Welcome to the Week 16 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

Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While the Texans’ matchup with the Titans fell short of its scoring expectation, it came out a bit ahead of average from a play volume perspective. Continuing a season-long trend, Houston didn’t push game pace – and even handed off more than usual while the game was close. If Bill O’Brien learned one thing from his time in New England, it’s how to talk without saying anything. If he learned two things, it is to adapt to your opponent – something the Texans did with moderate success on Sunday against the Titans’ run funnel. After handing off in Tennessee at a far higher situation-neural rate (57%) than they had been doing (44%), we now may see the Texans to pivot into the Bucs’ league-leading pass funnel (65%). With mid-pack seconds-per-snap and play volume rates – their games average the 14th-most combined snaps – the Texans’ pace is typically dependent on their environment.

Despite some important branches having been trimmed from the target tree, Tampa Bay remains a pace-pushing environment. Bucs games average the league’s most plays, with even more coming during the last month (136.5). While they rank top-five in seconds-per-snap pace, a vital play volume catalyst in Tampa is a sixth-best-graded run stopping unit allowing 3.1 yards per carry. It pushes action toward a pillow-soft secondary grading 17th in coverage and gets little help from a limp, 19th-graded pass rush. On offense, perhaps the Bucs will be tempted to run more, considering their top two wideouts are injured. More likely, Houston’s ninth-best-graded run defense and fourth-worst-graded pass coverage encourages Tampa to stick with a situation-neutral pass rate that ranks top-10 over the last four weeks.

Elevated volume brings Kenny Stills into play, despite his point-chasey feel after two Week 15 touchdowns. There is less to stand on if we want to include Duke Johnson as well. The on-paper matchup favors him over Carlos Hyde, but Hyde has repeatedly made us look silly for overlooking him. If you have to ask about DeAndre Hopkins or Will Fuller, you probably aren’t in your league’s finals anyway. As for the Bucs, the potential extra snaps probably make their backfield even more maddening. They do, however, solidify uncomfortable plays like Breshad Perriman and Justin Watson – and typically terrifying starts like O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

 

Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks

This might be the most interesting matchup of the season from a pace perspective. There are no shortage of indicators pointing to an up-tempo game, including the presence of the Cardinals – whose involvement typically juices play volume despite a recent slowdown from “breakneck” to merely “brisk.” The fly in the ointment is what wrecked overall play volume during the Week 4 meeting between these teams: the Seahawks dominated game script. Now the game is in Seattle and the home team is a double-digit favorite. While Pete Carroll’s plodders are playing no faster than in September on a seconds-per-snap basis, their contests have contained more play volume despite a couple of handoff fetishists running the offense. After four weeks Seahawks games ranked third lowest in average combined plays (121.5), and now they’re seventh highest (129.7).

A degradation of Seattle’s pass defense, along with opponents throwing against them at the league’s second-highest situation-neutral rate (65%) has contributed to the spike in snaps. They trail only Tampa Bay’s famous funnel in opponent pass rate. While the Cardinals have been running more of late (46% situation-neutral rate during the last month; eighth highest), Kliff Kingsbury has shown his offense is adaptable to their opponent, and the Seahawks’ beat up pass rush and coverage is getting ripe. Arizona is also a pass funnel, facing the sixth-highest pass rate (62%) with a league-worst-graded coverage unit. The Seahawks are the better bet to come out ahead in terms of play volume – they rank ninth in snaps and Arizona has allowed the league’s most – but there is enough back-and-forth potential here to not be scared away by the Week 4 outcome. The defenses have more questions than during the first meeting, mostly via attrition, providing an out in the event that play volume again disappoints.

Kenyan Drake is again a strong play, although he won’t match last week’s output (#analysis). If we project Kyler Murray to head for Seattle’s pass funnel, he’ll take a couple pass catchers with him and Christian Kirk is the safest bet. Damiere Byrd and Dusty Larry are dart-throw-level options in a potential shootout. Like Drake, Chris Carson is an obvious play. Finding fliers beyond Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf is tricky. Josh Gordon’s absence makes it a bit more comfortable to take a shot on Malik Turner, but it’s far easier to ride Jacob Hollister instead. Rumor has it the Cardinals struggle against tight ends.

 

Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles

The Cowboys used tempo early against the Rams on Sunday, but they quickly scrapped it as their old ground-and-pound approach began paying dividends. The matchup still produced a hefty 136 combined plays (68 each), which was owed mainly to the Rams’ frantic pace while getting their asses handed to them. Playing slowly was a departure for the Cowboys, who entered the game ranked third in situation-neutral pace. Accustomed to high play volume, their contests rank fourth in combined snaps for the season (130) and third highest during the last four weeks (134). Prior to Week 15, Dallas ranked 10th in situation-neutral pass rate (60%), and they were throwing even more during the previous four games (62%; sixth highest).

As of now, the Cowboys’ Week 15 approach can be chalked up as an opponent-specific anomaly, but a date with the Eagles’ pass funnel will put that to the test. Opponents throw against Philadelphia at the fifth-highest situation-neutral rate (62%), tempted by a 21st-graded pass coverage littered with flammable cornerbacks. Eagles games average top-10 combined play rates both for the season and during the last month, and despite their nearly comical lack of healthy wideouts, Carson Wentz has been chucking it around. Over the last four weeks, Philadelphia has passed at the second-highest rate while games are within one score.

While it was Ezekiel Elliott early and Tony Pollard late against the Rams, with a dusting of targets sprinkled among several pass catchers, we can safely return to Dallas’ typically condensed touch distribution for fantasy. Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper, who’s owned the Eagles as a Cowboy, join Elliott in a tight core. Choosing from Dallas’ ancillary pieces isn’t an easy task. As for the Eagles, they’re treating their running backs as receivers in the absence of viable wideouts (aside from the great Greg Ward, of course). Both Miles Sanders and Boston Scott are in play, assuming Jordan Howard stays on the shelf. Both tight ends are fantasy viable as well. Conveniently, what little the Eagles got going in their first Cowboys matchup came via backs and tight ends, and now that’s all they have left.

 

Slow Paced Slogs

Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers

The only thing sadder than watching the Raiders ripped from their rabid followers is the blank space where Chargers fans should be. That will be the Week 16 setting for two of the league’s slowest teams, as they play out the string with the urgency of stoned Netflix browsers. The Raiders operate at the league’s 11th-slowest situation-neutral pace. Their games average the third-fewest combined snaps (122), with even fewer coming during the last month (119.3). They’ve handed off at the third-highest rate while the score is within seven points this season (48.1%), which matches what they’ve done over the last four weeks (48.1%). Hey, they do what they do – and mainly what they do is suck. Oakland’s average point differential (-8 per game) is better than only the Redskins, Bengals, and Dolphins. Considering the Chargers face the fourth-highest opponent situation-neutral run rate (47%), we know how this will go.

Despite being the better team by most measures, the situation in Los Angeles is somehow more depressing. They don’t even get to move to Vegas, and serial point-shaver Phil Rivers is running out of time to fund his dozen 529 accounts with random interceptions and tragic late-game meltdowns. It doesn’t mean he’s in a rush, however, as the Chargers feature the league’s third-slowest situation-neutral pace. Their games produce the NFL’s fewest combined snaps (120), and it hasn’t improved during the last month (119.3). One potential cherry atop this steaming pile of pace is the Chargers throw it at a high rate when games are close (65%; second highest), and the Raiders face the seventh-highest situation-neutral pass rate (61%). Against Oakland’s seventh-worst-graded pass coverage, perhaps Rivers can help someone help you win a fantasy championship on his way to the glue factory.

With news that Josh Jacobs’ availability is in doubt due to Oakland’s lost playoff hopes, DeAndre Washington launches back onto the radar for a likely run-heavy game plan. Per usual, Darren Waller has the only bankable target load in the passing game, unless this game shoots itself into a high-volume affair – and there’s a better chance of Jon Gruden and Derek Carr enjoying a lifelong stint as Vegas neighbors. No matter how efficient, nobody has a high volume floor in a three-headed Chargers backfield with Justin Jackson butting in. Any of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, or Hunter Henry could pay off against the Raiders. Two of them could manage it on low volume, like last week. All three will not, so choose wisely.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets

It is unlikely you’re looking to this matchup for many fantasy plays, and you’ll have even less luck finding much play volume. The Steelers operate at the league’s fourth-slowest situation-neutral pace, and it’s tough to blame them, considering the clown car of quarterbacks they’ve run out and the stout defense they can fall back upon. Their games average the fifth-fewest combined plays on the season (123.1), and the league’s fewest during the last four games (117.8). Their 15th-highest situation-neutral pass rate through 11 weeks (60%) has plummeted to fourth lowest over the last month (50%). Topping things off, opponents run against Pittsburgh at the fifth-highest rate while games are within one score (45%).

Adam Gase may choose to head into the Steelers run funnel, or he may stubbornly hang Sam Darnold and his sixth-worst-graded protection out to dry against Pittsburgh’s league-best-graded pass rush. Gase will likely make the wrong choice, but it almost certainly won’t matter from a play volume perspective. The Jets have teased us with tempo throughout the second half of the season, but it is typically window dressing before Gase shoves them back into a shell in search of another friendly loss. Jets games average the seventh-fewest combined plays (124.4), and their snaps pace remains bottom-half on a situation-neutral basis. New York chose not to play fast against the Ravens last week, and with this being a comparable matchup, we can expect the same – and similarly muted fantasy production.

James Conner owners expecting him to build on Sunday night might be disappointed. A four-way backfield split in a limited offense with questionable volume is no way to go through life. Mike Tomlin says a full week of practice for Conner and Jaylen Samuels will allow a narrower backfield. We shall see. Throwing darts at James Washington or Diontae Johnson might pay off or might miss the board entirely. There won’t be a ton of darts thrown, however. Does it count as a revenge game if all parties involved are miserable? Either way, Le’Veon Bell is a low-ceiling and low-floor play, despite dominating Jets backfield touches – which is like having a large slice of a small pigeon pie. Jamison Crowder and Robby Anderson benefit from a recently tightened target tree. They are unattractive in this spot, even with Crowder’s two-touchdowns during a low volume Thursday night game.

 

Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns

 This week features four rematches from Week 4. The initial outcomes make sense outside of this matchup, as the 40-25 road upset by the Browns produced a solid 128 plays, with Cleveland running and throwing all over Baltimore. Since then, the Browns have been throwing up all over themselves, and the Ravens have put together a nine-game winning streak. Baltimore’s defense has improved, their offense has slowed, and their games have shortened. They operate at the fifth-slowest situation-neutral pace and keep clocks grinding with a ridiculous 57% run rate while games are close. As a result, their contests average the ninth-fewest combined plays (124.5), with a handful fewer during the last month (119.8; fourth fewest). The Ravens have the third-best average snaps differential (+7.6 per game) and an NFL-high average point differential (+15.4). Whatever fantasy juice is in a Ravens game usually gets squeezed by the Ravens.

Coming off a trampling courtesy of the Cardinals, the Browns’ fifth-worst-graded run defense has now been tested at the league’s seventh-highest rate while games are within one score (45%). The Ravens will test it when things are close, and then test some more when they’re no longer close. Cleveland’s games average the eighth-fewest combined plays (124.4) due to their inefficient offense and ponderous pace. The Browns operate at the sixth-slowest situation-neutral snap rate, despite Baker Mayfield showing a spark while playing fast and going no-huddle. The time for frustration with Freddie Kitchens is over, however, and we must assume Cleveland will not magically (or schematically) snap out of their offensive funk. The best we can do is get out of the way of falling objects, and play volume is likely to go through the floor against the Ravens.

We return to the usual Ravens suspects thanks to their condensed touch distribution, and Mark Ingram is staring at attractive volume and matchup. Gus Edwards sneaks into play if we see this getting ugly at home for the Browns, which we do. Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews are again the extent of Lamar Jackson’s playable pass catchers during a nearly full Sunday slate. There is nothing comfortable about starting Browns here, although Nick Chubb should get, at worst, moderate volume for a matchup he destroyed in Week 4, and Kareem Hunt is a desperation PPR floor play. Jarvis Landry showed his floor last week and should bounce back despite a likely opportunity squeeze, while Odell Beckham will certainly be out there on the field.

 

Pace Notes

Saturday offers a diverse and intriguing three-game slate for both real and fantasy football.  We already touched on the early game above, as it is the likely pace-based and point-scoring crown jewel of the day. Gathering plenty of exposure to the Texans–Bucs matchup, whether in three-game or full-weekend slates, is a good idea.

As for the other contests, the Bills visit the Patriots in the afternoon with conference and divisional seeding implications. It also pits two relatively quick offenses against each other, with New England ranking first in situation-neutral pace and the Bills coming in 11th after they (temporarily?) slowed down for a Sunday night slog in Pittsburgh.

This matchup has the same defensive feel as the Steelers game, and with the goal of limiting Josh Allen’s mistakes, we shouldn’t be surprised if Buffalo again dials back a no-huddle rate that had ranked second highest during the month prior to the Week 15 (31%). The likeliest scenario is the Bills lean primarily on their 45% situation-neutral run rate against a Patriots defense that’s shown cracks on the ground and is facing the sixth-highest run rate during the last month.

The Patriots play faster than the Bills, even on Buffalo’s speediest day. The issue is their passing game sucks, and a banged-up Julian Edelman and raw N’Keal Harry are unlikely to carry it against the third-best-graded coverage and fifth-highest-graded pass rush. Like the Patriots, the Bills’ defensive soft spot is their run defense – and nobody attacks opponent weaknesses like Bill Belichick. Plenty of handoffs, strong pass defenses, and spotty aerial attacks are not a recipe for elevated snaps.

 

The night game features the speedy Rams at the more deliberately paced 49ers in a rematch of a Week 6 demolition in which San Francisco entered the public consciousness as one of 2019’s top teams. The 49ers were playing quickly and their contests were voluminous for the first month, but opportunity has become sparser since then. Their games average the sixth-fewest combined snaps for the season (123.9), with even fewer during the last four weeks (120.8).

The Rams only ran 50 plays and scored but one touchdown in Week 6, and while both numbers will rise on Saturday night against San Francisco’s banged-up defense, it’s likely Jared Goff struggles with a healthy-enough 49ers defensive line that’s propelled them to the second-best pass rushing grade. Teams hand off against San Francisco at the third-highest situation-neutral rate (47%), due both to a relative vulnerability against ground games and simply for self-preservation.

Mix a likely handoff-heavy plan from Los Angeles with San Francisco’s 46% situation-neutral run rate and lack of tempo, and we’re looking at regularly grinding play clocks. The matchup offers a wider array of fantasy-relevant weapons than does Bills–Patriots, but the overall environment doesn’t project to be appreciably better from a pace standpoint. Both the afternoon and late games call for fantasy tweezers, rather than the shovel we can optimally use in Tampa Bay.

 

There will be some temptation to gravitate toward Will Grier in his first start for the Panthers. Everyone just watched the Colts get lit up, and how much worse than Kyle Allen can he be? Carolina held onto their up-pace ways through a head coaching change, so perhaps they will through a quarterback switch. Their contests average the third-most plays and the Panthers produce the fourth most per game (66.9). Not a terrible environment for a rookie’s first taste, huh?

Of course, we have no idea of the Panthers planned pass/run split with Grier, who they’ve clearly been hesitant to play despite Allen melting down more often than Antonio Brown. Interim coach Perry Fewell noting that Greer is, “not there yet, but he’s progressing” doesn’t sound like someone ready to let the rookie rip. It wouldn’t be shocking if they slowed down from the fifth-quickest situation-neutral pace, especially on the road.

What would be shocking, however, is if the Colts sped up. They rank seventh slowest in situation-neutral pace and, at least for now, probably want to see less of Jacoby Brissett after Monday night. Indianapolis has the fourth-highest situation-neutral run rate (47%) and they’ll pound the Panthers’ second-worst-graded run stopping. Colts games have a bottom-10 average combined plays mark, both for the season and during the last month. Investing in the Panthers passing game will likely need to pay off on limited opportunities.

 

The Bears offense remains only slightly more efficient than a Lambo, but while it’s nowhere near as fast, Chicago is speeding up. On a situation-neutral basis, their seconds-per-snap pace has jumped from a midseason rate of 29th, up to 17th fastest. They aren’t throwing at a higher rate while games are within one score, ranking 12th during the last month (60%) after passing at a 64% clip through 11 weeks (fifth highest).

The Bears have simply upped their tempo, and while it may or may not be contributing to Mitchell Trubisky’s dead-cat performance bounce, it’s at least helped infuse their games with more play volume. Over the last four weeks, their games have gone from averaging 125.6 combined plays (18th) up to 134.3 total snaps (second). During that time, Chicago’s 13% no-huddle rate through 11 weeks has ticked up to 20% (fourth highest).

Like anything with the Bears offense, this is not something to become overly confident in. It does, however, raise the ceiling on Sunday night’s matchup with the Chiefs, who have slowed down in the plays production department as their defense has solidified. Their contests have gone from averaging the 11th-most snaps to the 26th most during the last month. Any help getting Patrick Mahomes and company more snaps is appreciated, no matter how unlikely the source.

 

The Bengals have been an up-pace offense, operating at the seventh-quickest situation-neutral snaps rate before their Week 15 game with the Patriots. When Andy Dalton was initially benched, Cincinnati snapped it at the league’s quickest rate, and when he was reinserted in Week 13, they’d fallen to fifth quickest. The assumption was the Bengals would resume their ultra-up-pace ways and reinstitute an elevated situation-neutral pass rate, which had fallen from second highest to 14th under rookie Ryan Finley. That has not occurred.

During the last month, the Bengals’ situation-neutral pass rate (57%) has fallen even further — to 16th highest. From a raw snaps pace perspective (or, seconds-per-snap unadjusted for game script), Cincinnati ranks only 24th quickest over the last four weeks. Before that point, they were the league’s fastest offense. It actually isn’t a bad idea from a real football angle — 2020 draft slotting notwithstanding. The Bengals stink. Their best chance to win a game is holding the ball as long as possible, and increasing variance by reducing possessions. Of course, that’s not ideal for fantasy.

A trip to Miami for a Toilet Bowl matchup offers the Bengals some latitude in how they’ll approach things on offense. They absolutely could hang in an up-pace, beautifully ugly (at least for fantasy) shootout with the Dolphins. Or, if recent trends hold, Cincinnati will pound the supremely talented Joe Mixon at Miami’s league-worst-graded run defense while operating slowly and dominating time of possession. That would be a fantasy buzz kill, outside of rostering Mixon, but it’s a more realistic scenario than we’d have envisioned a few weeks ago.