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The 2021 season continues to be an object lesson in what we don’t know where team defenses are concerned.
Mind you, this isn’t exactly breaking news to veteran fantasy managers. One of the reasons so many don’t invest heavily in the position is that it can be so hard to predict from season to season. Even then, it remains a shock to see the Washington Football Team (a consensus top-five defense before the season) continue to allow 30-plus points week after week after week. Or to see the Pittsburgh Steelers barely inside the top-15 in fantasy points after five weeks.
That volatility hasn’t just been for the year, either. Last week’s top defense (the Buffalo Bills) had a matchup most would have advised steering clear of in Arrowhead against the Kansas City Chiefs. [[ad:athena]]
It hasn’t all been insanity though. The Tennessee Titans are admittedly a bad defensive football team. But a plus matchup with the floundering Jacksonville Jaguars placed them firmly on the Week 5 streaming radar. The Titans held up their end, parlaying a pair of sacks, a pair of takeaways and a defensive touchdown into a top-five fantasy finish.
And that’s the thing. If you drafted an every-week starter, you have to roll them out and hope they turn things around (unless it’s Washington, in which case you should have already moved on). If you’re living the stream, then all you can do is look at the matchups and play the probabilities.
Oh, and read this column every week. You should definitely do that too.
Los Angeles Rams (at New York Giants)
The Rams are another big-name defense that has been something of a disappointment over the first five weeks, checking in well outside the top-10 in most fantasy scoring systems. But that has as much to do with a schedule that included matchups with Tampa Bay, Arizona and Seattle as the Rams defense itself. This week the Rams won’t be playing one of those potent offenses—Aaron Donald and Co. are taking on an injury-ravaged Giants team with a bad offensive line that is missing multiple receivers and could be starting Mike Glennon at quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Seattle Seahawks)
Had this game happened a week ago, the Steelers wouldn’t be included in this section of this column—reputation for being a formidable defensive team or not. But a lot has changed since last Thursday night. With Russell Wilson out for at least the next month after fracturing his middle finger, the Seahawks will be led by Geno “Still in the Green Room” Smith for the foreseeable future, and running back Chris Carson is iffy for the game as well with a neck injury. Playing at home in prime time with a chance to get back to .500, this feels like a game where the Steelers will just go off defensively.
Buffalo Bills (at Tennessee Titans)
The Buffalo Bills are fantasy’s No. 1 defensive unit after four games, thanks in large part to a pair of shutouts and a knack for finding the end zone early in the season—including a pick-six of Patrick Mahomes last week. Yes, the Bills will have to contend with Derrick Henry in this matchup with the Titans. But we’re talking about a vastly improved Bills defense that ranks first in yards allowed, third against the run, first in scoring defense, first in takeaways and fifth in sacks. The Titans have had issues in pass protection and are still banged up at wide receiver. This is an easy “yes.”
Dallas Cowboys (at New England Patriots)
In what may or may not be a sign of the apocalypse, the Dallas Cowboys are playing well defensively. Cornerback Trevon Diggs leads the league in interceptions and has a passer rating against of less than 30. The Cowboys have multiple picks in every game this year, and while they didn’t get a sack in Week 5, Dallas has nine sacks in the past four games. They’ve also scored two defensive touchdowns this season and get a New England Patriots team led by a rookie quarterback who have surrendered the fourth-most fantasy points per game to defenses in 2021.
Minnesota Vikings (at Carolina Panthers)
Hey, remember when we thought Sam Darnold had improved as a quarterback? Those were good times. Darnold has apparently started wearing the athletic supporter he had in New York of late because he’s playing like he did with the Jets. The Eagles finished Week 5 inside the top five team defenses, and Darnold was the MVP of that performance, taking three sacks and throwing an equal number of interceptions. It has happened quietly, but five games into the season only the Chicago Bears have amassed more sacks than Danielle Hunter and the Vikings.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at Philadelphia Eagles)
There is legitimate cause for concern with the Tampa defense this week, Veteran linebacker Lavonte David won’t be available for the Bucs, which is just one more name on an ever-growing list of banged-up defenders for the Super Bowl champions. But even with all those injuries, the Buccaneers are still sixth in fantasy points among team defenses, and the team has piled up seven sacks and four takeaways over the past two games. Tom Brady will probably stake the Buccaneers to a lead here, and if Jalen Hurts has to try to match scores with the Golden Boy, he’s going to make a mistake sooner or later.
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Carolina Panthers (vs. Minnesota Vikings)
The Panthers have lost two straight, got smoked two weeks ago by the Cowboys and blew a lead in improbable fashion against an Eagles team last week that could do nothing offensively for three quarters. I don’t care, and neither should you. The Panthers are tied for third in the league in sacks, lead the NFC in both total defense and scoring defense and sit inside the top 10 in fantasy points despite the Dallas debacle. The Vikings have no shortage of offensive talent, but they have averaged all of 13 points over the past two weeks. The Panthers will get back in the win column Sunday thanks to the defense.
Indianapolis Colts (vs. Houston Texans)
OK, before you read any farther, go into your mental hard drive and scrub away all evidence of Indy’s second-half defensive meltdown against the Baltimore Ravens. Just erase it. Because the Colts ain’t playing the Ravens in Week 6. Yes, Davis Mills looked like a semi-competent NFL quarterback last week against the Patriots. But over the last three games, the Texans have allowed 10 sacks and six takeaways while barely averaging 10 points a game. Houston also sits ninth in the league in fantasy points allowed to defenses. Look for an angry Colts defense to tee off at home on Sunday.
Cincinnati Bengals (at Detroit Lions)
The Bengals defense came back down to earth last week, but that wasn’t exactly a stunner given that they played Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. This week brings a slightly different level of competition. The Detroit Lions have actually been marginally better than many folks expected, but “marginally better” and “good” are most assuredly not the same thing. The Lions rank 24th in total offense, 25th in scoring offense and have surrendered the sixth-most fantasy points to defenses through five weeks this season. They are an every-week matchup target.
Green Bay Packers (at Chicago Bears)
The good news for the Chicago Bears is that after beating the Raiders in Las Vegas last week, the team is somehow 3-2 and just one back of the Packers in the NFC North. The bad news is that the Bears are still a mess offensively. Chicago is dead last in the league in total offense (240 yards per game), 30th in scoring offense (16.8 points per game) and lead the NFC in sacks allowed with 18. The Bears have also given up the seventh-most fantasy points to defenses, and Chicago’s recent trips to Lambeau Field have generally included a whole lot of misery.
Denver Broncos (vs. Las Vegas Raiders)
After back-to-back losses (in fairly lopsided fashion), the Broncos defense has likely fallen out of favor with some fantasy managers. But if an impatient person in your league has moved on from Denver, this could be a good week to swoop in and snatch them up. The Raiders aren’t a great matchup on paper, ranking right in the middle of the pack in fantasy points surrendered to defenses. But the Las Vegas offense has taken a sizable step backward the past couple of weeks, and the fallout from Jon Gruden‘s sudden resignation isn’t likely to help matters—especially with Vegas on the road against a division rival.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS!
Arizona Cardinals (at Cleveland Browns)
The Cardinals are one of the more surprising team defenses in 2021, and to their credit, the Redbirds have not only scored the most fantasy points of any NFC defense but also have been relatively consistent—just one sub-par effort in five games. That second down week could be coming Sunday in Cleveland though. The Browns not only lit up the Chargers for over 500 yards and 42 points last week, but they did so without turning the ball over—their second straight game without a giveaway. Cleveland sits 27th in the league in fantasy points allowed to defenses so far this year.