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Top 5 Passing Matchups
Buffalo at Kansas City
The Bills’ explosive offense has officially awoken, hitting on the big plays that were oh-so-close over the season’s slow first two weeks. Josh Allen has completed 72% of his throws over the past two, averaging 303 yards and throwing 6 touchdowns along the way. He now gears up for his third weak pass defense in a row, and his wideouts face soft matchups in the Kansas City secondary. Stefon Diggs keeps winning on all levels of the field, while Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley help keep plays alive out of the slot, and all three have been productive for chunks of the young season. Diggs remains the alpha with a 26% target share, but this is a diverse attack, and even forgotten tight end Dawson Knox has worked his way into relevance. Knox is quick-footed and big-framed near the goal line; last week he drew a stunning 6 targets from inside the Houston 25, scoring on 2 of them.
The Chiefs, with their dynamic, track-meet offense in place, can outscore most teams on most days. But they surely hate having to dip into that skill every week as the defense continues to flounder. All 4 opponents thus far have scored 29+ points, and it’s no secret why: the Chiefs’ shaky secondary can be and has been attacked relentlessly. Opposing passers have averaged 8.8 yards per throw and 307 per game, including Jalen Hurts’ too-easy 387 last Sunday. This is a streaky group even when it’s healthy, and with cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton both out last week, the Eagles had little trouble winning down the field. Mike Hughes, who flamed out badly as a first-round pick of the Vikings, has yet to prove himself a reclamation project when pressed into action. De’Vonta Smith racked up 70 of his 122 yards by outworking Hughes to the ball. Most importantly, top cover man L’Jarius Sneed has struggled to follow up an impressive rookie 2020. This will always be an aggressive, go-for-broke unit, and on some weeks the pass rush will hit home and make life easier for this secondary. But on most, they’ll find themselves pulled into shootouts that trade off one splash play for another. And few passers offer more dynamism to exploit this matchup than Josh Allen.
Tennessee at Jacksonville
The Titans pass game currently sits in a holding pattern. There's no indication yet as to whether stud wideouts A.J. Brown and Julio Jones will be back in action Sunday. Both sat out last week's lost to the Jets with hamstring injuries, and neither looked like a particularly close call, so it's safer to assume they won't be available. However, even with both stars on the shelf, the Titans can still do damage in such a forgiving matchup. There aren't many scenarios in which a fantasy manager would target a Nick Westbrook-Ikhine or an Anthony Firkser, but a date with the Jaguars makes it perfectly viable. After all, Ryan Tannehill completed 30 of his 49 throws Sunday, racking up 298 yards in the process. If Brown and Jones can suit up after all, they (and Tannehill) will be top-tier fantasy plays for the week. They’ve combined to draw 41% of team targets when healthy, a number that's actually low considering the talent stranglehold they have on the offense.
The Jaguars still field the league’s worst all-around pass defenses and still make for fantasy’s most tempting matchup. They’ve allowed 290+ yards through the air in all 4 games thus far, with 6 different receivers all notching 95+ on their own. In fact, at least one receiver has topped 90 against this unit in 17 straight matchups dating well into last season. And the personnel have only deteriorated since, with the team giving up on former top pick C.J. Henderson despite a complete lack of a replacement option. Tre Herndon, Shaquill Griffin, and rookie Tyson Campbell continue to struggle mightily; at least the woeful Chris Claybrooks has mercifully been pulled from the rotation. This cornerback group can be beaten from all angles, putting even the Titans’ reserves on the fantasy map if pressed into starting. If A.J. Brown and Julio Jones can suit up, this matchup will seem unfair, and both will make viable WR1 plays for the week. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who continues to draw praise from the team, could retain some level of appeal as the new, clear-cut No. 3 man.
L.A. Rams at Seattle
The Rams opened the Matthew Stafford era at a breakneck pace, so it wasn’t too discouraging to see them slowed a bit by the Cardinals. Stafford was well off his game Sunday, and for the first time was unable to spin fantasy gold with Cooper Kupp and the rest of his arsenal. What’s encouraging is that Sean McVay’s attack still schemed receivers open, and that Stafford has been dynamite with Kupp and company thus far. Kupp remains a weekly WR1 for fantasy purposes as a volume hog who’s wildly efficient with his targets. He’s caught 30 of his team-high 46 looks, averaged 108 yards a game, and found the end zone 5 times already. Fantasy players have been disappointed by Robert Woods, who’s lagged while Van Jefferson and Tyler Higbee have carved out similar roles. Jefferson is a week-to-week wild card, but he’s proven another dynamic after-catch weapon to utilize over the middle. Higbee has drawn five targets or more in three of the Rams’ four games and remains a red-zone threat; he came inches from a short touchdown Sunday.
The Seahawks have allowed each of their last 3 opponents to clear 300 yards through the air, none of whom are particularly well-known for doing so. That doesn’t bode well against a Rams attack that’s been as sharp and efficient as anyone for much of the first month. Even 49ers rookie Trey Lance victimized them Sunday with a 76-yard touchdown through a massive defensive breakdown. It was far from the only time Deebo Samuel or George Kittle caught this weak secondary exposed down the field. Samuel finished with 156 and 2 touchdowns, making for the third wideout in as many weeks to top 125 in this matchup. The problems start up front, where the pass rush has struggled to affect the pocket at all without blitzing. That’s left a shaky group of cornerbacks on islands in coverage far too often. Tre Flowers, D.J. Reed, and Sidney Jones have graded consistently poorly. Safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs are true playmakers, but are more valuable attacking the ball than providing help coverage deep. There’s no end in sight for this group’s woes, making it a weekly target for fantasy purposes.
New Orleans at Washington
The Saints continue to play close to the vest on offense, making sure not to give Jameis Winston more than he can chew as Drew Brees’ heir. Winston has yet to drop back more than 26 times in a game as coach Sean Payton seeks a ground-oriented attack. He’s even pulling Winston liberally at the goal line for Taysom Hill, who offers a bag of dual-threat tricks in the red zone. It’s only fair to expect Payton to hedge things, considering the transition from Brees to the erratic Winston, as well as the team’s terrible run of injury luck at receiver. This will remain a low-volume attack until Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith return to action, and there’s still no telling when that will come. Much is determined week-to-week by whether Marquez Callaway is able to break through the secondary for a deep completion. Alvin Kamara surprisingly didn’t draw a target last Sunday, but should bounce back quickly as the only predictable piece of this unit. At least Week 5 brings optimism in a matchup with Washington’s shaky pass defense.
The Football Team entered 2021 with gobs of optimism on defense, but it’s yet to be realized through the first month of play. The ferocious pass rush keeps holding up its end, hurrying passers at the league’s fourth-highest rate. But the secondary has performed as one of football’s worst, with cracks routinely appearing in coordinator Jack Del Rio’s downfield zones. That was on full display Sunday when Cordarrelle Patterson surprised even himself en route to the easiest 42-yard touchdown in NFL history. It was one of several lapses from William Jackson III, who’s struggled mightily in coming over from Cincinnati and shifting schemes. Jackson was brought in to bookend Kendall Fuller as a dynamic duo, and their effect hasn’t been felt as planned. If Jameis Winston can identify those miscues on the fly Sunday, he’ll likely turn at least a few of his aggressive strikes into big plays. There are similar problems inside, where the likes of Kamren Curl and Torry McTyer are miscast as slot men. Opposing slot specialists Keenan Allen (9 catches for 100 yards), Sterling Shepard (9 for 94), and Cole Beasley (11 for 98) have all topped their season averages in this matchup, and Calvin Ridley got much of his Week 4 production (7 for 80) on the inside.
Miami at Tampa Bay
The Dolphins haven’t yet gotten much production from a still-learning Tua Tagovailoa, but they’re longing for those days as they watch Jacoby Brissett struggle just to move the offense. Tagovailoa can’t return until Week 6, locking Brissett in as a sheer placeholder for two more games. Most likely, the team will try to hide the shaky backup as much as possible. Brissett brings some exciting (and useful) running skills to the table, but when asked to open up the offense and make plays through the air, he’s crumbled here in Miami. Unless the downfield game improves quickly, the Dolphins wideouts will be forced to produce creatively after the catch to hold their fantasy value. DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle, and tight end Mike Gesicki are dominating the target share at the moment, so they at least offer some predictable volume. (Will Fuller looks unlikely to suit up this week due to a broken finger.) Perhaps a matchup with the decimated Buccaneers can spring some of the splash plays they’ve missed with Brissett.
The Buccaneers entered the year with ample buzz around their pass defense, which neutralized Patrick Mahomes II and company in the Super Bowl. But at the moment, they’re definitely in wait-and-see mode after injuries and a discouraging start to the year have taken their toll. They've allowed their 4 opponents to complete a stunning 73% of their throws and average 330 yards a game, with 11 touchdowns thus far. And turning it around won't be easy if both starting cornerbacks are shelved. Jamel Dean couldn’t get cleared for last Sunday’s matchup with the Patriots, and Carlton Davis was carted off in the second quarter after a non-contact leg injury. Both are ascending stars, and they now give way to the newly-signed Richard Sherman and Pierre Desir, both of whom were hastily thrown into heavy use Sunday. For his part, Sherman was roasted by rookie passer Mac Jones on throw after throw; he may have been signed almost exclusively due to his name value. If they have to keep relying on journeyman reserves like Sherman, Desir, and Ross Cockrell, they’ll find themselves in more and more shootouts. And if last season’s dominant pass rush doesn’t resurface (these Buccaneers sit 25th in hurry rate and 26th in sacks), this will remain a date for fantasy managers to circle each week. Even Jacoby Brissett and the flailing Dolphins would have a strong shot at season-best numbers in this matchup.
Bottom 5 Passing Matchups
Cleveland at L.A. Chargers
The Browns continue to look like a Super Bowl-caliber team everywhere except through the air. The ground game is punishing, and the defense often suffocating, but Baker Mayfield remains erratic when asked to be the offensive catalyst. At least he’s been trying to push the ball downfield more this year, throwing deep (15+ yards) on a hefty 27% of his attempts, way up from his career numbers. That’s boosted his fantasy ceiling a bit, though it had nowhere to go but up. And he’s made an effort to highlight Odell Beckham Jr, sending him 16 targets (a 25% share) over Beckham’s two games back from injury. Still, the results remain spotty, and Mayfield hasn’t fared well historically when pressed into a shootout. He’s likely facing one against the fast-paced Chargers, and it will likely take a handful of one-on-one splash plays to generate big numbers.
The Chargers still trot out one of the NFL’s most talented secondaries, and it shows in the box scores. This has again been a top-tier unit by any measure despite a tough early run of opposing passers. Over the past 3 weeks they’ve allowed just 5.5 yards per attempt and 231 a game to the trio of Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes II, and Derek Carr. That alone should scare fantasy managers away from Browns receivers; Baker Mayfield isn’t anywhere near that caliber of passer. He’ll contend with a star-studded secondary so deep it hasn’t missed Chris Harris, who hasn’t played since Week 1, in the slightest. They’re stocked with playmakers that attack the ball and aren’t often beaten in coverage, as Terry McLaurin (62 yards), Tyreek Hill (56), and Amari Cooper (20) can attest. The star on the back end is Derwin James, who defies position and makes plays as a slot man, a centerfielder, and in the box. As a whole, this is a unit that’s stayed mostly intact while having not allowed a 300-yard passer since Week 5 of last year. It’s hard to envision the Browns breaking the mold here.
Houston vs New England
The Texans simply can’t get Tyrod Taylor back fast enough. Taylor opened the year on fire, but quickly went onto injured reserve and gave way to Davis Mills, an exceptionally green rookie who’s barely been trusted to hand the ball off. Mills’ 50.4 passer rating speaks volumes – he’s taken 8 sacks and thrown 5 interceptions, and this “attack” has plummeted to the earth under his watch. Top receiver Brandin Cooks remains the only Texans pass-catcher worth mentioning right now. And while Cooks is wildly explosive and capable of overcoming long odds, it’s hard to assign him any real upside while the team is refusing to try. Meanwhile, guys like Anthony Miller and tight end Jordan Akins are only around to catch dump-offs around the line of scrimmage.
The Patriots have yet to be beaten noticeably by an opposing pass game. In fact, they’ve yet to allow one to even reach 270 yards; it took Tom Brady’s reunion special just to top 210. Bill Belichick’s reformed group is as stingy as ever, even with former Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore on the shelf. Top cornerback J.C. Jackson has been up and down to start 2021, but remains a ballhawk who breaks up more than his share of throws. Jackson doesn’t shadow top receivers like Gilmore often does, though, so he doesn’t tip the scales the same way on his own. It’s the whole deep unit, working within Belichick’s tested system, that stifles opponents and makes this a shaky fantasy matchup. Even Brady had to grind for his middling production Sunday night, completing just 51% of his throws (no touchdowns) as his ex-teammates blanketed Mike Evans and company. Houston’s Davis Mills, on the sheer opposite end of the NFL spectrum, gets far less slack in a quasi-shutdown matchup like this.
Pittsburgh vs Denver
The Steelers entered the year with big questions surrounding the offensive scheme, the front line, and Ben Roethlisberger’s arm capabilities. Through four games, not a single answer has been remotely positive. Roethlisberger has struggled just to generate first downs due to constant pressure and an arm that can no longer deliver down the field. This attack is mostly limited to quick slants and check-downs; his average depth of throw and per-throw production rates both sit near the bottom of the league. To make matters worse, he’s protected by arguably the league’s worst line, currently ranked as such by our Matt Bitonti. Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and the supporting crew are badly hindered by the mess this offense has become. They’re talented and capable of maximizing things, as seen last week on Johnson’s fantastic touchdown catch over Packers star Jaire Alexander. But it’s been awhile since this crumbling offense has truly scared anyone, and they likely won’t again on Roethlisberger’s 39-year-old arm.
The Broncos pass defense finally buckled in Week 4, springing leaks left and right for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to exploit for 316 yards. But given the level of talent at play and coach Vic Fangio’s proven scheme, it’s safe to regard that as a hiccup from one of the game’s best pass defenses. Prior to last Sunday, they hadn’t allowed an outside receiver to top 65 yards, a list that included big-play specialists like Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Corey Davis. Fangio’s defenses have long been known for locking down dynamic No. 1 wideouts, dating back to his days in Chicago. Last week’s lapses, in other words, aren’t particularly common for this unit. Kyle Fuller and rookie Patrick Surtain make for one of the league’s most gifted cornerback duos, while Bryce Callahan is an elite cover man in the slot. It speaks volumes that the absence of regular starter Ronald Darby hasn’t seemed to ding the Broncos much, but Surtain’s development has just been that rapid. Behind them looms the safety team of Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, both of whom are stout in help coverage and unafraid to attack the ball. And even with Bradley Chubb sidelined, the pass rush, led by Von Miller (4.5 sacks), makes it hard for a downfield game to develop. That doesn’t hint at much upside in fantasy matchups, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for the Steelers’ limping-along pass game.
L.A. Chargers vs Cleveland
The Chargers are enjoying the fruits of phenom quarterback Justin Herbert, who is captaining a successful, fast-paced attack at a high level. Herbert has hit on 70% of his throws on the year, averaging 7.6 per attempt and 295 a game. Those numbers would be even more impressive had he been needed to throw more against the Raiders on Monday night – and if he hadn’t overthrown Mike Williams on an easy 82-yard touchdown. Herbert’s arm is the engine of this one-dimensional offense, and he throws to a gifted group of receivers in Williams, Keenan Allen, and others. Allen remains the target leader here, though the dynamic Williams has certainly closed the volume gap and offers more splash-play ability. Both are utilized heavily near the goal line, and both offer clear fantasy WR1 upside virtually every week. It’s always nice to have a piece of this attack in one’s lineup, though a matchup like this one should at least give pause.
The Browns come into Sunday on the heels of 10 truly dominant quarters of pass defense. Granted, six of those quarterbacks came against the shaky rookie duo of Chicago’s Justin Fields and Houston’s Davis Mills. But there’s no taking away from the numbers: just 373 yards allowed (4.9 per attempt) over those 10 quarters, with 10 sacks and 2 interceptions. The catalyst for this group is edge rusher Myles Garrett, a true cornerstone who’s making an early awards push as a disruptor. Garrett terrorized Kirk Cousins last week, just as he did the week before in notching 4.5 sacks of Fields. When the Browns are harassing quarterbacks like this, the secondary plays fast and confident and locks up the downfield zones. Tyreek Hill exploited them in Week 1, but in three games since, opposing wideouts have managed just 7.1 yards per target. Top cornerback Denzel Ward runs hot-and-cold in coverage, but when given support often looks like a shutdown guy. And the team is excited about safety Grant Delpit, who essentially redshirted as a rookie and now looks as active and tough as advertised. The Chargers’ high-powered offense is likely too good to bench in any fantasy format, but expectations should be tempered against this Super Bowl-caliber unit.
Philadelphia at Carolina
Despite being 1-3 on the season and coming off of three straight losses, Jalen Hurts has been the backbone of this offense. Over his last two games, Hurts is averaging 356.5 yards and is throwing the ball an astounding 43.5 times in those two contests. The Eagles have basically abandoned the running game as Miles Sanders has just 9 carries over the last two games. From a receiver perspective, this continues to be a tight end first offense as both Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert have put together two impressive performances over the last two games, while Devonta Smith continues to show flashes as he topped 100 yards for the first time last week, but has struggled with consistency. This is by no means a perfect offense however, they have struggled with consistency at times particularly against the 49ers where Hurts struggled to find open receivers, and in the first half against Dallas albeit he more than made up for it in the second-half to end with a statistically strong performance. Offensive line could be an issue this week as the Eagles were down four starting lineman to the Chiefs last week, and Sua Opeta was just placed on the Covid-19 list which will limit their depth this week.
The Panthers’ defense has been the surprise of the NFL thus far. The zone-heavy scheme that they have played thus far has left defenses completely confused, and while help is on the way with the addition of Stephon Gilmore, this is a defense that so far this year has been outstanding. On the year, the Panthers have allowed just 156 yards passing per game, which is the second-fewest in the NFL. A big reason for the Panthers success thus far has been the pass rush as they are second in the NFL with 14 sacks, and they are blitzing 40.9% of the time which is also second in the NFL. There are still some major questions to this defense, most notably the schedule as they have faced arguably the easiest schedule in the NFL thus far this season with the Jets (Zach Wilson’s first start), New Orleans (when the Saints only had 4 coaches due to a Covid outbreak), Houston (Davis Mills’ first start), and then last week when they faced Dallas and gave up significant yardage to Ezekiel Elliott in a game in which Dak only threw 22 times. There will likely be some regression coming for this defense, but so far so good and this is a game where their zone-blitz scheme could give the inexperienced Hurts some issues.
|Week 5 Passing Chart|
|Buffalo||at Kansas City||Great|
|LA Rams||at Seattle||Great|
|New Orleans||at Washington||Great|
|Miami||at Tampa Bay||Great|
|NY Giants||at Dallas||Good|
|New England||at Houston||Good|
|Washington||vs New Orleans||Good|
|Dallas||vs NY Giants||Good|
|Tampa Bay||vs Miami||Neutral|
|NY Jets||at Atlanta||Neutral|
|Las Vegas||vs Chicago||Neutral|
|Chicago||at Las Vegas||Neutral|
|Green Bay||at Cincinnati||Neutral|
|Cincinnati||vs Green Bay||Neutral|
|Arizona||vs San Francisco||Tough|
|Atlanta||vs NY Jets||Tough|
|San Francisco||at Arizona||Tough|
|Kansas City||vs Buffalo||Tough|
|Seattle||vs LA Rams||Tough|
|Cleveland||at LA Chargers||Bad|
|Houston||vs New England||Bad|
|LA Chargers||vs Cleveland||Bad|