Welcome to the Week 2 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
Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens
The Cardinals played as fast as advertised in Kliff Kingsbury’s NFL debut. They blazed Week 1’s quickest seconds-per-snap pace (22.8 seconds; 22.4 including overtime) and generated a meaty 82 plays. While only 66 snaps came during the first four quarters, it’s nothing to sneeze at after Arizona wheezed their way to a 29-play first half against the snap-sucking Lions. Whether the Cardinals wore down Detroit’s defense or simply got into a rhythm, things clicked down the stretch. Halfway through the third quarter, Arizona was on pace for only 58 snaps and 10 points. For the next two-and-a-half quarters, including overtime, they operated at a full-game pace of 74 snaps and 34 points. Their no-huddle rate spiked from 27.8% to 52.2%. Elevated game tempo also helped the Lions to 66 plays – besting last season’s average – and illustrated the play-volume-inducing power of the Cardinals pace.
A road game in Baltimore is far from a home game against the Lions. There is a distinct possibility – a strong probability, according to Vegas – that the Ravens will be the better birds. A repeat of Sunday’s Dolphins demolition could be in the cards, as Baltimore’s 73 snaps and 2-to-1 time of possession advantage was reminiscent of what they did down the stretch in 2018. Once Lamar Jackson took over behind center, only two teams allowed fewer plays than the Ravens (56.9) and nobody produced more (70.9). The Cardinals remain at a talent disadvantage on defense, and the Ravens offense will be volume-injected. Regardless of Arizona’s ability to generate plays of their own, Baltimore is going to eat.
The main Ravens weapons are in play in all formats, from season-long leagues, to DFS cash games and tournaments. We can also comfortably look down their depth chart on what will be a volume-buoyed afternoon, putting players with questionable playing time – like Mark Andrews and Gus Edwards – in our rotations as well. The Cardinals are riskier and ill suited for cash games, as Baltimore has the talent to finish what Detroit only pulled off through halftime. Still, it’s hard to ignore Arizona’s week-high 42% no-huddle rate and the ninth-highest situation-neutral pass rate (68%). Selective exposure is certainly warranted, and perhaps necessary if this game meets its explosive potential.
New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams
While the Saints leaned away from Drew Brees’ arm in recent seasons, they have not totally taken on a ground-based, clock-draining profile. Their raw seconds-per-snap pace has slowed to a crawl — 29th quickest in 2018 – but during close games they throw at a higher rate and play more quickly than average. Their NFC Championship rematch, in which New Orleans is a slight underdog, projects as a tight game with an elevated pace. For an offense that finished last season second in points-per-snap (the Rams ranked third best), extreme play volume is not required for scoreboard fireworks. Coming off of a Monday night game in which the Texans forced them to play faster than their norm (27.9 seconds per snap, 12th quickest), the Saints should experience a similar pull toward increased tempo in Los Angeles.
The Rams simply play fast as long as games are close, and they have since Sean McVay’s arrival — ranking first- and third-quickest in situation-neutral pace. After producing the fourth-most snaps of Week 1 (second most without overtimes factored in), Los Angeles heads home for a likely high-scoring affair in which neither side is favored to open up a lead large enough to ease off the throttle. Despite often holding double-digit leads on the road in Week 1, the Rams still turned in the 11th-quickest seconds-per-snap mark (27.7) and threw nearly 40 passes. Both Jared Goff and Brees hit the 40-attempt mark when these teams met in January, and Goff also did it earlier last season in a 45-35 barnburner with the Saints.
This matchup wouldn’t be overlooked even if the Week 2 main slate was not lacking in potential high ceiling, back-and-forth matchups. The good news is it has the play-volume juice to back up the efficient offenses we’ll be riding. Aside from firing up the usual suspects – nobody with a brain is jumping off a Brandin Cooks after a quiet two-catch day – the game’s extra opportunity keeps fringe fantasy considerations like Malcolm Brown, Latavius Murray, and Ted Ginn viable.
San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals
The 49ers weren’t exactly covering themselves in glory on Sunday while the Bucs were covering themselves in… shame. San Francisco was lucky Jameis Winston pooped the bed and handed the home team their exact margin of victory. Putting our faith back in Kyle Shanahan’s offense to help elevate pace and play volume doesn’t feel great, especially after they handed off on 52% of situation-neutral plays (third highest), produced only 60 snaps (12th lowest), and generally looked like trash. However, Shanahan’s track record is long, they posted the fifth-quickest situation-neutral pace of the week, and it’s too soon to completely abandon offseason projections. With Tevin Coleman out and the Bengals defense grading third best against the run and 10th worst in coverage, we should see more passing. It won’t always be pretty – it hasn’t been all summer – but there is elevated pace potential here.
The Bengals remain an unknown, but were full of surprises in a hostile Week 1 environment. The largest shock was they passed on a week-high 80% of situation-neutral snaps, whereas last year they threw 63% of the time when games were within one score. Cincinnati averaged 58.7 plays per game in 2018 (fourth lowest), but began this season with 70 in Seattle, while utilizing a healthy John Ross as originally intended and play-action like a modern offense. They also had their starting running back banged up, and if Joe Mixon sits on Sunday, Gio Bernard should keep Cincinnati in a passing posture – hopefully igniting a back-and-forth aerial affair between Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo. That last part sounded better in my head, but an offense strongly resembling Sean McVay’s is at least a hopeful sign for the Bengals’ pace – even if we can’t expect another 400-yard passing day from Dalton. No one is that optimistic.
Additional play volume makes both teams’ narrowed backfields more attractive, as do moderate price tags and likely palatable ownership levels. Ross will be more popular than Tyler Boyd, given their respective cost and buzz resulting from Week 1. Sorting out the 49ers’ non-George-Kittle pass catchers is a trickier task, and begins with the “health” of Week 1 two-snapper Dante Pettis. While this is by no means a comfortable game to load up on, it has enough sneaky play volume upside that we shouldn’t fully fade it.
SLOW PACED SLOGS
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
While the intention is not to have Kirk Cousins throw only 10 times per game, that wasn’t a Viking horn in Mike Zimmer’s pocket as he walked off the field. Cousins actually passed on four of five plays while the Week 1 contest was briefly within one score, but their trampling of the Falcons is essentially how Minnesota wants to roll. The Vikings spit out only 49 plays (second lowest) and operated at the slowest seconds-per-snap rate of the week. Their allegedly high-powered matchup with Atlanta yielded just 40 total points and Week 1’s third-fewest combined plays (116). It may be an extreme example of what we worried about after the Vikings committed to establishing the run, but it’s a continuation of a trend that began in December and is not changing anytime soon.
The Packers, however, are bucking trends. During Thursday’s preseason-flavored win in Chicago, Matt LaFleur’s imprint on Green Bay’s offense began to show itself. The result was less passing and a slower pace. Aaron Rodgers threw at the 17th-highest situation-neutral rate (last year the Packers ranked third) and their seconds-per-snap pace was the sixth slowest (last year it was eighth highest). It appears as if the Packers imported the Titans’ plodding pace along with LaFleur, who orchestrated last season’s fifth-slowest offense and produced the third-fewest snaps per game. While the Packers will fare better against lesser defenses than the Bears, and it’s likely their plays per game average tops Week 1’s meager 57 snaps, times appear to have changed in Green Bay.
Of course, a visit from the Vikings is not the ideal play-volume booster. Last year Green Bay and Minnesota played two games that both totaled 120 snaps in regulation (Week 2 ended in a tie). That’s not a lot, and now both teams are playing more slowly and the Packers are fielding fewer wideouts. Snap volume worries for No. 3 receiver Geronimo Allison put him on the risky-play list even before considering the Vikings’ strong defense. With depressed play volume expected, and ascending defenses on both sides, avoiding overexposure to this game would be wise.
Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans
The Colts were among last season’s league leaders in snaps pace, play volume, and pass rate with Andrew Luck behind center. Unsurprisingly, it appears as if things will be different under Jacoby Brissett. Despite never leading and often facing double-digit deficits in Week 1, Indianapolis posted the 10th-slowest seconds-per-snap pace (31.1) and only mustered 62 plays. They passed at the 11th-lowest rate while the game was within one score (55%). Combined with the Chargers’ typically muted pace, it made for a low-volume affair despite going into overtime. It’s possible the Colts begin opening up their offense, in both pace and run/pass ratio, as Brissett gains more comfort – but at least for now, we must assume their games will be less conducive to elevated play volume.
Few teams create less accommodative play-volume environments than the Titans. After a five-year run of bottom dwelling on the snaps list (30th, 29th, 22nd, 27th, and 32nd), Tennessee only ran 56 plays in their Week 1 upset of the Browns. Their 31.4 seconds-per-snap rate ranked seventh slowest, and whether they win or lose, the Titans are stubbornly content to stroll slowly through their games. Even with Indianapolis playing quickly last season, Tennessee mustered 59 and 45 snaps in their two contests. After watching the Colts defense give up 6.0 yards per carry to the Chargers, we can bet they are dreaming of heavy doses of Derrick Henry for their home opener – and they won’t be hurrying to the line after his handoffs to stop the grinding clock.
We typically want tight games when at least one offense plays quickly. Ideally it leads to a back-and-forth, up-tempo affair. When both teams play slowly, as is the forecast here, it helps if one side is forced out of their comfort zone and picks up the pace. Unfortunately, this matchup is projected to be tight, and the Colts can keep hiding Brissett while the Titans continue hiding from the 21st century. We can roll out each team’s starting running back with confidence, but beyond that – don’t say you weren’t warned.
Los Angeles Chargers at Detroit Lions
Whoever is supposedly driving pace in this matchup will probably be asleep at the wheel. Los Angeles’ pace profile is consistently worrisome. They operate glacially and their games are almost always low volume – both for the Chargers and their opponent. They just played an overtime game with 121 total snaps. Last year, that would’ve finished second lowest in the average combined snaps rankings. The problem is they’re a quality team and are often in positive game scripts – not compelled to quicken their pace. They finished 2018 dead last in seconds-per-snap rate, and this week were the fourth slowest. The Chargers are favored to be leading the Lions, who aren’t exactly pace-pushers themselves.
The Lions had the Cardinals exactly where they wanted them last week before the bottom fell out. They had an 18-point lead more than midway through the third quarter and were crushing clock. Detroit finished with a 31.7 seconds-per-snap rate before overtime (seventh slowest). Whether or not they collectively puked on their shoes because Arizona pushed the pace, Detroit won’t need to worry about their opponent playing quickly this week. Both teams will be free to trade leisurely punts. The Lions are, however, facing a far superior defense and should struggle to execute their preferred strategy of ball possession and clock grinding. Unless they fall far behind at home, it’s hard to envision Detroit quickening the pace enough to raise overall play volume.
Despite the likely depressed pace, it remains tempting to invest in these teams. There are too many fantasy-friendly names in action to totally ignore, even with holdout Melvin Gordon currently gaining leverage only on his couch. The problem in Detroit is, with the early emergence of T.J. Hockenson (9 targets) and significant involvement of Danny Amendola (13 targets), a usually narrow target tree is spread too thin if volume dries up. On the Chargers side, it’s worth monitoring if the touch distribution will be narrowed by Mike Williams’ knee injury. Either way, an attractive bet is Austin Ekeler, whose versatile profile better fits against the Lions’ stout run stopping than understudy Justin Jackson’s, and whose significant touch-share advantage makes him less susceptible to meager play volume.
TILTED PLAY VOLUME
Week 1 revealed something positive about the Dolphins, and it wasn’t that you can sneak down to sit on the 50 after buying a nosebleed seat. Miami’s coaches do not seem inclined to play slowly and drain clock in the name of “friendly losses.” Despite being outclassed in every way, the Dolphins kept trying to win – or their version of winning anyway. Miami’s seconds-per-snap rate ranked fourth quickest for the week, and although they’d certainly have been staring at a monster deficit in snaps due to a cavernous talent gap, they at least enabled the Ravens to run more plays. Lamar Jackson investors salute you, Brian Flores.
While the likelihood of Bill Belichick running a fake punt when up 32 points, against his former coaching assistant, is somewhat smaller than John Harbaugh doing it, the Patriots are still going to wax the Dolphins. They will do it with play volume on their side, not only because their offense operates at an elevated pace and Miami sucks, but because their defense quietly ranks among the league’s best. It is not hard to envision New England eclipsing the 73 snaps that the Ravens ran against the Dolphins. It brings fringe fantasy options into play (Phillip Dorsett, Rex Burkhead), and helps mitigate a widening touch distribution that will have one extra large mouth to feed on Sunday.
The Raiders played slowly last season (24th in situation-neutral pace) and in Week 1 (26th). They ranked 24th in plays per game in 2018 (62.3), and only mustered 54 in their Monday night win. Chances are they’ll play slowly again at home against the Chiefs, for as long as possible – and maybe longer, in search of a “friendly loss.” While it won’t matter for Kansas City – who averaged 37 points in their two wins against Oakland last year – it does call the fantasy-viability of Raiders players into question.
As the Jaguars showed on Sunday, even tilted game scripts shouldn’t preclude us from starting players against the Chiefs. Jacksonville only ran 50 plays while posting the fifth-slowest situation-neutral pace, yet produced several strong fantasy performances. There remains a chance that the Raiders – who will be without half of their starting defensive secondary – let it all hang out while getting shredded by Kansas City’s juggernaut offense. Yet, even if they play it safe and snap volume is lopsided, we shouldn’t hesitate to sprinkle Raiders into our starting lineups.
With the uber-efficient Cowboys needing only 62 snaps to light up the Giants, and the Redskins taking it to the Eagles for a significant portion of their road game, perhaps the play volume for Dallas-Washington won’t be quite so tilted. Still, with the transformation of the Cowboys offense from prune juice to bloody mary, we need to ride them — at least until the buzz wears off.
Fortunately, Dallas’ touch distribution remains relatively narrow, and they are even incorporating some no-huddle. Their 15% hurry-up rate was the sixth highest of the week and helped Dak Prescott post 86 yards on three-of-three passing to Michael Gallup, with a six-yard run tacked on. From pre-snap motion, to play-action, to no-huddle, and to more deep passing (Prescott’s yearly aDOT rankings: 21st, 20th, 27th, 9th), the Cowboys are pushing more than just the pace – but it’s only fun if we hop aboard.