Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Performances?

Jul 02, 2021
Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Performances?

We often turn to strength of schedule as a tool in determining a player’s potential for success over the course of a season. In this study, we retreated to a dark corner of the fantasy library and complied defensive data from 2010–2020, in an effort to see if fantasy points allowed to each position correlated strongly, somewhat or not all from one year to the next, hoping for a sticky stat or two to sink our teeth into.

Below is a position-by-position analysis of the best and worst defenses in terms of half-PPR fantasy points allowed last season, and what it all potentially means for 2021.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Quarterbacks

When looking at year-to-year fantasy points allowed across all positions, points allowed to quarterbacks had the highest correlation coefficient of .35, which is still on the lower side of moderate. The top-five defenses against signal-callers repeated their performance 33% of the time the next season, with an average finish of DEF11.

On the other side of the spectrum, the defenses in the bottom five versus quarterbacks, ended up there again 22.2% of the time, with an average ending rank of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Detroit Lions 32nd 386.8 24.2
Atlanta Falcons 31st 384.1 24.0
New York Jets 30th 361.7 22.6
Jacksonville Jaguars 29th 358.4 22.4
Tennessee Titans 28th 354.2 22.1

The Lions were abysmal against opposing quarterbacks last season, ranking dead-last in passing touchdowns allowed (38) and 30th in passing yards allowed. Atlanta wasn't much better, as they ended last year as 32nd in passing yards allowed, 31st in completed passes allowed and 30th in surrendered touchdowns. The Jets, Jags and Titans all landed 21st or worse in all of these categories.

Only one of these bottom-feeding units has the potential to climb out of this tier in 2021, as the Titans made some necessary moves to improve the defensive side of the ball in order to legitimately contend. They revamped the cornerback position by cutting Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson along with bringing in Janoris Jenkins through free agency and rookie Caleb Farley with their 2021 first-round pick. Another weak spot, edge rushing, was addressed as well by signing veterans Bud Dupree and Denico Autry, and drafting Rashad Weaver in the fourth round.

Top-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Los Angeles Rams 1st 230.2 14.4
Pittsburgh Steelers 2nd 244.8 15.3
Washington Football Team 3rd 267.8 16.7
Green Bay Packers 4th 268.1 16.8
New York Giants 5th 270.7 16.9

The Rams were the best fantasy defense across the board against the quarterback in 2020, allowing the least amount of passing touchdowns (17), and coming in second in both fewest passing yards allowed (3,401) and total sacks (53). The Steelers were also solid in all categories, ranking third in both passing yards allowed and interceptions, and eighth at defending passing touchdowns. The Football Team ended 2020 ranked in the single-digits in every statistical category mentioned, while the Packers and Giants were just outside.

LA, Washington and Green Bay are in great spots to repeat their success against the pass in 2021, and the Giants added a few exciting pieces in this year's draft, selecting edge-rusher Azeez Ojulari in the second round and Elerson Smith at pick 116 to address the pass rush.

The one group that could take a dip this season in terms of signal-caller defense is Pittsburgh. Edge-rusher Bud Dupree left for Tennessee and while they added some bodies via this year's draft in linebacker Buddy Johnson, DE Isaiah Loudermilk and OLB Quincy Roche who were taken in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds respectively, there's no telling how any of these guys will fit in this defense.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Running Backs

The running back position proved the second-highest year-to-year correlation in terms of FPA at .30, which makes sense as the good teams tend to remain that way and game script is extremely important for running back production. The five defenses that finished the best against rushers repeated 27% of the time with an average ending rank of DEF11.

For the poor defenses, the five worst units found themselves at the bottom 31% of the time in the following season, with an average rank of DEF20.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Detroit Lions 32nd 480.0 30.0
Houston Texans 31st 469.4 29.3
Jacksonville Jaguars 30th 436.3 27.3
Las Vegas Raiders 29th 416.0 26.0
Minnesota Vikings 28th 386.1 24.1

Detroit was down in the furnace room when it came to defending the running back position in 2020, as they were 28th and 31st in rushing yards allowed and rushing touchdowns, and also 31st and 32nd in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns to running backs, respectively. The Raiders were also brutal last season against backs ranking 24th or worse in all four categories mentioned above.

The Jaguars sat 27th or lower in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and receiving yards allowed, but managed to come in 18th in overall receiving yards surrendered in 2020. Minnesota had a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde going on, as they were awful against the rush, but ranked in single digits at defending running backs against both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Expect Minnesota to take a leap forward in 2021 after Mike Zimmer was mortified by his defense's performance last season. Star edge-rusher Danielle Hunter is healthy and back, and on the interior Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson should occupy and terrorize the backfield.

Top-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New Orleans Saints 1st 254.9 15.9
Washington Football Team 2nd 269.9 16.9
Pittsburgh Steelers 3rd 274.2 17.1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 4th 276.0 17.3
Los Angeles Rams 5th 278.8 17.4

We see three defensive units from the QB category show up as tops against RBs. The Rams, WFT and Steelers were all also stout against opposing backs, while New Orleans was seventh against both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, third at defending receiving yards from the backfield, and allowed the fifth-fewest receptions from RBs in 2020. Tampa Bay, who allowed the 18th most half-PPR points to QBs last season, fared far better against RBs, finishing first in rushing yards allowed and third in rushing scores allowed.

We may see the Patriots sneak into the top five in 2020, with the return of D'Onta Hightower and the acquisitions of Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy. They also added promising rookies Christian Barmore (DT) and Ronnie Perkins to assist on the edge.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Wide Receivers

This is where we start to get very little year-to-year correlation mostly due to the volatility of the position. Of the best five defenses versus pass-catchers, 29% repeated the next season, with an average rank of DEF13. At the bottom, the five least efficient groups against the receiver were there again 27% of the time, with an end ranking of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Atlanta Falcons 32nd 598.7 37.4
Detroit Lions 31st 583.3 36.5
Tennessee Titans 30th 579.6 36.2
Dallas Cowboys 29th 570.4 35.7
Minnesota Vikings 28th 551.2 34.5

Atlanta's secondary was crazy porous in 2020, allowing the most receiving yards (3,348) to wideouts, the third-most receptions (244) and the fifth-most receiving touchdowns (21) to the receiver position. Both the Lions and Titans earned bottom spots as well, ranking no higher than 25th in any defensive category against opposing wide receivers. Dallas and Minnesota surrendered plenty of yards and scores to wideouts, but were actually in the middle of the pack in receptions to the position.

As mentioned above, the Vikings made some improvements to their bottom-level defense this offseason which included totally re-vamping their secondary during free agency, signing safety Xavier Woods and the cornerback duo of Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick. We shouldn't see the Minnesota defensive unit show up on this list next year as a lower-level performer.

Top-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Los Angeles Rams 1st 353.5 22.1
Kansas City Chiefs 2nd 400.1 25.0
Washington Football Team 3rd 409.9 25.6
Buffalo Bills 4th 418.4 26.2
New England Patriots 5th 420.4 26.3

Not surprisingly, the Rams show up here again, and impressively, they allowed close to 50 fewer half-PPR points to opposing receivers than the next best defense. LA was top dog in defending receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, and eighth against receptions to the position.

We see the Chiefs enter the conversation here, and they could even take a step forward in 2021 with rookie L'Jarius Sneed on the roster, a fourth-round cornerback who has shown excellent coverage skills. The remaining three defensive units all posted single-digit rankings in two of the three categories against WRs, with a middle of the pack designation in one.

Buffalo could be the ones to fall back a bit this season against opposing receivers, as their cornerback room is shallow beyond Tre'Davious White.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Tight Ends

We saw the lowest year-to-year correlation points allowed to tight ends—even a negative correlation for teams that finished in the bottom five—most likely because facing just a few dominant tight ends can really make a team appear worse against the position since there are so few big names in general.

Only 20% of defensive units that finished in the top five were there again the next season, with an average end ranking of DEF14. Of the five teams that were the worst at defending tight ends, 24% landed in the basement that next season, with an average finish of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. TE, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New York Jets 32nd 240.0 15.0
Chicago Bears 31st 207.2 13.0
Cleveland Browns 30th 201.7 12.6
Atlanta Falcons 29th 201.1 12.6
Jacksonville Jaguars 28th 192.3 12.0

If you streamed tight ends at all last season, you knew that the Jets were a sieve for fantasy points to the position. They sat dead-last in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns allowed, and 31st in yielded receptions to the tight end. They should see some improvement with a defensive-minded head coach in Robert Saleh, but he's facing an uphill battle.

Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta were all pretty permeable as well, ranking no better than 25th in any of those three categories. The Jaguars were interesting in that they were the second-worst unit at defending touchdowns to tight ends, but ranked 17th in reception yards allowed and fifth in receptions to the position. Giving up double-digit touchdowns (13) to the tight end certainly hikes up that fantasy points allowed total throughout the course of the season.

Since the correlation is so insignificant here, there’s not much point in going over any potential turnover, but if faced with a difficult draft decision and one tight end is in the same division as one of these bottom units, they could edge out the other based on the history of FPA.

Top-Five Defenses vs. TE, 2020
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
San Francisco 49ers 1st 99.4 6.2
Pittsburgh Steelers 2nd 113.8 7.1
Green Bay Packers 3rd 130.7 8.2
Indianapolis Colts 4th 133.1 8.3
New England Patriots 5th 133.8 8.4

The 49ers shut down the tight end above everyone last year, allowing a league-low 53 receptions to the position, a mere 481 receiving yards (1st), and they only gave up six touchdowns which tied for sixth. Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Indy and the Patriots all fell within single-digit numbers when it came to defending two of the three statistical categories for TEs, with one category coming in just outside the top 10 for each unit.

All five of these defenses are projecting similar for 2020 so treat them as you would for any other position you’re looking at during the draft. I know that tight end is unilaterally the least favorite position after defense and kicker, of course, but there is a nice young crop of players emerging, so give them the due diligence when it comes to research.

Bottom Line

We’re all searching for an edge in fantasy football, and using strength of schedule is something that can benefit your roster and bottom line at the end of the season. At 4for4, we created the metric schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed, or aFPA, which takes schedule bias out and rectifies the concerns over raw fantasy points allowed discussed above, leveling the playing field to compare matchups in an apples-to-apples manner.

After looking at a decade’s worth of data, we found that some positions had a stronger correlation than others when it comes to defensive points allowed from one season to the next.

  • QB showed the strongest relationship, but it still wasn’t exactly sticky.
  • Real defense doesn’t always translate to fantasy points.
  • Check out 4for4’s hot spot tool for tough SOS decisions, keeping all of this in mind.
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