Week 4 was an object lesson in how difficult it can be to predict the performance of team defenses in fantasy football—and how sometimes bad can be good for fantasy managers.
The top-performing defense of Week 4 was a moderate surprise, but not a huge one—buoyed by a late pick-six, the Philadelphia Eagles cleaned up (relatively speaking) against the San Francisco 49ers JV team.
The No. 3 defense also wasn't all that shocking, given that the New York Giants have now scored fewer points this season than the Cleveland Browns scored last Sunday. Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams tallied five sacks, picked off a pass and allowed fewer than 10 points.
But the No. 2 defense? That would be the steaming pile of stinky poo that is the New York Jets. The Jets are bad in just about every way a team can be, and Gang Green allowed 37 points in a loss. But the team also logged three takeaways and scored on an interception return.
Now, it's not wise when examining defensive matchups in fantasy to target a team hoping for a return touchdown. Takeaways are already a relatively fluky, high-variance stat. Counting on a pick-six or a scoop-and-score is taking things a bit too far.
But if nothing else, what the Jets did last week against a Denver Broncos team starting their backup quarterback is a reminder that even a terrible defense can be fantasy-relevant if the matchup is right.
If that whole spiel feels like it's leading to something, you're right—it is. But we'll get to that in a bit.
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Philadelphia Eagles)
This game feels like it sets up as something of a perfect storm for the Steelers. Pittsburgh is well-rested after their bye was moved up due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Tennessee. The Eagles have been absolutely decimated by injuries to both the wide receiver corps and the offensive line. And the Steelers have a deep safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick who has the wheels to play man coverage on Zach Ertz. Add in a Steelers run defense allowing all of 54 yards a game so far this season, and moving the rock isn't going to be easy at all for the Iggles.
Los Angeles Rams (at Washington Football Team)
Overall, head coach Sean McVay likely wasn't especially pleased with the Rams' effort in a listless 17-9 win over the lowly Giants in Week 4. But as I've already mentioned, the defense held up its end of the deal—the Rams allowed less than 300 yards of total offense and held the Giants out of the end zone. Washington didn't play poorly in last week's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but this is still a team that ranks in the league's bottom three in both yards allowed and points allowed. The floor here is solid, and the Rams can get a few big plays it could pave the way to a big day.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. Cincinnati Bengals)
The Ravens have been a top-five fantasy defense for the season as whole, but Week 4's performance was frankly a disappointment—against one of the worst offenses in the NFL in Washington, the Ravens managed just one takeaway and three sacks while surrendering 17 points. But while Joe Burrow has admittedly been impressive over his first four starts for the Cincinnati Bengals, we're still talking about a rookie quarterback starting on the road against one of the league's better defenses. The Bengals also rank inside the top-10 in fantasy points allowed to defenses in 2020.
Indianapolis Colts (at Cleveland Browns)
I can hardly believe that I'm typing this, but the Colts are absolutely rolling—on defense. The Colts lead the NFL in total defense (236.6 yards per game). And pass defense (159.3 yards per game). And scoring defense (14 points per game). The Colts are fourth against the run, tied for sixth in the league in sacks and tied for third in the NFL with seven takeaways. Most importantly for readers of this column, no team defense has more fantasy points through four weeks this season. The Browns are playing well offensively, but right now the Colts are an every-week start.
New England Patriots (vs. Denver Broncos)
It will be lost by some in the cloud of stank that was the play of New England's quarterbacks in Week 4, but the Patriots Defense played the Kansas City Chiefs about as well as a team can in the first half of that game and allowed less than 20 points to the Chiefs Offense. Whether Drew Lock is back under center for the Broncos or not, Denver is most assuredly not the Chiefs Offense. The Pats know they can't afford to fall any farther behind the Bills in the division, and with Cam Newton out the defense is going to have to carry the team. That's just what they will do Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at Chicago Bears)
I was castigated by a reader last week for omitting the Buccaneers (It was a typo. They happen. Why y'all got to be so mean? I has feelers, too.), so of course once I went back and rectified the error, they got lit up for 31 points by a rookie quarterback in a wild win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Still, it's back to the well for Week 5, for a couple of reasons. First, that game against the Chargers notwithstanding the Buccaneers have quietly played surprisingly good defense in 2020. But mostly, it's about a lousy Bears Offense that couldn't do much of anything until garbage time last week against the Colts. There! They're here! Are you happy?
San Francisco 49ers (vs. Miami Dolphins)
The number of injuries that the 49ers have sustained over the first month of the 2020 season on both sides of the ball is 2020 in a nutshell—and in last week's loss to the previously winless Eagles it showed. Still, in players like defensive end Arik Armstead and linebackers Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander, San Francisco still has some horses on that side of the ball. The Dolphins hadn't been committing as many mistakes on offense as a year ago, but Sunday's home loss to the Seattle Seahawks was a sloppy one—two Ryan Fitzpatrick interceptions and no touchdowns until the game was out of reach.
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Arizona Cardinals (at New York Jets)
Here's where that whole speech about bad defenses in good matchups comes into play. And make no mistake, the Cardinals are a bad defensive football team—the past two weeks Arizona has been lit up by the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers, and there's more than a little speculation that defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's job could be in jeopardy. However, the New York Jets have a remarkable tendency to make even the worst NFL defenses look passable. Dating back to the beginning of the 2019 season, no team has allowed more fantasy points to defenses than the dumpster fire that is Gang Green.
Cleveland Browns (vs. Indianapolis Colts)
Again, the Cleveland Browns aren't an especially good defensive football team—Cleveland is 25th in the league in total defense after surrendering over 550 total yards in a shootout win over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4. But what the Browns have been good at in 2020 is generating the sort of plays that lead to fantasy points—Cleveland leads the NFL with 10 takeaways through four games, and thanks to the man-monster that is edge-rusher Myles Garrett the Browns are also tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks. As well as the Colts have been playing defensively, Philip Rivers and the offense have been pretty meh to date.
Dallas Cowboys (vs. New York Giants)
That's right. The Dallas Cowboys. The same Cowboys who have allowed at least 38 points in three of four games this season. The same Dallas Cowboys who just surrendered a jaw-dropping 307 rushing yards to the Browns in Week 4. The same Cowboys who presently rank 30th in total defense and dead last in the league in scoring defense. This has a lot less to do with Dallas than it does with who they are playing. In four games this season, the New York Giants have scored 47 points—two fewer than the Browns had against the Cowboys in Week 4.
Denver Broncos (at New England Patriots)
This recommendation comes with one sizable caveat—if Cam Newton somehow clears the NFL's COVID-19 protocols ahead of Sunday's game, then all bets are off. But that would appear highly unlikely—in which case even the injury-depleted Broncos look like a serviceable matchup play against the Patriots. Whether it was Brian Hoyer or Jarrett Stidham at quarterback for the Pats against the Chiefs Monday night, the result was the same—New England scored just one touchdown, turned the ball over four times and had a back-breaking pick returned for a score.
Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Las Vegas Raiders)
This matchup would be a lot easier to like if we knew for sure that defensive tackle Chris Jones were playing—without him on Monday night, the Patriots gashed the Chiefs for 185 yards on the ground (cue Josh Jacobs' fantasy managers drooling). But the Chiefs still had two sacks, four takeaways and a touchdown against the Patriots, and Kansas City's high-flying offense tends to force opponents to take chances with the football. In a slightly favorable matchup at home against the Raiders, the Chiefs are a good (but not great) streaming option.
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Chicago Bears (vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Frankly, there aren't really any Week 5 matchups involving prominent fantasy defenses that give this writer significant pause. Even Chicago's Thursday-nighter against the Tampa Toms is a bit tempting given that Tom Brady has now thrown four pick-sixes in his last six games. But last week against the Chargers, Brady also topped 350 passing yards and threw five touchdown passes to five different receivers, while running back Ronald Jones had one of the better games of his two-plus seasons in the NFL. Tampa is firing on all cylinders right now. The reality is that the Bears, um, aren't.