It’s never a futile exercise to attempt to research angles in hopes of learning. It can be a waste of time, however, if the information you uncover is meaningless. There are many ways to examine strength of schedule. Clearly, the goal is not to overlook the big picture because coaches call the majority of games based on two things: score and time remaining. Our first two SOS articles discussed overall strength of schedule. As we get closer to the season, for fantasy purposes it’s important to understand pass and run strength of schedule as distinct entities, rather than focus solely on a team’s overall strength of schedule. Here, we will focus on pass offense and rush offense SOS focusing on the first six weeks of the season. Later-year SOS can be tougher to forecast in the preseason because injuries change the face of teams over time.
For this exercise, I looked at pass and rush efficiencies of defenses that each team will face this year. I based the rankings on final 2015 season rankings. With that in mind, you may argue that 2015 performance is now meaningless. After all, teams are different. They have new coaches and new players, so why should we care about 2015?
Here is why: Looking at multiple seasons of data, the correlation between one year and the next for run defense is 0.46 and for pass defense it is 0.35. Those are fairly moderate relationships considering all of the moving parts. Run defense is more correlated than pass defense, meaning it is more consistent from one year to the next. Taking the exercise a step further, the R^2 of run defense from one year to the next is over 21%. In other words, 21% of how a run defense will perform this season is explained solely by how that run defense performed last season.
Some teams correlate stronger year to year than others. Teams with consistent coaches and many returning players should have a correlation much higher. Teams who fire coaches or try to get rich quick in free agency may have a weaker correlation to prior-year results. By the time we get to Weeks 3 and 4, we may have a good idea of the trajectory of a team’s strengths and weaknesses by unit. But until that time, some of the strongest analytical information we have is simply what the team did last year.
With that said, this is just one weapon in the arsenal which should be studied and then used in conjunction with our other weapons as we forecast the start to 2016 and fantasy implications therein. First we'll examine offenses which start off against the hardest defenses, then those which start off against the easiest defenses, and then we’ll examine the rest of the NFL:
Starting Slow: Offenses With Hardest Weeks 1-6 Schedules
No. 1 Hardest: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The opening six weeks will not be kind to the Bucs, as they are projected with the most difficult slate of defenses against both the run and pass. While the Falcons are an easier Week 1 opponent, Tampa Bay squares off in Weeks 2-5 against the Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 7 defenses from 2015 (DEN, CAR, ARI, LAR). This will pose an extreme challenge for the Bucs, who faced the fourth easiest schedule of opposing defenses in 2015. Last year they faced just four pass defenses ranked top-12 overall, and they lost all of those games by an average of over two touchdowns per game, recording just 6.7 yards per pass attempt. This year, they face the NFL's toughest schedule of opposing pass defenses in the first six weeks.
Those same opponents in Weeks 2-5 all ranked top seven in run defense. The Bucs played only three defenses in 2015 which ranked top seven in run defense, and lost all three games by an average of 17 points, though they did have strong rushing performances in two of those games, recording 4.7 yards per carry and totaling over 140 rushing yards twice. Overall, in the first six weeks, Tampa Bay plays the NFL's hardest schedule of opposing run defenses.
No. 2 Hardest: New York Jets
The Jets' schedule will shock their system after they faced the second easiest schedule of opposing defenses in 2015. In their first six games, the Jets face four defenses that ranked top ten against the pass (SEA, ARI, KC, CIN). It's a huge contrast to 2015, which saw Gang Green face just one top-ten pass defense (HOU) all season. In the game against the Texans, Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for just 197 yards at 5.1 yards per attempt in a 24-17 loss. This year, the Jets face the third hardest slate of pass defenses in Weeks 1-6.
On the ground, the Jets face five teams that ranked inside the top 11 in defensive rush efficiency after facing only one team from that category last year (NE). Last season, the Jets ran for 5.3 YPC and 7.2 YPC against the Bills, though they scored zero rushing TDs, and they get the Bills' run defense in Week 2. But beyond that, the sledding will be much tougher versus the returning top-five run defenses of ARI, SEA and PIT in a three-game stretch. The Jets face the third hardest slate of run defenses in the first six weeks.
No. 3 Hardest: San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers faced a brutal schedule of defenses last year, having to deal with the third hardest slate. While things will get easier in Week 4 vs DAL and Week 6 vs BUF, San Francisco faces all the brutal defenses from the NFC West as well as the Panthers to begin the season. The sledding for Chip Kelly’s team will be most difficult in the passing game, although they did gain a lot of experience vs great pass defenses in 2015, playing seven games against teams who ranked top eight in pass defense. Unfortunately, their point totals in those games were 3, 3, 6, 7, 13, 13 and 19. Last year's 49ers posted four games in that stretch where they averaged fewer than 4.9 yards per attempt with passing totals of 53, 81, 119 and 151 yards. Clearly, improving that passing game is paramount for Kelly. But this year, they start off against LAR, CAR and SEA the first three weeks of the season, and face the 2nd hardest slate of pass defenses in Weeks 1-6.
In 2015, the 49ers faced seven teams that ranked top six in run defense. They recorded a total of one rushing TD in those seven games with yards-per-carry averages of 1.8, 3.3, 3.6, 3.6, 3.7, 3.9 and 4.1. This year, they face four teams in their first six games that ranked top seven in run defense last year, and their first six weeks gives them the NFL's seventh hardest slate of run defenses.
No. 4 Hardest: Atlanta Falcons
You may recall that the 2015 Falcons won their first five games before dropping seven of the next eight. Part of that was due to opposition. In their first nine games, they faced just one defense which ranked in the top half of defensive efficiency. They finished with a schedule that was third easiest for any offense. In 2016, the Falcons start versus three pass defenses that may remind them of 2015 (NO, TB, OAK), though the last two defenses should be substantially improved. But the back half of Atlanta's first six games are not easy: They face the returning Nos. 1, 2, and 3 pass defenses of DEN, CAR and SEA. In the Falcons' two games against top-three pass defenses (CAR, twice) last year, they passed for just one touchdown and averaged 6.7 YPA. This season, the Falcons have the NFL's fourth toughest opening slate in the passing game.
On the ground, things are more difficult for the Falcons. Last year, they played only four games against teams with top-10 run defenses (TB and CAR, each twice). They lost three of those four games and averaged just 3.3 YPC. In their first six games this year, the Falcons face four teams which ranked top 10 in run defense: TB, CAR, DEN, SEA. And in total on the season, the Falcons play eight games against top-10 run defenses -- twice as many as they played in 2015. They have the fourth most difficult opening six weeks for any rush offense.
No. 5 Hardest: Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals' schedule won’t be easy to start the season, but it will be more difficult against the run than the pass. They face two top-10 pass defenses in Weeks 1 (NYJ) and 3 (DEN) but also get three average to below average pass defenses in the first six weeks (PIT, DAL, MIA). And against mediocre to poor pass defenses in 2015, the Bengals averaged 8.4 YPA with 19 passing TDs in eight games. However, we know that Andy Dalton’s weaponry is far from what it was last year, and when the Bengals did face top-10 pass defenses in 2015, they passed for 7.3 YPA with nine TDs in six games. To begin 2016, they go up against the seventh most difficult schedule of opposing run defenses.
If the Bengals decide to turn to the ground without Tyler Eifert and depleted wide receiver options, they will get off to a brutal start against the Nos. 1 (NYJ), 4 (DEN) and 5 (PIT) run defenses in Weeks 1-3. They had a lot of experience against tough run defenses in 2015, playing five games against top-five run defenses. In those games, however, Cincinnati averaged fewer than 3.5 YPC and scored a total of four rushing TDs in five games. Overall, their first six games this year see the Bengals facing the fifth most difficult slate of opposing run defenses.
Editor's Note: For updated rankings, projections, player profiles, positional tiers, mock drafts, sleepers and busts, exclusive columns and plenty more, check out our Draft Guide!
No. 6 Hardest: Buffalo Bills
The first six weeks will be brutal for the Bills' running game. And since they face the 11th rated schedule of pass defenses, they may see more success in the air than on the ground. That said, Buffalo faces three top-10 pass defenses (ARI, NYJ, LAR) in their first six games. Last year, they played only five games against top-10 pass defenses, and in those games they averaged 6.8 YPA and only 212 passing YPG. But sprinkled in are games against BAL and SF. Tyrod Taylor gave bad pass defenses fits last season, passing for 7.6 YPA with seven passing TDs in four games.
On the ground, the Bills face the second hardest slate of run defenses to begin the season. In their first five games, they play four teams that ranked inside the top 10 in run defense. Thanks to Taylor’s ability on the ground, RB rushing stats are skewed when caught in the wash with total rushing stats. But overall, the Bills will need Taylor to be dynamic on the ground to boost their overall rushing production, as well as in the air.
No. 7 Hardest: Kansas City Chiefs
The 2015 Chiefs started 1-5 before winning 10 straight games to close the season. As it turns out, their 1-5 start came against five teams that ranked top 11 in pass defense, while their 10-0 finish came against just one team that ranked inside the top-15 in pass defense. This year, they face one weak pass defense out of the gates (SD) but then they have two consecutive games against tough pass defenses (HOU, NYJ) followed by two middling pass defenses (PIT, OAK). It’s the sixth hardest early-season schedule of pass defenses.
After a really juicy matchup on the ground in Week 1 against a SD team that the Chiefs exploited for 5.4 YPC and three rushing TDs in two games last year, Kansas City faces three three straight tough run defenses (HOU, NYJ, PIT). It is worth noting that against top-10 run defenses last year, the Chiefs still put up 4.5 YPC and four rushing TDs in four games.
No. 8 Hardest: Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year's Steelers faced the seventh most difficult schedule of opposing defenses, and did so without Ben Roethlisberger for five starts and without Le’Veon Bell for 10 starts, yet they still won 10 games. This year, their passing game gets off to another difficult start, facing the eighth most difficult schedule of pass defenses in the first six weeks. They face three top-10 pass defenses (KC, CIN, NYJ) from Weeks 2-5.
On the ground, Pittsburgh faces the 12th most difficult early-season schedule, with multiple poor run defenses (WAS, PHI, MIA) sprinkled in with some good run defenses (NYJ, CIN, KC). The Steelers faced only four run defenses that ranked in the bottom half of the league last year, winning those games by 4, 16, 21 and 25 points. This year, they have two bottom-half run defenses in their first three games, with myriad coming later in the season.
No. 9 Hardest: Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings play five games against returning top-seven pass defenses, and three of those games come in the first six weeks (GB, CAR, HOU). The problem for the Vikings is that while they recorded 11 wins and 5 losses last year, they lost four of their six games against top-seven pass defenses. In those six games, the Vikings passed for less than 200 YPG and averaged just 6.3 YPA, with a total of four passing TDs across the sample. Overall, in the first six weeks the Vikings face the fifth toughest schedule of opposing pass defenses.
Things are a little better on the ground, where the Vikings face just the 15th hardest schedule of run defenses with multiple opponents that ranked below average in 2015 (GB, NYG, TEN). The Vikings started out last season strong on the ground, even against top-seven run defenses, gaining 5.3 YPC and scoring three rushing TDs in games vs DEN and LAR. But they ended the season far too predictable in run calls on first-down plays and gained just 2.6 YPC against the only two top-10 run defenses they faced from Week 10 on.
No. 10 Hardest: Miami Dolphins
For the 2016 Dolphins, the season will start off more difficult on the ground than in the air. They face the 12th most difficult schedule of pass defenses, but the sixth most difficult schedule of run defenses. They start off with three good pass defenses (SEA, NE, CIN) inside their first four games, and every single one of those games is on the road.
On the ground, the story is worse. The Dolphins play four returning top-10 run defenses in the first six weeks. In 2015, their rushing numbers against the four top-10 run defenses they played were laughable. In two full games vs NYJ, Dolphins running backs totaled 34 rushing yards. In their two full games vs NE, they gained just 84 yards on 41 carries (2.0 YPC). They lost these games by margins of 29, 18 and 13 points before winning in Week 17 against a NE team that was resting starters. Miami's schedule this year is much more difficult against the run to start off than it was last season.
Starting Fast: Offenses With Easiest Weeks 1-6 Schedules
No. 1 Easiest: Baltimore Ravens
Last year, the Ravens faced the eighth most difficult schedule of opposing defenses. Their offense starts the 2016 season with the easiest schedule over the first six weeks. The Ravens opened 2015 playing four straight games against teams that ranked in the top half of the NFL in pass defense. This year, they play no team that ranked inside the top 15 in pass defense, and also get to face CLE, JAC and NYG, three teams who ranked bottom six last year. Baltimore has the easiest schedule in the NFL of pass defenses over their first six games.
On the ground, the Ravens face the second easiest early-season schedule of run defenses. In Weeks 1-6, they face four teams that ranked 21st or worse in run defense, which is a welcome sight compared to the difficult slate they saw in 2015. Last year, the Ravens faced four teams all year ranked 21st or worse against the run. They produced 4.3 YPC, 109 rushing yards per game, and four rushing TDs in those four games. Compare that to their other 12 games, which saw Baltimore produce four total rushing TDs total, 3.7 YPC and 87 rushing yards per game.
No. 2 Easiest: Oakland Raiders
Like the Ravens, the Raiders faced a brutal schedule of defenses in 2015 -- fourth most difficult over the course of the season. When they faced a strong pass defense, they typically lost. When facing pass defenses that ranked above average, the Raiders went 2-7 and averaged an embarrassing 5.8 yards per pass attempt. Fortunately, in their first six games this year, the Raiders face just one team with a pass defense ranked in the top 20. Last year, they played a total of just six games against teams with pass defenses worse than 20th. They averaged 7.4 YPA with 270 passing yards per game and recorded 14 passing TDs in those six games. This year, the Raiders play five games in the first six weeks (and seven games in the first eight weeks) against this soft level of competition.
The Raiders face the easiest slate of run defenses in the first six weeks of any NFL team. Half of their first six games are against teams that ranked bottom eight in run defense last year (NO, ATL, SD). When they faced such poor run defenses last year, the Raiders averaged 4.5 YPC and 115 rushing yards per game.
No. 3 Easiest: Philadelphia Eagles
While Chip Kelly has the NFL's third hardest start in San Francisco, his former team has the third easiest start to the season. The Eagles face the fifth easiest schedule of pass defenses and the tenth easiest schedule of run defenses in Weeks 1-6 Philadelphia has a bye in Week 4, and doesn't face a single team that ranked above 15th in pass defense last year in Weeks 1-6.
On the ground, it’s nearly impossible to face two easier defenses to start the season in CLE and CHI. But after that, the Eagles face PIT and DET before closing out the first six weeks with a soft opponent in WAS. Philadelphia faced a fairly easy schedule of opposing run defenses last year but it didn’t translate into great results statistically, so they will need to do a better job of taking advantage of their weak start. When the Eagles struggled the most on the scoreboard last year, it typically came against solid run defenses (ARI, CAR, TB, DET, NE, NYJ).
No. 4 Easiest: Dallas Cowboys
Due to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant's injuries, it's impossible to take much from the Cowboys' 2015 campaign in terms of performance against hard or easy defenses. What we do know is that they will face a very light start to the season from a pass defense perspective, opening with four games versus teams well below average in pass defense last year (NYG, WAS, CHI, SF). Weeks 5 and 6 get much more difficult (CIN, GB) but overall the Cowboys face the ninth easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses in the opening six weeks.
The schedule is even lighter when discussing run defenses, as the Cowboys only face one run defense that finished inside the top half of the league last year (CIN) in Weeks 1-6. There is a lot to like when it comes to the potential of the Cowboys' run game assuming Ezekiel Elliott is healthy.
No. 5 Easiest: Green Bay Packers (tie)
The Packers face the third easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses and the eighth easiest schedule of run defenses in the first six weeks. Last year, without Jordy Nelson, the Packers faced the fifth most difficult schedule of opposing defenses and produced the second worst YPA in the NFL. However, Aaron Rodgers looked considerably better to start the season before taking a brutal beating at the hands of the Broncos in Week 8. Rodgers started his first six games (before a Week 7 bye) posting a 116 passer rating, completing 68% of his passes for 8.2 YPA, 15 TDs and 2 INTs against several very good pass defenses including SEA, KC and LAR. Lost in all the Rodgers hate from 2015: No quarterback in the NFL started off the first seven weeks with a better QB rating. However, from Rodgers' Week 8 beating in Denver onward, something was clearly not right. Even against below average pass defenses like DET, CHI and DAL, Rodgers cleared 6 YPA just once and averaged an 82 rating with just 6.0 YPA and 57% completions the rest of the season. With a much easier schedule to start 2016 and regained health, look for the Packers' pass game to start off strong, like it did in 2015.
Also lost last season was the fact that the Packers faced a very difficult schedule of run defenses. But against defenses that ranked 19th or worse, Green Bay crushed it on the ground. They played just five games against such competition, but averaged 5.5 YPC, 167 rushing yards per game, and scored five rushing TDs. While they start off 2016 against mediocre competition, there is an extremely juicy stretch from Weeks 5 through 12 where the Packers face easy run defense after easy run defense. For comparison to 2015: the Packers faced six top-12 run defenses in 2015 and averaged just 3.9 YPC, 99 rushing yards per game, and scored just one rushing TD. But they face just one such defense (SEA) this year, and that isn’t until Week 14.
No. 5 Easiest: Washington Redskins (tie)
It will be easier for the Redskins through the air than on the ground to start the season, but all things considered, facing the fourth easiest pass schedule and the seventh easiest rush schedule is extremely fortunate. The Redskins faced the 28th rated schedule of defenses in 2015, but much of that can be attributed to terrible run defenses. The pass defenses they faced were average. But to start 2016, the Skins will face poor pass defenses in most games (DAL, NYG, CLE, BAL). They don’t face a top-14 pass defense in any of their first six games, whereas they faced four in 2015 with dreadful results (5.4 YPA, 192 passing yards per game, four total pass TDs in four games).
With one exception (LAR) last year, when the Redskins faced a good run defense, they struggled. They played only five games against teams with run defenses ranking inside the top 20, and they struggled versus NYJ (2.0 YPC), TB (2.6 YPC), NE (2.5 YPC) and CAR (1.2 YPC). The Redskins' run slate in the first six games features two teams that ranked in the top half of run defenses last year, but they do get their share of bad run defenses as well (DAL, NYG, CLE and PHI).
No. 7 Easiest: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars have the easiest schedule of opposing run defenses in the first six weeks and a slightly above average schedule of opposing pass defenses (13th). But should Vontae Davis miss the Week 4 game, the Colts' pass defense which ranked 12th last year would likely drop off substantially, making the Jaguars' schedule of pass defenses extremely easy with the exception Week 1 against GB. Setting aside their 51-16 blowout of the Andrew Luck-less Colts, the Jaguars played six games in 2015 against pass defenses that ranked inside the top 15. They averaged 6.2 YPA and 254 passing yards per game and scored nine pass TDs in those six games. However, against bottom-10 pass defenses Jacksonville averaged 7.3 YPA, 271 passing yards per game and scored 20 pass TDs in seven games. The Jaguars play four poor pass defenses (SD, BAL, CHI, IND) in their first five games.
The rushing defensive matchups are slightly skewed because the Jaguars face the two worst run defenses in CHI and SD. Even against bad run defenses in 2015, the Jaguars' run game struggled. In fact, the Jags played six games against bottom-10 run defenses in 2015, and scored a total of three rushing TDs in those games as compared to 15 passing TDs. They simply were not strong on the ground. So even with a light schedule of run defenses, the Jaguars still need to prove they are capable of running well at all.
No. 8 Easiest: Cleveland Browns
Don’t look now, but Robert Griffin III might be rolling back into Washington for his Week 4 matchup with a hot hand. The Browns face the sixth easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses in the first six weeks, and the 12th easiest slate of opposing run defenses. Keep in mind Cleveland faced the most difficult schedule of opposing defenses in 2015. They played nine games against teams that ranked inside the top 15 in pass defense, and the results were not pretty. They went 0-9, losing by an average final score of 32-13, and recorded 5.6 YPA and just eight passing TDs in those nine games. But in games where the Browns played pass defenses that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL, they averaged 7.7 YPA with nine passing TDs in five games, going 3-2 with the two losses of just three and six points. With the Browns facing four pass defenses in the first six weeks that ranked below average, they face nearly their total from 2015.
Last year's Browns faced similar brutality in the run game, where from Weeks 5-17 they played eight games against top-10 run defenses with three more ranking between 11th and 12th, and just one game versus a team with a run defense lower than 12th. That game was the 49ers, which saw the Browns run for 230 yards at 5.6 YPC and record two rushing TDs. The Browns have several juicy matchups versus run defenses in the first six games, facing four teams that ranked 20th or worse (PHI, MIA, WAS, TEN). Overall, unless RG3 flops or we see extreme regression, the Browns will have a much easier time on the ground and in the air to start the season.
No. 9 Easiest: New Orleans Saints
The Saints face the 12th easiest schedule of pass defenses and the ninth easiest schedule of run defenses to start the season. Unfortunately, that trend doesn’t carry throughout the year because from Weeks 6-11, the Saints play five of their six games versus pass defenses that ranked top five last season. But for the focus of this study, their first six games are relatively easy against the pass, with the lone exception in Week 6 (CAR). Last year, when the Saints played top-15 pass defenses, they went 1-5, beating only the Colts.
Rushing defenses are slightly easier to palate, but the key to success for the Saints will be the matchups. When facing top-15 run defenses last year, the Saints went 1-6, beating only the Bucs. Needless to say, when the Saints get into the heart of their schedule from Weeks 6-16, they face a ridiculous schedule of opposing run defenses, so a lot will fall onto Drew Brees' shoulders. The Saints must take advantage of their easy start.
No. 10 Easiest: New York Giants
After facing the sixth easiest schedule last year, the Giants start the Ben McAdoo era with the 10th easiest first six weeks in terms of opposing defenses. They play the 10th easiest schedule of pass defenses and the fourth easiest schedule of run defenses in Weeks 1-6. In 2015, the Giants did not fare well against good pass defenses. They played six teams with pass defenses ranked in the top 15, going 0-6 and averaging just 6.7 YPA. Against teams with bottom-10 pass defenses, however, they averaged 8.0 YPA, 330 passing yards per game, and Eli Manning tossed 15 TDs in just four games. Circle Week 2 vs NO and Week 6 vs BAL as games likely to see Eli shine, but road games in GB and MIN may be difficult for the Giants.
It starts easy for the Giants on the ground, but gets progressively more difficult from Weeks 1 through 6. As such, if you’re high on Rashad Jennings this year, don’t wait for him to get rolling, as his best matchups are Week 1 vs DAL and Week 2 vs NO.
No. 11 Easiest: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers face the 7th easiest slate of pass defenses and the 15th easiest run defense schedule in the first six weeks. Carolina closed the 2015 season playing a number of easy pass defenses, but they will start with the No. 1 pass defense from 2015 (DEN), which derailed their hopes at the Lombardi. After that, however, the Panthers play four of their next five opponents with pass defenses ranking no higher than 21st. On the ground, it is a similar tale. After DEN in Week 1, the Panthers play just one other team that ranked in the top half of the NFL in run defense (TB) through Week 6.
No. 12 Easiest: Indianapolis Colts
The Colts face the 14th easiest pass defense slate and the 13th easiest run defense schedule in the first six weeks. Unfortunately for Andrew Luck in 2015, his last game was against the No. 1 pass defense of the Broncos, so he ended up playing against the Nos. 1, 2, 9 and 13 pass defenses in his seven starts. Against bottom-third pass defenses, Luck passed for 7.4 YPA, 273 yards per game and five passing TDs in two games. The Colts faced six more tough pass defenses last year in the games Luck missed, but their backup QBs could not capitalize. With a healthy Luck this year, the Colts get four defenses in their first six games which ranked 20th or worse in pass defense. The Colts have two spots against the NFL’s easiest run defenses from last year (SD, CHI) in their first six games, but otherwise the run defenses they face were average to above average.
No. 13 Easiest: Tennessee Titans
The Titans face the 10th easiest pass defense slate and the 15th easiest run defense schedule in the first six weeks. Tennessee faced an easier than average pass schedule of defenses last year, but when they faced pass defenses which ranked top 10, they struggled, passing for just 5.5 YPA and fewer than 200 yards per game with two total passing TDs in four games. This year, they start with two pass defenses that ranked 11th or better last year (MIN, HOU). But from Week 5 onward, the Titans have an extremely easy pass schedule until their bye with one exception (GB in Week 10). If Marcus Mariota starts off slow, he’ll be a great buy-low candidate after his Week 4 game in Houston. Last year, the Titans started with an easy run slate, facing four defenses that ranked 20th or worse in their first six games. This year, they face four straight defenses to start the year which ranked average to above average in run defense, but none ranked inside the top 10.
No. 14 Easiest: Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks face the eighth easiest pass defense schedule and the 20th easiest run defenses in the first six weeks. Taking on MIA, SF and ATL -- and all at home -- means Seattle will be going up against three pass defenses which ranked 21st or worse last year. Last year, Seattle played five home games against pass defenses that ranked outside the top 10. In those games, Russell Wilson averaged 8.8 YPA, 255 passing yards per game and put up 13 passing TDs in five games (compared to just two rushing TDs scored by the Seahawks). Look for Wilson to feast early in the year. On the ground, the schedule is still very safe at home, but if Wilson is passing for TDs in those games, it could mean the Seahawks' run game starts slower than normal this year.
No. 15 Easiest: Detroit Lions
The Lions face the 24th easiest pass defense schedule and the fifth easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. Detroit has a difficult schedule of opposing pass defenses this year, but it still is unlikely to top the absurdly tough slate they had last year from Weeks 2 through 14, where they faced one defense (CHI) that was below average, and played nine games against pass defenses which ranked in the top 11. But in the five games they played last year against bottom-half pass defenses, Matthew Stafford averaged 8.3 YPA, 287 passing yards per game and tossed 14 TDs in five games. The Lions' pass offense may look good with many weeks against subpar defenses, but look elsewhere in Weeks 3 (GB) and 6 (LAR). Things are much easier for the Lions on the ground given their fifth softest schedule in the opening six weeks -- if only they could run more often and more successfully, as they ranked 27th in rushing efficiency last year.
No. 16 Easiest: Chicago Bears (tie)
The Bears face the 16th easiest pass defense schedule and the 11th easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. Chicago faced a tough pass defense schedule last year, and things don’t get much easier to start the year. However, things will get progressively easier from Weeks 1 (HOU) to 6 (JAC). And there is a lot to like about the Bears' pass offense after their Week 9 bye. However, expect the team to start out slower in the first couple of weeks. Last year, the Bears started out vs GB, ARI and SEA, three top-10 pass defenses, and Jay Cutler averaged only 5.7 YPA, 162 passing yards per game with two TDs in three games. But once easier opponents splashed onto the schedule (OAK, DET, SD) Cutler improved to 7.8 YPA, 321 yards per game and five TDs in three games. On the ground, the Bears have two very easy run defenses Weeks 2 and 3 (PHI, DAL) but apart from that, they don’t face any easy run defenses the first six weeks.
No. 16 Easiest: Houston Texans (tie)
The Texans face the 23rd easiest pass defense schedule and the 14th easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. Unfortunately for Houston, they face four opponents in the first six weeks which ranked top 15 in pass defense. They faced seven such teams all of last season, and their passing numbers were bad: 5.9 YPA, 224 yards per game and 10 passing TDs in seven games. However, the Texans are hopeful that with a healthier running game, they will be able to let new quarterback Brock Osweiler pass into more favorable situations and target rookie Will Fuller, and produce better numbers even against strong defenses. The Texans face substantially more difficult run defenses than they did last season, but apart from Kansas City in Week 2 and New England in Week 3, the first six weeks should be more than manageable for Lamar Miller.
No. 18 Easiest: New England Patriots
The Patriots face the 19th easiest pass defense slate and the 18th easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. Jimmy Garoppolo gets a trial by fire Week 1 vs the Cardinals, but expect him to have a lot more success back at home in Week 2 vs the 29th rated pass defense from 2015 (MIA). Tom Brady should have a huge first game back against the 27th rated CLE pass defense. Fortunately for Garoppolo and LeGarrette Blount, after the Cardinals game, the run defenses the Patriots face ranked 13th, 20th, and 30th, so they should have a lot of balance and success.
No. 19 Easiest: Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals face the 14th easiest pass defense slate and the 24th easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. Arizona flew when playing weak pass defenses last year. They started the season playing six of their first eight games against teams that ranked 20th to 32nd in pass defense, and they went 6-0 in those games, scoring an average of 38 points per game as Carson Palmer averaged a ridiculous 9.2 YPA with 266 passing yards per game and 18 TDs in six games. The Cardinals face two such defenses in their first six games (TB Week 2 and SF Week 5). However, when playing top-15 pass defenses (LAR, PIT, SEA, CIN), the 2015 Cardinals went 2-2 and while Palmer continued to throw TDs, his average was not as strong. In their first six games, the Cardinals must face three top-15 pass defenses (NE Week 1, LAR Week 4, NYJ Week 6). However, the benefit is they play each one in Arizona. On the ground, the Cardinals face four top-10 returning run defenses in the first six weeks, and expanding the sample, they enter their bye playing six of eight games against top-10 run defenses from 2015 (their schedule is extremely light after that). A cautionary tale: Arizona played six games against teams with top-10 run defenses last year (LAR twice, SEA twice, PIT and CIN) and in those games, they averaged just 3.9 YPC, 95 rushing yards per game and scored two total rushing TDs in six games, and went only 3-3 in those games.
No. 20 Easiest: Denver Broncos (tie)
The Broncos face the 20th easiest pass defense schedule and the 19th easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. Unfortunately, whichever QB they give the start to this season is unlikely to shine in his first three games versus two returning top-10 pass defenses (CAR, CIN). But after that, the schedule gets much easier. Keep that in mind if they make a quarterback switch early in the season. And those two teams (CAR, CIN) were very good against the run last year. In their first four games, the Broncos face three teams that ranked top 10 in run defense. Last year, they faced just three top-ten run defenses all season (NE, PIT, CIN), but the promising news for the Broncos is in those games, they averaged 5.1 YPC, 132 rushing yards per game and scored five rushing TDs. In other words, the Broncos feasted on the ground against top run defenses in 2015 en route to the Lombardi.
No. 20 Easiest: San Diego Chargers (tie)
The Chargers face the 18th easiest pass defense slate and the 21st easiest run defense slate in the first six weeks. San Diego’s pass schedule the first four weeks is not terrible except Weeks 1 (KC) and 6 (DEN). In the middle, they face the worst two pass defenses from last year (JAC, NO) and a banged-up IND pass defense, along with a mediocre (but likely improved) OAK defense. Last year, the Chargers played four games versus bottom-10 pass defenses, and they averaged 8.0 YPA, 307 passing yards per game as Philip Rivers tossed 13 passing TDs in four games. Expect great passing numbers in Weeks 2 and 4. The Chargers' big problem last year was they could not run the ball effectively. They will have plenty of opportunity to fix that, as they don’t play a top-ten run defense until Week 6 (DEN).
No. 22 Easiest: Los Angeles Rams
The Rams face the 16th easiest pass defense slate and the 23rd easiest run defense schedule in the first six weeks. In Weeks 1-6, the Rams play two great division defenses (SEA, ARI) and three average to poor defenses (SF, TB, BUF, DET). In 2015, the Rams were at their best against bad pass defenses, with the Week 10 game versus CHI as the lone exception. When playing pass defenses that ranked 20th or worse, the Rams went 4-2 (Bears game aside) and both losses were by three points (wins were by 7, 8, 18 and 21 points). The Rams struggled against really good pass defenses. So expect the Rams to get off to an okay start in 2016, so long as they can control their turnovers. The task is more difficult on the ground, as the Rams face four run defenses which ranked inside the top 15 last year in the first six weeks.