The Math Behind the Matchups: Week 14 (Fantasy Football)

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In this series, we dive deep into the NFL matchups for the coming week and – of course – the implications for fantasy football. Every manager knows that, outside of the stud players that drive your roster’s performance, matchups play a massive role in deciding who is fantasy relevant in a given week and who is best left on the bench. This is a crucial week – you might need a win to sneak into the postseason – so let’s make sure you get your start/sit decisions right!

One thing to note: we will often be considering performance above expectation, especially when looking at statistics of an entire offense or defense. This is crucial, because we don’t want to punish a good defense for giving up yards to great offenses like the Bucs. Similarly, we don’t want to put a bad defense on a pedestal just because they played well against the Texans. The idea, then, will be to look at how many yards the defense allowed minus the average yards the opposing offense usually gains (and vice versa for offenses above expectation).

I will point out some matchups that I think look ‘juicy’ (targets) or situations that you might want to stay away from (fades). These will by no means create an exhaustive list: there is a lot of information in the charts below, so feel free to study the matchups on your own and identify players that you might want to target or sit for the week.  All data, unless otherwise noted, is from nflfastR.

For this week – the week before fantasy playoffs – we’ll take a special look at D/ST units with soft upcoming schedules that you can roster if you have the space (and have clinched a playoff spot). Remember, it might seem like your own personal Bye week, but you can always be preparing for the future!

Hidden Stats

Every manager has felt the pain of their RB getting tackled on the 1-yard line, only for the team to toss it to the 3rd-string TE for the touchdown on the very next play. In this vein, we can count the number of times a player has ‘almost’ scored – which doesn’t show up on the stat sheet – with the idea that upwards regression in the future could be coming. The numbers here are different drives where the player was tackled inside the 5 (it doesn’t make sense to include multiple plays on the same drive, since the player can only score once) and didn’t eventually end up scoring on that drive.

Myles Gaskin is the new list leader; ‘The Gasman’ has had surprising success this year and draws the Jets in the first week of the fantasy playoffs. He’s on Bye this week, and thus could be a great trade target if his manager needs a win to get into the playoffs (or even potentially on waivers if said manager is really desperate). Rhamondre Stevenson is another name to note; the Patriots pulled no punches as to what their team identity is during the Wind-fest in Buffalo this week, and the rookie RB looked good doing it. He’s a useful FLEX with upside the rest of the season, and is also on Bye this week.

We can consider pass-catchers next. To start, one of my biggest fantasy football pet peeves is that WRs don’t score fantasy points for drawing Defensive Pass Interference (DPI) penalties. It’s 2021, we have the technology…let’s start crediting wideouts for plays that generate real NFL yardage but don’t show up in the box score!

Anyways, using simple regression models (which takes air yards to predict YAC and TD probability) we can estimate how many fantasy points were taken off the board by a defensive penalty. Here are the Week 12 leaders:

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A similar approach tells us which pass-catchers underperformed and over-performed this week. Again, a simple regression model uses air yards, targets, and defensive ability to predict how many fantasy points a player should score, and compare that to how many they actually score. An overachieving player might be one who catches a few TDs on only a couple of targets; an underachieving one sees a lot of targets (against a bad defense) and doesn’t do much with it. Here are the standouts:

There is plenty to analyze, but here are my main takeaways. Unfortunately, this week they are all pessimistic…

  • Dallas Goedert finally had the game we’ve been hoping for since erstwhile TE teammate Zach Ertz (get it?) headed to Arizona. However, this was highly ‘overachieving’: 105 yards and two scores on just six targets against a Jets defense that is soft against the position. What’s more, Jalen Hurts is likely back after the Bye, replacing Dallas’ new best friend Garnder Minshew. I’m not saying that you should drop or even bench Goedert – the position is too thin – just that he’s not a locked in, top tier starter. Keep an open mind!
  • A couple of Giants found their way onto the ‘underachiever’ list, but I’m fading any positive regression there. The question marks around the QB position are too big, and they have a difficult schedule coming up. I’m avoiding NYG options – outside of Saquon as an RB2 if he plays – until further notice.
  • There are quite a lot of Saints on this list, including Tre’Quan Smith and Kenny Stills; in fact, Kenny Bills actually saw five targets last week, after just having five receptions on the whole year! Unfortunately, I’m not expecting positive regression here with the oft-running Taysom Hill under center and Alvin Kamara back soon.

Passing Attacks

Let’s turn to a breakdown of passing offenses:

Note that the ‘deep’ charts are missing some teams because, with the Bye weeks recently, we simply don’t have a large enough sample size for a few of the teams.

Targets

  • As Russell Wilson continues to get healthier, Tyler Lockett has began to get his mojo back. He’s been having success deep, and the Houston Texans – not a scary defense in general – are in the bottom third of the league against the deep ball.
  • Hold your nose: on the other side of the field, Brandin Cooks draws a Seahawks defense that has been gashed against the pass of late. Cooks was a WR2 in Week 12 against the Jets and could be poised for another solid outing.
  • The Bears have been playing well against the pass…except for checkdowns. Aaron Jones is in your lineup, but AJ Dillon is worth a start as a FLEX or even RB2. Think Aaron Rodgers will want to run up the score against the division foe in Lambeau on Sunday Night Football?

Fades

  • Russell Gage has finally stepped into the target vacuum in Atlanta, posting back-to-back WR1 performances against the Jags and Bucs. Unfortunately, he faces division rival Carolina this week, who are elite at locking down short passes (probably the best in the league, considering the Bills number is inflated by the Wind-fest against the Patriots). Gage has had success on short-distance passes but could have an uphill battle this week.
  • This might be hard to believe, but Devonta Freeman has been an RB1 in three of the past five weeks. These performances are usually aided by pass-catching work – he hasn’t had a game over 80 rushing yards in that span – and he draws the Browns this week, who are elite vs. checkdowns and short passes. He’s an interesting, under the radar option for the fantasy playoffs but I’m sitting him this week.
  • Surprisingly, the Jaguars have been locking it down against mid-deep passes. I’m as excited for Julio Jones return as the next guy, but I’m probably looking for better options as he eases back into NFL action.

Finally, let’s take a look at the fantasy points scored and allowed by the major positions; this can help to identity D/ST units and tight ends that could be wise to stream this week:

This is an important week: if you’ve clinched a playoff berth, it could be wise to roster an extra D/ST with an easy schedule coming up in future weeks. Here are some options:

  • The red-hot Miami Dolphins draw the New York Jets in Week 15; while Zach Wilson is beginning to find his footing, it’s still a nice matchup for a fantasy defense. Even better: the Dolphins, despite being the D/ST7 on the year, are on Bye this week and thus have a good chance of being on your waiver wire. They are my number one target for teams that have already secured a playoff spot.
  • The Buffalo Bills have been a great defense all year and draw the Panthers – who have fallen off offensively after Christian McCaffrey‘s injury and Cam Newton‘s struggles – during the first week of the fantasy playoffs. Now, I hear you: why would they be on the waiver wire? Well, they get to visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week, so it’s possible they get dropped in your league thanks to the bad matchup; it can’t hurt to check.
  • Ok, hear me out. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the D/ST30 on the year. Pretty terrible, I know…but they actually have had some nice recent performances against struggling offenses: the D/ST6 against the Falcons in Week 12 and the DST4 against Seattle in Week 8. Other outings have been bad, but they’ve also faced good offenses: the Rams, 49ers, Colts, and Bills. However, in the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs, they draw the Texans and Jets, quite possibly the softest two-week stretch possible. They’re also almost certainly available in your league. I’m not saying it’s not desperate, but it could be an interesting play if you have roster space, especially if they play well against the Titans this week; we’ve seen how the quality of the opposing offense is actually more important that the quality of the defense when streaming D/ST.
  • You might see the New England Patriots D/ST on your waiver wire, since they find themselves on Bye this week. My advice: don’t do it. They get Jonathan Taylor and the Colts, followed by a Bills team thirsty for revenge in the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Check back in Week 17 – the fantasy championship – when they host the Jags.

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Curious about any more matchups? Message me on Twitter.

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Chart styling from Sam.

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