Welcome to a Thanksgiving edition of Snaps & Pace, where we examine trends in play volume and game pace. It is meant to be a 30,000-foot view of upcoming contests, with the goal of identifying which matchups will – and which will not – be played on fertile fantasy soil. For a primer on why this is important, click here.

The holiday season and the NFL’s home stretch kick off on Thursday with a progressively more interesting three-game slate. Nothing beats families sharing festivities, food, football, and some thinly veiled degeneracy, so let’s dive right in.

 

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions

We witnessed this same horror show three weeks ago in Chicago, as the Lions misused a meaty 75 snaps on their way to 13 points and the second of what’s now a four-game losing streak. Surrendering Mitchell Trubisky’s best game of the year was just a happy bonus. Amidst talk of shutting Matthew Stafford down for the season, and Matt Patricia insisting his players are still trying real hard, we can no longer count on the Lions to drive the same level of play volume as during the first two months.

The last four weeks Stafford played, Detroit passed on 64% of plays when games were within one score (fifth highest). Since he’s been out, the Lions have a 56% situation-neutral pass rate – which would rank 24th for the full season. Their games average the second-most combined plays with Stafford and the 18th most without him. Clearly Detroit’s snaps now pack less of a punch – with all due respect to the rock in Bo Scarborough’s shoe – and a short turnaround to a Thursday game likely means they’ll again be without Stafford behind center.

A quarterback with broken vertebrae and losing to the one-win Redskins sucks, but things could be worse. Just ask Allen Robinson. Your offense could have the league’s fourth-highest situation-neutral pass rate, but a poor man’s Blake Bortles doing the passing. You could be going no-huddle at the second-highest rate, but not actually snapping it until most of the play clock has drained – allowing defenses to adjust and your quarterback time to mentally prepare to overthrow you. These things don’t help the Bears run a lot of plays (24th) or score efficiently (28th in points per snap).

Short of Stafford miraculously healing, or a Chase Daniel Thanksgiving sequel, this is a game to pick at sparingly. Jeff Driskel’s balky hamstring might force third-stringer David Blough upon us, there’s a three-headed backfield led by game-script-dependent plodder Scarborough, and five pass-catchers ran double-digit routes on Sunday. Even Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are less than confident options for a game in which the Lions will almost certainly run fewer plays than their previous matchup in Chicago – and nobody was more than marginally fantasy useful there.

The Bears should deploy a relatively narrow target distribution, for them anyway, as Taylor Gabriel is unlikely to clear the concussion protocol. Along with the quarterback-proof Robinson, that puts Anthony Miller more squarely on the bargain radar as his targets have spiked of late. Short of a blowout of the banged-up Lions, Chicago’s split backfield and face-melting run-pass ratio is unlikely to yield a significant touch load for David Montgomery. Tarik Cohen, whose carries, pass routes, and targets are up noticeably since Week 10, is the preferred bet in a low-play-volume environment. Of course, much rides on Trubisky, and while there have been recent flashes of his formerly fantasy-friendly self, it remains a recipe for plenty of pre-turkey whiskey.

 

Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys

While this matchup has more firepower than the early game, it doesn’t scream high-volume shootout. There are glimmers of hope, however. While the defense-heavy, run-dominant Bills don’t profile as a snap-generating outfit, from a pace perspective, they haven’t been pushed hard of late. Games against the Broncos, Dolphins, Browns, and Redskins round out their last month. Buffalo’s seasonal average differential of +4 plays per game ranks seventh highest, but during the past four weeks, the Bills are averaging 9.3 more snaps than their opponents (fifth highest).

Lost in Buffalo’s recent run of tractor pulls is the fact that they are starting to increase their tempo. They operate at the 13th-quickest seconds-per-snap pace, went no-huddle on 30% of plays two weeks ago, and on Sunday the Bills deployed a 35% no-huddle rate that was their highest in over five years. Buffalo’s 73 snaps were their most in more than a year. During the last month, their 48% pass rate ranks second lowest, but prior to that it was 55%. While not exactly an aerial circus, it’s enough to support extra snaps in a back-and-forth game – and it’s questionable whether the Cowboys can blow out the Bills.

Dallas can be forgiven for laying an egg in awful New England conditions against the league’s best defense. Well, the players can be forgiven. Returning home should again provide a boost for one of the league’s top offenses. The Cowboys were operating at the league’s third-quickest situation-neutral pace before entering a monsoon on Sunday, and should return to it once ensconced in Jerry World. With a top-10 pass rate while games are within one score (61%), Cowboys contests average the sixth-most combined plays (128.1), and even more during the last month (131.3).

The Buffalo side has fairly concentrated fantasy options, making our lives somewhat easier. The uber-consistent John Brown and revenge-minded Cole Beasley will be helped by Josh Allen’s presumed spike in pass rate, and the Cowboys mediocre run stopping is a relatively soft target for Devin Singletary. Moderate-to-strong play volume locks those four in play, and could support a dart throw at Dawson Knox on a thin tight end slate, or speedster Isaiah McKenzie — who’s been running plenty of target-less wind sprints – or even zombie Frank Gore if you like playing the classics for the holiday.

The Cowboys are similarly concentrated, albeit with one significant difference. Shutdown Bills corner Tre’Davious White is on a tear, and if Stephon Gilmore’s success against a less-than-100% Amari Cooper is any indication, Dallas will need to win in other ways. The Bills run defense (21st) grades well behind their pass rush (fourth) and coverage (third), moving Ezekiel Elliott to the top fantasy option in this game. Buffalo’s No. 2 corner, Levi Wallace is likely to struggle with Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb should continue to see increased opportunity both due to matchup and game pace. This game likely won’t match Saints/Falcons for scoring or play volume, but it should be closer to that matchup than to Bears/Lions – presenting an opportunity for lineup differentiation.

 

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons

Since lighting struck twice already when the Falcons defense put up two strong games in a row, the Saints should be safe from a reprise of their embarrassing Week 10 performance. Even that matchup produced better-than-average play volume, and New Orleans reached the Atlanta 9-, 10-, 11-, and 29-yard lines only to come away with nine points. Not coincidentally, the same thing happened to the Panthers against the Falcons even more often the following week. No one is wondering if that defense turned a corner anymore, after the Bucs scored five touchdowns in Atlanta.

The Saints are passing at the second-highest situation-neutral rate over the last four weeks (69%), during which time Falcons opponents are throwing at the sixth-highest rate (65%). Drew Brees should be fairly busy, which will boost overall snap volume. Atlanta also throws at a high rate while games are within one score, ranking eighth (62%). Against the Saints, that rate was down to only 55%, but it was the last time Devonta Freeman played. If he makes it back in time for Thursday night, expect a more ground-based attack – at least until the Saints begin scoring in earnest.

While New Orleans operates at a bottom-10 situation-neutral pace, Atlanta is a play-volume catalyst. Their games average the fifth-most combined snaps (129.5), with significantly more coming during the last month (135.3; third most). Their defense isn’t remarkable in any sense, but it’s especially vulnerable to the pass. Atlanta’s coverage is graded seventh lowest by PFF, and they’re bottom six in surrendering passing yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns, touchdown rate, passer rating, and in generating sacks. No matter which new coaches are calling plays on what downs, that’s a problem.

Extra play volume allows us to comfortably branch off New Orleans’ typically tight touch tree, which usually consists of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, and sometimes Jared Cook. Also in play on this short slate is No. 2 running back Latavius Murray, as well as both Ted Ginn and Tre’Quan Smith after they ran 30-plus routes on Sunday, when Drew Brees threw 10 deep balls. He’d attempted only 17 before Week 12, and the Falcons have allowed the eighth-most completions of 20-plus yards.

On the Atlanta side, Qadree Ollison encroaching on Brian Hill’s workload – especially high-leverage touches – negates some of the matchup’s potential shootout and play-volume boost. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and salary-saver Russell Gage are all viable options – while Jaeden Graham is as viable as any non-Cook tight end on the slate. Buffalo/Dallas offers more than meets the eye from a pace perspective, but the night game is when we feast. Despite its projected popularity, there are plenty of paths to differentiated lineups. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone — and good luck.