The Math Behind the Matchups: Week 5 (Fantasy Football)
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.
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 Chiefs, Bills etc. 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. Let’s get into it.
First, we can look at the top QB and pass-catcher performance over the past 3 weeks. Jared Goff has been the dump-off king, while Derek Carr and Zach Wilson have been hurling it deep. Travis Kelce, even after a poor performance this week, leads all pass-catchers in the ‘short’ region (2-10 air yards).
Next, we can break down passing yards allowed in these different regions by defense. This is above expectation (takes into account the opposing offense).
With these charts in mind, here are the takeaways for aerial attacks this week.
- D’Andre Swift, who has been excellent in check-down situations this year, had a disappointing Week 4 against the Bears. However, despite all of the turmoil in Chicago, they still have played well defensively at times, and are the 2nd best D/ST against check-downs over the past three weeks. Look for Swift to rebound in a big way against a Vikings defense that is average against dump-offs.
- Speaking of the Lions, they have been shredded deep recently. Kirk Cousins should bounce back with a low-end QB1 performance this week and is a great stream if available. Justin Jefferson, of course, is in your lineup, but even K.J. Osborn could be worth a FLEX – with hopes for a big splash play – in deeper leagues.
- Kenny Golladay is a surprise on the leaderboard for ‘short’ passes (2-10 yards), and he has a favorable matchup with the Cowboys defense, currently yielding more than 30 yards above expectation to these passes. Hopefully, momentum continues to build for his smooth routes; I would start him confidently as a WR2 or FLEX this week.
- The 49ers have put the clamps on short passes and check-downs; they lead defenses by far for check-downs especially. However, they are surprisingly susceptible deep. You’re always starting Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, but Christian Kirk and A.J. Green could be upside FLEX options.
- As mentioned, the 49ers have been elite against short passes; this lowers the ceiling for Chase Edmonds, who has seen an average of five receptions a game. YAC monster Rondale Moore may have a difficult time breaking off big plays and can be left on your bench (or on the waiver wire).
- Denver has been the best defense against deep passes as of late, and has been none too shabby against check-downs. Najee Harris has enough of a built-in workload to be a weekly start but might have limited upside; I am passing (no pun intended) on the downfield threats for the Steelers, especially Chase Claypool if he returns.
- Brandin Cooks has been a fantastic story this year, the lone bright spot on an imploding team. Unfortunately, Bill Belichick isn’t very sentimental. The Pats have been the best defense by far against mid-depth passes, and have a tendency for taking away the opponent’s best option. Those hoping for a rebound from Cooks’ WR57 performance last week will likely be disappointed.
Let’s break down rushing performance – both achieved and allowed – against expectation for the last three weeks. We can look at rushes going left, right and center (from the offensive point of view).
- The Cardinals have been gouged by runs up the middle (and are about average on the left and right). The 49ers are above-average at running the ball up the gut, and whoever ends up starting for the Niners – be it Elijah Mitchell or Trey Sermon again – should have a chance to make a big impact.
- After rushing for negative yards vs. an incredibly stout TB run defense, the Patriots get to rebound against the Texans this week. Houston has allowed the most yards above expectation on runs going left, something that Damien Harris may be able to exploit. I’m starting Harris as an RB2 and actively trying to trade for him where I can.
- Perhaps the biggest mismatch from these charts are the Bears (top 5 going left and right) vs. the Raiders (bottom 5 vs. left, middle). Damien Williams might have a big showing subbing in for the injured David Montgomery. I’ve written about how, in general, I’m skeptical of potential output from insurance backs, but expect a solid outing in this case.
- Something funny to note is that Derrick Henry is very good going left or right, but is bottom three in terms of yardage going up the middle. This doesn’t really matter much for fantasy purposes – you’re starting Henry, the best RB in the land – but it will be interesting to see if this trend continues.
- The Browns have been playing ferocious defense of late. They love to run the ball, but they do not extend the same well-wishes to the opposing team. You’re starting Austin Ekeler this week, but don’t expect a massive game from him. It could be wise to make sure your other starters surrounding Ekeler have a high floor, just so that your week isn’t ruined if Ekeler has a tough day.
- The Bucs took a team that wanted to run the ball – the Patriots – and made them go backwards. If Damien Harris mustered negative yardage vs. Vita Vea and company, is there any real expectation for Myles Gaskin or Malcolm Brown to do anything in Week 5? Sit these RBs, and trade them away if you can,
Finally, we can break down the fantasy points scored and allowed (above expectation) by position. In addition to telling us which position groups to target, it can help us with streaming a D/ST unit. Last week was a great example of why playing the matchups are key in fantasy: the Rams, likely the league’s best real-life defense, had a poor fantasy outing against the explosive Cardinals. Play the waiver wire and start a defense with a juicy matchup!
- The Carolina Panthers had a bit of a wake-up call this week against the offensively elite Cowboys. However, they get the far less dangerous Eagles this week, a team scoring below expectation at every fantasy position except TE (and quite low at WR). The Panthers are still widely available and are my favorite streaming target this week.
- The Dallas Cowboys have exhibited surprising play-making ability this year, and have a divisional matchup (usually lower-scoring) vs. the turnover-prone Danny Dimes. The re-emergence of Saquon Barkley could make this D/ST a tougher pill to swallow, though.
- The Los Angeles Chargers are a great example of performance above expectation: they’ve played the Chiefs, Cowboys and Raiders in the last three weeks, all teams with dynamic offenses. Because of these matchups, the Chargers haven’t appeared to be an elite D/ST option, but they are performing well against expectation; that means that they could really help your fantasy roster when the opposing offenses start getting less competent. This week they have the Browns, who are excellent at running the ball but have had serious woes at the QB and WR position. You could do worse than the Chargers, who are on the waiver wire in basically every league.
- The New York Jets have been surprisingly good against aerial attacks this year, although they are a sieve to opposing RBs. Fortunately, the Atlanta Falcons prefer to throw the ball, and the Jets might be a nifty stream if you are desperate. Matt Ryan and co. certainly looked better last week, but part of that was the (surprisingly) bad Washington defense and the outlier, hyper-efficient outburst of Cordarrelle Patterson. Still, I won’t hyperbolize: this would be a dart throw D/ST.
Did I miss anything? Curious about other matchups? Find me on Twitter.
Thanks to Sam for the plot styling.