3 Key Fantasy-Relevant Tendencies for Each NFL Team's Defensive Scheme

Sep 06, 2016
3 Key Fantasy-Relevant Tendencies for Each NFL Team's Defensive Scheme

Below is a data-driven overview of how the schemes of each defensive coaching staff will affect the 2016 fantasy season.

This article is based in part on my research on how defensive coaching impacts fantasy football. I found the following takeaways:

  • A team's play-calling and player usage tendencies (defined here) from the previous season were useful predictors for the current season as long as the team had the same defensive coordinator or play-caller -- when a team changed their DC or play-caller, their tendencies from the previous season weren't as reliable.
  • Coaching tendencies were not highly correlated from one team to the next (except for WR target percentage).

Given that the data I examined in my aforementioned defensive coaching study revealed limitations as far as what it can tell us going forward, I dug deeper for this article, analyzing each defensive scheme and its strengths and weaknesses. Once I had an understanding of each scheme, I found the relevant data on how often the team employs different aspects of the scheme and data on its effect on the corresponding position's fantasy production. I examined things like how often a defense blitzes, shadows with a cornerback, plays safeties deep, etc., and how those strategic tendencies affect where the offense goes with the ball and how effective it is.

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Arizona Cardinals -- HC: Bruce Arians (4th year), DC: James Bettcher (2nd year)

  • Bettcher runs a blitz-heavy man coverage scheme. It was effective in 2015 without producing much in the sack department: Arizona ranked seventh in adjusted net yards/attempt allowed but just 20th in sacks. Chandler Jones, who was fifth in the NFL with 12.5 sacks last season, was traded for to help the defense finish plays with sacks. Arizona was the top fantasy defense in 2015 even with the limited sack output, and with the Panthers, Broncos, and Chiefs all losing impact defenders to free agency or injury, Arizona may run away with that title in 2016 if they stay healthy.
  • Bettcher's blitzing causes opponents to use their RBs in pass protection. Arizona's opponents targeted RBs just 16.2 percent of the time in 2016, 31st in the league. Arizona's safeties in base, Tyrann Matheiu and Tony Jefferson, are also strong in run support. Add in the fact that Arizona's high-powered offense enables them to force opponents to pass (Arizona faced only 302 RB carries in 2015, third fewest), and Arizona is not a team you'll want to start RBs against. Arizona allowed the eighth-fewest PPR points to RBs in 2015.
  • Patrick Peterson usually shadows the opponent’s WR1. Arizona saw the seventh-fewest percentage of passes directed at opposing WR1s in 2015. Arizona allowed the eight-fewest PPR points to WRs in 2015, and you'll probably only want to start a team's WR2 against them. With the stellar Tyrann Mathieu able to match up against slot receivers or opposing TEs, expect opposing offenses to routinely funnel the ball to their No. 2 boundary WR, who will mostly match up with either third-round rookie Brandon Williams or standout special teamer Justin Bethel, who struggled last season when pressed into a bigger role at corner.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Arizona is using Mathieu as a deep safety, veteran Tyvon Branch at slot corner, and Marcus Cooper opposite Peterson. Opponents are not targeting Branch much, and continue to target the corner lined up opposite Peterson, which figures to be Cooper after he took over for Williams.

Atlanta Falcons -- HC: Dan Quinn (2nd year), DC: Richard Smith (2nd year)

  • Smith's defense tends to rush four and drop seven, which invites offenses to settle for underneath throws. You'll want to target Atlanta with pass-catching RBs and TEs, as Atlanta's defense saw the most targets to RBs (25.7%) and TEs (24.9%) in the league in 2015.
  • While Atlanta was more willing to give up throws to RBs and TEs, they had success at slowing down WRs. Atlanta allowed the least PPR points in the league to the position in 2015. Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant tends to stay on the defense's left side, but his presence surely contributed to opponents targeting WRs against Atlanta only 50 percent of the time, also least in the NFL. In three-wide sets, starter Robert Alford moves into the slot, so offenses will likely go at the Falcons' right corner. Undrafted rookie Brian Poole figures to open the year there, but may give way to suspended 2015 second-rounder Jalen Collins when Collins gets back in Week 5.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Trufant has moved around more this year, spending only half only half of his snaps at LCB. He has also shadowed at times.
  • Atlanta's opponents ran in the red zone against Atlanta 50.7% of the time in 2015, third most in the NFL. Teams will likely continue to test Atlanta with the run game, as the team still has question marks at linebacker with 2015 first-rounder Vic Beasley is being moved to strongside linebacker and rookies Deion Jones (who is undersized and raw) and De'Vondre Campbell at the other two spots.

Baltimore Ravens -- HC: John Harbaugh (9th year), DC: Dean Pees (5th year)

  • Pees' defense spends almost all of its time split between base and nickel fronts, and often keeps one safety in the box to defend the run. Baltimore's defense has finished in the top-10 in yards per carry allowed in all four of Pees' seasons as DC. Pees' defenses also tend to keep opposing QBs from taking off running. Baltimore's opponents have never finished higher than 25th in QB rushing yards in the four years since Pees' became the DC.
  • One safety in the box often means the corners are left on an island. Baltimore ranked in the top-eight in percentage of targets allowed to WR1s (25.8%) and WR2s (19.3%).
  • Pees' defenses have been a fantasy wasteland for TEs. Baltimore has been a top-five team versus TEs in three of his four years. The Ravens allowed the sixth-lowest percentage of targets to TEs in 2015 (19.5%).

Buffalo Bills -- HC: Rex Ryan (2nd year), DC: Rob Ryan (1st year)

  • Rex Ryan likes to rely on creating confusion with his blitz packages, which ended up clashing with the personnel he had on hand in his first year with Buffalo. His players failed to pick up his complex scheme, and some of them openly wondered why Ryan often chose to drop the team's best pass rushers into coverage. Buffalo ended up 31st in sack percentage, only the second time in six years that one of Rex's defenses had finished below-average. After berating the Saints for supposedly forcing him to attempt to play Seattle's signature straight-up style of defense (that requires outstanding personnel), Rex's brother, Rob Ryan, has joined in.
  • Opponents combated Rex's confusing middle-of-the-field looks by targeting the perimeter. Buffalo's defense allowed the highest target percentage (66.1) to WRs in the NFL in 2015. Rex's defenses have allowed an above-average target percentage to WRs in every season since 2009.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: This trend has continued in 2016, with the Bills seeing the most WR targets in the NFL through Week 3. The corners are usually left on an island in man coverage, with Stephon Gilmore (RCB) and Ronald Darby (LCB) never traveling or switching sides.
  • Rob got hired by Rex after getting fired from his last two jobs. Rob's defenses have ranked 20th or worse in both points allowed and yards allowed in eight of his 12 seasons as DC. That's not a good look for a Bills team that ranked a middling 15th and 19th in those categories, respectively, in 2015. The hope for Rob is that his previous failures were because of personnel limitations rather than this coaching abilities. Speaking of personnel limitations, the Bills are thin in the front seven after losing rookie linebackers Reggie Ragland and Shaq Lawson to injury, and cutting Manny Lawson. Especially during the first four weeks of 2016 where Buffalo will also be without defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (suspension), teams may look to attack a Buffalo front seven that was one of only nine NFL teams to allow 4.4 or more yards per carry in 2015.

Carolina Panthers -- HC: Ron Rivera (6th year), DC: Sean McDermott (6th year)

  • Carolina allowed an NFL-low 21.5% of targets to WR1s in 2015. But then Josh Norman got released. Per Football Outsiders, only two teams moved their cornerbacks from side to side to match up with opposing WRs more than Carolina. Regression to the mean in WR1 targets is likely for the Panthers.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Regression hasn't occurred yet, as the Panthers have continued to see a below average rate of WR1 targets. Rookie James Bradberry is playing the majority of snaps at Norman's old LCB spot and not traveling. The Panthers play mostly zone coverage out of a cover 3 shell.
  • McDermott’s defense discourages the run. Carolina has been a bottom-10 team in rushing attempts allowed for three straight years. In the red zone, no team saw a smaller percentage of rushing attempts than Carolina in 2015 (32.9%).
  • McDermott's defense also discourages the deep ball. Carolina has allowed a below-average percentage of deep passes in all of its five seasons under McDermott. With Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly also providing stellar coverage in the middle of the field, teams won't have many ways to attack Carolina, and may end up targeting the short-to-intermediate outside routes.

Chicago Bears -- HC: John Fox (2nd year), DC: Vic Fangio (2nd year)

  • Opponents played conservative pass offense in 2015 against a Fangio defense that likes to drop seven into coverage and play a lot of two deep safety with man coverage underneath. No team saw a lower percentage of deep passes than the Bears (14.5%).
  • September 30, 2016 Update: With Kyle Fuller on IR, veteran Tracy Porter has assumed top corner duties and has shadowed at times, but teams are no shying away from targeting the 30-year-old.
  • October 20, 2016 Update: Perhaps due to a multitude of injuries in the secondary, the Bears have been getting targeted at roughly the league average rate by deep throws.
  • A conservative approach was actually a theme against Fangio: In addition to ranking 32nd in percentage of deep passes allowed, the Bears ranked 26th in percentage of passes allowed period in 2015. With Chicago adding linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, who are upgrades in the run game, to a revamped front seven, the ball may end up being funneled into the air more.
  • Fangio's scheme encourages sound play and is based on not taking many chances in terms of playing loaded boxes or sending blitzers. Per Football Outsiders, Chicago was ranked in the bottom-five in average amount of defenders in the box and in sending more than four pass rushers. The Bears forced the fifth-fewest turnovers in the NFL in 2015, but the hope is an offseason talent infusion (plus the natural tendency of turnovers to regress to the mean) can improve that figure in 2016.

Cincinnati Bengals -- HC: Marvin Lewis (14th year), DC: Paul Guenther (3rd year)

  • Opponents passed on Guenther 66.7% of the time in 2015, most in the NFL. This was due in large part to game script more so than scheme, as Guenther's defenses tend to play soft boxes (30th in average amount of defenders in the box, per Football Outsiders) and rush four (first in percentage of time doing so, per FO). This deterred opponents from going deep very often. Cincinnati's percentage of deep passes allowed has been below the league average for the past two seasons.
  • I mentioned game script necessitating the pass, and only one team faced less RB attempts (297) than Cincinnati in 2015. However, with the Bengals protecting deep, the team allowed the fifth most receptions to RBs in the league (102).
  • Guenther’s unit has been susceptible over the middle; it was targeted there more than any team in the NFL in 2015. Not surprisingly, they allowed the second-highest percentage of targets to TEs (24.7%).

Cleveland Browns -- HC: Hue Jackson replaces Mike Pettine, DC: Ray Horton replaces Jim O'Neil

  • Cleveland will likely blitz more in 2016, as Horton's defense in Tennessee finished first in five-man rushes and sixth in six-plus-man rushes, per Football Outsiders. Given the lack of talent on the defense, this could result in giving up a lot of big plays.
  • Percentage of targets allowed to WRs is a somewhat sticky stat when a DC goes from one team to the next. Horton's defenses were targeted by WRs 58.9% of the time in 2015, 16th in the NFL. In other words, Horton's defense isn't expected to funnel the ball in any particular direction. Top corner Joe Haden is often asked to shadow, but his play was poor last season, so it's likely offenses will test him rather than avoid him -- at least until he shows he can return to pre-2015 form.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Haden has not shadowed and stays at LCB, but has continued to struggle and is more so a CB to target than avoid.
  • In five years as a DC, Horton’s teams have ranked in the top seven in rushing attempts allowed each season. Vegas has the Browns projected to be the worst team in the NFL, and bad teams tend to face a ton of rushing attempts, so this will likely continue, whether it is a product of Horton's scheme or not.

Dallas Cowboys -- HC: Jason Garrett (7th year), DC: Rod Marinelli (3rd year)

  • Dallas's defense is built around its best player, RB Ezekiel Elliott. All jokes aside, Dallas would like to limit opposing time of possession, and is built to do so as long as Dak Prescott can hold down the fort in the absence of Tony Romo. Dallas has been in the bottom-six in the NFL in plays allowed on defense over the past two seasons.
  • Marinelli runs a 4-3, cover 2 scheme and would like to get pressure off the edge without blitzing. But with both of Dallas's starting defensive ends suspended to start the year, he may have to blitz more. Then again, Marineli's defense was ranked in the top-10 in three-man rushes and in using six or more defensive backs, per Football Outsiders, and his zone coverage scheme has done a decent job at deterring opponents from targeting WRs: Dallas has ranked 20th or lower in percentage of targets allowed to WRs in both seasons under Marinelli so far.
  • Opponents went with ground shipping against Marinelli in 2015: his defense faced the third-lowest percentage of passes overall (53.9%), including a league-low 44.3% in the red zone. This will likely regress somewhat as long as the offense can be better with Prescott than it was with Brandon Weeden and company.

Denver Broncos -- HC: Gary Kubiak (2nd year), DC: Wade Phillips (2nd year)

  • The 69-year-old Phillips is a wizard at designing specific game plans aimed at stopping the opposing QBs. When they work, the results are exceptional. He held Aaron Rodgers to 77 passing yards in Week 7. He held Derek Carr to 135 yards in Week 9. He held Cam Newton to zero dabs, three turnovers, and one salty post-game press conference in the Super Bowl.
  • Phillips deploys his three stellar cover corners (Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby) on an island and opposing QBs stay away: Denver ranked 31st in percentage of targets allowed to WRs in 2015 (53.1%). Unsurprisingly, they were in the top five in percentage of targets allowed to RBs and TEs.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Denver corners have not traveled, with Talib staying at LCB and Harris starting at RCB and kicking to the slot in the nickel while Roby goes to RCB.
  • Phillips often has safety T.J. Ward playing near the line of scrimmage as a box defender to discourage the run. The Broncos saw the seventh-fewest percentage of runs (37.9%) and allowed the fewest yards per carry in 2015 (3.3).

Detroit Lions -- HC: Jim Caldwell (2nd year), DC: Teryl Austin (3rd year)

  • Austin's defense tends to deter opponents from going deep. Free safety Glover Quin usually is asked to patrol deep centerfield, and the Detroit's percentage of deep passes allowed has been 16 percent below the league average in Austin's first two seasons.
  • Austin's defense allowed the fifth-highest percentage of targets to WRs in 2015. They handled it well, though, allowing only the 19th-most PPR points to the position. The ball tends to go away from Darius Slay, who spends more time on WR1s, and towards the WR2. While Detroit was below average in terms of percentage of targets allowed to WR1s, it was one of only four teams to allow 20 percent or more targets to WR2s, where Nevin Lawson (ranked 100/111 cornerbacks by PFF) figures to line up.
  • Opponents took the air out of the ball in the red zone against Austin's defense in 2015: the Lions ranked 29th in red zone pass percentage allowed. This stat tends to regress to the mean, and the Lions run defense should get a boost with the return of linebacker DeAndre Levy.

Green Bay Packers -- HC: Mike McCarthy (11th year), DC: Dom Capers (8th year)

  • Under Capers, the Packers have seen an above-average percentage of deep balls five years in a row and counting. Capers loves to send an extra blitzer, particularly a defensive back, which can create single coverage downfield. Of course, another reason Green Bay's opponents need to push the ball downfield on Green Bay is because Aaron Rodgers and company tends to force opposing offenses to put up points
  • Capers' defense was targeted over the middle 29.6% of the time in 2015, second most in NFL. This may have something to do with Capers' propensity for the five-man blitz: his defenses have ranked in the top-five in frequency of five-man blitzes in each of the past five seasons.
  • Capers’ defenses have historically had issues containing mobile QBs. Green Bay allowed the most rushing yards to QBs (381) and the fourth most rushing attempts to QBs (63) in 2015.

Houston Texans -- HC: Bill O’Brien (3rd year), DC: Romeo Crennel (3rd year)

  • Opponents kept it balanced against Crennel's defense in 2015, passing 59.5% of the time overall (14th) and 56.1% of the time in the red zone (17th). The real issue is whether opponents use play-action against Houston. Per Football Outsiders, Houston ranked 30th in play-action DVOA in 2015, and has been below average for the last three seasons.
  • Because J.J. Watt is a double-team-demanding monster, TEs are often forced into additional blocking duties against Crennel's defense. The Texans saw the fourth-lowest percentage of targets to TEs in 2015 after seeing the lowest in 2014.
  • October 20, 2016 Update: Despite Watt's absence, the Texans are still not allowing much production to TEs. Through Week 6, the team has allowed just 3.3 receptions per game to TEs, the seventh-fewest in the NFL.
  • A lack of TE involvement, of course, means more targets for WRs. Crennel's defense has ranked in the top-11 in opposing frequency of WR targets in each of his two seasons in Houston.

Indianapolis Colts --HC: Chuck Pagano (5th year), DC: Ted Monachino replaces Greg Manusky

  • This is Monachino's first gig as DC at the collegiate or professional level. He coached under Pagano in 2011 when Pagano was the Ravens’ DC, so it's unlikely the Colts scheme changes dramatically, as Pagano will still have a large influence on the defense. Vontae Davis is thought of as a talented corner, but the Colts were third in percentage of passes targeted at WR1s in 2015. It's not that Davis doesn't move around, it's that teams weren't reluctant to attack him in single coverage, which resulted from Pagano's tendency to blitz often. Slot corner Darius Butler should continue to be a frequent target after being graded 89th in coverage out of 111 qualified corners by PFF in 2015.
  • The percentage of passes a defense faces tends to have some year-to-year carryover even when they switch DCs. Opponents passed just 57.8% of the time against Indianapolis in 2015 (22nd), despite the Colts ranking fifth in average amount of defenders in the box (6.37), per Football Outsiders.
  • Upon getting the job, Monachino stated the mandatory cliche that he wants his defense to be "one that attacks". In theory, that would mean more single coverage outside. If relative senior citizens Robert Mathis and Trent Cole can't get home in time, the Colts will go a fourth straight season with opponents targeting them deep at higher than the league average rate.
  • October 20, 2016 Update: The Colts have seemingly remedied their deep ball issue, as they're allowing a lot more underneath stuff while opponents have attempted the second-fewest amount of deep passes in the league against them through Week 6.

Jacksonville Jaguars -- HC: Gus Bradley (4th year), DC: Todd Wash (3rd year with team, spent last two as defensive line coach) replaces Bob Babich

  • This is still Bradley's defense from his Seattle days, but Wash is determined to be more aggressive with pressure and play less zone coverage. This could force opponents to start throwing to their WRs more -- Jacksonville has ranked 26th or lower in pass ratio against in each of Bradley's three seasons. Of course, the team upgraded at corner with Jalen Ramsey.
  • October 20.2016 Update: After starting the year the slot, Ramsey has began to play outside and shadow at times.
  • The Jaguars' defense may put up better numbers under Wash simply because of a talent infusion. The team adds Ramsey, Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, Tashaun Gipson, Myles Jack, and Prince Amukamara. Jacksonville actually finished a respectable 15th in yards/play allowed in 2015 (5.4), but gave up the second-most points/game in the league (28.0).
  • The Jaguars allowed the third-most receptions (105) to RBs in 2015, a stat which should improve as the athletic rookie linebacker Jack gets more playing time.

Kansas City Chiefs -- HC: Andy Reid (4th year), DC: Bob Sutton (4th year)

  • Eric Berry's coverage can make a QB ignore his TE. Sutton's defense has seen a below-average percentage of targets directed at TEs in each of his three seasons at Arrowhead.
  • With Berry on TEs (and RBs often needing to stay in and deal with the rush), opponents were in the top-10 in percentage of passes to WRs against Sutton's defense in each of the last three seasons. Last season, the solid duo of rookie corner Marcus Peters and departed veteran Sean Smith allowed the Chiefs to not worry about matching up, and Kansas City's corners almost always stuck to one side. The team shadowed more in 2014 when Smith was the lone standout, and may again do so more in 2016 now that Smith is gone to Oakland and only Peters remains. Expect opponents to continue to target WRs against Kansas City, especially whoever lines up outside across from Peters (2015 third-rounder Steven Nelson is currently projected to do so while Phillip Gaines mans the slot, although Gaines could also take over outside duties once he progresses from a knee injury).
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Peters has not shadowed to date. He plays left corner over 90% of the time.
  • Sutton's defense was attacked via pass 63.1% of the time (fifth in the NFL). Kansas City commonly plays a dime defense with a four-man rush, so opposing QBs need to be able to progress through reads.

Los Angeles Rams -- HC: Jeff Fisher (5th year), DC: Gregg Williams (3rd year)

  • Opponents are unlikely to avoid the left side of the field against Williams's defense as much as they did in 2015 now that Janoris Jenkins has departed in free agency. Last season, the Rams faced the third-lowest percentage of passes to the offensive left.
  • Williams's defense was targeted deep on only 14.9% of targets (31st in NFL), which will happen when you have pass rushers like Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn bearing down on the opposing QB before routes have had time to develop. In addition, Williams often blitzes. He finished in sixth in frequency of sending five pass rushers, fifth in frequency of sending six or more, and first in frequency of defense back blitzes, per Football Outsiders. Williams's philosophy on hitting opposing QBs: "Kill the head, the body will die."
  • On the flip side, RBs were targeted on 23.8% of targets (third in NFL), mainly due to opponents trying to slow down the Rams' talented defensive line with screen passes.

Miami Dolphins -- HC: Adam Gase replaces Dan Campbell, DC: Vance Joseph replaces Lou Anorumo

  • Joseph, who was previously the Bengals' secondary coach, heads a new defensive staff for Miami. I've mentioned a few times that opposing pass percentage tends to have some carryover some from year to year even when a team changes DCs; the Dolphins saw the lowest percentage of passes in the NFL in 2015 (53.3%). In 2015, Miami faced such a high percentage of runs largely due to game script -- only four defenses were on the field for more snaps when trailing than Miami. In 2016, the Dolphins may face a lot of runs not only because of game script (Miami's current Vegas win total of 7 is one of the NFL's lowest), but also due to the new wide nine scheme Joseph will implement. The wide nine asks the defensive ends to line up outside the tackles, which can leave the team vulnerable to interior runs because there are three interior offensive lineman to block two defensive tackles (with a saving grace perhaps being that one of those defensive tackles will be Ndamukong Suh).
  • In Miami's 4-3 scheme, linebackers will usually be asked to cover RBs. Jelani Jenkins graded out below average in coverage last season according to PFF, and newcomer Kiko Alonso has a good reputation in that area, but graded out as replacement level. Expect teams to continue testing a Miami defense that gave up a league-leading eight receiving touchdowns to RBs in 2015.
  • Miami wants to play tight man coverage on outside, and although top corner Byron Maxwell played at a below-average level last season in Philadelphia, teams may end up targeting their No. 2 WRs even more than Maxwell, who will likely spend more time on No. 1s. Miami's other outside cornerback will likely be a rookie: second-rounder Xavien Howard out of Baylor. If Howard falters, he would likely give way to more inexperience in second-year former college WR Tony Lippett.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: It was actually Maxwell who has faltered, getting benched for Lippett in Week 4. Prior to the benching, Maxwell was targeted more than Howard, who was targeted more than slot corner Bobby McCain. Howard predominantly plays at LCB and has not traveled.

Minnesota Vikings -- HC: Mike Zimmer (3rd year), DC: George Edwards (3rd year)

  • Zimmer's defense has improved statistically every year thus far as they continue to get more familiar with his 4-3, opponent-specific scheme. Minnesota was 15th in yards per play allowed, but fifth in points per game allowed -- the run-heavy approach on the other side of the ball shortens games. Interestingly, Zimmer's opponent tendencies resemble the NFL mean almost to a tee.
  • Opponents hovered around the league average in pass ratio during all three years of Zimmer's tenure. He brought blitzes at roughly a league average rate in 2015, but the Vikings defense achieved pressure on a league-leading 49 percent of blitzes, so Zimmer may blitz even more in 2016 as long as it continues to have that kind of success. Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 first-rounder, theoretically has the makings of a shutdown corner, but with 38-year-old Terrance Newman continuing to defy Father Time, both cornerbacks were targeted at an equal rate in 2015. The smart bet is on Newman slowing down sooner than later, which should lead to more targets going his way.
  • Zimmer's defense was 10th in percentage of targets allowed to WRs in 2015 (61.0%). Linebackers Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway are good in coverage, which led to Minnesota allowing the tenth-fewest receptions by RBs in 2015.

New England Patriots -- HC: Bill Belichick (17th year), DC: Matt Patricia (5th year)

  • Belichick and Patricia have been successful at scheming against the opposition's top receiving option for three years and counting. New England's defense was 31st in percentage of targets allowed to WR1s in 2015.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: The Patriots have ued both Malcom Butler and Logan Ryan in shadow coverage. Ryan is slightly bigger than Butler and usually gets assigned to the bigger WR of the two. Both will follow WRs into the slot if necessary.
  • Belichick and Patricia didn't need to send extra rushers to register sacks in 2015. They sent four roughly 75% of the time and still were second in the league in sack rate (7.6%). Even with Belichick and Patricia overseeing a mostly successful pass rush, opponents have gone deep on New England at 25% more than league average, which is mostly out of necessity. New England counters by dropping eight in coverage more than any other team in the league (22 percent of the time in 2015, per Football Outsiders).
  • New England played in a base defense (four defensive backs) only 17 percent of the time and averaged the fewest defenders in the box (5.89) in 2015, per Football Outsiders. However, that didn't cause the Patriots to suffer in run defense. New England allowed 4.0 yards per carry, which is slightly above average for a defense. Strong safety Patrick Chung does well covering TEs, but is also a formidable run-stopping box safety when called upon to fill that role.

New Orleans Saints -- HC: Sean Payton (10th year), DC: Dennis Allen (2nd year, replaced Rob Ryan in Week 11 of 2015)

  • The Saints fired Rob Ryan and promoted Allen because he was in charge of the third down plan and the Saints were ranked sixth in third down defense at the time. But third down percentage isn't very predictive compared to, you know, the actual quality of your defense. The Saints went on to allow a league-high 50.8% conversion rate over the rest of the season. New Orleans apparently wants to play a defense similar to Seattle's cover 3, but Seattle's defense is successful not just because of their scheme, but also their talent on all three levels. Ryan referred to the copycat defense the Saints are trying to employ as a "b------t defense". This year's Saints will likely use less two-gap assignments on their defensive line as they switch into more of a 4-3, which should cause at least some regression from a league-worst 4.9 yards per carry allowed in 2015. The Saints lack talent in their front seven, however, and are likely to again be one of the league's worst defenses against the run.
  • Despite detestable play from CB Brandon Browner last year, Saints opponents targeted WRs only 50.7% of the time, 31st in the NFL. Nevertheless, former CFL standout corner Delvin Breaux is not someone to avoid. While he does cause an above average amount of pass breakups, he also got beat for a league-leading eight touchdowns.
  • Meanwhile, opposing offenses unleashed the TE on Allen's defense 26.1% of the time, which would have been tops in the NFL over a full season. But we can't necessarily even pin that on Allen; opponents have been targeting the TE against the Saints at an above-average rate since 2011.
  • September 30th, 2016 Update: With corners Breaux and P.J. Williams out, opponents are now targeting WRs against the Saints at a higher rate than the league average, while targeting TEs against them at a lower rate than the league average

New York Giants -- HC: Ben McAdoo (spent previous 2 seasons as OC) replaces Tom Coughlin, DC: Steve Spagnuolo (2nd year)

  • Opponent tendencies against Spagnuolo's defense didn't stray far from league norms in 2015. They wouldn't have meant much anyway given the Giants' (on-paper?) defensive upgrades. With added talent along the defensive line (Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison) and at cornerback (Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Leon Hall), opponent tendencies are likely to shift towards attacking the Giants linebackers and young safeties, which favors RBs and receivers who line up and work over the middle.
  • Ever since 2009, Spags has been particularly unsuccessful wherever he went as a coordinator -- or at least his teams have been. Two straight last-place finishes in yards allowed. Twenty-sixth or worse in points allowed in four of the last five years. An average ranking of 26.2 in rushing yards allowed over the last five years. Given that the Giants want to run an up-tempo offense that is capable of scoring a lot of points, the Giants defense may again be generous in allowing volume stats, even if their offseason acquisitions improve efficiency.
  • Spagnuolo's defense was obliterated by TEs to the tune of league-highs in both receptions and yardage allowed. TE production is weakly correlated from one year to the next, but in this case it's no coincidence. The Giants have declined against the TE since 2012 due to the roster thinning out at linebacker and safety. Most of the offseason additions (save for third-round rookie safety Darian Thompson) won't help much against TEs, so the Giants are likely to continue being a target for the TE position.

New York Jets -- HC: Todd Bowles (2nd year), DC: Kacy Rogers (2nd year)

  • Bowles and Rogers are aggressive, sending pressure over 50% of the time, but that only translated into a league-average sack rate in 2015. The Jets sent blitzes of six men or more at a higher rate than any other NFL team in 2015, per Football Outsiders.
  • Opponents weren't afraid to throw on the Jets despite the presence of Darrelle Revis. The Jets faced the fifth-highest pas ratio (63.2%) and sixth highest red zone pass ratio (61.9%) in the league in 2015. Revis still has excellent technique, but his athleticism has begun its inevitable decline. As a result, the Jets saw the 14th-highest rate of passes targeted at WR1s despite Revis often shadowing.
  • The Jets allowed the fewest percentage of targets to TEs in 2015, but that may due to the weak strength of schedule rather than anything Bowles and Rogers were doing. In fact, Rob Gronkowski and Delanie Walker combined to average 11.7 targets in three games against the Jets in 2015.

Oakland Raiders -- HC: Jack Del Rio (2nd year), DC: Ken Norton Jr. (2nd year)

  • Norton is a Pete Carroll disciple whose aggressive scheme lacked the requisite talent to stop the pass in 2015, when Oakland allowed the six-highest frequency of passes in the league (62.6%). The team added cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson to beef up the secondary and hopefully give opponents some pause about airing it out.
  • Norton's defense saw the fifth-highest percentage of short targets in the league in 2015. This will likely continue in 2016 -- Smith's addition should help on the outside and Nelson's addition should help cover deep, but slot corner D.J. Hayden and the team's linebackers are the unit's weak links in coverage.
  • Norton is hoping that the signing of linebacker Bruce Irvin with reduce the amount of double teams Khalil Mack faces. Despite Mack, the Raiders were below average in sack percentage in 2015 even though they blitzed at an above average rate. This should only help the defense against QBs. In 2015, the Raiders gave up the 13th most fantasy points per game to opposing QBs despite facing the third-most pass attempts.

Philadelphia Eagles -- HC: Doug Pederson replaces Chip Kelly, DC: Jim Schwartz replaces Bill Davis

  • Schwartz's defense may look better than Davis' simply because the Eagles offense will slow down the pace under Pederson. No defense faced more plays than the Eagles in 2015. For comparison's sake, Andy Reid and Pederson's Chiefs faced 111 less plays in 2015, or 6.9 less per game.
  • Schwartz will employ a wide nine scheme out of a 4-3 base, which is suited to the Eagles' talented defensive line, but could still be problematic in the run game with the defensive ends lined up outside of the tackles and safeties being forced to take on blockers near the line of scrimmage. In 2015, no team allowed more rushing yards to RBs (1,930, good for 4.57 yards per carry) than the Eagles, and the team could find itself near the top of that list again in 2016.
  • The Eagles have been in the top-seven in percentage of targets allowed to WRs for three years and counting. The last time Schwartz was DC, his 2014 Bills ranked eighth in that category. Opponents are likely to attack the Eagles on the outside, where Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll have been average at best. Safety Malcolm Jenkins was excellent covering the slot on roughly half of his snaps last season.

Pittsburgh Steelers -- HC: Mike Tomlin (10th year), DC: Keith Butler (2nd year)

  • Butler's 3-4 scheme tries to create confusion by frequently sending an extra rusher: the Steelers rushed five 33.2 percent of the time in 2015, second most in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. This scheme can be effective against less experienced QBs who aren't as adept at making pre-snap reads, but more experienced QBs can easily pick the defense apart for short gains. The defense allowed the third most passing yards in the league despite the defense permitting the seventh-lowest percentage of deep passes.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Due to two rookies (Sean Davis at nickelback and Artie Burns at corner) logging extensive snaps in the secondary, Butler has gone away from the blitz to protect his young defensive backs, playing mostly zone coverage out of cover 2 or cover 3 looks. They are content with giving up completions underneath and rallying to make the tackle.
  • Butler saw his defense allow the second-highest percentage of targets to WR1s in the NFL, so the team went out and drafted cornerback Artie Burns in the first round. Offenses are likely to aggressively attack some combination of Burns, third-year man Ross Cockrell, and new acquisition Justin Gilbert on the outside while avoiding steady slot corner William Gay.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: The Steelers don't play much man coverage, but Ross Cockrell did travel to follow A.J. Green in Week 2 despite playing mostly zone, and a team defensive effort that included safety help for Cockrell held Green to a 2-38, so the Steelers are seemingly capable of scheming to take away a team's top WR.
  • Only five teams saw fewer rushing attempts than the Steelers in 2015. Besides the fact that the Steelers tend to score a lot of points and put pressure on opponents to the the same, there is also the fact that the Steelers were good against the run: they were one of only nine teams to permit less than four yards per carry.

San Diego Chargers -- HC: Mike McCoy (4th year), DC: John Pagano (4th year)

  • The Chargers have been a bottom-five unit in yards per rush allowed in all three seasons that they've employed Pagano. He'll hope the defense can improve with the additions of No. 3 overall rookie Joey Bosa and free agent Brandon Mebane so he can chalk the previous failures up to personnel shortcomings. Mebane, however, ranked 131st in PFF's run defense grades in 2015, and Bosa is a questionable fit for the scheme and is an undersized run defender. Expect opponents to continue to challenge San Diego on the ground.
  • September 20, 2016: Bosa has played well and the Chargers have allowed only 3.8 yards per carry (10th in NFL) and 19.2 rushing attempts per game (8th) to RBs through Week 6.
  • The Chargers were targeted at an above average rate at every other position besides WR1, and were targeted deep at the 11th highest rate in the league. The team acquired nickel back Casey Heyward from the Packers, which could result in opposing offenses mostly favoring whoever shadow corner Jason Verrett and Heyward aren't covering -- often the WR2.
  • September 30th, 2016 Update: Heyward is playing outside (and playing well) while Brandon Flowers is playing in the slot, making Flowers the team's most vulnerable corner on paper.
  • The frequent gashing of the Chargers in the run game have led to two straight bottom-eight finishes in opponent pass ratio, but the Chargers pass defense is a solid unit. When opposing offenses do take to the air, they generally avoid standout corner Jason Verrett: San Diego ranked 27th in opposing WR1 target percentage. Verrett can shadow when necessary.
  • October 20, 2016 Update: Verrett has been lost for the year, pushing both Flowers and Heyward outside with Craig Mager in the slot. All three have been playing decently through six weeks and have been targeted roughly equally.

San Francisco 49ers -- HC: Chip Kelly replaces Jim Tomsula, DC: Jim O’Neil replaces Eric Mangini

  • Kelly may cause his defense to face an excessive amount of plays. The Eagles ranked first or second in plays allowed in each of his three seasons.
  • O'Neil was the Browns' DC in 2014-15. His defenses there were second in percentage of passes targeted at WRs in both 2014 (66.8%) and 2015 (64.8%). That's similar to Kelly’s and Davis's Eagles unit in 2015, which was targeted with WRs 61.5% of the time. Regardless of market shares, WRs should put up decent numbers against the 49ers simply because of the increased play volume.
  • The 49ers faced the fifth-highest percentage of rushes in 2015. That's likely to continue; Vegas has the 49ers pegged as a five-win team. Over the last two years with O'Neil coordinating their defense, the Browns faced the third-most rushes per game (29.9) and allowed the fourth most yards per carry (4.51).

Seattle Seahawks -- HC: Pete Carroll (7th year), DC: Kris Richard (2nd year)

  • Richard is the latest of a revolving door of coaches who get to lay back and say they coordinated the league's top scoring defense -- Seattle's had three DCs do that over the past four years. Seattle routinely plays a cover 3 shell out of base or nickel, almost never using a sixth defensive back. Seattle also doesn't blitz much, instead relying on talented pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to get home.
  • Richard's defense ranked 29th in passes targeted to the right (36.5%), and 28th in passes targeted at WRs (54.9%), all thanks to the presence of Richard Sherman.
  • Given the vaunted Legion of Boom, Seattle's 2015 opponents thought it wise to pepper Richard's defense with the second-highest percentage of RB targets in the league, but Seattle shut that down, allowing just 4.98 yards per target and no touchdowns all year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- HC: Dirk Koetter (1st year; was OC in 2015) replaces Lovie Smith, DC: Mike Smith replaces Leslie Frazer

  • Under former head coach Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay led the league in average men in the box on defense for the past two seasons, while Mike Smith's Falcons were 22nd in this category in 2014, per Football Outsiders. If Mike employs softer fronts, Tampa Bay could be in line for a drop-off from their 3.4 yards per carry allowed mark in 2015, which was second in the NFL.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: There has been no drop-off in run defense through Week 3; Tampa Bay is allowing 3.5 yards per carry.
  • Tampa Bay faced a pass on 55.7% of plays in 2015, 27th in the NFL. That may have been because opponents didn't need to pass much to accomplish their goals: Tampa Bay allowed a league-worst 69.9% completion rate, a full 1.5 percentage points worse than the second-worst team, New Orleans. WR1s were the only WRs opponents targeted at an above average rate against Tampa Bay in 2015. With 33-year-old Brent Grimes taking over as the top corner, opponents should have no problem continuing to target WR1s, but may also target WR2s and WR3s more with rookie first-rounder Vernon Hargreaves expected to man one of the other cornerback positions after a strong preseason. (Hargreaves will likely kick inside to the nickel in three-wide sets, but may play outside in two-wide sets.)
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Tampa Bay's corners don't travel, with Grimes spending all of his time at LCB and Alterraun Verner spending all of his time at RCB. Hargreaves plays in the slot in the nickel, but has also played snaps at RCB in place of Verner. Opponents are targeting Hargreaves the most.
  • Opponents threw deep on Tampa Bay on only 15.0% of passes in 2015, third fewest in the league. Mike Smith likes to blitz a bit more than Lovie, which could force even more quick, short throws. Opposing TEs benefited the most, with Tampa Bay's 91 receptions allowed against the position good for fifth most in the league.

Tennessee Titans -- HC: Mike Mularkey (2nd year, took over as HC in Week 9 of 2015), DC: Dick LeBeau replaces Ray Horton

  • LeBeau will take over the defensive play calling after being an assistant in 2015. He runs a 3-4 scheme that aims to take away the run by playing single high safety and bringing the second safety into the box. Only one team averaged more defenders in the box (6.45) than the Titans, per Football Outsiders. LeBeau's scheme did quietly neutralize RBs. Tennessee allowed 3.9 yards per carry en route to permitting the fourth-fewest fantasy points (PPR) and fifth-fewest (standard) to RBs, which is almost unheard of for a 2-14 team. No team allowed fewer receptions to RBs (56) than the Titans.
  • Opponents passed 54% on the Titans (29th in NFL), but when they did pass, they often went deep. The Titans faced the eighth highest frequency of deep passes in the league. LeBeau's scheme usually has only a single high safety that is counted on to range over and help out on deep passes.
  • LeBeau's 3-4 scheme tries to create confusion by frequently sending an extra rusher: the Titans rushed five 33.3 percent of the time in 2015, most in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. This scheme can be effective against less experienced QBs who aren't as adept at making pre-snap reads, but more experienced QBs can easily pick the defense apart. Of course, it's all a moot point if Tennessee doesn't get improved play from their cornerbacks and new free safety Rashad Johnson. Perrish Cox was the only Titans corner with more than 200 snaps to grade out as average in coverage by PFF last season. Jason McCourty's and newcomer Antwon Blake's coverage grades were nearly 20 percent lower than released former whipping boy Blidi-Wreh Wilson.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Perhaps due to a lack of confidence in the secondary, the Titans have dialed back their blitzing. Teams have been attacking the struggling LCB Perrish Cox. The Titans cornerbacks have not traveled thus far.

Washington Redskins -- HC: Jay Gruden (3rd year), DC: Joe Barry (2nd year)

  • Opponents targeted WR1s at a below average rate (24.0%, 21st in the NFL) against Washington last season. Star free agent acquisition Josh Norman should shore up the top cornerback spot and lead to a further reduction in targets to WR1s. On the other hand, cornerback Bashaud Breeland will again be tested after seeing the 16th-highest target percentage of 75 qualifying corners in 2015, per Football Outsiders. In any case, Norman should help Washington get out from the bottom-five in fantasy points allowed to WRs.
  • September 30, 2016 Update: Starting in the fourth quarter of Week 2, Norman began to travel with Dez Bryant, and also traveled with Dez Bryant in Week 3. Norman is likely to shadow top WRs after Washington received major criticism for not shadowing in Week 1 and allowing Antonio Brown to burn them for two TDs by lining up wherever Norman was not.
  • Barry's defense predominantly plays two deep safeties, a scheme which can often leave a gaping hole in the middle of the field between the two safeties. Not surprisingly, Washington was targeted over the middle 27.3% of the time (third most in the NFL). The Redskins allowed the eighth-most receiving yards to TEs (858). Given the scheme and Norman's arrival, this trend should continue in 2016.
  • Leaving two safeties deep makes a defense vulnerable against the run. So does predominantly playing with five or more defensive backs, as the Redskins did 74% of the time in 2015, per Football Outsiders. Washington paid dearly for their pass-focused scheme, allowing the second most yards per carry in the NFL (4.8). Perhaps the arrival of Norman will convince Barry to bring one of his safeties closer to the line of scrimmage.

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