equal number of targets to their season average, and never did they exceed their average. In all 19 other games, the RBs were targetted fewer times, sometimes as many as nine fewer targets compared to their average.

Using just that data, it would be easy to say that defenses play a big part in RB targets, but the other side of those matchups are far more strange and make a blanket statement a little harder. When teams that don’t throw to their RBs play defenses that allow a lot of RB targets, those RBs actually average about one fewer target in those games. There were 22 matchups like this over the last two seasons and in those games only five times did the RBs see more passing game work against defenses that typically allow more targets, seven times they actually saw fewer targets, and nine times they broke even and hit their season average.

Conclusion

While the numbers are a little confusing, they tell a pretty clear story. When a team that loves throwing to their RBs plays a defense that has been good about stopping RB targets, there will be fewer RB targets. It may just be a case of strength against strength and the defense can pinpoint what the offense wants to do and then stop them. However, when it’s a weakness against weakness matchup, and a team that does not throw to their RBs plays a team that allows a lot of RB targets, don’t expect much change. It appears that most NFL offenses would rather not add something to their gameplans that they may not be good at just to attack a weakness of the opposing defense. Keep this info in mind when setting lineups next season, especially in PPR leagues. You may want to pivot from a great pass-catching RB when he plays against a defense built to stop him and you shouldn’t expect many more targets from your bruising RB just because he is playing against a defense that normally allows plenty of RB targets.

Comments

Andrew says:

Do you think that Defenses that are great against the run, force the offense into more RB targets since they can get them going on the ground???

Dr. Monkeystomp says:

Good to know!

Drew says:

What great research! Hopefully this helps in the future picking weekly starters!

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