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Top 5 Passing Matchups
Cincinnati at Detroit
The Bengals look to have avoided a scare with Joe Burrow quickly sent home from the hospital Sunday night. The words “throat contusion” sent waves through the football community, but it looks like a true non-issue going forward. Burrow should start Sunday, fresh off an up-and-down showing against the Packers, one that saw him mix gutsy downfield strikes with a few panicky misfires. His progress remains encouraging, though, and he’s been given a bevy of dynamic targets to throw at. College teammate Ja’Marr Chase heads the list, having posted 456 yards and 5 touchdowns through his first 5 NFL games, at a robust 19.8 yards a catch. Chase threatens defenses on every snap, creating openings for Tee Higgins (explosive in his own right) and slot specialist Tyler Boyd.
The Lions continue to lean on a deep pool to make up for their rash of cornerback injuries, and the results have been predictably bad. They haven’t faced much volume but sit solidly in the NFL’s bottom-five by most metrics. Amani Oruwariye is the last man standing from Week 1, and he’s been brutalized all season. Justin Jefferson made quick work of him last Sunday, racking up 84 of his 124 yards in Oruwariye’s coverage. The fact that he’s played all 303 of the Lions’ defensive snaps through 5 weeks speaks volumes about the chaotic mess here. Some of 2021’s most-maligned cornerbacks reside on this roster, like rookie A.J. Parker, who’s looked badly overmatched inside. Jefferson was far from the first opposing wideout to make a handful of too-easy catches out of the slot. But overall, everyone’s a liability here, and opposing passers have little trouble finding spots to attack. This is the league’s thinnest and most talent-starved secondary, and it always makes for a friendly fantasy matchup. They’ll be hard-pressed to keep up with the Bengals’ gifted receivers.
The Steelers offense got a much-needed confidence boost in Sunday’s win over Denver, with Ben Roethlisberger’s 39-year-old arm waking up a bit. Roethlisberger hit on just 2 of his 6 deep throws (15+ yards downfield), but one went for a textbook 50-yard touchdown to top wideout Diontae Johnson. It was a carbon copy of their 45-yard score from the prior week, with Johnson winning the same route against Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander. Across the field, Chase Claypool made two big splash plays of his own, continuing his ascent as one of the game’s most explosive youngsters. The team has needed the dynamism since a rock-bottom Week 3, when rookie runner Najee Harris had to take on 19 targets out of necessity. Even as Roethlisberger treads water in what’s likely his final season, there’s plenty of playmaking talent here to take advantage of such a soft matchup.
The Seahawks pass defense remains a far cry from its dynasty days – and one of 2021’s most inviting fantasy matchups. Their last 4 opponents have averaged 339 yards, including some run-first offenses that had little trouble finding chunks of yardage through the air. Sidney Jones and D.J. Reed are the Seahawks’ every-down cornerbacks, and neither has been effective in the slightest, giving up massive stat lines to wideouts all around. They’ve allowed a receiver to top 115 yards in 4 straight games, showing an inability to prevent the deep ball despite a scheme based around just that. The team cut ties with the beleaguered Tre Flowers this week, which should be addition by subtraction but leaves a noticeable hole. Furthermore, it’s looking less and less like coach Pete Carroll’s cover-3 scheme can work with Jamal Adams in the old Earl Thomas role. Adams can make plays on the ball, but he’s exposed in man coverage far too often for the league’s highest-paid safety. He blew up Twitter last Thursday with a handful of gross errors that led to huge Rams plays, and that has to be an opponent’s blueprint going forward. The Steelers don’t air it out much these days, but look for Ben Roethlisberger to prioritize a few deep shots to take advantage.
Buffalo at Tennessee
The Bills’ air attack has picked up right where it left off in last year’s playoffs, as arguably the NFL’s most exciting unit. Over the past 3 weeks, Josh Allen has hit on 68% of his throws at a 9.3 average, with 11 touchdowns, on the way to 3 easy Buffalo wins. Loaded with playmaking talent and pass-catching support, Allen is again an MVP candidate and a weekly fantasy dynamo regardless of matchup. His supporting cast has grown so deep with difference-makers that intriguing, big-bodied deep threat Gabriel Davis can’t even get on the field. Stefon Diggs and the gracefully-aging Emmanuel Sanders dominate the snaps outside, but the story right now is tight end Dawson Knox, an athletic weapon who’s long been able to get downfield but often struggled with drops. Knox has forced his way into a 17% target share over the past 3 weeks, averaging 68 yards a game and scoring 4 times.
The Titans pass defense has underachieved to open the year, pushing the team into higher-scoring games than they’d like to see. This isn’t a terrible unit as a whole, with a strong pass rush and a still-underrated star in free safety Kevin Byard. But they’ve given up 270+ yards in 4 of 5 games thus far, so the weak links here are clearly a big deal. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Kristian Fulton have offered no resistance in coverage, allowing season-best games to Tyler Lockett (8 for 178 yards and 1 touchdown), Corey Davis (4 for 111 and 1), and DeAndre Hopkins (6 for 83 and 2). They’ve both spent most of the season noticeably playing soft 10-15 yard cushions, something coach Mike Vrabel says he’ll be addressing this week in practice. Perhaps playing tighter will bring back some of Jenkins’ playmaking magic, but the 10-year veteran may have simply lost another step. Just two weeks ago, Jets reserve Keelan Cole beat Jenkins cleanly for two tide-turning splash plays late in the game. Josh Allen and the Bills bring far more dynamite than that to the table, and more ability to take advantage of soft off-coverage.
Miami at Jacksonville
The Dolphins seem encouraged about Tua Tagovailoa’s recovery from broken ribs, and he may be available for the London game, even if it’s a bit of a rush job. Tagovailoa hasn’t yet lit the world on fire, but he certainly brings more to the table than Brissett, including the only chance for the wideouts to produce consistently. Brissett has done little more than check down into the flats, leaving DeVante Parker (54 yards a game) and Jaylen Waddle (43) to underachieve on the stat sheet. The only beneficiary has been tight end Mike Gesicki, who’s taken on a solid 19% target share with the backup. If Tagovailoa is able to suit up, the wideouts should see a boost, and everyone can expect more efficiency. When the whole group shared the field in Week 1, Waddle and Parker both produced as target leaders, and both were able to hook up with Tagovailoa down the field.
The Jaguars pass defense continues to serve as a punching bag for any opponent who really feels a need to try. Sometimes the opponent controls the game script, like last week’s Titans, who dropped back just 25 times in a comfortable win. But with the game somewhat in question, this group has been no match for Tyrod Taylor (291 yards and 2 touchdowns), Teddy Bridgewater (328 and 2), Kyler Murray (316), or Joe Burrow (348 and 2). This secondary was already in tatters even before trading away C.J. Henderson and losing rookie starter Tyson Campbell to a toe injury. With just replacement-level pieces to work with, they’ll have to lean on some of the league’s most-targeted cover men in Chris Claybrooks, Shaquill Griffin, and Tre Herndon. Even if Campbell is able to return in London, he’s been brutalized for much of 2021 and wouldn’t add much beyond a warm body. A depth chart this bad needs lots of help, but free safety Rayshawn Jenkins doesn’t bring much to the table in coverage. Without much of a pass rush to even push the issue up front, this is a truly weak unit and a weekly target for fantasy players, for good reason. Either Dolphins quarterback will project near their own season-best numbers in London.
Washington vs Kansas City
The Football Team continues to tread water on offense, relying on the run whenever possible to hide their struggles through the air. Taylor Heinicke looks overmatched as a starter, which limits a supporting cast already lacking in big-play options. Terry McLaurin is an elite player, and he’s averaged 6 catches and 80 yards regardless of the quarterbacking. But new addition Curtis Samuel is perpetually injured, and there are no intriguing replacements as a No. 2, so this attack will always go as McLaurin goes. On most weeks, he finds a way to spring through focused coverage and make plays on his speed and skill. The blueprint is to bracket him whenever possible, and the better secondaries they’ve faced (the Chargers, Bills, and Saints) have allowed him just 57 yards a game. Thankfully for McLaurin, he won’t see anything of that caliber this Sunday. He projects nicely in downfield matchups against the Chiefs’ shaky cornerbacks.
The Chiefs have struggled mightily to control the pass here in 2021, sitting fourth on a per-game basis (309 yards) through 5 weeks. Some of that has been the fault of game flow, with the offensive struggling and turnovers blowing some games wide open. But until they show otherwise, this shaky unit is ripe to be targeted with fantasy lineups. Of the five opponents they’ve faced, three have cleared 315 yards and a fourth threw 4 touchdowns. It hasn’t taken much volume, either, with those 4 averaging just 35 attempts. That suggests all opponents should see a boost against coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit, which boasts talent but loses on too many gambles. The pass rush mostly pulls its weight, but the cornerbacks are a boom-or-bust group, and they lack the safety support needed to take so many chances. L’Jarius Sneed has disappointed after a strong 2020, and the team misses Charvarius Ward, whose status remains up in the air after sitting the last three weeks. A Chiefs game is almost always a track meet, and leaks will always pop up when facing 40-50 throws. Between pace and their struggles in the secondary, they’ve become a matchup for fantasy managers to circle each week.
Bottom 5 Passing Matchups
Las Vegas at Denver
The Raiders pass game, so prolific through the first three weeks, has crashed hard to earth. Even before Jon Gruden’s saga came to light, the Raiders were showing signs of crumbling, and Derek Carr’s air attack was no exception. His production has fallen from 401 yards per game to 201, putting up just 5.8 per attempt in losses to the Chargers and Broncos. This unit was never as good as it looked, and Carr has yet to show the ability to succeed against pressure. That makes for an easy blueprint, especially with so few proven pass-catchers to worry about. Carr continues to focus mostly on tight end Darren Waller and slot specialist Hunter Renfrow, who own 42% of the team’s target share. It’s a low-risk, low-reward approach that makes projecting deep threat Henry Ruggs III III impossible. Ruggs is a go-route touchdown waiting to happen, but Carr simply doesn’t take many chances on the youngster (28 targets through 5 games).
The Broncos pass defense has lapsed a bit of late, handing over a few deep balls to the Ravens and Steelers the past two weeks. But overall, they’ve been as strong as is typically expected of a Vic Fangio unit. Opponents are completing just 55% of their throws at 6.7 yards apiece, and last week saw the first time they’ve given up multiple touchdowns. Fangio leans hard on his secondary to cut off the big play, and he’s been successful against even great wideouts dating back to his Chicago days. It’s fair to regard these recent blips as fluky until they’re proven otherwise. Top cornerback Kyle Fuller has had a nightmarish Broncos debut, but this group is so well-stocked and well-schemed he hasn’t cost them as much as he should have. Rookie Patrick Surtain II II continues to impress, Bryce Callahan may be the league’s best slot man, and Ronald Darby could return to action any day now. On top of it all, they benefit from an upper-tier pass rush that’s still yet to reach its full potential. This may not be the most consistent unit, but it’s one of the easiest to avoid in weekly fantasy decisions. There are many hands on deck working against Derek Carr and his limited pool of weapons.
Tennessee vs Buffalo
The Titans continue to drop back to pass more often than they’d like to – up 33% from their 2020 rate. This is a decidedly run-first attack, but it’s been forced into a few semi-shootouts thanks to some defensive lapses. The Titans prepared themselves for this type of football in the offseason by adding Julio Jones to the mix, but they’ve reaped little with Jones missing the last two games (and not looking good for Monday). Ryan Tannehill remains steady and efficient, though he’s yet to utilize star wideout A.J. Brown much (7 catches for 92 yards through 2.5 games). The gifted Brown continues to play little more than a decoy role most weeks here in 2021, and fantasy managers are likely starting to panic. The Titans are fine with that as long as Derrick Henry is controlling games on the ground. If they can’t grab quick control Monday’s showdown, though, Tannehill will be forced to test one of 2021’s toughest pass defenses through the air.
The Bills’ impressive defense drew flak after the season’s first month for dominating a weak schedule of quarterbacks. They put that to bed with a swarming win over the Chiefs in Week 6, which saw Patrick Mahomes II II post the lowest single-game adjusted yardage rate (4.11) of his career. Mahomes saw Bills jerseys front and center for most of the night, with the pass rush consistently pushing the pocket and the star-studded secondary closing on the ball. The Bills have cultivated a strong pass rush led by veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, who forced penalties and chased Mahomes around for much of Sunday night. And on the back end, there’s virtually nowhere to attack, with top-shelf talents at just about every spot. Top cover man Tre’Davious White is actually having his shakiest season yet, but Taron Johnson has arrived as one of the league’s premier slot men. The Bills tend to funnel their opponents’ throws underneath, where Johnson has helped keep the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Brandin Cooks, and Terry McLaurin to a meager 6.2 yards per target. Teamed with the elite safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, this secondary is a minefield for opposing passers. If Mahomes and company couldn’t find the leaks, it’s hard to see Ryan Tannehill pulling it off.
Minnesota at Carolina
The Vikings pass game remains steady and easy to project, if not particularly exciting. This is a team that leans on the run whenever possible, though Kirk Cousins has been pulled into a few shootouts already. He concentrates much of his attention on wideouts Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Jefferson has proven himself an elite talent, breaking games open both down the field and across it. He’s yet to fall below 65 yards in a game, and he’s actually been more of a red-zone target than touchdown vulture Thielen. There’s not a lot behind them in the wideout room. K.J. Osborn, after an out-of-nowhere strong start to the year, has produced just 8 catches for 64 yards over the past 3 weeks. On most Sundays it’s the running back serving as the No. 3 or 4 option on check-downs. Jefferson and Thielen are dynamic and always fantasy starters, and Cousins himself is always capable of a QB1 day. But those aren’t the norm, and there’s no reason to expect much in a road matchup like this.
The Panthers pass defense continues to throttle all comers, and it’s turned into one of the easiest “avoid” decisions on the fantasy schedule. They haven’t allowed an opposing passer to reach even 200 yards since Week 1. That’s a bit misleading, as Dak Prescott threw four touchdowns in a low-volume win just two weeks ago. But they rebounded nicely Sunday, harassing Jalen Hurts into just 198 yards on his 37 throws. The Panthers put constant pressure on Hurts while still mostly taking away the deep ball, which has been the theme for this unit thus far. The pass rush has caused most of the havoc, simply overwhelming most of the lines they’ve faced. Haason Reddick and Brian Burns, with a combined 9.5 sacks, are both on the short list of early All-Pro candidates. Former first-rounder Donte Jackson and journeyman A.J. Bouye have been the top cornerbacks, and both have been lockdown-caliber at times. It’s exciting to see what Stephon Gilmore will bring to such a stout unit, and whether Jaguars restoration project C.J. Henderson will benefit from his move. Gilmore isn’t eligible for another two weeks, but Henderson is already working his way in for snaps here and there.
Cleveland vs Arizona
The Browns have to like the incremental progress they’re seeing from Baker Mayfield, even if they’d still rather keep the ball out of the air when possible. He’s wisely settling into a niche as a ball-control quarterback, while growing more and more capable of making plays. Even when pushed into a shootout, as he was last week by the high-powered Chargers, Mayfield often holds his own. He topped 300 yards for the second time on the year and threw multiple touchdowns for the first. There are concerns here, though. Mayfield is playing through a labrum tear he sustained last month, which requires precise management if he’s to avoid surgery. And it’s hard to know what to make of his receiving corps, which lacks a go-to target. Odell Beckham Jr Jr’s days as an impact guy may be closing down, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will lead the team each week.
The Cardinals’ revamped pass defense is a big reason for the team’s surprise 5-0 start. They’ve yet to allow a 300-yard day through the air, and more impressively, they’ve allowed only two wide receivers to even clear 75. Much of the credit belongs to the pass rush and coordinator Vance Joseph’s attacking scheme, which has turned the tides of games on its own. It’s safe to say J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones have gas left in the tank, though Jones may not be available this weekend (COVID list). There’s still enough depth and scheme here to make things difficult for even the Browns’ sturdy front line. It’s been a potent enough weapon to paper over some holes in the secondary. The Cardinals’ regular cornerbacks can be attacked, though veteran Robert Alford has been mostly solid on one side. Still, unless Baker Mayfield can comfortably work his progressions from a safe pocket, he’ll be hard-pressed to take advantage of those holes, as no one has thus far.
Dallas at New England
The Cowboys continue to win more games, and thus throw the ball less as they grind wins out with their legs. Dak Prescott has been efficient in his limited role: since his Opening Day shootout with Tom Brady, he’s thrown just 27 passes per game but produced 9.0 yards apiece, with 10 touchdowns. Given his wide array of weapons, we can often project that same kind of efficiency when he’s forced to throw more. And that’s what gives this attack every bit as much upside as any other. Prescott has clear rapport with wideouts CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, who have worked through injuries to dominate the target share (44%). Bill Belichick and the Patriots like to focus their attention on whom they see as the biggest threat, and they tend to lock him down well. That bodes poorly for at least half this dynamic passing game, and it hurts Prescott’s ceiling in the process.
The Patriots remain deeply confident in Bill Belichick’s process, fearlessly dealing away 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore amidst contract issues. The confidence makes sense, though, as Belichick seems to have patched over Gilmore’s loss quite nicely. As usual, the Patriots sit near the league’s upper tier of pass defenses. Aside from last week’s hiccup against Davis Mills and the Texans, they’d allowed just 6.5 yards per attempt and a meager 202 per game through the air. They did admirable work in Tom Brady’s homecoming two weeks ago; the future Hall-of-Famer posted just 6.3 per throw and failed to find the end zone. Gilmore’s loss will eventually be felt, as there’s now no obvious left to shadow top receivers. But this scheme has always stretched to fit its personnel, sampling the strengths of all its pieces while hiding most of the weaknesses. The team has found a rising star in cornerback J.C. Jackson, a strong cover man who doubles as one of the league’s most dangerous ballhawks. He’s broken up 19 passes and intercepted 11 over his last 21 games. They’ve also gotten promising work from Jonathan Jones in the slot, and they may get fellow starter Jalen Mills back Sunday from a hamstring injury.
|Week 6 Passing Matchups|
|Kansas City||at Washington||Great|
|Washington||vs Kansas City||Great|
|Philadelphia||vs Tampa Bay||Good|
|LA Rams||at NY Giants||Good|
|New England||vs Dallas||Good|
|Chicago||vs Green Bay||Neutral|
|LA Chargers||at Baltimore||Neutral|
|Denver||vs Las Vegas||Neutral|
|Green Bay||at Chicago||Neutral|
|NY Giants||vs LA Rams||Tough|
|Baltimore||vs LA Chargers||Tough|
|Tampa Bay||at Philadelphia||Tough|
|Dallas||at New England||Bad|
|Las Vegas||at Denver||Bad|
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