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Top 5 Passing Matchups
San Francisco vs Seattle
The 49ers offense continues to underachieve on the limited arm of Jimmy Garoppolo. There’s no telling how Trey Lance would fare under center right now, but this attack does sputter when Garoppolo is forced to create too much with his arm. It was at least encouraging to see him lean on talented weapons Deebo Samuel and George Kittle for clutch completions on their final drive. Samuel has been sensational to open the year, with 334 yards on a 31% target share, and his versatile skill set is key for coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Kittle broke out of his shell Sunday with a 39-yard catch-and-run that may have kickstarted one of his multi-week hot stretches. Beyond them, production is spotty in this run-first offense, especially while Brandon Aiyuk bounces in and out of the game plan. But all involved parties match up nicely in a soft date with the Seahawks, so just about everyone is fantasy-relevant.
The Seahawks are simply overdue for a talent injection into their pass defense. This is virtually the same group that was scorched throughout 2020 for 301 yards a game, and little has changed to open 2021. They’ve given up an average of 307 thus far, with opposing passers completing 75% of their throws. That shows a unit that’s devoted to allowing gobs of completions on the short and intermediate levels in the hopes of erasing the deep ball. To a degree, that’s worked out well, with just 4 deep completions (15+ yards downfield) allowed thus far. But cornerbacks Tre Flowers and D.J. Reed are deficient when asked to cover, and talented wide receivers like Julio Jones (6 for 128) and Justin Jefferson (9 for 118 and 1 touchdown) have found the cracks and taken advantage. There’s not much safety help downfield, with Jamal Adams focused more on box support and shadowing tight ends. The 49ers aren’t a downfield-oriented team, but coach Kyle Shanahan will surely adapt to take advantage of this passive matchup.
Atlanta vs Washington
The Falcons passing attack has been on a steady downward trend for years, and it’s now fair to wonder whether there’s any dynamism left. Matt Ryan is completing 71% of his throws but producing just 6.0 yards apiece, with just 4 touchdowns. Last year Calvin Ridley tied for the league lead in long receptions (20+ yards); here in 2021, he’s averaging 8.8 yards a catch. This is a high-volume attack, frequently battling in fast-paced games and almost always trailing, so there’s always a strong floor here. Ryan will almost always be the offensive catalyst, while Ridley and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts always project well with that volume. Pitts in particular looks poised for a breakout as his usage bounces up and down from week to week. But as we’re seeing in Pittsburgh, the quarterback is aging sharply behind a line that’s fallen apart (down to 22nd in Matt Bitonti’s rankings), which will always hinder upside. At least there’s another struggling pass defense on tap to help Ryan and company take advantage of their volume.
The Football Team entered 2021 with ample buzz about its rebuilt defense, but early returns have not been strong. Josh Allen (358 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Justin Herbert (337 yards and 1) have found little trouble producing in this matchup, and 5 different pass-catchers have topped 80 yards already. Matt Ryan doesn’t appear himself, but he’s fully capable of exploiting these kinds of lapses, and Calvin Ridley projects to his inevitable 2021 breakout here as well. There is real excitement around the new Washington cornerback trio of William Jackson III, Kendall Fuller, and Benjamin St-Juste, but they’ve been picked on heavily and now wear targets on their backs. Allen put on a demonstration last Sunday in pressing this shaky unit down the field (and nearly always winning). Top wideouts Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Emmanuel Sanders, combined to catch 22 of their 29 targets for 254 yards and 2 of those touchdowns. The Falcons should be able to spread the field similarly and create all the yardage they need.
Buffalo vs Houston
The Bills got their potent passing game on track in Week 3, with Josh Allen shredding Washington’s talented defense for 358 yards and 4 touchdowns. Allen’s cannon arm was on display as he consistently found and hit tough windows downfield; it’s safe to assume this attack has picked up where it left off in the playoffs. Allen was able to get several of his weapons involved, with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Emmanuel Sanders combining to catch 22 balls for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns. Diggs still leads the way here, but Sanders’ Week 3 performance was the most eye-opening as the 34-year-old caught a pair of touchdowns. Sanders showed veteran savvy on his two red-zone throws and looks to have left Gabriel Davis in the dust as the No. 3 option. On some weeks he’ll be the No. 2, as Beasley is more of a situational specialist in this suddenly stacked offense.
The Texans’ problems don’t stop with their flailing offense; the defense still can’t seem to stop anyone through the air. This was one of 2020’s most porous groups, and it’s allowed its first three opponents of 2021 to throw effectively for as long as they’ve had to. Last Thursday night was the worst of the bunch, as Carolina’s Sam Darnold looked energized and confident en route to a too-easy 304 yards. The Texans’ goal is to paper over the secondary’s deficiencies by keeping the cover men back deep, which may help matters but would continue to allow completions in bulk. They’ve more or less given up on asking Vernon Hargreaves III and Tremon Smith to engage in shutdown coverage. Regular starter Terrance Mitchell may return this week from a concussion, but he’d be no deterrent. D.J. Moore exploited numerous holes in the short and intermediate ranges Sunday, and the Texans have few ways to stop Stefon Diggs and company from doing the same.
Cincinnati vs Jacksonville
The Bengals continue to monitor and even limit Joe Burrow’s exposure to live play as he works back from ACL surgery. He’s thrown just 25 per game, good for 25th among quarterbacks who have started all three weeks. But in Week 4, he’ll likely have no choice but to cut loose whenever possible against the Jaguars’ pitiful defense. All Jacksonville opponents have found success through the air thus far, and Burrow certainly boasts the surrounding talent to keep the run alive. Tee Higgins remains on the shelf, but Ja'Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd proved more than capable of propping up this attack against the Steelers. Boyd was his usual dependable self out of the slot, while Chase continues to dominate having scored a touchdown in every game this season. Those two dominate the pecking order right now, so an increase in volume would send their fantasy ceilings to the moon. The same goes for Burrow, who’s still learning but did top 300 yards in 5 of his 9 full games as a rookie.
The Jaguars continue to overhaul their young defense while already in the midst of an overhaul. They can’t seem to settle on personnel, having just dealt cornerback C.J. Henderson to the Panthers on Monday, just 17 months after making him the No. 9 pick. Henderson may not have fit well into Jacksonville’s scheme, but it’s hard to see where the league’s worst secondary goes from here. Neither Tyrod Taylor, Teddy Bridgewater, nor Kyler Murray has had to throw much (just 34 attempts per game) to average 312 yards. They’ve also allowed 4 different wideouts to top 100 yards, losing consistently to just about anyone able to hit the secondary. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin does not look like the rising star he once did, and Chris Claybrooks continues to earn heavy snaps despite being one of the game’s weakest over the past two years. Rookie Tyson Campbell has potential both inside and out, but has been targeted and beaten heavily in the early going. There isn’t much help from the safeties, and there’s not much of a pass rush to speak of, leaving these subpar cover men on islands far too often. It makes for an ideal launching pad for Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow as he rounds back to full usage.
Carolina at Dallas
The Panthers have to be thrilled with their early returns on Sam Darnold. Separated from Adam Gase and given a handful of dynamic receivers, Darnold has cleared 300 yards in 2 of his 3 games in coordinator Joe Brady’s attack. Brady’s goal is to spread the field and use every inch of it, so he’s been stocked with several explosive open-field weapons. With catalyst Christian McCaffrey out, Darnold has wisely locked onto the explosive D.J. Moore, who continues to win on all levels of the field. A true ball hog now, Moore has taken on a % target share and averaged 95 yards a game since McCaffrey’s injury. He posted 8 for 126 just last Sunday and just missed on a 51-yard touchdown. Curiously, Darnold has paid little attention to Robby Anderson, his former locked-in teammate with the Jets. Anderson has turned in just 103 yards on 11 targets (tied for fourth-most on the team). The gap between him and Moore should start to swing back at least a little – Anderson is still running his routes and getting open, after all. But Moore remains the offensive focal point without McCaffrey and a dynamic one at that.
The Cowboys’ beleaguered pass defense played a relatively strong game Monday night in crushing Jalen Hurts and the Eagles, who only really produced in garbage time. Still, this remains a porous unit that’s beaten up far more often than it’s not. Prior to working over the reeling Eagles, they’d allowed Tom Brady and Justin Herbert (a combined 717 yards and 5 touchdowns) to take virtually whatever they wanted. Cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis continue to wear targets as major liabilities down the field, and the safeties offer little help. The team has whiffed repeatedly at the safety spot in recent offseasons, and swapping Xavier Woods for Damontae Kazee was a lateral move at best. It must be noted that Trevon Diggs is a bright young cornerback, and his solo work against Eagles rookie DeVonta Smith Monday night was impressive. But he’s inconsistent, and he’s not enough to paper over the many holes in this secondary, nor the lack of a pass rush. Diggs himself was shown up in Week 2 against the Chargers; he’s still a long way from a shutdown guy. Monday night aside, this is still one of fantasy’s most targetable matchups.
Bottom 5 Passing Matchups
Arizona at LA Rams
The Cardinals’ high-octane offense is starting to blossom fully under coach Kliff Kingsbury. With Kyler Murray under center, this is a fast, potent attack that can strike on all levels of the field. DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, and A.J. Green are all adept at working their way open, and Murray is able to extend plays to impossible degrees while they do. It also strikes horizontally, making all those guys plus Rondale Moore and scatback Chase Edmonds dynamic options in the open field. Murray has averaged 335 yards and thrown 7 touchdowns thus far, to say nothing of the fantasy value he adds with his legs. Hopkins is still nursing sore ribs and was more or less a decoy last week, giving Green new life as he syncs with Murray down the field. He’s drawn 6 targets in each game thus far and registered chunk plays of 36, 34, and 29 yards. In almost any other matchup, this is an offense to target weekly with confidence. The concern is that a date with the suffocating Rams halts that momentum and caps their upside for a week.
The Rams are on the shortlist of defenses capable of keeping up with the Cardinals right now. As we saw Sunday, it generally takes mega-volume game flow to post big numbers against this swarming unit. Tom Brady racked up 432 yards, but he needed 55 attempts and found the end zone just once. He spent much of the day checking down to his backs, tight ends, and slot men, as testing the Rams deep down the field is often a fool’s game. That’s a common thread in this matchup – over the first 2 weeks, the Bears and Colts generated just 6.4 yards per attempt (with a single touchdown). Jalen Ramsey is a lockdown force that the team uses as a chess piece, moving him around the formation to maximize his matchup on every snap. That makes it harder to track whom he’ll cover, but Ramsey puts a dent in any matchup regardless. He’s propped up by a strong supporting cast of emerging youngsters that fit coordinator Raheem Morris’ scheme nicely. And it’s always a boon to have Aaron Donald, who notched four pressures and a forced fumble of Brady, pushing the issue up front. The Cardinals should have volume and pace on their side Sunday, but efficiency is always hard to come by in this matchup.
Houston at Buffalo
The Texans’ rebuilding offense is currently a one-man showcase for Brandin Cooks, one of the NFL’s least-respected stars. All Cooks has done is average 1,178 yards and 6.7 touchdowns per 17 games while bouncing across 4 rosters since 2015. Through three weeks in this stripped-down attack, he not only leads the way in targets (32) – he’s the only Texan in double digits. Cooks has looked just as explosive as ever, both on deep balls and in the open field, and he continues to produce even with shaky rookie Davis Mills under center. Mills has shown little ability to push the ball anywhere else, especially with a crumbling line that consistently keeps him in panic mode. No. 2 wideout Anthony Miller and the tight ends are just situational options for quick throws under the defense.
The Bills haven’t faced a tough slate of passers to this point in Ben Roethlisberger, Jacoby Brissett, and Taylor Heinicke. But they deserve credit for stifling all three as expected, giving up just 5.8 yards per attempt and 194 a game. Apart from a 73-yard dump-off to Antonio Gibson, Heinicke managed just 139 yards and struggled to push the ball downfield at all last Sunday. The star here is cornerback Tre’Davious White, who tends to follow (and often erase) the opposing No. 1 wideout across the formation. White spent much of Week 3 on Terry McLaurin and allowed only one catch that truly mattered, deep into garbage time. As usual, White gets strong support from safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, both of whom can be disruptive when tested down the field. The Bills have yet to allow a pass-catcher to top 62 yards, so the odds are stacked against Texans volume-hog Brandin Cooks. He’s the only noteworthy fantasy option in Houston, and he’ll spend most of his Sunday in White’s orbit.
NY Giants at New Orleans
The Giants offense has lumbered through an uninspiring start to the season, particularly through the air. Daniel Jones is avoiding head-scratching turnovers, but refusing to take chances down the field, which has badly hampered his receivers’ fantasy value. To be fair, Jones doesn’t deserve all the blame as he works behind Matt Bitonti’s 29th-ranked offensive line. But he’s thrown downfield (15+ yards) on just 16% of his throws, lowest among all regular starters, which doesn’t bode well for the likes of Kenny Golladay and Darius Slayton. The outside duo has combined to turn their 18 receptions into 293 yards, though the top producer thus far is again slot specialist Sterling Shepard. If Shepard can’t shake his hamstring injury by Sunday, gadget rookie Kadarius Toney may actually start inside, but the more likely beneficiary would be tight end Evan Engram. Toney is raw at the finer points of the slot position (or any fixed wideout spot), while Engram has a history of dominating targets inside.
The Saints pass defense has actually been one of football’s stingiest for much of the past two years. They lapsed in Week 2 as the whole team crumbled in an avalanche-type loss, but it must be noted that came without star cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The three-time Pro Bowler returned Sunday to help smother Patriots rookie Mac Jones into just 5.3 yards per throw and 1 touchdown to 3 picks. It was a group effort, though, showing off the contributions of safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams. If there’s a weaker link here, it’s rookie Paulson Adebo across from Lattimore. He was victimized most often by Sam Darnold and the Panthers in Week 2, and the Giants could scheme Kenny Golladay against him on the outside to some success. Still, this is a deep group that helps well down the field. Williams has quietly developed into one of the game’s best, and Jenkins remains a notable presence when teams test the middle of the field. On Sunday, Jenkins capitalized on a batted ball to find the end zone and break open the Saints’ win in the second half. Even if his weapons were healthy, it would be hard to find weak spots for Daniel Jones to attack with confidence.
Baltimore at Denver
The Ravens have to be annoyed after taking one step forward, but one right back through the air last Sunday. A struggling Lamar Jackson was able to hit on a handful of big throws, but a few more were missed as Marquise Brown and Sammy Watkins managed to drop at least three sure-fire touchdowns. Mark Andrews didn’t disappoint, registering 109 yards on 5 catches and cementing his status as the backbone of this passing game. If nothing else, it was encouraging to see things open up again and to know that it could’ve easily wound up the biggest day of Jackson’s career. But it was also an illustration of just how wildly inconsistent this attack is. Jackson isn’t so surgical every Sunday, and they won’t face the pitiful Lions defense anymore this year. Brown, Watkins, and Andrews make up the overwhelming bulk of this unit, and they’ll be hard-pressed to slash through this Broncos secondary with the same ease.
The Broncos have yet to face a strong passer here in 2021, opening the year against Daniel Jones, Trevor Lawrence, and Zach Wilson. But they’ve effectively shut down all three, giving up just 5.2 yards per attempt and 182 a game thus far. Those are numbers that should scare fantasy managers away from this matchup wherever necessary. It all starts up front, where a deep and versatile pass-rush crew is filling in nicely for the injured Bradley Chubb. Von Miller looks ageless and still fully capable of corrupting an offensive gameplan, while the powerful front line focuses on pushing the pocket inside. And it’s no surprise that the Vic Fangio-led Broncos have smothered outside receivers to open the year, a trait that follows Fangio back a decade or more. This defense may give up some token production inside, but the boundaries are walled off by an imposing secondary. Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II, and Bryce Callahan make up arguably the league’s best cornerback trio; what’s amazing is that typical starter Ronald Darby is on injured reserve at the moment. They all boast the speed, quick hips, and aggressiveness to put pressure on opposing attacks. They’re supported by elite safety play from Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons, both of whom provide strong coverage help. It’s a unit that’s fully capable of shutting down whatever Lamar Jackson throws at it, capping the Ravens’ upside through the air. Jackson will likely need heavy volume to produce anything fantasy-worthy in this daunting matchup.
Las Vegas at LA Chargers
The Raiders continue to outlast opponents in long, twisted slugfests, winning the "big plays when it matters most" battle in all three games to open the year. They’ve actually played so much overtime that it skews their per-game stats, but even when prorated over four quarters, Derek Carr has averaged 356 yards and thrown 6 touchdowns. He’s even throwing downfield more often and more effectively than ever, hitting on 16 of his 34 deep throws (15+ yards) thus far. Still, Carr remains oriented toward the short ball, preferring the security of Darren Waller and slot specialist Hunter Renfrow over testing defenses deep. Waller always deserves top-level tight end consideration, but little else is obvious in this crowded receiving corps. It doesn’t help, of course, that the Raiders front line has deteriorated so fast from its heights of 2016-17. Footballguys’ Matt Bitonti ranks them solidly in the league’s bottom tier through three weeks. Speedsters Henry Ruggs III (21.5 yards per catch) and Bryan Edwards (21.0) are there to make splash plays but aren’t always part of Carr’s immediate plans. On many weeks his only projectable path to big yardage is through high pace and volume, which is never guaranteed.
The Chargers pass defense remains one of the game’s stingiest, remarkably weathering one personnel storm after another. They’re giving up just 211 yards per game thus far, showing well against both Patrick Mahomes II and Dak Prescott in recent weeks. The team’s strong scouting and overall patience have been rewarded with a deep and talented core of defenders. Derwin James is finally healthy and still looks like one of the game’s most dynamic safeties. James is aggressive on the ball downfield and more than capable of sliding inside to cover the slot in man. With James in the slot, flanked by ascending stars Michael Davis and Asante Samuel Jr, this is a tough secondary to poke holes in. Neither Tyreek Hill (5 catches for 56 yards), CeeDee Lamb (8 for 81), nor Amari Cooper (3 for 24) has been able to exploit much in this matchup over the past 2 weeks. The only pass-catcher to truly get the best of this group was Travis Kelce (7 for 104) last week, but that’s hardly a crime. Overall, this is still a stout unit that hasn’t allowed 300+ yards since Week 5 of last season and shouldn’t be tested in fantasy circles.
|Week 4 Passing Chart|
|San Francisco||vs Seattle||Great|
|New Orleans||vs NY Giants||Good|
|Philadelphia||vs Kansas City||Good|
|Green Bay||vs Pittsburgh||Good|
|New England||vs Tampa Bay||Good|
|NY Jets||vs Tennessee||Good|
|Seattle||at San Francisco||Neutral|
|LA Chargers||vs Las Vegas||Neutral|
|Kansas City||at Philadelphia||Neutral|
|Tennessee||at NY Jets||Tough|
|Pittsburgh||at Green Bay||Tough|
|LA Rams||vs Arizona||Tough|
|Tampa Bay||at New England||Tough|
|Las Vegas||at LA Chargers||Bad|
|NY Giants||at New Orleans||Bad|
|Arizona||at LA Rams||Bad|