TOP 5 PASSING MATCHUPS WEEK 18
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Baltimore at Tennessee
The Ravens haven’t offered the same fantasy-dominant firepower as in 2019. Still, this is an attack rooted in dynamic, instinctive playmakers capable of big things on every dropback. Lamar Jackson is still refining his reads and accuracy; he dipped this year in completion rate, touchdown rate, and turnover rate. But he’s always looking for a downfield play to make, and he throws to a handful of mismatch-type targets that win their one-on-one battles. Wideout Marquise Brown has struggled in recent weeks with drops, but his speed is a lethal weapon for this offense, and they’re unafraid to wield it. Brown can score on deep balls as he dropped a wide-open touchdown last week. Tight end Mark Andrews usually paces the group, and the converted wideout has posted 60+ yards in five of his last six games. The wild card is typically Miles Boykin, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who excels on go routes and jump balls. With the Tennessee defense so weak over the middle, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Boykin break out with a few splash plays up the seams.
The Titans pass defense has flailed badly for much of the season, sitting 29th in yardage allowed and dead-last in touchdowns. But it’s been especially putrid over the past three games, allowing opponents to complete 75% of their throws at 8.5 yards apiece, with 8 scores along the way. Much of the blame lies with the nonexistent pass rush, which has failed all year to put any meaningful pressure on the quarterback. They’ve hurried passers at the league’s fourth-lowest rate; only the Bengals and Jaguars produced fewer sacks than their 19. As a result, the Tennessee secondary - which actually took a small step forward over the course of the season - winds up overburdened down the field. Over the past 3 weeks they’ve been shredded by high-volume No. 1 wideouts in Marvin Jones (10 for 112 and a touchdown), Davante Adams (11 for 142 and 3), and Brandin Cooks (11 for 166 and 2). Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and Desmond King make for a fine cornerback trio but can only do so much when forced to chase elite receivers through the secondary for 60 minutes. And there’s little help from the safeties, with starters Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro still struggling mightily in coverage. Perhaps coach Mike Vrabel will see to getting dime safety Amani Hooker more action; he’s been a bright spot as a playmaker in centerfield coverage. But overall, this stands as one of Lamar Jackson’s friendlier matchups of the season. The Ravens don’t generally gain significant yardage through the air, but they’re set up for big efficiency in this matchup.
Buffalo vs Indianapolis
The Bills and Josh Allen have shocked the world by muscling into the playoffs on the strength of a potent air attack. Allen finished 2020 as a legitimate MVP candidate, He boosted his completion rate from last year’s 59% to 69%, while his efficiency swelled and his turnover rates tumbled. It’s safe to say new No. 1 wideout Stefon Diggs is agreeable to the young passer: the pair. Allen will likely be without slot playmaker Cole Beasley this weekend, but perhaps new signee Kenny Stills will acclimate quickly and chip in a share of the snaps. Either way, Allen will have a strong slate of targets to work with. Diggs and John Brown are useful all over the field, and neither makes for an easy cover. Even as the clear No. 2, Brown has posted 72+ yards in each of his last 3 healthy games. Explosive rookie Gabriel Davis is also in the mix, a big-bodied playmaker who put up 17.1 yards per catch and scored on 7 of his 35 receptions.
The Colts pass defense opened 2020 on a dominant tear, sitting fifth in per-attempt yardage and second in touchdowns allowed through Week 10. They plummeted, however, over the final seven weeks, all the way down to 26th and 23rd respectively. The Week 16 collapse against the Steelers was the most obvious, public display of their drop-off, but this unit has struggled on all levels for roughly two months. At this point, this stands as a fully targetable matchup for fantasy purposes. They allowed 5 of those 7 opponents to produce 311+ yards, and they let five of them throw multiple scores. It’s been encouraging to see the bounce-back of top cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who’s been largely outstanding in his change of scenery. But there are concerns in the secondary as corners T.J. Carrie and Rock Ya-Sin have been exposed for a number of big plays over this stretch. The secondary isn’t deep, and Rhodes’ strong play may not be enough to paper over all the holes here. Opposing wideouts continue to work their way open downfield against the Colts, from the likes of Davante Adams and A.J. Brown to names like Chad Hansen, Keke Coutee, and Chris Conley. It would be an upset to see Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs disappoint fantasy managers in this home matchup.
Washington vs Tampa Bay
The Football Team has offered one of the league’s weakest air attacks throughout the year. They closed out 2020 sitting 30th in net yardage (factoring in sacks), 25th in raw yards, and 28th in passing touchdowns. And they’ll enter this game in quarterback turmoil, with Alex Smith struggling just to move and Taylor Heinicke likely to see at least some snaps. The real draw here is electric wideout Terry McLaurin, who’s shown the ability to produce regardless of who’s under center. If Smith is able to play at full blast, McLaurin shouldn’t have any trouble drawing volume - he commanded 25% of Smith’s targets from Week 10 on. And with so many potential holes in the Tampa Bay defense, he’ll be in a prime position to spin that volume into fantasy gold.
The Buccaneers pass defense, dominant for much of the 2020 season, closed the home stretch on an extremely rough note. Three of their last five opponents topped 350 yards through the air, with their starting wideouts averaging 114 themselves. This unit does boast a standout in cornerback Jamel Dean, who was up-and-down throughout the year but routinely flashed shutdown ability. Still, Dean isn’t immune to a shaky performance, and he has little coverage help around him. Perhaps the most glaring hole lies in the slot, where the team has rotated cover men to no avail. If fellow starter Carlton Davis can’t suit up then a relatively thin secondary gets even thinner. There are already personnel concerns up front, where playmaking linebacker Devin White is expected to sit out on the COVID-19 list. White remains a work in progress overall, but he makes his presence felt as a pass-rusher (16 quarterback hits, 9.0 sacks). On the whole, this is a difficult unit to assess with such incomplete injury information. But even when healthy, they run hot-and-cold and productivity is always in play in this matchup. The Football Team doesn’t offer a particularly potent air attack, but their few downfield weapons (namely Terry McLaurin) project to success against this patchwork group.
LA Rams at Seattle
The Rams now look likely to have Jared Goff under center this weekend, obviously a major plus for this offense. Goff is working through a thumb fracture, which can't be easy. But he brings more to the table than John Wolford, whose Week 17 gimmick was his running ability. Goff isn't perfect by any means, but he's surrounded by ample talent and frequently produces well against subpar pass defenses (including these Seahawks in Week 10). The rest of this unit is getting healthy, as top wideout Cooper Kupp (COVID) and left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) are also on track to return. Goff is at his best when the defensive pressure is turned off and he's able to let Kupp, Robert Woods, and his tight ends create room in the secondary by using the whole horizontal field. If nothing else, that's a great way to beat this depleted Seattle pass defense, so Goff's outlook will take on a big boost if he can indeed go.
The Seahawks pass defense opened the season in such dreadful fashion as they sat 28th in per-attempt pass defense after Week 11. Since Week 11, they more or less regrouped into a passable unit down the stretch, giving up just 210 yards a game from Week 12 on. But it must be noted what weak offensive competition they faced over the season’s final two months. Those marks are less impressive once we consider they closed the year against Carson Wentz, Colt McCoy, Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins, Jared Goff, and C.J. Beathard, in order. As a result, it’s still fair to treat this unit as a generous one for fantasy purposes. Top cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and D.J. Reed are subpar in coverage on the outside, and slot specialist Ugo Amadi has graded poorly inside. They’ll find themselves in even worse shape if Jamal Adams can’t suit up. The star safety left Week 17 with an injured shoulder, and coach Pete Carroll hasn’t been forthcoming about his status. Adams hasn’t turned many heads in his debut season in Seattle, but his absence would be felt on the back end. The Rams will be much more inclined to test these shaky cornerbacks downfield and on the edges without the threat of Adams’ ball-attacking game. Goff didn’t fare well in this matchup two weeks ago (24 of 43 for 234 yards, with an interception), but was exceptional back in Week 10 (27 of 37 for 32). Even if he can’t go, the Rams’ receivers make for instant mismatches against this lower-tier Seattle unit.
Indianapolis vs Buffalo
The Colts banked their 2020 hopes on Philip Rivers being just enough of a quarterback upgrade to take the next step, and it's hard to argue with the result. They're back in the playoffs, with Rivers just a bit more capable of a passer than Jacoby Brissett was. And while the Colts remain a run-first team, preferring to grind things out on the ground, Rivers is wholly capable of using his weapons. TY Hilton remains dependable all over the field, and he bounced back from an invisible start to the season to notch 60+ yards in five of his last six games. Rookie Michael Pittman made his share of plays down the stretch, while a handful of situational reserves rotate in as well. Perhaps the safest bet for volume, though, is running back Nyheim Hines, who is invaluable to the checkdown-happy Rivers. In on most third-down and hurry-up snaps, Hines registered 3+ receptions in 12 of his 16 games.
The Bills have fielded an extremely up and down pass defense here in 2020. They've routinely followed up strong performances with weak ones, and vice versa, making this an ambiguous matchup to dissect. It's hard to take many lessons away from last week's thrashing of the Dolphins, but overall, seven of their 16 opponents cleared 300 yards through the air. This unit boasts a world-class cover man in TreDavious White, but little else in the secondary, leaving holes for opposing passers to pick through. White's presence is always a factor in this matchup as he's often dominant, and he tends to follow stronger receivers around the formation. But fellow starters Josh Norman and Levi Wallace have been shaky throughout the year; either can be beaten on any level of the field. Also, this unit has been exploited several times by backs and tight ends, which plays right into the short-armed Philip Rivers' wheelhouse. All told, it's probably fair to temper one's expectations for top Colts wideout T.Y. Hilton, who will draw most of White's attention. But the Colts' other weapons are in a decent position to overachieve this weekend.