Commentary

Reassessing defenses to exploit

Updated: October 28, 2011, 11:21 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

We're at or past the midway point of most fantasy regular seasons, and I thought it would be helpful to delve back into matchups. Now is the time when contenders start dealing for reinforcements and pretenders start thinking about next year, and we all look at fantasy playoff schedules to divine which players might have the easiest time of it in December. But from watching tape the past few weeks, I've found a few defensive units that aren't playing quite as you might expect. So for the "In Depth" portion of this column, let's look at some revisions we might have to make to our matchup thinking.

Five In Depth

1. Broncos Run Defense: This unit is supposed to stink. Back in Week 1, Darren McFadden scorched them for 150 yards on 22 carries in the late Monday night game, making Denver's D look very much like the 2010 group that allowed 154.6 ground yards per game (second-worst in the NFL) and 4.7 yards per carry (tied for second-worst). And I'm not going hog-wild here, suddenly proclaiming these guys are the second coming of the '85 Bears, especially not when Ryan Mathews did them for 125 yards as recently as Week 5. But they've also had some surprisingly good results lately, making them less of a slam-dunk matchup than usual. They've held the Bengals, Titans, Packers and Dolphins to less than 100 yards rushing and haven't allowed a rushing TD to a RB yet this year. (They've allowed four rushing scores, all to QBs.) That may not be sustainable, but it's not bad from a group that gave up an NFL-worst 26 rushing scores in '10 (21 to RBs).

How are they doing this? When I've watched the past couple of games, it's seemed to me that the difference has been blitzing. Rookie outside linebacker Von Miller is as good as advertised coming off the edge, but veteran safety Brian Dawkins has been resurgent and smart coming from the defense's back end, too, often not hell-bent for leather, but controlled, sniffing out running plays and filling holes as he charges the line. I wouldn't say John Fox had a reputation as an unrepentant blitzer in Carolina (his teams were usually about middle-of-the-pack in the number of times they sent extra guys at the line), but he's increased the artillery he's throwing at the line of scrimmage as this season has worn on:

This is a high-risk strategy that will get you burned, as the Broncos have been burned by Andy Dalton, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Rodgers at various times this year. But it's a pass-defense strategy that has the added benefit of clogging the lanes against the run. Last week, I presumed Daniel Thomas had an elite matchup against this defense, and was surprised when I watched the footage to see that Thomas ran hard, but really had nowhere to go. Hey, these guys will give up some yards, and the relative flukiness of no running back TDs against them will be rectified. But don't underestimate the return of D.J. Williams on the strong side, and don't go thinking this unit is an automatic rollover.

2. Giants Run Defense: You know the drill. The Giants are supposed to be smashmouth: all about running the ball and stopping the run. It's time for reality to erase that hype. New York has rushed for the third-fewest yards per game in the NFL on offense, and they've been borderline disastrous keeping opposing RBs in check over the past month. They've been steamrolled by LeSean McCoy, Beanie Wells, Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson in their past four games. What gives?

The Giants were off last week, but I went back and grabbed film of their run-defense lowlights from their previous four tilts. An argument defending the G-Men probably begins with the fact that Justin Tuck hasn't seen the field since Week 3; Tuck will reportedly return for this week's game against the Dolphins. But I also see some inexperienced linebackers making mistakes. Greg Jones has potential, but hasn't completely filled a trouble spot that's plagued the Giants for a few seasons; he doesn't make nearly enough tackles for a 4-3 middle linebacker. Jacquian Williams' speed on the weak side occasionally flashes, but I saw him run his way directly out of tackles on a couple occasions versus the Seahawks and Bills. The good news is that these guys are rookies with nice upside who could start performing better as soon as this year, as they adjust: The art form to defending the run is often slowing down just a bit rather than charging uncontrolled where you think the RB might go. (Antonio Pierce was fantastic at this.) The bad news, though, is that for the moment there are too many big runs coming against the Giants:

That 12.9 percent mark is 23rd-best in the NFL, making this Giants D a bottom-10 unit when it comes to stopping big plays on the ground. It's true that the G-Men are still fearsome in their pass rush, but they don't scare me as a running back matchup right now.

3. Bengals Pass Defense: When Johnathan Joseph left Cincy, it was supposed to cripple this unit, and Joseph has been amazingly good for the Texans through seven games. But despite playing without their highly drafted and widely hyped USC linebackers Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers for most of the year, this Bengals D has just been very strong all around. Could part of that be thanks to a schedule which has included (in order) the Browns, Broncos, 49ers, Bills, Jaguars and Colts? I'm not gonna lie; the thought has crossed my mind. Other than Buffalo, that's a murderer's row of offensive mediocrity. I do think the Bengals' 4-2 record is a mirage, and the fact that they play the Ravens and Steelers four times in their final 10 games doesn't bode well. Still, one can only go by what one sees, and in particular, I see a pass defense that's shaped up to be a tough one.

The key, believe it or not, might be Nate Clements. Clements busted badly his final years in San Francisco -- and his replacement with the 49ers, Carlos Rogers, is playing out of his mind -- but Clements has defended seven passes in six games (the league leaders have 11) after defending 10 all of last year with the Niners. Opposing offenses stay away from Leon Hall, so Clements is going to get tested. He's given up some plays this year, but not a ton, and not nearly as many as we're accustomed to seeing from him lately. And while the sack totals indicate Cincy isn't getting after the QB much (they've got only 14 sacks, tying them for 19th in the league), one gets the impression watching their games that their 4-3 ends are regularly this close to wreaking havoc in the opposition's backfield. Carlos Dunlap, who had 10 sacks last year as a rookie, has been held sack-less in '11, but to my eye is still playing well, while Michael Johnson's conversion to end is complete, and he's playing well, too.

The bottom line, of course, is that until this unit starts playing against good QBs, we're not going to know if this performance is legit. But on the upside, they've got the Seahawks and Titans the next two weeks, so it's very possible they can keep the mojo going.

4. Titans Pass Defense: In their past three games, dating back to Week 4, the Titans have fallen off on defense overall. Perhaps it was predictable. I made much of how weak Tennessee's schedule was to begin the season: Jaguars, Ravens, Broncos, Browns. This was the NFL's top-ranked defense in statistics only, and in allowing 79 combined points against the Steelers and Texans in their past two games, the Titans have crashed back to Earth.

Much will be made of the run defense. Arian Foster and Ben Tate went hog-wild running the ball last week, to the tune of 219 combined ground yards. And two games ago, the Steelers put up 174 rushing yards. But you know, I have to say: When I watch the tape, I'm not overly concerned with what I see from this run defense. They've made mistakes, they've taken bad angles, they've been lined up incorrectly and had the bad fortune of seeing Pittsburgh and Houston gash them right at the spot where they've been misaligned. But I still do think they have ends who can play (Jason Jones and Derrick Morgan, in particular) and at-least-average defensive tackles.

What alarms me more is the fact that their pass defense hasn't been good, either. Colt McCoy, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub have averaged 291 yards passing per game in the Titans' past three contests, and have combined for eight TDs and two INTs. That amounts to a 107.4 QB rating (I know, I don't like QB rating much, either, but at least it tells you QBs have been good against them), and includes a whopping 69.7 completion rate (31st in the NFL in that span) to go with 7.62 yards per attempt (20th). This hasn't been teams dink-and-dunking to achieve a high completion percentage. Tennessee has allowed seven pass plays of 25 yards or more in these three games.

What does the tape show? The snowball really has rolled downhill, and play-action has been alarmingly effective against this defense. You've got safety Jordan Babineaux leaping forward toward the line every time an opposing QB looks at his RB, as though he might hand it off. I admit Cortland Finnegan is covering better than he did last year, but he isn't tackling appreciably better, and linebacker Will Witherspoon just got hosed on a long Foster receiving score Sunday. Heck, here are the numbers during the past three weeks when opponents have three or more WRs on the field:

Attempts: 53
Completions: 81
Completion percentage: .654
Touchdowns: 5
Interceptions: 1

Source: Stats LLC

I'm not trying to tell you Curtis Painter and the Colts will definitely go crazy via the airways this week. Indy's offense is probably beyond matchup help. But while I do think the Titans are better than they've shown recently against the run, Finnegan & Co. have lately looked like a pretty tasty matchup against the pass.

5. Chiefs offense: Jamaal Charles is hurt. Matt Cassel is mediocre. Of course you want your fantasy defense facing the Chiefs. Right? Right?

That was certainly true early in the season. The Chiefs scored 10 points in their first two games combined, turned it over nine times and averaged only 240 yards from scrimmage. The Bills and Lions mustered 13 and 20 defensive fantasy points against the Chiefs, respectively, in those first two games. Since then, though, Kansas City has faced a few respectable defenses and hasn't given an inch:

I think the most notable explanation for this turnaround is something I mentioned in last week's Hard Count, which is how conservative this Chiefs offense has become. Counterintuitively (because of Charles' injury), Todd Haley has called a higher percentage of runs in the past five weeks (which encapsulate these four games) than any NFL team:

Highest Pct. of Rushing Plays, Past 5 weeks
Kansas City Chiefs 54.1%
Jacksonville Jaguars 52.3%
San Francisco 49ers 50.4%
San Diego Chargers 49.2%
Oakland Raiders 48.1%
Source: Stats LLC

As much as I bash him, Cassel is taking better care of the ball (one of his two picks against the Raiders last week was a silly throw at the end of the first half); this is a guy who fumbled an amazing 14 times in '09 (losing only three), but in '10 and '11 combined he's fumbled only five times (losing two). And the Chiefs have allowed 10 sacks in six games, which is partly a testament to conservative routes and getting rid of the ball quickly, but also an endorsement of an offensive line which has really transformed during the past two seasons. There's no more Ryan O'Callaghan making spot starts and no more aging Brian Waters (though Waters is playing well in New England); left tackle Branden Albert looks worthy of being the 15th overall pick in '08, and right guard Jon Asamoah is mauling people (and scoring TDs!) in Waters' place. Bottom line: I'm not enamored of the Chargers defense's matchup this week in KC.

Five In Brief

6. Chris Johnson's rapid descent: An incredible amount has been written this week about CJ2K (or should that be CJ0K?) and his season-long struggles. It's become fashionable to pile on, perhaps in part because we tend not to like athletes who hold out for more money, seemingly putting themselves above their team. I wish I could defend Johnson, but any objective observer of that Texans game film from last week would have to acknowledge that something is seriously wrong. I thought Johnson was making progress in the Cleveland and Pittsburgh games, but last Sunday it seemed like any time a defensive player put up any resistance, Johnson just turtled. Maybe we'll find out he's hurt. I certainly don't want to question the guy's toughness, not after he's proven to be such a beast in previous seasons. I can buy that the Titans' offensive line isn't doing a great job. But there were plays where Johnson would be charging around the edge with a blocker in front of him, and two defenders would chase him down and instead of trying to power through them, Johnson would just sort of jump in the air and let himself be manhandled. I don't get it. I will say this: If this week's media firestorm doesn't light a fire under the guy in what should be a sweet matchup versus the Colts, nothing will.

Vincent Jackson
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREVincent Jackson has just four catches for 49 yards in his past two games.

7. Vincent Jackson should get better … eventually: Sometimes mediocre receiving numbers are the quarterback's fault, or the game-planner's fault, or the offensive line's fault. In Jackson's case, I think it's been the opposition. Sure, we know he's battled nagging injuries, but take a look at this murderer's row of cornerbacks V-Jax has faced lately: Brandon Flowers of the Chiefs; Vontae Davis of the Dolphins; Champ Bailey of the Broncos; Darrelle Revis of the Jets. Sure, Revis might've interfered with Jackson on his crucial fourth-quarter pick with San Diego down three and driving last week, but the fact that Jackson managed only one grab for 15 yards indicates an uncomfortable stay on the "Island." Things should get quite a bit better for V-Jax against some lesser-light corners later in the season. Unfortunately, this week Jackson gets Flowers again, which lowers him a bit in my eyes. I've ranked him lowest of any ESPN.com ranker (I have him 12th among WRs this week), and consider his Week 3 output against the Chiefs -- five grabs for 63 yards -- a fair estimation of what he's likely to give you Monday night. His net results will come down to whether or not he gives you a TD.

8. Dez Bryant takes the lead: I hated to read that the Cowboys have no plans to remove Bryant from their punt-returning role, because that's how he initially injured his quad in Week 1's loss against the Jets. But that doesn't stop me from listing Bryant higher than any other ESPN ranker this week. Hey, at least I'm consistent. Bryant is eighth among NFL WRs in fantasy points per game despite failing to notch even one 100-yard effort yet this season. Unlike many of the other receivers who top the fantasy rolls right now, Bryant isn't propped up by a single massive effort (like, say, Miles Austin is); instead, Dez has managed between 63 and 90 yards in four of his five outings, and has four TDs. Most importantly, I hope even casual observers are coming around to the point of view I held at the year's outset, which is that Bryant is simply a different kind of athlete. He may have roughly the same measurables as Austin, but there is simply no question which man defenses fear more. Bryant is a force in the red zone and in the open field, and I promise, one of those fantasy-game-winning days is coming. It may not come Sunday night versus that all-star lineup of Eagles defensive backs, but it's coming.

Jabar Gaffney
Andrew Mills/Star-Ledger/US PresswireJabar Gaffney has had between 54 and 68 yards receiving in his six games this season.

9. Jabar Gaffney is the last man standing: Santana Moss is out for between five and seven weeks, which means in standard-sized fantasy leagues he's pretty much a must-drop. (I suppose you could argue that if he makes it back in five weeks, he could help you in the fantasy playoffs, but how comfortable will you feel starting him?) That leaves Gaffney as the only useful veteran WR on the Redskins roster, unless you're wicked psyched about using Donte' Stallworth. Gaffney will be on the field for every offensive snap, and the likes of Anthony Armstrong, Niles Paul and Leonard Hankerson (the latter two are rookies) will rotate. But sorry, Jabar, I'm still not all-in. Hey, I've written about Gaffney in my "Free-Agent Finds" column this year. He's an OK player. If you're in a pinch, Gaffney is usable; I ranked him 30th among WRs in this bye-heavy week. I just feel his upside is so capped by a lack of deep speed or red-zone talent that all you're really signing up for with Gaffney is four catches for 60 yards every week, with the potential for basically nothing more than that. The truest beneficiary of the Moss injury, in my opinion, is tight end Fred Davis.

10. Bernard Scott's time to shine? Cedric Benson will serve his one-game suspension Sunday, so the starting Bengals' starting RB job is left open for Scott. As recently as last year, I was excited about this guy's potential as a feature back; he's got acceptable size and quite a burst. Unfortunately, he's also lacked durability to an extreme, and it's become relatively clear that Cincy doesn't trust the future of their backfield to him. They've used him as a return specialist and occasional breather-giver for Benson, while Brian Leonard has stayed the team's third-down back. Regardless, this week the job is Scott's, and he has the talent to do something good with it. Still, I ranked him outside my top 20 RBs, mostly because of the matchup. The Seahawks have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season; Montario Hardesty came close with 95 last week, but he did it on 33 carries, so let's not chalk that up as an "L" for Seattle's D. They're allowing the fewest yards per carry of any team in the NFL (just 3.1), and have kept the big play to a minimum: Only the Cowboys have allowed a lower percentage of opponent carries to go for 10-plus yards. I think Scott was probably the best one-week waiver add for Sunday, simply because he's a nice bet to touch it 15-plus times, but my expectations are firmly in check.

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. He is the author of the newly published novel "Slotback Rhapsody." You can get more information about the book here.

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