Analyzing defensive matchups

Don't forget, I do a twice-weekly podcast called the "Fantasy Underground," where Field "Hopeless Kenny Britt Romantic" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film, and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way, you'll never miss a show! All right, let's get to today's topics:

Three In Depth

1. Received Wisdom: Run Defenses. As the fantasy playoffs begin, I figure it's as good a time as any to revisit the topic of opposing defenses. As I mentioned earlier in the year, our page that shows fantasy points against is useful but only to a point, because A) it doesn't factor in quality of opponent, and B) it weighs Week 1 as heavily as Week 13. According to my metrics, here are the five best and five worst defenses at stopping fantasy RBs during the past five weeks:

(The way these numbers can be read is: The Detroit Lions have taken away an average of 10.6 fantasy points from the RB corps they've faced in the past five weeks.)

Rather than getting too bogged down in numbers, I thought I might call out a couple of run defenses that have looked better on tape lately, and a couple that have looked worse.

Better: Detroit Lions. As much as a month ago, I was telling you to watch out for this run defense, and that turned out to be pretty good advice. Ndamukong Suh is the key here. Because he's a three-technique defensive tackle, we typically think of him as a pass-rusher first, and he does have five sacks this season. But especially the past couple of weeks against the run, oh my goodness, he's throwing around offensive linemen. And while I still have my suspicions that fly-around-the-field guys like Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy eventually may be exposed for a lack of physicality against premier rush attacks -- they're better in pass coverage -- you can't watch the tape and think they've been soft during the past month.

Better: Minnesota Vikings. Kevin Williams, the holdover from the "Williams Wall" days, has found something in the past month. It isn't always about tackles with a plugger like Williams; rather, it's about standing up to an offensive line's push, and I've watched him closely on tape. He's doing it again. Rotational nose man Fred Evans has been staunch, too. I'm not sure Audie Cole, the ballyhooed midseason replacement at middle linebacker, has particularly good instincts in the run game, but getting Erin Henderson out of the middle is the dictionary definition of addition by subtraction. I'm not selling this unit as elite, but it's no longer a total cake matchup for an opposing back. (I'm looking at you, Ray Rice.)

Worse: Green Bay Packers. Where in the world is B.J. Raji? Oh, he's playing. He's just getting pushed around, and executing some of the worst run defense of his career. And for the millionth time: A.J. Hawk is not good. It doesn't matter how many tackles he makes. It doesn't matter that once or twice a game he'll catch someone in the backfield. He's a freelancer in the worst possible way, basically a total guesser at the point of attack, and he gets this unit burned badly. He's a dreadful player against the run. And Mike Neal isn't much better.

Worse: Kansas City Chiefs. Dontari Poe is legitimately a very good player in the middle, something the Chiefs have sought for the better part of a decade. But remember in September, when it looked like Tyson Jackson was finally going to justify being picked No. 3 overall? Yeah, not so much. He can barely get on the field anymore. But the biggest problem this group has is that it has no Justin Houston, who is out with a dislocated elbow. In addition to being a nasty pass-rusher, he's been a force setting the edge on the left defensive side. I'm not telling you these guys were awful stopping the run in November, but they've fallen off, and I'm not frightened for Alfred Morris on Sunday.

2. Received Wisdom: Pass Defenses. Let's do the same exercise for pass defenses. Numbers-wise, I think it's most illustrative to look at how defenses do against opposing QBs, and here are the competition-adjusted numbers for the past five weeks:

But those are just numbers. What does the tape show? Here's a pass defense I think is playing better than you might think, and a couple who are playing worse.

Better: Cincinnati Bengals. When Leon Hall went out with a torn Achilles last season, the Bengals had a hard time recovering from it. When he went out this year, I worried the same thing would happen, but Terence Newman has been terrific as the team's top corner. Newman is 35 years old (I incorrectly guessed he was much younger than that on Thursday's "Fantasy Underground" podcast, sorry, Field) yet has legitimately locked down opposing receivers in back-to-back games. (Holding Josh Gordon to five catches for 125 yards qualifies as a borderline lockdown these days!) Most important, of course, is the pass rush, which has generated 14 sacks the past four games. This defense has held opposing QBs to a 36.1 QBR since Week 9, and will make it hard on Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton this week.

Worse: Cleveland Browns. Joe Haden got roasted by Antonio Brown a couple of weeks ago and then got torched by Cecil Shorts last week for the game-winning score on a double move. But listen, obviously Haden is a tremendous cover guy who just had a couple of down moments. More problematic here is everyone else in pass coverage, particularly much-picked on Buster Skrine, and a pass rush that's created 29 QB pressures on 104 dropbacks in their past three games. That's 28 percent, which is a poor number.

Worse: Kansas City Chiefs. Hey, I guess it's pick-on-the-Chiefs day! I think there's some truth to the widespread criticism that KC is slow to adjust on defense, playing an absurd amount of man-to-man and allowing opposing QBs to focus in on matchups they like. Last week, it was Eric Decker on Marcus Cooper. You can cover up for such a brazen defensive philosophy when you're getting to the QB, but the Chiefs have two sacks in their past five games (which, of course, predates the injuries to Houston and Tamba Hali). We're looking at a burnable defense that can still have strong moments, but is no longer an automatic bad matchup.

3. Slot receiving: It's not just for midgets anymore. For some NFL defenses, nickel is the new base, as extra defensive backs stay on the field even in first-down situations. And the term "slot corner," which once was synonymous with "third-best corner," now connotes something else. Playing coverage on the inside presents different challenges than playing outside; you might have more safety or linebacker help closer at hand, but you also have to worry about the guy you're covering running to both sides of the field. Plus you also have to worry about run support. The best slot corners I've watched in 2013 are Chris Harris (my namesake, yes, but also a darned good player), Brandon Boykin, Orlando Scandrick and Tyrann Mathieu (though Mathieu is now starting at free safety on early downs). Would these guys be great on the outside? I tend to think not. (I've seen Scandrick out there, and oy.) But as physical players with great reactive quicks but only marginal long speed, they've helped their teams against slot receivers and tight ends.

The next evolution of offensive strategy is to break down the distinction between "outside" and "slot" receiver. The wideouts who've run the most routes out of the slot this year is a list of usual suspects:

But if you go further down the list, you also see the following players:

Those are five heavy-hitting WRs, huge beasts who previously have been known mostly for dominating on the outside. And they still do sometimes. But look at the difference in their percentage of slot routes run this year compared to last season:

We can help explain Nelson's increase via Randall Cobb's injury, and Megatron's slot role has stayed about the same, but clearly these offenses have decided to mix up the roles in their receiving corps, to have their bigger players give defenses more looks. Though it does sometimes mean being matched up on a stout slot corner, it also sometimes means getting a cupcake, and regardless it opens up more of the field. This kind of usage helps week-to-week fantasy consistency. It also makes the case of Dez Bryant that much more frustrating:

Bryant hasn't reached 100 yards receiving in a game since Week 7, and all observers (this one included) have pointed out how intensely defenses are focusing on rolling help his way. And the Dallas Cowboys paid lip service before Thanksgiving to understanding that they needed to be more creative with Bryant to get him open. And on Turkey Day, how many routes from the slot did he run? Two.

Four In Brief

4. Rueben Randle, interception magnet? This stat comes courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info, and one of these things is not like the others. Here are the QB/WR combos who have resulted in the most interceptions this season (in other words, balls targeted at these WRs by these QBs were picked off):

Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green: 9
Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson: 8
Eli Manning-to-Rueben Randle: 7
Carson Palmer-to-Larry Fitzgerald: 6

Three of these wideouts are among the elites at their position. One of them is a mediocre team's No. 3 receiver. Megatron has a league-high 131 targets, Green has 129 and Fitz has 98. Randle is tied for 50th in WR targets, with 64. So a whopping 11 percent of Manning's tosses at Randle have been picked. Obviously, Manning himself is a risk-taking QB having an awful season, and he's got 11 interceptions to receivers not named Randle. But it happened again Sunday night, where in a tied game, Manning got pressure from his blind side, didn't step into his throw, and fired it over the middle too high for Randle, but Randle made the situation worse by reaching up and tipping it in the air, allowing Brandon Meriweather to get the pick. This wasn't as bad as Randle apparently running the wrong route twice in the game's first five minutes in a Thursday night game against the Chicago Bears, both times ending with a pick. But it does illustrate a continued lack of symbiosis that great QB/WR combos often have. Randle has made great strides in his second season, and will be the New York Giants' primary outside weapon when Hakeem Nicks leaves this winter. But he's still got a ways to go.

5. Are we in for a Peyton freeze? One of the most-quoted stats of the weekend surely will be the fact that Peyton Manning is 3-7 in games where the temperature at kickoff is 32 degrees or colder, and Denver is likely to be much colder than that Sunday afternoon. Normally, I'm as skeptical as can be about "career" stats. (Oh, my heavens! That dude has never beaten an NFC East team on the road!) But in this case, I think the concern at least deserves to be discussed.

Manning has 11 TD passes and 12 INTs in those 10 games, and has a 59.4 percent completion rate, well below his 66.7 percent career mark. Do I particularly want to penalize Manning right now for a four-INT game in Dallas in 2010? I don't. Still, you think back on Week 12 of this year against the New England Patriots, and remember Peyton's forehead looking Dreamsicle-colored, and yeah, I mean again, I get the worry. But I can't let it change my fantasy playoff strategy. In fact, Manning is still my No. 1 QB this week. Does he still have the ol' laser-rocket arm? The tape clearly shows he does not. Yet he's still fourth in the NFL in attempts that travel more than 20 yards in the air. He finds a way to get it there, even if it isn't always on a line or totally beautiful.

I think the larger point is philosophical: Few expected that Manning would be a fantasy MVP candidate when they drafted him, and he's taken you this far. Do you really want to abandon him now, and then have him put up big numbers? That's why Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas should all stay in your lineup, too. As Decker proved last week, what goes around eventually comes around. If you go down with the ship because the Denver Broncos suddenly couldn't move around in the cold, frankly I think you'll be able to live with it more comfortably than if you get clever, and decide to bench these stars on a day when they go wild.

6. I have a sneaking suspicion I should like Lamar Miller more. Miller has a clear path to most of the Miami Dolphins' backfield touches. He has excellent quickness and decent long speed. He played well in a bad spot against the New York Jets last week. And yet I ranked him 26th among running backs this week. It didn't feel right. Miller's Jets tape really was pretty good; he never had a ton of room but consistently found creases, almost scored on a screen pass that wound up being called back by a penalty, and got to the outside through heavy traffic on more than one occasion.

I have a feeling if this were Week 4 instead of Week 14, and Daniel Thomas was destined to sit out, I might be more willing to take a chance on Miller. But it's fantasy playoff time, and it's just awfully tough for me to bank on Miller providing the first breakout day of his career. The kid has one 100-yard rushing day and has scored three TDs in his NFL life.

And I'm still waiting for that "it" moment, where Miller really puts it together on a long run. I want to believe he can be the Jamaal Charles/C.J. Spiller kind of back who can win you a week with one play because his raw tools are solid. (Maybe he's not quite the sprinter those other guys are, but his speed is above-average for sure.) Remember that scamper he had in Week 9 against the Bengals? It's early second quarter, Miller breaks an arm tackle and cuts loose in the open field, he's maybe going to score a 52-yard TD and there's an obvious cutback lane at the Cincy 10, if he just darts left he's in the end zone. But he doesn't see it, he gets tackled, and to add insult to injury, he loses a fumble. The pieces haven't been put together yet. This is a mostly not-that-physical player who needs to make big plays and score long TDs to be truly valuable, yet he hasn't done so. The situation probably calls for a higher Miller rank. The Pittsburgh Steelers might be a slightly negative matchup for an opposing back, but they're not an elite run-stuffing D. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't make him a top-20 back. We'll see if that winds up being a bad call.

7. Maurice Jones-Drew's hammy. MJD played well against an uninterested-looking Houston Texans defense Thursday night, breaking a 48-yard third-quarter run -- busting through about four arm tackles about which the Texans should truly be ashamed -- and ending up with 103 yards in three-plus quarters. (Unfortunately, he was stuffed on a first-half try from the Houston 1.)

But the bigger story came in the fourth quarter, when he ended a 15-yard reception clutching at his right hamstring. Jones-Drew didn't return to the game, and you have to worry that his solid production of the past month has ended. The quickness with which the Jacksonville Jaguars got their starting RB to the locker room certainly gave the impression that the injury was serious enough to call Week 15 into question.

Jordan Todman is the obvious candidate to take over lead-back duties for the Jags; he appeared to suffer a cramp in the fourth quarter Sunday night, but returned late. The Jags have a few decent-looking matchups the rest of the way (Buffalo, Tennessee, at Indianapolis). Justin Forsett has a broken foot and shouldn't be a factor. And while Denard Robinson could get a couple carries, it's hard to view him as more than a change-up player. We'll have to wait until next week for certain news on Jones-Drew, but deep-leaguers may want to look at Todman right away.