With a healthy dash of context, it could be helpful -- actionable, even -- to know how a defense is being attacked.
Are enemy offenses peppering the middle of the field against a certain defense, leading to a glut of tight end opportunity? Are wide receivers having their way against a defense, commanding a massive target share? Are running backs seeing plenty of dump off opportunities against a particular defense?
These are questions I’ll address in this space during the regular season, examining which positions are seeing the most opportunity against a certain defense in an exercise that might serve as the tiebreaker in your weekly agonizing start-sit decisions.
With every passing week, our understanding of how offenses are going after defenses should improve. Context will be key, as a bunch of targets to Travis Kelce doesn’t mean Tyler Eifert is going to see the same kind of opportunity against the same defense. If only it were that easy.
James White (NE) at Chargers
White, on a day where the Patriots’ offense was more dysfunctional than usual, saved his fantasy day last week with two rushing scores against the Cardinals. We’re not banking on White morphing into a rushing touchdown machine in the coming weeks -- it’s his pass game role we’re chasing.
Rex Burkhead missing the rest of the season with a knee injury gives White exclusive rights to the pass catching role out of Cam Newton’s backfield. In Week 12, White had just one target in a game that saw Newton throw the ball 17 times. A week earlier, White drew nine targets, leading the team with a 24 percent target share. We could see (much) more of that Week 11 usage in Week 13 against the Chargers Defense, which has consistently given up targets and receptions to pass catching backfield specialists like White.
Nearly 24 percent of targets against the Bolts have gone to running backs, the highest rate in the NFL. Backs facing the Chargers this season have seen an average of 7.88 targets per contest. Only six defenses have allowed more running backs receptions in 2020. These numbers are skewed a bit by Alvin Kamara’s eight grabs on ten targets in Week 5 against the Chargers, but other running backs have seen pass game success against LA, including Melvin Gordon (six catches on seven targets), Mike Davis (eight receptions on nine targets), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (six catches on eight targets), and perplexingly, Ty Johnson (four catches on six targets).
White has seen his snap share surge in the aftermath of Burkhead’s season ending injury. He’s led all New England running backs in offensive snaps (57 percent) over the past two weeks. And he’s now clearly second in line for carries behind Damien Harris.
White’s splits with and without Burkhead since 2017 tell quite the story: White has averaged 8.12 targets and 6.13 receptions per game when Burkhead has been out of the Patriots lineup -- a massive bump over his opportunity and production when Burkhead plays.
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Jordan Reed (SF) vs. Bills
We’re back on Jordan Reed for two reasons: his usage was as good as we could have hoped for in Week 12 and his Week 13 matchup is as sneaky-good as it gets.
You may have read about Reed in this space last week, streamed him, and come away furious with a certain Rotoworld writer. But wait, what if I told you Reed ran 25 pass routes to Ross Dwelley’s 10 routes and saw six targets, good for an 18 percent target share? You’re still disappointed? You want results instead of process? You’re suing me for fantasy analysis malpractice? Oh well.
Nick Mullens missed an open Reed on two downfield shots last week against the Rams -- the difference between a forgettable outing and a savvy waiver wire pickup. This week, Reed goes against a Buffalo defense allowing the second highest target share (24.27 percent) to tight ends. That comes out to 8.28 tight end targets per game. Only Carolina has allowed more tight end reception than the Bills. Lest we forget, Chris Herndon had six catches against these Bills in Week 1. Just last week, Hunter Henry caught seven of his ten targets against Buffalo. In Week 9, the little-used Seattle tight ends combined for nine grabs against the Bills.
Buffalo opponents have mostly attacked the Bills Defense through the air, with 65.3 percent of yards against the Bills coming via the pass, the tenth highest rate in the NFL. He could play an outsized factor for a run-first Niners offense if the Bills -- 2.5 point favorites -- build a lead and force the 49ers into a pass heavy game script.