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Top 5 Passing Matchups
Atlanta vs Detroit
The Falcons don’t throw the ball as often as they did a half-decade ago, nor do they throw with the same kind of efficiency. Now 36, Matt Ryan leads a short, quick attack that takes little more than what the defense gives. That makes this offense a matchup-based play, and that not only checks out this week, but it’s also amplified against the Lions’ paper-thin defense. Ryan has only topped 280 yards once over the past 6 weeks, but he’d cleared that number in 5 of his previous 7, taking advantage of several of the league’s weaker defensive units. Russell Gage and tight end Kyle Pitts do most of the lifting, and they’re often schemed creatively into the cracks of secondaries like Detroit’s. The Lions tend to offer receivers hefty cushions underneath, which bodes well for Gage and Pitts, who do most of their damage there after the catch.
The Lions defense showed well in Sunday’s stunning win, but it came under unusual circumstances. Kyler Murray and the Cardinals, playing without DeAndre Hopkins, sleepwalked and spent much of the day throwing wildly in catch-up mode. Over the season’s first 14 weeks, the Lions had allowed 8.2 yards per throw to their opponents, second-most in football. It’s a shallow group that’s been made even thinner by injuries, and most of the strong passers on their schedule have taken advantage. The weekly numbers don’t always bear it out, as teams don’t often have to throw much to win this matchup. But when they do, they can target Amani Oruwariye on one side and natural safety Will Harris, shuffled around due to injuries, on the other. Neither has been effective, and Oruwariye in particular has susceptible to the big play. He’s a stretch in the starting lineup, and the Falcons will likely look to scheme their limited receiving corps out his way. If they’re to recapture any of their offensive potency, this is the matchup in which to do it. A key thing to watch this week is that the Lions have six defensive backs on the Covid list so it’s still unclear who will start for them this week.
LA Rams at Minnesota
The Rams offense has regained its confidence after a brief mid-season lull. Matthew Stafford is back in MVP form; since the Week 11 bye, he’s hit on 67% of his throws at , with 11 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. Even with Robert Woods on the shelf, Stafford and coach Sean McVay have adapted to use Odell Beckham Jr, Van Jefferson, and tight end Tyler Higbee creatively. Beckham wasn’t used much in last week’s low-volume win, but he’s posted games of 81 and 77 yards and found the end zone in 3 of 5 games as a Ram. Kupp, however, remains the dominant force here. He’s a true candidate for Offensive Player of the Year honors, averaging 9 catches for 116 yards and scoring 12 times already. His consistency has been remarkable on a prime-Davante Adams level: only once has he finished a game below 90 yards, and only once has he failed to score. The entire unit gets a noticeable bump against the Vikings’ thin defense, while Kupp’s personal outlook is even further into the sky than on a typical week.
The Vikings pass defense has come apart at the seams here in 2021. They sit 28th league-wide in yards allowed per attempt, with 6 of their 13 opponents clearing 290 on the day. They’ve been torched by most of the usual suspects they’ve faced, such as Kyler Murray (400 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Aaron Rodgers (385 and 4). But even lower-end opponents like Justin Fields, Jared Goff, and Cowboys fill-in Cooper Rush have found success in this shaky matchup. And they’re now working short-handed, with former starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland cut loose last week and an uninspiring group of replacements in play. Patrick Peterson is entrenched on the other side, but he and Cameron Dantzler have struggled in coverage all year. Mackensie Alexander has been exposed repeatedly in the slot; this unit simply lacks the personnel to spend as much time as it does on man coverage. All told, it’s no surprise this unit has already allowed 14 different pass-catchers to top 80 yards. It would be an upset to see Cooper Kupp, if not multiple Rams receivers, leapfrog that mark this weekend.
Cincinnati vs Baltimore
The Bengals remain a run-oriented team whenever it’s plausible, but they’ve certainly built impressive reinforcements through the air. Joe Burrow and his triangle of dynamic wideouts always give coach Zac Taylor the option to attack with sheer downfield dynamism. They weren’t needed much last weekend, but in Weeks 13 and 14, Burrow averaged 324 yards (8.8 per attempt) and threw 3 touchdowns. Armed with supercharged deep threats in Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, as well as crafty slot specialist Tyler Boyd, Burrow is capable of a QB1 finish on any given week. There often isn’t enough volume to support everyone at once, but all three wideouts boast week-winning potential of their own. When these teams met back in Week 7, it was Chase’s turn to erupt, to the tune of 8 catches, 201 yards, and 1 touchdown. And they’ll be leaned on even heavier if featured back Joe Mixon sits or is limited this weekend.
The Ravens pass defense has more or less run off the rails at this point. This was a top-10 unit by any measure last season but sits bottom-5 across the board here in 2021, thanks mostly to a rash of long-term injuries. Things looked bleak three weeks ago, when coach John Harbaugh opted for a game-ending two-point attempt because he didn’t have enough cornerbacks for overtime. Since then, they’ve somehow lost even more bodies and are no longer recognizable. The elite cornerback trio of Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Jimmy Smith has been shelved, and the replacements have been subpar at best. They’ve struggled most with raw speedsters like Darnell Mooney, Marquise Goodwin, Diontae Johnson, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Donovan Peoples-Jones in recent matchups. The band of reserves was roasted Sunday by Aaron Rodgers, and only Smith has a shot of returning to action. In other words, proficient passers should have little trouble poking holes in this unit for the rest of the season. One thing to keep an eye on this week is that the Ravens will be without Justin Houston who has been placed on the Covid list which could be a massive blow for the Ravens pass rush even if Houston is not the player that he once was.
Chicago at Seattle
The Bears are seeing improvement, slowly but surely, from Justin Fields. The rookie has yet to be truly cut loose, but he’s at least steadied himself of late. Over his last 4 appearances he’s posted 7.8 yards per throw, way up from his 6.3 to open the season. It’s unconscionable that Fields’ dual-threat skillset isn’t being catered to more, but as a passer it’s nice to see the growth. Last week he feasted on the Vikings’ shaky defense for his best game yet (26 of 39, 285 yards, 1 touchdown), and there’s reason for optimism in another winnable matchup. Perhaps this week he’ll re-connect with speedster Darnell Mooney, who’s posted his biggest games thus far with Andy Dalton under center. Mooney is lightning in a bottle, capable of bouncing from deep threat to after-catch producer from one snap to the next. He and Fields are one this-close completion from turning a solid fantasy day into a massive one. In a vacuum, it’s hard to get excited about this attack, which revolves mostly around situational guys. But a date with the Seahawks tends to rise all boats, so Fields is poised for one of his better passing days of the year.
The Seahawks, it seems, can no longer stop anyone through the air. It was understandable to see the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford carve up this thin group. But they’ve also given up big passing days along the way to Jimmy Garoppolo (299 yards, 2 touchdowns), Colt McCoy (328 and 2), and Davis Mills (331 and 1). It doesn’t help that the pass rush has been depleted to its lowest point in years. The Seahawks of old could push the pocket from all angles, but this group sits 24th in pressure rate and 30th in sacks despite blitzing at a relatively high level. That does no favors for a secondary that lacked in talent even before losing safety Jamal Adams, its best overall piece. Adams was no coverage specialist, but his playmaking is missed among a group of middling cover men. Perhaps the biggest weakness is up the seams, where tight ends have feasted consistently. George Kittle, Zach Ertz, Dan Arnold, and Tyler Conklin have all recorded 15+ PPR points in this matchup recently, with Kittle (9 for 181 and 2) and Ertz (8 for 88 and 2) simply erupting.
Minnesota vs LA Rams
The Vikings come fresh off a pair of underwhelming games through the air. Kirk Cousins has struggled mightily against the Steelers and Bears, but this week may offer a more favorable matchup. He’s proven many times he’s capable of huge fantasy days when clicking with wideouts Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Cousins has posted 5 games of 290+ yards, with multiple touchdowns in each of those. The duo of Jefferson and Thielen has commanded 46% of team targets when healthy together, averaging 36.2 PPR points a game. Fantasy players love the fact that this air attack is largely concentrated around two dynamic guys; when game script is positive, they make plays and don’t share the ball much. Role players like K.J. Osborn and tight end Tyler Conklin are only involved situationally, catching either one pass or seven given the week’s flow. But barring a setback for Thielen’s ankle injury, the main duo looks poised to produce against an undermanned Seattle secondary.
The Rams boast a big-name, big-play-minded defense that’s built to pressure the pass. Most of the time, this star-studded group makes plays on the ball and stifles opposing passers. But they’ve struggled a bit over the past two months, allowing 3 of their last 7 opponents to clear 300 yards and throw multiple touchdowns. They were missing star cornerback Jalen Ramsey two weeks ago, when Kyler Murray erupted for 383 yards, but the struggles of his teammates were on full display. Darious Williams has taken a step back after a breakout 2020, the safety play is uneven, and the lack of depth behind Ramsey is disturbing. The Vikings boast a pair of dynamic wideouts, provided Adam Thielen can suit up, to attack this group from two angles.
Bottom 5 Passing Matchups
Indianapolis at Arizona
The Colts continue to hum along, winners of 8 of their last 11 games. Still, they don’t ask much of quarterback Carson Wentz until it’s absolutely necessary. He’s thrown 35+ passes just twice over his last 9 games, averaging 187 yards and 1.8 touchdowns along the way. Coach Frank Reich opts to ride Jonathan Taylor and a punishing defense whenever he can, and besides, he knows Wentz’s limitations. The sixth-year passer still doesn’t create much magic on his own, especially when pushed out of his comfort zone. Bright young wideout Michael Pittman Jr always boasts big-play upside, but is hard to count on as a fantasy WR2 without consistency. Beyond him, TY Hilton looks near the end, and the rest are role players without fantasy utility, even in decent matchups. The Cardinals look poised to thoroughly control this ho-hum attack.
The Cardinals have made for a stingy fantasy matchup all season, and Week 16 is no exception. Only 3 of their 14 opponents has cleared 250 yards, and only one of those (Matthew Stafford two weeks ago) did so without the aid of garbage time. Overall, it’s been hard for anyone to string together much success against Vance Joseph’s aggressive unit. Injuries have mounted, but Markus Golden and Chandler Jones continue to lead an impactful rush, and the young, talented secondary has had more good days than bad. It’s been a star-making turn for third-year cornerback Byron Murphy, who looks to bounce back to Pro Bowl form after two shaky weeks of play. He’s supported by steady veteran Robert Alford across the field and a pair of playmaking safeties. This unit isn’t perfect, but it’s proactive and there aren’t many clear openings to exploit. And it’s hard to envision the run-minded Colts seeking out and winning much down the field anyway.
Buffalo at New England
The Bills remain Super Bowl contenders thanks in large part to Josh Allen, who’s arguably leading the NFL’s charge of young, bright, dual-threat star quarterbacks. But Allen and the air attack certainly look mired in a funk as defenses adjust to their potency. Over the past 3 weeks, Allen and the Bills have seen their 7.5 yards per throw and 279 per game drop to just 5.6 and 221. Opponents are playing more Cover-3 looks, and deeper units can keep an extra safety in off coverage to cut down on Allen’s deep-ball opportunities. It’s held Stefon Diggs (53 yards a game, with 1 touchdown) more or less in check, which itself caps the Bills’ overall upside. Slot man Cole Beasley lacks a real impact, with just 8.4 yards per catch on the year, while tight end Dawson Knox lacks consistency. The trendiest target is big-play specialist Gabriel Davis, who posted 5-85-2 in relief in last week’s win. Still, when these teams met three weeks ago, Buffalo’s four wideouts turned their 20 targets into just 114 yards.
The Patriots pass defense keeps finding new ways to deny fantasy production. They haven’t allowed an opponent to top 225 yards through the air since Week 6, including a pair of marquee matchups with the likes of Justin Herbert and Josh Allen. It’s often thanks to a smothering performance, as we saw often during their recent seven-game win streak. In Week 15, it was due to slow game script the other way, as Carson Wentz threw only 12 times in the Colts’ win. As usual, though, he found little success against this rock-solid unit when he did drop back. The Patriots are deep, versatile, and schemed precisely by coach Bill Belichick. It starts up front, where Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy lead an effective pass rush (ninth in pressure rate) and so much more. On the back end, J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills make for one of 2021’s best cornerback duos. Jackson, in particular, is a man-coverage dynamo who could pull his first All-Pro nod this year. They’ve clamped down on a number of explosive wideouts; in fact, not a single one has recorded more than 51 yards since Week 6. The Bills have a handful of weapons to throw at Belichick, but when these teams met 3 weeks ago, their top 4 receivers combined for just 10 catches, 114 yards, and 1 touchdown.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
The Buccaneers come off a nightmarish Week 15 that saw them drop a second game to the divisional-rival Saints and lose their top-two wideouts (and top runner) in the process. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Leonard Fournette all leaving early, it wasn’t hard for the determined Saints to bracket Rob Gronkowski and the reserves. The end result was frustration for Tom Brady and a shutout loss at home. The outlook is murky for this Sunday, with Godwin looking doubtful at best and Evans’ status going down to the wire. Antonio Brown should be on track for a return, but he wouldn’t be enough on his own to truly test the Panthers’ cornerbacks all over the field. Brady would be forced into a bevy of short, low-impact strikes to move the ball, limiting his upside greatly. He and his healthy weapons can never be ignored in fantasy, but last week showed us the need to keep our expectations in check in tough matchups.
The Panthers continue to field one of the game’s best pass defenses, the only element keeping them in contention on many weeks. They’ve benefited from a generous schedule of opposing passers, but have shown well consistently and allowed only 2 of them to top 230 yards. Most of the headlines have gone to the secondary, built mostly of high-profile acquisitions: ex-Patriot Stephon Gilmore and ex-Jaguar C.J. Henderson, both added in-season, started on the outside in Week 15. The returns have generally been good, though Gilmore did give up a pair of touchdowns Sunday. But the backbone of this dominant unit lies up front, in a front seven that’s unafraid to blitz and leads the league in pressure rate. Haason Reddick (10.5 sacks) is gearing up for a Pro Bowl bid, while Brian Burns (8.0) has been just as impactful at times. Overall, this unit has been suffocating for most of the year, and most recent opponents have just avoided testing it much. That’s unlikely behavior from Tom Brady, but it’s fair to wonder how efficiently he’ll produce in another tough, physical matchup.
Las Vegas vs Denver
The Raiders are used to getting relatively low-risk, low-mistake play from Derek Carr. But that often doesn’t come with much impact, for the Raiders or for the fantasy world. Carr has long been a dink-and-dunk type, and that’s been exacerbated with Henry Ruggs III no longer being with the team. Carr has averaged a solid 270 yards over that span, but his 7.1 per-attempt mark ranks just 18th league-wide, and his 2.6% touchdown rate sits 36th. This offense revolves around the ground game and short, controlled throws underneath. That’s good news for the PPR value of slot man Hunter Renfrow, who’s claimed 24% of Carr’s targets with tight end Darren Waller on the shelf. Beyond that, though, there’s little here for fantasy players to chase. Role players like Bryan Edwards, Zay Jones, and Foster Moreau (Waller’s replacement) pop up for short stretches that make unpredictable noise in the box scores.
The Broncos continue to pride themselves on a suffocating pass defense, which is keeping them in the playoff race. Denver opponents have averaged just 228 yards per game, good for 25th league-wide. Over the past 3 weeks they’ve held Patrick Mahomes II, Jared Goff, and Joe Burrow to an average of 185, with just 2 touchdowns. Coach Vic Fangio prioritized a skilled secondary this offseason, adding prized free agent Kyle Fuller and first-round rookie Patrick Surtain II to the cornerback room. The Fuller experiment has been rocky, to the say the least, with the veteran trading off great performances with awful ones. But he’s moved inside to replace Bryce Callahan in the slot, and Surtain looks like a future superstar on the outside. Surtain and Darby make for an imposing boundary duo, while All-Pro safety Justin Simmons may be enjoying his best coverage season yet. True to form for a Fangio defense, they’ve completely erased most No. 1 wideouts they’ve faced from the gameplan. That’s a list that includes the likes of Terry McLaurin (23 yards), CeeDee Lamb (23), Tyreek Hill (22), and Ja’Marr Chase just last week (just 3). The Raiders will likely need another Herculean effort from slot man Hunter Renfrow to move the ball through the air at all.
Tennessee vs San Francisco
The Titans’ air attack, riddled by injuries throughout the year, has reached a new rock-bottom. Dating back to Week 9, Ryan Tannehill has posted just 5.9 yards per attempt and 186 a game. He hasn’t thrown a touchdown since Week 12, a 1-yarder that came early in a 36-13 loss. Tannehill, though, doesn’t shoulder much of the blame himself. With A.J. Brown and Julio Jones bouncing in and out of the lineup for stretches, it’s all but impossible to establish a playmaking rhythm. Tannehill has spent much of the past month throwing heavily to Nick Westbrook-Ikhene, Chester Rogers, and Cody Hollister. Jones was again lost to injury last Sunday, though at least Brown looks poised to return from injured reserve. Brown is a truly special player, and he’s been able to elevate Tannehill before. Still, it’s hard to imagine that moving the needle out of the red without a real threat anywhere else on the field. Derrick Henry’s injury devastated this offense in ways far beyond just running up the middle.
The 49ers remain stout against the pass in the face of adversity. They’ve given up the league’s seventh-fewest yards through the air (just 213 a game), despite a handful of key injuries and a daunting schedule of quarterbacks. Apart from a Week 14 hiccup against the Bengals, they haven’t allowed a 250-yard passer since September. They took a hit last month when top cornerback Emmanuel Moseley was lost, likely for the rest of the regular season, to a high ankle sprain. But this is a deep group with the ability to shift gears and cover a loss. The pass rush, led by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, pushes the pocket enough to make the secondary’s job easier. K’Waun Williams remains one of the NFL’s premier slot men, while do-it-all safety Jimmie Ward is quietly putting up an All-Pro caliber season. This isn’t a flawless unit, especially with Moseley on the shelf. But thanks to the depth and the scheme, it’s unwise to project the flailing Titans to buck a long-term trend here.
|Week 16 Passing Matchups|
|LA Rams||at Minnesota||Great|
|Minnesota||vs LA Rams||Great|
|Jacksonville||at NY Jets||Good|
|LA Chargers||at Houston||Good|
|San Francisco||at Tennessee||Good|
|Carolina||vs Tampa Bay||Good|
|Philadelphia||vs NY Giants||Good|
|Denver||at Las Vegas||Neutral|
|New Orleans||vs Miami||Neutral|
|Green Bay||vs Cleveland||Neutral|
|Miami||vs New Orleans||Neutral|
|Pittsburgh||at Kansas City||Neutral|
|Cleveland||at Green Bay||Neutral|
|Kansas City||vs Pittsburgh||Neutral|
|Houston||vs LA Chargers||Tough|
|NY Jets||vs Jacksonville||Tough|
|NY Giants||at Philadelphia||Tough|
|New England||vs Buffalo||Tough|
|Tennessee||vs San Francisco||Bad|
|Las Vegas||vs Denver||Bad|
|Tampa Bay||at Carolina||Bad|
|Buffalo||at New England||Bad|