Keys to Winning a Fantasy Championship: Part III of IV

Fantasy Football Strategy

Part III: Team Matchups and Run Defense

Fantasy Football 2015Last week, we talked about playing our stud fantasy wide receivers against top defenses. We learned that four defenses provide a truly intimidating challenge for even the best wideouts: Carolina, Denver, San Diego, and Arizona.

This week, we are going to switch gears and look at the running game.

Unlike defending wide receivers, which often comes down to a defensive back and a wideout matching up (except for the Lions’ having just given up a hailmary to the Packers – now there’s an example of a full team failure of pass defense), run defense is truly a team effort . Defenders are assigned specific gaps in the run game, and a good run defending team requires each defender to stay in their gap and make the tackle if called upon.

But we still have the same question. Which run defenses do we need to fear in fantasy football, if any? To answer this question, I’m going to use a similar approach to last week.

Identifying Dangerous Matchups for Running Backs

To refresh your memory, last week we looked at both fantasy points defense (i.e., fantasy points allowed to the wide receiver position) and the actual quality of defensive backs (using Pro Football Focus’ ratings of the top cornerbacks in the NFL).

This week, we will use the same two categories: fantasy points defense and actual quality of the defense. Fantasy points defense can be found the same way, by simply calculating average fantasy points per game allowed to the running back position for each team (remember we are using full PPR scoring for these examples). So let’s do that

Stingy RB Fantasy Defenses in 2015

Using ESPN’s data and quickly accounting for receptions, we find the top 10 NFL defenses against RBs as follows:

  1. Titans (17.0 PPG)
  2. Chiefs (18.0 PPG)
  3. Steelers (18.1 PPG)
  4. Seahawks (18.7 PPG)
  5. Jets (19.0 PPG)
  6. Vikings (19.2 PPG)
  7. Ravens (20.0 PPG)
  8. Buccaneers (21.0 PPG)
  9. Packers (21.3 PPG)
  10. Panthers (21.6 PPG)

Next, we need to find a measure of rush defense quality. Pro Football Focus ratings for defensive linemen or linebackers won’t help us, because like we said before, run defense is truly a team effort.

Stingy NFL Rushing Defenses in 2015

We are once again fortunate to be able to leverage some fantastic free work done by another website. Football Outsiders provides us with what is called ‘Defense-adjusted Value Over Average‘ ratings for rush defense (click the second link I provided in this sentence to learn more about what that analysis entails – it’s really cool stuff). Here are the top 10 rush defenses according to Football Outsiders:

  1. Jets
  2. Buccaneers
  3. Panthers
  4. Jaguars
  5. Rams
  6. Broncos
  7. Cardinals
  8. Chiefs
  9. Steelers
  10. Bengals

And now, like last week, let’s cross reference the lists.

Combining The Lists

If a team is both proficient at real-life run defense AND allows a relatively small amount of points to running backs, we can infer that they are a very tough defense to start a running back against in fantasy football, right? Just like last week, we end up with five teams:

 Kansas City Chiefs

 Pittsburgh Steelers

 New York Jets

 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

 Carolina Panthers

Finally, we are going to test our theory by seeing how the elite RBs have stacked up against these defenses in 2015. Were they actually stingy?

But first, let’s talk about something you may be wondering: why aren’t these lists more strongly correlated? The big reason is the receiving game for RBs. The best example is the Denver Broncos, who despite owning Football Outsiders’ #6 ranking, are actually ranked just 24th in fantasy points per game to running backs. Running backs have been targeted in the passing game a whopping 104 times by opposing offenses against the Broncos this season, which is about 25% more than the NFL average of 76 targets.

Testing The Theory

My 2015 elite fantasy running back list is shorter than the WR list from last week. There’s quite a shortage of quality RBs this year:

NFC: Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Devonta Freeman, Mark Ingram, Doug Martin, Todd Gurley

AFC: LeVeon Bell, DeAngelo Williams (only in games he actually started), Chris Ivory, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, Dion Lewis

Results

And now, how did these RBs stack up against the five defense we’ve identified? (Chiefs, Steelers, Jets, Bucs, Panthers)

Conclusion #1: Elite RBs are mostly matchup proof.

Through eleven weeks of the season, the elite RBs identified above did battle with these five defense a total of ten times:

  • In these matchups, the elite RBs scored above their season average half the time (5 out of 10 matchups).
  • Only one of the ten matchups yielded a ‘dud’ game (i.e., fewer than 10 full PPR fantasy points).
  • The elite RBs eclipsed 20 fantasy points in four of the ten matchups.

Think about this for a moment, and it makes sense for the same reason that our two lists (Football Outsiders and fantasy points allowed) didn’t correlate: Elite RBs score points in both the rushing and receiving game. This is very important, as it shows that you really don’t have to worry about your top RBs battling a tough defense. Most of the time, they will find a way to get their fantasy points.

Conclusion #2: The notion that excellent defensive lines translate to excellent running back defense is simply untrue.

Quick, think about the NFL teams with ‘elite’ defense lines. The Rams? Texans? Seahawks? Broncos? None of these teams are on our list, and even if they were, you can see that our list doesn’t actually translate to shutting down elite fantasy running backs! This little numbers experiment is just further proof that run defense is a team effort and you can’t simply say ‘they have X and Y awesome defensive linemen, so it will be hard to run the ball’.

Conclusion #3: RBs that aren’t involved in the passing game are vulnerable.

I mentioned above that there was just one dud game by an elite RB against one of these five defenses, and it was by Adrian Peterson against the Chiefs, who held him to just 6.7 fantasy points. All of the other RBs on the list are generally heavily involved in their respective passing games.

Summary

Let’s recap:

  • Elite RBs who are involved in the passing game are generally matchup proof. Ones that are not involved in the passing game are vulnerable to an off day in fantasy.
  • Elite defensive linemen or other elite defenders do not translate to elite run defense, which is counter to last week’s conclusions about defending wide receivers.

If you have a guy like Adrian Peterson, you obviously aren’t going to bench him; however, if he’s battling an elite run defense, you can assume that his chances of an off day are higher than normal, and you should consider adding more risk/reward into your lineup than you would normally.

Next week is playoff time, where we will combine each of the previous articles (weather, pass defense, run defense) to create a fantasy playoff barometer. I will also go over some miscellaneous thoughts and observations.

Good luck in the final week of the regular season! Hopefully you didn’t play against Richard Rodgers.

About the author

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John Raleigh

Jack’s undying love for football dates back to his earliest days: bravely sporting Green Bay Packers attire in his hometown of Minneapolis, MN, while playing football every day after – and drawing plays on his notebooks during – school. After five years as a U.S. Naval officer, Jack has become a nuclear engineer for the Department of Energy by day and an aspiring football mind by night. Jack’s interests include fantasy football (both standard and daily leagues), weekly NFL point spreads, and the NFL draft. A steady advocate of data-driven predictions, Jack leverages his technical background to compile and analyze large football data sets, highlighted by an Excel spreadsheet of every single NFL draft pick since 1965. Jack can also be found drawing coverage away from fellow author Brian Jester in flag football leagues on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

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