Fantasy News & Analysis

Funnel defense report: Week 6 defenses with ample pass opportunity

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 1: Cornerback Brent Grimes #24 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers breaks up a pass from quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers to wide receiver Brenton Bersin #11 in the end zone during the fourth quarter of an NFL game on January 1, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

Welcome to the Week 6 Funnel Defense Report, where we examine trends in how defenses are most commonly attacked. It is meant to help narrow our focus from overall game selection, down to the “run versus pass” level. We as fantasy gamers, like NFL game planners, ideally seek paths of least resistance.

The term “funnel defense,” or “pass funnel defense” was coined several years ago by the esteemed Adam Levitan. It has become common parlance among DFS players and other fantasy aficionados, and refers to defenses which are simultaneously soft against the pass and stout against the run.

Identifying such characteristics is not a one-time task, as injury and performance variation create an evolving landscape. In this space we will leverage, among other resources, up-to-date PFF defensive grades and metrics to stay on top of these constant changes and difference-making fantasy trends.

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For brevity’s sake, all references to pass or run rates/percentages, or any other reference to how often an offense threw versus handed off, will be in terms of neutral game situations. Unless otherwise stated, we will reference one-score situations (plus/minus seven points) to get a truer representation of game plan.

Philadelphia Eagles

A top early-season pass funnel had slowly tightened up heading into their Thursday night matchup with the Panthers. While their run defense remained stout, grading seventh-best and allowing 3.9 yards per carry, their pass coverage stabilized. Philadelphia had given up only 13 completions of 20-plus yards (19th most). Patrick Robinson, in particular, turned things around and entered the Carolina game with the second best coverage grade and third most passes defensed among cornerbacks.

Through three weeks, opponents passed against the Eagles at the league’s highest rate (70.3 percent), but only the 15th highest during the next two (58.6 percent). The Panthers wound up with a whopping 72.5 percent pass rate in large part because they couldn’t run. At all. If not for Cam Newton, Carolina would have averaged 0.6 yards per carry. It forced one of the league’s run-heaviest teams (47 percent) to become one-dimensional, and they crashed. After back-to-back 300-yard passing games, Newton mustered only 239 yards and one touchdown (with three interceptions) on 52 attempts. The Eagles certainly remain a top funnel, although their defense looks more like a tornado.

Miami Dolphins

There is no surer sign of a pass funnel than when the top-10 run-blocking Titans elect to skew 68-percent pass with Matt Cassel (fifth-highest of Week 5), while giving DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry only 18 combined carries during a close game in which Jay Cutler is melting down again. Cassel was allowed to take 38 dropbacks in lieu of Tennessee challenging Miami’s second-highest-graded run defense. Considering Murray and Henry averaged 3.7 yards per carry and Cassel had a 100.8 passer rating on aimed throws, maybe it was the correct call. Of course, the Titans scored 10 points and lost.

Week 6: The Falcons are a balanced offense, with a 58.4-percent pass rate (14th), the fourth-highest yards per pass attempt (7.8), and the third most yards per carry (4.7). They also are a double-digit home favorite, which logically directs fantasy focus to running backs. While Devonta Freeman is a fantastic play, especially at home, excitement for him may leave Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, and Austin Hooper less popular than they should be in a matchup with our 25th-graded pass coverage. If Freeman starts slow against a defense allowing 3.1 yards per carry (third-fewest) and grading second-best in run-stopping, it will be an easy choice for the Falcons to take to the air.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs feature our worst-graded pass coverage and allow 7.4 yards per attempt (seventh-highest). Their run defense, which grades a middling 16th, surrenders the seventh-fewest yards per carry (3.4). It hasn’t been tested often, as opponents run against Tampa Bay at the eighth-lowest rate (39.4 percent). Two of their top three cornerbacks, Vernon Hargreaves (101st) and Robert McClain (104th), grade among the worst of 109 qualifiers. Hargreaves is coming off of a game in which he allowed all six targets to be completed for 94 yards, a touchdown and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

Week 6: Even if Tampa Bay didn’t have league-worst pass coverage, the Cardinals would be throwing. They sport a league-high 67.8 percent pass rate, and despite conjuring the ghost of Adrian Peterson, have little chance of consistently running the ball – particularly in this matchup. Covered primarily by 5-foot-9, 194-pound Robert McClain, the 6-foot-3, 221-pound Larry Fitzgerald will dine on slot-roast all game. Perimeter wideouts John and Jaron Brown, as well as J.J. Nelson, will see plenty of Hargreaves – but also the Bucs’ only functional cornerback, Brent Grimes. Play volume will be on their side, however.

Cleveland Browns

After holding Jets running backs to a 1.9-yard average on 13 handoffs, the Browns are allowing the league’s second-lowest seasonal yards-per-carry mark (2.9). It’s little wonder they face the fifth-highest pass rate, despite their winless status (62.2 percent). Cleveland surrenders the sixth-most yards per pass attempt (7.4), and while Jason McCourty is our third-highest-graded coverage cornerback and Briean Boddy-Calhoun ranks 22nd, they are the only Browns with above-average marks. Cleveland’s league-worst-graded pass rush dissuades no one from dropping back, and they haven’t even faced many high-octane passing attacks.

Week 6: The Texans run at the league’s second-highest rate (49.4 percent), but their profile is evolving. Since Deshaun Watson became a starter, Houston’s weekly pass rate has gone from 43.6 percent (30th), to 50.9 percent (21st), to 53.3 percent (20th), to 63.6 percent (11th). Like the Falcons, the Texans are double-digit home favorites and the fantasy flow chart points to “running back.” Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman, especially in a blowout, should see plenty of work. However, also like Atlanta, Houston faces a clear funnel defense and the path of least resistance is through the air. They’d be crazy not to build their lead on Watson’s arm.

Chicago Bears

Despite facing their share of struggling, injured, and backup quarterbacks – not to mention getting blown out twice – the Bears are still facing the 11th-highest pass rate. They feature our seventh-highest-graded run defense and will get standout inside linebacker Danny Trevathan back from his one-game suspension. Their shaky back-end was supposed to be aided by an ascending pass rush, but it hasn’t materialized. Chicago’s coverage grades 23rd-best, and their pass rush ranks 28th.

Week 6: A rookie quarterback making his second start in Baltimore isn’t a recipe for a shootout. The Ravens’ pass coverage grades sixth-best and the Bears skew run on 47.2 percent of plays when the game is close (seventh-highest), so the matchup should feature low play volume. The Ravens are a balanced offense (56.1 percent pass; 15th-highest), although they did come out firing last week in Oakland, and rode early momentum to a road win. The short-rested Bears offer a pass defense that’s exploitable in increasingly specific places. If we target this game, we want to avoid Prince Amukamara, who is playing well since returning Week 3 (16th-highest coverage grade) and will see a lot of Mike Wallace. Focusing on slot receiver Jeremy Maclin is the better bet.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers technically remain a pass funnel, as their second-worst-graded pass coverage is miles behind their 3.6-yards-allowed run defense. Yet wideouts average only 20.4 targets per game against them (13th) and tight ends see a league-low (4.8). Opponents pass at the 19th-highest rate (57.1 percent). Negative game scripts have muted the effects of San Francisco’s funnel. They face the fourth-most running back handoffs (26.4) on top of the fourth most targets to the position (9.8). Getting Reuben Foster back can help in both areas, forcing more downfield throws.

Week 6: Washington’s pass rate has been all over the map, from first in Week 1 (75.5 percent), to 31st in Week 2 (37 percent), depending on opponent. The guess here is, coming off a bye and without early-downs runner Rob Kelley, the Redskins take to the air. Chris Thompson is firmly in play, considering the 49ers’ tendency to face plenty of running back targets. San Francisco has also allowed completions on nearly half (nine) of the 21 attempts aimed 20-plus yards downfield, putting Terrelle Pryor on the radar. He the highest aDOT among Redskins starting receivers (13.8 yards) and has seen the most 20-plus-yard targets. Josh Doctson, however, has a higher aDOT (20.8) and has received only one fewer deep target.

Tennessee Titans

While opponents elect to pass at only the 26th-highest rate, a little goes a long way against the league’s fifth-worst-graded coverage. Quarterbacks average the third-most fantasy points, and receivers the fourth-most. Tennessee also faced the first (Jaguars), second (Texans), and fourth (Dolphins) run-heaviest offenses. The Raiders and Seahawks aren’t overly pass-happy either. Each found passing success, other than the smoked Dolphins. None ran the ball well. Eventually teams will come out throwing, especially once Marcus Mariota gets healthy and the Titans’ offense begins driving game scripts.

Week 6: This probably isn’t a week where an opponent comes out chucking, as the Colts rank 30th in pass attempts per game (29). Jacoby Brissett has thrown the fewest touchdowns (two) among the top 32 quarterbacks, although the Titans have allowed a league-high, so something has to give. Probably. Despite Indianapolis’ low-volume passing attack, and the game being played away from home and on grass, T.Y. Hilton has a gorgeous matchup running most of his routes against rookie Adoree’ Jackson. His coverage grade is tied for 82nd with teammate Brice McCain, and Jackson has already allowed three touchdowns.

The reverse funnels

Jacksonville Jaguars

Unless you’re retired and living under a rock, you’ve heard about Ben Roethlisberger’s five-interception meltdown and subsequent crisis of confidence. It was all very dramatic. Yet, the fact he had to take 58 dropbacks against the league’s best pass defense is the real story. Le’Veon Bell averaged 4.2 yards on six first-quarter carries, but got only three in the second quarter and three more before Roethlisberger started throwing pick-sixes. In fairness, the Jaguars still somehow face the ninth-highest pass rate (60.4 percent) despite evidence they cannot be thrown on. It’s even more curious when we consider their offense is not equipped to blow opponents out. Some folks are just slow learners.

Week 6: Speaking of head-scratching run/pass distributions, the Rams are in Jacksonville after zigging when they should have zagged against the Seahawks. Los Angeles fits the profile of a team the Jaguars actually can run away and hide from on the scoreboard. Their 26th-graded run defense will be tested. Repeatedly. They allow the most fantasy points to running backs, so it’s another prime spot for the sure-to-be-popular Leonard Fournette. If Sean McVay doesn’t stick with Todd Gurley against a (in reality) mediocre Jacksonville run defense allowing (an inflated) 5.4 yards per carry, things will quickly get out of hand.

Seattle Seahawks

The Rams had the fourth-highest pass rate of Week 5 against the Seahawks (69 percent), who weren’t very nice to flavor-of-September Jared Goff. His 47-percent completion, 6.1 yards per attempt, and 48.9 passer rating looked familiar to those who watched him last year. Apparently McVay wasn’t one of them. Not that Gurley was having real success against our 20th-graded run defense, but his 3.1 yards per carry were spectacular relative to his quarterback, and enough to keep the Rams in the game. Seattle grades behind only Jacksonville in pass coverage, yet opponents still throw on 62.5 percent of plays.

Week 6: Seattle has a bye, so we’ll have to wait until Week 7 to see if an opponent wises up and sticks with the run. Of course, they face the Giants – who no longer have much of a choice.

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