News & Analysis

Week 5 Fantasy football stats: The league's funnel defenses

Sep 23, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills (31) reacts after making a play against the Indianapolis Colts during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

This season, we will be taking periodic stock of which teams are being attacked voluminously in specific areas due to a defensive imbalance. Knowing where to attack as we enter Week 5 of the NFL season can make for a fantasy football advantage.

The term “funnel defense” was coined several years ago by the esteemed Adam Levitan and has become common parlance among DFS players and other fantasy aficionados. It refers to defenses that are simultaneously soft in one area and stout in another. The resulting effect is offenses often funnel action toward the path of least resistance.

With the first month in the books, it’s a good time to search for the funnel spots that may gain us a fantasy edge. Let’s begin with some pass funnels.

Pass funnels

Philadelphia Eagles

With a run defense grading sixth-best and allowing the fewest yards per game – and second-fewest per carry – the Eagles are not a team to hand off against. Similar to last season, when they were one of the league’s premiere pass funnel defenses, opponents are throwing against Philadelphia at the league’s highest rate. Nobody else is close. The Eagles’ defense is facing a 71.3% situation-neutral pass rate. The next highest is the Patriots’ 65.8% rate.

The discrepancy in pass versus run rate is even more notable considering the Eagles don’t have a terrible pass defense. They feature our second-best-graded pass rush and are tied for the ninth-most sacks (11). Opposing quarterbacks have the 19th-best passer rating, the 18th-highest yards per attempt, and are they are tied for the 15th-most passing touchdowns. Their cornerbacks have struggled more often than not, however, and losing excellent coverage safety Rodney McLeod is quietly a major loss.

Week 5: versus Minnesota Vikings

One week (and three days) after lighting up the Rams, Kirk Cousins will unleash Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs on the Eagles. They won’t need much funneling, as the Viking already pass at the highest situation-neutral rate (70 percent). Diggs, in particular, should feast while running a significant portion of his routes against perpetual burn victim Jalen Mills. Most of Thielen’s routes will come against Sidney Jones in the slot (65 percent). While Jones has shown promise, Mills is getting flambéed on a regular basis. Our second-worst-graded coverage cornerback is allowing a 118.7 passer rating while facing the sixth most targets at his position.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers don’t have a particularly imposing defense. They are best along a high-pedigreed defensive line, and their relative strength is run stopping – especially now that Reuben Foster is back. Their pass coverage grades third-worst and they are tied for the third-most passing touchdowns allowed. When Richard Sherman returns from a calf injury, the pass funnel becomes more concentrated. He has only been thrown at six times, and slot cornerback K’Waun Williams has held his own. With TE-eraser Jaquiski Tartt expected back this week, it narrows down who will be picked on.

San Francisco earned a positive run defense grade against the Chargers, and we can expect them to further stiffen as Foster shakes off rust. He was our fourth-highest-graded linebacker last year despite playing roughly half a season. However, Jimmy Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury should lead to more negative game scripts, and theoretically, more testing of the 49ers’ run defense.

Week 5: versus Arizona Cardinals

We probably don’t have to worry about hugely negative gamescripts this week, at least early on. If rookie first-rounder Josh Rosen is going to get an early-career boost, it will come in San Francisco on Sunday. The 49ers are allowing the sixth-most snaps per game (69.8), which might juice the Cardinals’ pathetic play volume (49.5). With Larry Fitzgerald up against Williams in the slot, and Ricky Seals-Jones getting a taste of Tartt, Rosen’s best bet is attacking the pillow-soft perimeter of Jimmie Ward and Ahkello Witherspoon – our 94th- and 108th-graded coverage cornerbacks.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints have faced one-and-a-half quarterbacks so far. Matt Ryan vaporized them with 374 yards and five touchdowns on only 26 completions. It came two weeks after Ryan Fitzpatrick got the high-flying 2018 season rolling with 417 yards and four touchdowns on only 21 completions. New Orleans faced an out-of-sorts Tyrod Taylor and an over-the-hill Eli Manning in their other two games, with both flopping. The two passers actually equipped to take advantage of the Saints’ sixth-worst-graded pass coverage had their way on minimal attempts.

Opponents throw against the Saints at only the 14th-highest situation-neutral rate, but will not slam their heads and running backs into a wall for long. New Orleans’ fourth-highest-graded run defense has yielded the fewest yards in total and on a per-carry basis (3.2). Meanwhile, their pass defense is allowing the most yards per attempt (9.6), the second-highest completion and touchdown percentage, and they have the fifth-lowest interception rate. Unless the goal is to chew clock while keeping Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara sidelined, there isn’t a great reason to hand off very often.

Week 5: versus Washington

Coming off of a bye, Alex Smith is in a great spot for fantasy production, and not only because the game will be played in the Superdome. Considering his 6.9-yard average depth of target (seventh-lowest), Smith is somewhat surprisingly tied with Brees for ninth in yards per attempt (8.0), which synchs well with a Saints defense allowing the most 20-plus-yard touchdowns and third-most fantasy points to quarterbacks. The matchup also shapes up nicely for pass-catching dynamo Chris Thompson, as it’s unlikely a hobbled Adrian Peterson achieves a successful revenge game against New Orleans’ run defense, and can easily fall victim to negative game script if the nearly-touchdown-favorite Saints seize control. With New Orleans allowing the most fantasy points to wide receivers, and the sixth-fewest to running backs, Thompson may slip under fantasy radars.

Houston Texans

The Texans had not been attacked like the pass funnel defense they are until last week. Through three games, only the Cardinals were run against at a higher situation-neutral rate (55 percent). On Sunday, the Colts threw at a 77% clip while the game was close, and they piled up 437 passing yards and 34 points. In Week 1, the Patriots (48% pass; fourth-lowest) only had three active wideouts. Then the Titans (Week-2-low 39% pass) started Blaine Gabbert, before the Giants (49% pass; seventh lowest) unleashed their turtle offense in Houston.

None of the Texans’ first three foes wanted to throw very much, but if they had, they would have discovered our second-worst-graded pass coverage makes for a smoother road to travel than the seventh-best-graded run defense. Houston is allowing the seventh-most yards per pass attempt (8.1) and the fourth-fewest yards per carry (3.5). Only three teams have a lower interception rate, only two defenses have allowed more passing touchdowns, and only two have allowed fewer rushing scores. Cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph (100th of 110 qualifiers) and Aaron Colvin (106th) barely fit on the coverage grade page, and the Texans even had beloved DFS moneymaker Shareece Wright play 80 snaps last week.

Week 5: versus Dallas Cowboys

Either the Cowboys are the cure for an ailing pass defense, or the doctor prescribed the Texans for a flaccid passing attack. It depends on your perspective. Considering Dallas is predisposed to hand off, for better or (mostly) worse, we are probably looking at a similar situation to what Houston faced the first three weeks. We need to see the Cowboys throw with volume before buying in, especially with their pass-catchers’ wide distribution of snaps. The Texans have been generous with fantasy points to tight ends, but it’s been mostly driven by volatile touchdown scoring. Putting a chip on Geoff Swaim is shaky, but fantasy tight ends who are both available and viable are rarer than a Dak Prescott 300-yard passing day.

Run funnels

Arizona Cardinals

So far this season, no team has faced a higher situation-neutral run rate than the Cardinals (55.3 percent). They are the only defense whose opponents have handed off against them more than half the time while games were within one score. It has been influenced, at least to a degree, by their competition: Washington (60% run rate; first), the Rams (39 percent; 20th), the Bears (46 percent; ninth), and the Seahawks (44 percent; 12th). Opponents also are likely unthreatened by a winless team with a Tecmo Bowl playbook, and are more apt to take a conservative approach.

Arizona has also faced the league’s most handoffs – 20 more than second-place Miami – because their run stopping is poor. Their 32nd-graded run defense allows a middling 4.0 yards per carry, in part due to knowing what’s coming as teams grind away leads. The Cardinals have the 13th-highest-graded pass coverage, which presents a funnel of its own: away from Patrick Peterson and toward perimeter piñata Jamar Taylor. Of course, Taylor is still the 52nd-most-targeted cornerback, as teams don’t often throw on the Cardinals. Not coincidentally, no one gives up more fantasy points to running backs.

Week 5: at San Francisco 49ers

In their first game without Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers didn’t go into a shell. They passed on 64.7% of their 34 situation-neutral snaps (11th highest) and nearly upset the Chargers. It was a surprising turn of events, as Los Angeles’ seventh-worst-graded run defense was theoretically a softer target than their 11th-graded pass rush and 15th-graded coverage. Entering Week 4, only three teams had faced a higher situation-neutral run rate than the Chargers. The Cardinals may present a logical run funnel, but Kyle Shanahan didn’t fall into one last week, making it tough to project the 49ers will take a run-heavy approach to Week 5. Still, playing Matt Breida, whose snap rate shot up to 63% last week, should cover most potential game plans and scripts – especially with backfield mate Alfred Morris’ snap rate declining each week this season.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills are being run on at the 13th-highest rate during neutral situations so far, although they have defended the fewest plays per game (15) while within one score. Their contests are usually blowouts, one way or the other (sorry, Vikings). The run rate will stabilize with more of a sample, and it will likely head higher. Buffalo’s run defense grades 18th, while they’ve earned the ninth-best pass rush and 11th-best coverage grades. It jibes with last season, when their run stopping and pass coverage marks diverged to an even greater degree.

With a toothless offense that’s averaging a ridiculous 9.3 yards to convert on third downs (hat-tip @LordReebs), is tied for fifth in turnovers, and is lapping the field in sacks taken (21), there is little incentive for Bills’ opponents to take the tougher road when they have the ball. Not only does facing Buffalo mean an offense is very likely to be pounding out a late-game lead on the ground, but chances are they will have established that lead with an elevated run rate. It probably doesn’t need to be said to start your running backs against the Bills, but start your running backs against the Bills.

Week 5: versus Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry has, at best, been wasting a bench spot so far. God bless whoever has been starting him. He’s currently tied – ironically with LeSean McCoy – for the 51st-highest-scoring PPR running back. Hold your nose and put him in this week’s lineup. The Titans will theoretically produce a Henry-friendly game script. Dion Lewis is tied for the 21st-highest-scoring PPR back, and has been used in a game-script-agnostic manner. Put him in this week’s lineup as well. The Titans have a narrow touch distribution, even if Henry is involved – and Corey Davis may have his hands full with Tre’Davious White. This shapes up as a backfield game for Tennessee.

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