<
>

How to react to early defensive trends

9/30/2011

For the "In Depth" portion of the Hard Count this week, I'm trying something a little different. This is right around the time of the season when we start to understand what defenses are. We start looking at ESPN.com's Points Against feature to figure out which defenses have been giving up big fantasy points to which positions. But only three games in, we must ask ourselves: Are these early-season results predictive or fluky? I assigned myself the task of watching footage of five interesting defensive units, to see what conclusions I can draw. Hopefully this will be helpful as we dissect fantasy schedules as the season winds on.

Five In Depth

1. Steelers rush defense: Un-scary matchup? If there's one thing you've been able to count on in the past five years, it's that the Steelers have been no fun to run against. They've been one of the five hardest defenses for fantasy backs to score points against in that span:

Pittsburgh Steelers, PPG Allowed to RBs

But through three contests in 2011, Pittsburgh is 21st in fantasy points allowed to RBs. I also find it interesting that the Steelers have allowed 4.6 yards per carry, which ties them for 23rd among NFL defenses; for a frame of reference, from '06 to '10, they were never above 4.0 YPC, and last year sat at an NFL-best 3.0. Heck, they allowed five rushing TDs all last season, and three games into '11 they've already allowed two.

Certainly after two games, I was completely willing to let this slide. Ray Rice went crazy in an emotional season opener (107 yards rushing, 42 yards receiving and two total TDs on 23 touches) and the Steel Curtain seemed to right itself versus the Seahawks in Week 2, when it allowed only 19 yards on 10 carries. But Sunday night's game versus the Colts was worrisome. Indy kind of put the wood to them. Joseph Addai consistently found rushing lanes and powered through the first line of defense on the way to 86 yards and a TD on 17 carries. The leading culprit was that famous Colts stretch running play, where the QB sprints out of the pocket and hands the rusher the ball as far outside as possible; Addai found gaps early and often. He was especially effective going left, and the NBC telecast made a point of showing how much Jeff Saturday was pushing around 11-year veteran Casey Hampton in the middle (to seal off the left side). And Troy Polamalu remains ever feast-or-famine; he might take more chances and put himself (and his defense) in more bad positions than any safety in the NFL, but of course, when it pans out, he completely changes games, and he might've single-handedly won the Colts contest with his late forced fumble on Kerry Collins.

Still, there are cracks showing here. Brett Keisel missed Week 3 because of a ligament strain in his knee, and that's not considered a long-term injury. But when the fourth quarter came Sunday night, Addai had a few longer runs in which he wasn't touched in the first 5 yards. That's something you just haven't usually seen from a Steelers defense whose front three -- Hampton (age 34), Keisel (age 33) and Aaron Smith (age 35) -- is getting old. I'm not pronouncing them dead. But I'm not freaked out about using Arian Foster this week, at least not because of his opponent. (His hamstring is another story.)

2. Packers pass defense: Worst in the NFL? The Pack has allowed the most fantasy points to QBs and the third-most to WRs through three games. Drew Brees lit them up in the second half of the Thursday-night opener, and Cam Newton hung 432 yards on them in Week 2. Things calmed down slightly against Jay Cutler last week, as Cutler passed for 302 yards and two scores, but also was sacked three times and produced three turnovers. Still, this is a defensive unit that's supposed to boast the top trio of corners in the NFL -- Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Sam Shields -- as well as Clay Matthews, the most feared pass-rusher on earth. Is this an early-season statistical blip for a defense that allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points to opposing QBs last year?

Well, reviewing these three game tapes, I see mistakes in the secondary. For all his media love, Woodson hasn't been consistent in one-on-one coverage; versus the Panthers, Steve Smith torched him for a 62-yard gain. There's a reason Woodson bumps inside and plays safety in some of Green Bay's base packages, and it's not just all about the former Heisman winner being a good tackler. In addition, free safety Nick Collins' season-ending neck injury forces the slower Charlie Peprah into many packages, and he was burned by the Bears last week on a touchdown to tight end Kellen Davis. Realize also, though, that Williams sat out Week 2 and was said to be somewhat limited playing against the Bears in Week 3. He's a top-five cornerback when he's healthy, and hopefully he returns to full health soon. Plus, I haven't seen evidence that the pass rush has downgraded. Jarius Wynn has played well in a rotation at defensive end and has three sacks, and overall the team is tied for fourth in the league in the category.

So we've had some mistakes by the secondary for big plays, a key injury to Williams, and I'll tell you another contributing factor: The Pack's run defense is just really, really good. B.J. Raji is about ready to stake his claim as the league's best defensive tackle, and Desmond Bishop has been everywhere. Opposing teams are rushing for only 55 yards per game against Green Bay right now, the lowest such mark in the league. And as a result (also as a result of Aaron Rodgers and the prolific offense), we've seen opponents pass 132 times against the Packers so far this year, second-most in the NFL. Am I completely without worry here? Almost. I expect this pass defense to get much better. The main thing I worry about is Williams' health, and Woodson possibly showing his age.

3. Jaguars run defense: Really worth avoiding? Here's a list of the five stingiest defenses to fantasy running backs through three weeks:

Fewest PPG Allowed to RBs, This Season

One of these things is not like the others. While Patrick Willis & Co. are known for being difficult to run against (and fairly easy to throw against), and while the Lions have that heralded defensive line, and while the Chargers and Ravens have been strong versus the run for years, the Jaguars make for strange company. Last season, they allowed 18.8 fantasy points per game to opposing rushers, 24th-best in the NFL. In '10, they gave up 121.6 rushing yards per game and 19 rushing TDs; so far in '11, those numbers are 83.7 yards and just one score.

Let's not throw the Jags' schedule under the bus. Look at this game log against three teams who, before the season started, I daresay we might have put among the league's 10 best rushing attacks:

Drafting monolithic big men seems finally to be bearing fruit for a Jags team that, for the first time in recent history, seems more limited by its offense than its defense. Tyson Alualu (last year's No. 10 overall pick) and big Terrance Knighton (a third-rounder in '09) are gap-pluggers who rip apart interior run blocking. (Think of the good old days: John Henderson and Marcus Stroud.) Paul Posluszny isn't spectacular at middle linebacker, but you never see him taking overaggressive angles or guessing unless the situation warrants it. Through three weeks, this has looked like a legitimately stingy group to run against.

Unfortunately, this franchise's problem for three years running -- a near-total lack of a pass rush -- is in full effect again, as Aaron Kampman can't get healthy, and the other defensive ends are usual-suspect retreads. Drew Brees should be comfortable in the pocket Sunday, and the Saints should light up the Jags. But right now I'm a believer that this is a below-average matchup for the New Orleans rushing troika, who already split up the job too much to be valuable in fantasy anyway.

4. Titans pass defense: From "feh" to spectacular? In going 6-10 last year, Tennessee made headlines for two reasons: Benching Vince Young and watching Cortland Finnegan fight Andre Johnson. These aren't things you want to be known for. In '09, Finnegan was considered a true up-and-coming star cornerback, but he was eminently average in '10, and as a group the Titans allowed 252 passing yards per game, 29th-best in the league. But here's a look at how they've fared through three games this season:

Looking back at every pass play the Titans have defended so far this year, my first impression is that Finnegan and Jason McCourty are playing fine at corner, Alterraun Verner did a nice job when he played nickel last week against Brandon Lloyd, and Michael Griffin doesn't seem to be making nearly as many mistakes at free safety. Also, while the team's sack totals don't leap off the page, one is left with the notion that this no-name defensive line is doing a pretty good job getting hits on opposing QBs.

But I also have to splash a little cold water here. The three signal-callers the Titans have faced so far -- Luke McCown, Joe Flacco and Kyle Orton -- aren't exactly Hall of Famers. And two of those three opponents (Jaguars and Broncos) may be among the five worst teams in the NFL. I still look at the Titans' defensive personnel and see a group that could be more vulnerable against the run than they've shown so far, as the defensive tackles and outside linebackers are only so-so. That, in turn, can lead to more single-coverage for the defensive backs. Now, it's not like I'm running out and giving a full endorsement to the Cleveland Browns passing game this week. We'll probably see another sub-200-yard passing day for a Titans opponent. But watch out for Peyton Hillis doing more than the numbers say he might, which in turn could mean pass-defense trouble, for example, in Week 5 against the Steelers and Week 7 against the Texans. I'm not sold here.

5. Jets rush defense: Even "worse" than Pittsburgh's? What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on in New York? The Jets are supposed to be "Ground-and-Pound" on both sides of the ball. But so far on offense, they've thrown 111 passes and run it only 73 times; their 39.6 percent run play-calling makes them only the NFL's 21st-run-heaviest group. Meanwhile, on defense they're allowing 136.7 yards per game on the ground, second-worst in the league behind only the Rams. Is that number skewed by Darren McFadden's jailbreak 70-yard score last week? Sure. But remove it from the equation, and the Jets' D is still only tied for 22nd against the run.

Against the Raiders last week, an alarming amount of the damage was done outside the tackle box:

Source: STATS, Inc.

What does the game tape say? To my eyes, the problems were with the defensive tackles getting walled off too easily in the interior, and the outside linebackers seemingly racing around blockers rather than taking them on, leaving (for example) McFadden to slice through openings and get to the second and third levels of the defense. Marcus Dixon, a substitute defensive lineman, got blown up several times, while Calvin Pace seems to be only occasionally remembering running plays on his way to the QB. Plus the long DMC run was just an awful job of containment by Bart Scott, who essentially lined up as the right defensive end and got steamrolled.

This is basically the same cast of characters that ranked third in rushing yards allowed last season; Muhammad Wilkerson replaces Shaun Ellis, but Ellis was mostly invisible last season. Plus, strong safety Jim Leonhard is back and healthy. My gut tells me this group will again become a bad matchup for opposing RBs, but my eyes tell me it isn't happening yet. I didn't downgrade Ray Rice in my weekly ranks for precisely that reason. Last year, Rice managed only 43 yards on 21 carries against the Jets. This year, I think he does better than that.

Five In Brief

6. Mike Williams has gone missing … or has he? I ranked last year's breakout rookie receiving star as my No. 14 fantasy receiver this summer. That is not looking very smart at this exact moment. At first blush, his usage numbers look alarming: In three contests, he has 22 targets and 10 catches, an average of 7.3 targets and 3.3 catches per game. Believe it or not, however, Williams had just about the same averages in '10: He had 125 targets and 65 catches, giving him an average of 7.8 targets and 4.1 catches per game. Similar, no? So why did I rank him 31st among wideouts this week? It's where he's catching the ball. Last year, Williams on average was 9.6 yards down the field when he caught a pass, and on average ran for 5.3 yards after the catch. This year? He's only 6.4 yards from scrimmage, and carrying it only 2.5 yards after the catch. Williams hasn't suddenly become a worse receiver, but Josh Freeman is struggling to get the ball down the field. He's overthrowing open wideouts, and is averaging only 6.4 yards per attempt, after going for 7.3 last year. I'd rather not use anyone in the Bucs passing game until we see a good performance out of them.

7. This week's sleeper QB: Jason Campbell? In general, I try to stay away from "paint-by-numbers" analysis. And this feels a little like that. The Patriots are struggling with their pass rush, which is affecting everything they do on defense. They've allowed a league-high 377 passing yards per game. But does it ever work out when you simply grab whatever doofus QB is playing against a struggling defense, and start him? I mean, it's Jason Campbell. He's at his best when his game line looks like it did during the Jets win last week: 18-of-27 for 156 yards and no scores. This guy is a possible fantasy starter? I have to say: I kind of think so. Remember the back-and-forth mess that was Raiders/Bills in Week 2? Denarius Moore going loopy? Campbell throwing it 33 times for 323 yards? Having paid special attention to every down of football the Pats have played so far this year, I have no confidence they won't make Campbell look like Kenny Stabler. I think New England wins this game, but I think it's like 45-31.

8. Darren Sproles is the greatest RB evah. OK, maybe I'm overstating the pro-Sproles case. But here's the anti-Sproles case: He has eight carries in three games. Eight! Absolutely, he was lined up in the backfield more frequently than either Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas against the Texans, but that was at least in part because the Saints trailed all afternoon. And yes, Sproles is second among all NFL RBs in receptions, with 21 (somehow last year's leader, LeSean McCoy, has nine), and yes, Sproles has found the end zone in all three of New Orleans' games this year. But he has eight carries. Surely you remember Sproles from his days with the Chargers, no? He'd break out (mostly as a receiver) for a game or two, and then sink back down into fantasy mediocrity. Sure, I'm willing to buy that Sean Payton will use Sproles more persistently than did Norv Turner. But I'm not willing to buy a guy with eight carries in three games as a must-start flex play in standard leagues. PPR leagues? Absolutely. He's at least a flex there. But what's your over/under on TDs for Sproles this year? He's got three now. Does he get to six or seven? I mean, if we really believe he'll keep up his current yardage pace and wind up with over 1,200 total yards from scrimmage, this assessment will wind up looking silly. But I just don't buy it.

9. Which receiver do Falcons opponents really fear? OK, that's a misleading question. It's still Roddy White. But in my write-up of Week 3, I mentioned that I was a bit sour on White last week, because I believed Aqib Talib would be on him. I was dead wrong. In fact, the Bucs put Talib on Julio Jones man-on-man and then gave safety help to Ronde Barber on White. I guess in the end it didn't really matter, because White still went off (nine grabs for 140 yards), making my prediction look a little foolish. But what I really went to school on was how Jones ran circles around Talib. He had six grabs for 115 yards of his own, and looked borderline impossible to contain. Jones is a rookie receiver, and like most rookie receivers he'll have bad games. He's also likely the guy who'll suffer most in weeks when Michael Turner gets his act together, or Tony Gonzalez dominates in the red zone. But the Falcons have passed it exactly 47 times in two of their three games, and that means loads of targets for everyone. Jones looks like a high-upside every-week flex to me right now.

10. When it comes to platoons, sometimes I don't listen to my own advice. It feels like I've been advising folks all summer and fall not to get too high or too low when a member of a RB platoon goes off or disappears for a week. That's the smart way to play it, because platoons are fickle beasts. Yet here I was in this exact column last week, singing the praises of James Starks, saying he doesn't get enough love. D'oh. Starks played terribly versus the Bears, including a big fourth-quarter fumble, while Ryan Grant was terrific. (Grant is questionable to play this week with a bruised kidney, and if he can't go, Starks is a fantasy starter. Otherwise? Gah.) So let's keep this lesson in mind as we discuss Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. Mathews has been really good. He's the better player. He's much more dynamic in the open field, he can get around the edge, and if you squint real hard those Matt Forte comparisons are starting to make sense. But don't go crazy. Tolbert had a three-TD week in the season opener, and it won't be his only multiple-TD game of the season. There's still great risk in considering Mathews a No. 1 fantasy rusher. Sure, I saw Mathews get goal-line looks versus the Chiefs. But I also saw him show up on the injury list this week with a sore foot. The Chargers know his injury history, and they also know Tolbert wasn't holding up particularly well to big workloads. I'm chastened about overdoing it for Starks. I'm not going to do the same for Mathews.

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.