Welcome to the Week 12 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.
UP IN PACE
Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots
Fortunately this matchup of first-place, up-pace offenses is the main slate’s most interesting, because in the NFL’s never-ending quest to turn lemonade into lemons, they scheduled only one other game in the late-afternoon window – and Jags-Titans is barely more watchable than commercials with couples gifting each other Christmas cars. Each of these offenses rank top-seven in points on a per-play basis, and Dallas continues to heat up on offense — producing the third-most points and fifth-most plays over the last month. During that time, Cowboys games average the third-most combined snaps, their 64% situation-neutral pass rate ranks eighth highest, and the offense is operating at the third-quickest seconds-per-snap pace.
While there’s a chance Dallas rides Ezekiel Elliott in an attempt to replicate recent clock-grinding drives allowed by New England, play volume in the Patriots’ last two games was elevated anyway. The Patriots average a league-high 70 plays per game, operate at the league’s quickest situation-neutral pace, and lead everyone in no-huddle rate during the last month. New England successfully used tempo in Philadelphia to provide a (temporary) spark, and may deploy it even more often in Foxborough’s friendly confines. Only the Chiefs have a higher situation-neutral pass rate during the last month, and despite a well-graded secondary, Patriots opponents are passing against them at the 10th-highest rate (61%).
Darius Slay held a hobbled Amari Cooper to 38 yards on three catches, and Stephon Gilmore is capable of doing the same. However, with extra projected snap volume, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb are again in play despite a step up in competition. While a significant portion of yardage allowed by New England has come via the tight end, the animated corpse of Jason Witten is a fairly thin option even with elevated play volume. On the Patriots side, the backfield currently goes three deep, clouding their outlooks. If Rex Burkhead, who got dinged up on Sunday, sits out, then both Sony Michel and James White jump squarely onto the fantasy radar. If Phillip Dorsett is out, rookie first-rounder N’Keal Harry becomes far more interesting after playing 32 snaps in his debut. The return of LT Isaiah Wynn should allow Tom Brady to take more than just three-step drops, which is nice.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
In their two meetings last year, the Falcons and Bucs averaged 65 points and 130 plays. Aside from Atlanta’s defense impersonating a real unit the last two games, their pace-generating profiles haven’t changed much. Bucs contests average even more combined snaps than in 2018 – a league-high 134.5 per game. They’ve operated at the quickest seconds-per-snap pace over the last month, during which time their contests are producing the most combined points in the league (58 per game). With a continually churning backfield cesspool, Tampa’s pass rate during neutral situations has risen to 64% during the last four weeks, versus 53% through Week 7. Of course, that pales in comparison to the league-leading opponent pass rate (70%) inspired by the Bucs’ seventh-best-graded run defense and the fifth-worst-graded pile of dry leaves in their secondary.
Speaking of cesspool backfields, the Falcons’ running back clown car has prompted them to pass at the league’s seventh-highest rate while games are within one score (63%). Even against the weak run stopping of the Panthers, Atlanta threw on 69% of plays while the game was (briefly) close. Their pass-heavy ways have contributed to the Falcons operating at the ninth-quickest situation-neutral pace and their games averaging a top-10 combined play rate (128.2) – with even more coming during the last month (130; eighth most). While Atlanta’s eighth-worst-graded coverage has enjoyed a two-game post-bye resurgence, it’s hasty to declare this recently catastrophic defense a fixed unit. Even as Kyle Allen was suffering a psychotic break, the Panthers managed 347 yards and five drives that ended at the Atlanta 35-, 22-, 21-, 15-, and 13-yard lines — on which they came away with three points. This isn’t the ’85 Bears, or even the ’19 Bears.
Either way, the likely pace at which this game will be played can paper over cracks with sheer volume. Considering these defenses allow the league’s most (Tampa Bay) and sixth-most points on a per-snap basis, even moderately elevated play volume should juice scoring. Fortunately we don’t have to strain to figure out who to trot out from these increasingly concentrated passing games. While handicapping the Bucs’ backfield requires a Ouija board, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are circled in crayon. Cameron Brate has theoretically overtaken O.J. Howard, but no one will be surprised if he air-balls. The Falcons side is nearly as narrow, with Air-Yards Model cover boy Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and yes, Brian Hill, standing well above game-volume and matchup-based dart throws like Russell Gage and Jaeden Graham.
Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns
The main-slate pickings this week aren’t even slim. They ugly. If this matchup was at a bar for last call, it was sly to bring along Steelers-Browns, Broncos-Bills, Jaguars-Titans, and Lions-Redskins. The Dolphins were solid wingmen for the Bills last week, and the Browns could use some love after Myles Garrett’s swinging Thursday night went south. Miami has operated at the league’s 13th-quickest situation-neutral pace, which has allowed opponents to continue scoring quickly instead of watching the Dolphins slowly bleed clock in search of a friendly loss. Miami is allowing the fifth-most snaps during the last moth, and their ninth-worst-graded coverage gets zero help from the league’s worst graded pass rush. Cleveland should be able to move the ball however they choose.
The main concern here is the Browns haven’t often played fast – much to our chagrin. Their situation-neutral snaps pace ranks 19th-quickest, and their games average only the 26th-most combined plays – although, like Miami, that’s been on the rise during the last month. Cleveland passes at the 10th-highest rate while games are within one score, and due to injury and suspension, their once-stiff pass defense is decimated. During the last month, both the Browns (53% to 64%) and Dolphins (50% to 58%) have seen large jumps in opponent situation-neutral pass rate, relative to the first seven weeks. An aerial duel between Baker Mayfield and Ryan Fitzpatrick might not normally jump off the page, but some weeks you just take what you can get.
Cleveland’s shaky run defense will lure folks back to Kalen Ballage as a double-digit road dog with the next guy on the depth chart – the apparently more effective Patrick Laird — gaining in snaps. Hey, what could go wrong? DeVante Parker has somehow been the picture of stable production. He and Mike Gesicki – now that the bloom is off his rose – are viable in this beautifully ugly fantasy environment. As for the Browns, it doesn’t get much more straightforward. Start Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, and if he’s healthy and you’re in a pinch, David Njoku as well. Hopefully quarterback streamers grabbed Mayfield last week.
Slow Paced Slogs
Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills
While both the Broncos and Bills played briskly-paced, high-scoring games in Week 11, the outlook appears far different for their matchup on Sunday. Denver jumped out to an unlikely lead in Minnesota, while Buffalo dictated an elevated tempo against the choose-your-own-adventure Dolphins defense. The Broncos don’t typically generate play volume, as their games average the fourth-fewest combined snaps on the season (123.2). While first-time starter Brandon Allen hasn’t yet imploded, it’s no surprise an offense throwing at only the 23rd-highest situation-neutral rate (56%) won’t fully trust his elven hands to chuck it around enough to raise game tempo. It is similarly unsurprising, considering their top-10-graded pass coverage, that the Broncos face the sixth-highest run rate during neutral situations.
The 17-point winning margin the Bills had over the Dolphins looks closer due to a kickoff return touchdown, as Buffalo had their way in Miami. Their 30% no-huddle rate ranked third highest on the week, and they elevated the overall pace by sprinkling in tempo throughout the game. Against the run-funnel Broncos, however, we can expect a more deliberate approach. During the last month, Bills games have averaged the sixth-fewest combined snaps, as they’ve handed off at the sixth-highest situation-neutral rate and their opponents have also skewed run-heavy. Buffalo grades top five in both pass rush and coverage, which despite a plucky first half in Minnesota’s dome, doesn’t seem like the type of road environment in which Allen is likely to thrive.
With Phillip Lindsay making good on pregame buzz of a larger workload, it’s an easy call to roll with him and avoid Royce Freeman amidst reduced overall play volume. Tim Patrick’s quick emergence, along with Noah Fant’s ascension, gives pause on Courtland Sutton’s share of a dubiously-sized opportunity pie, but anyone still doubting him deserves whatever they get. On the Bills side, John Brown is in Sutton Territory, in that you just don’t sit him. His theoretical ceiling matched the elevated floor last week, and while this isn’t the greatest matchup, we’ll worry about that more for everyone else. Devin Singletary is the only other serious consideration, as he further tightens his grip on the Bills backfield despite fumbling twice in Miami. That said, this isn’t an ideal spot, and it’s not outlandish to sit him for a similarly viable option.
Detroit Lions at Washington Redskins
In the Lions’ first game without Matthew Stafford, they threw the ball on 63% of plays while their game in Chicago was within one score (11th highest of Week 10). When the Cowboys visited on Sunday, Detroit threw on only 50% of snaps (fifth lowest of Week 11). Whether it was due to matchup or Bo Scarborough’s unquenchable thirst for revenge, the Lions offense was more in synch as a run-based unit than with too much on Jeff Driskel’s shoulders. Even if Lions coaches are foolish enough to let Stafford play with spinal fractures in a lost season, we need to plan on a more conservative, ground-based approach than before the injury. Last week, when Detroit’s matchup with Dallas produced 62 points on a relatively moderate 128 plays, it was the Cowboys who elevated the game’s tempo. The Redskins are a lot of things, but a pace-pusher isn’t one of them.
Washington operates at the league’s slowest situation-neutral pace. Their games produce the fewest average combined snaps (119.3), and the most fans leaving at halftime. During the last four weeks, opponents managed to run a moderate number of plays (64.7) as the Redskins have sputtered to a comically low 50.3 per game. Only the Bengals (11) are averaging fewer points during the last four weeks (11.7), and despite losing every game, Washington’s raw seconds-per-snap rate ranks second slowest. The Ravens, who’ve blown the doors off of everyone for a month, are the one team to snap the ball more slowly. Bill Callahan cares a lot about football things, like establishing the run and blocking sleds, but somewhat less about trying to win football games.
At least Callahan now has another legitimate running back at his disposal, with Derrius Guice returning to the backfield and fringe fantasy relevancy. Terry McLaurin is a scarier start with Slay projected to shadow, on top of an offense that wants to feed Adrian Peterson first, Guice second, and limit Dwayne Haskins GIFs third. While his big play chops can maximize limited volume, McLauren hasn’t caught more than four balls since Callahan took over. As for the Lions, Scarborough got half of Detroit’s backfield snaps and carries, while performing well enough to garner more in a better game script, which this game should offer. Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones are risky plays in a low-volume environment while they’re splitting Driskel targets with several others. Either one could score two touchdowns or catch one pass — which sounds oddly familiar.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans
We don’t need to spend too much time on a rematch of a Week 3 game that produced only 27 points on a surprisingly moderate 125 plays – especially when everyone will be watching Cowboys-Patriots anyway. Back in September, the Jaguars got out to a two-touchdown first-quarter lead and pounded Marcus Mariota for nine sacks on 53 dropbacks. Considering Ryan Tannehill has averaged fewer than 35 dropbacks as the Titans’ starter, we know how Tennessee wants to play. They skew handoff-heavy in neutral situations (42%), and the Jaguars’ 10th-worst-graded run defense is where teams have been hitting them recently. Over the last month, Jacksonville has faced the fifth-highest situation-neutral run rate (45%), during which time their games are averaging the sixth-fewest combined snaps.
Derrick Henry will be busy against a Jags front that was pounded by the Colts, and with the Titans installed as field-goal favorites, neutral-to-positive game script projects to be on his side. While Tannehill has sparked the offense, his insertion has not infused it with volume. Tennessee is averaging a meager 57.8 plays per game since he took over – even fewer than the 60.7 they produced under Mariota. That is not supportive of fantasy opportunity when multiple tight ends, running backs, and wideouts apparently all need to be fed. Leonard Fournette, on the other hand, will undoubtedly get more carries after the Jaguars set a franchise low with nine handoffs last week. D.J. Chark is obviously locked into lineups against Tennessee’s burnable perimeter, but the rest – including slot man Dede Westbrook – are best left as prove-it bench fodder for now. Both offenses operate at bottom-seven situation-neutral paces, so we’d be wise to skim fantasy plays from the top, instead of digging into the dregs of depressed volume.
The Panthers-Saints matchup features starkly contrasting offenses from a pace perspective. Carolina operates at the seventh-quickest situation-neutral pace, and their games average the fourth-most combined snaps. New Orleans ranks ninth slowest, and their contests combine for the fifth-fewest snaps. Of course, the Saints have a +3.6 plays-per-game average differential and the Panthers are slightly negative (-0.9). With New Orleans sitting as touchdown-plus favorites, we know who the betting public believes will dictate game script.
It’s possible Kyle Allen scrapes himself out of an Arby’s dumpster, and the Panthers pull the Saints into an up-tempo game. Crazier things have happened at the Superdome. More likely, however, we’ll see New Orleans ride their ground game against a 21st-graded Panthers run defense allowing 4.9 yards per carry (fourth most) and five more rushing touchdowns than any other team (18). While games in New Orleans are innately attractive for fantasy, this divisional matchup might not have enough play volume to dig deep into the passing game of either team, although Saints No. 2 running back Latavius Murray is back in play.
There were several factors working toward the Rams setting their slowest, by far, seconds-per-snap pace of the season on Sunday night. While it wasn’t a large lead, they played from ahead for most of the game, and ran nearly twice as often as they threw. Robert Woods was a surprise inactive, on top of a generally beat-up offense. Pushing the pace against a Mitchell Trubisky-led team wasn’t necessary while he was again getting pantsed – this time by a defense which has allowed only 11 points per game during their last four.
As the competition picks up – and a Monday night visit by the Ravens certainly qualifies there – it will be interesting to see if Sean McVay returns the Rams to their up-tempo ways or plays hide-the-quarterback. Of course, he’s been hiding Jared Goff since arriving in Los Angeles, but not by slowing games down. Quite the opposite. With Woods and Brandin Cooks set to return, and Todd Gurley coming off of his best game since September, whether or not Rams fantasy options will be supported by pace and play volume has become an unknown for the first time in the McVay era.
After two weeks of teasing us with surprisingly inspired, tempo-laced opening drives that quickly devolved into the huddle-laden, snap-sucking fiascos, Adam Gase finally kept his foot on the gas deep in the second half. Sam Darnold went 7-of-11 for 108 yards and Jets running backs gained 55 yards on 10 carries from the no-huddle. New York mostly kept up a brisk pace until the game was well in hand. Granted, it came against a Redskins organization that makes Jets HQ look like Foxborough, but it was nevertheless encouraging after recent glimmers of tempo turned to dust.
Whether or not New York carries their elevated pace home for a date with the plodding Raiders is an enormous question on a main slate pockmarked with low-scoring matchups. If Oakland’s ponderous pace can torpedo a pristine fantasy environment against the Bengals, it can do it again here. The Jets and Raiders have bottom-nine pass rush grades and their coverage isn’t a whole lot better. They are both pass funnels, with Oakland seeing the fourth-highest opponent pass rate during neutral situations, and New York facing the eighth highest. However, there’s a reason their games have combined for the third- and fifth-fewest snaps.
Both offenses have been inconsistent, and both coaches inflexible – which is worrisome considering Jon Gruden has engineered the third-highest situation-neutral run rate (48%). The Jets will need to elevate the tempo because the Raiders clearly won’t. They rank 28th in seconds-per-snap pace and weren’t inclined to play quickly even at home against an outclassed Bengals team. How much can we count on the Jets getting out to a lead and dictating tempo, and will New York support overall play volume by reprising their finally-aggressive pace? How much do you trust Adam Gase?