Welcome to the Week 3 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.
There are not many glaringly up-tempo matchups on the Week 3 schedule, and recent quarterback attrition has made it worse. Forget having Andrew Luck for the Falcons-Colts game, and how Indianapolis has devolved into a plodding offense under Jacoby Brissett. The Steelers-49ers game was dripping with possibilities before an even more Frankensteinesque version of Ben Roethlisberger blew out his elbow. The 49ers delivered on their offseason pace promise in Week 2 and look to be a legitimate play-volume-booster going forward. With a face-melting backfield and wide receiver playing time split, they’ll need all the extra plays they can get.
It is tempting to project the Giants-Buccaneers game for extra play volume now that Eli Manning has mercifully been put out of our misery. When we strip out overtimes, Giants games average the fourth most combined snaps, and Bucs games rank seventh – while both teams have garbage defenses. However, New York will likely begin by protecting Daniel Jones even more than Bruce Arians has hidden Jameis Winston with a 51% situation-neutral run rate (third highest). It is natural to be excited for the Jones era to begin, and even to throw a few fantasy darts at the game – but from a pace perspective we are staring at a wide range of potential outcomes. At least they no longer include Manning.
UP IN PACE
Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals
The Panthers are off to a voluminous start from a play standpoint, if not so much from a scoring angle. Only the Ravens and Eagles have produced more snaps, and Carolina’s games are averaging the most combined plays when we factor out overtimes. While it hasn’t always been efficient, the Panthers are operating at the league’s quickest seconds-per-snap pace – a major departure from last season, when they ranked 11th slowest. Carolina is again dabbling in the no-huddle (10.9%, seventh highest), presumably in an attempt to find an offensive rhythm. While they intermittently found their groove in Week 1, it was far uglier on Thursday night.
A trip to Arizona should perk up Carolina’s sluggish offense, both in play volume and efficiency. The Cardinals can perpetually appear in the Up In Pace section. Yet unlike last week, when we had concerns about their pace while facing the ball-control Ravens in Baltimore, worries are lessened at home against a Panthers team that’s been more accommodative of opponents’ play volume. Arizona will certainly be the game’s primary pace driver, even though they (temporarily) rank second to Carolina in seconds-per-snap rate. While in a hostile environment, the Cardinals upped their 41% Week 1 no-huddle rate to 72%, and mostly acquitted themselves admirably.
In what could turn into a back-and-forth affair, no matter who is behind center for Carolina, we shouldn’t hesitate to start our Panthers and Cardinals. Despite a discouraging performance on national television last Thursday, this shaped up as a get-right spot for Cam Newton. Even if Kyle Allen is forced to play, the matchup is so favorable that we won’t need to make drastic downward adjustments to Panthers pass-catchers. Newton was so inaccurate on Thursday that Allen may be a temporary upgrade. On the Cardinals side, even though he isn’t running yet, Kyler Murray needs to be in starting lineups along with dual-slots David Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk. Things are still sorting themselves out beyond that.
Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills
The Bengals lead the league in situation-neutral pass rate (76%) and they rank sixth highest in plays per game (67.5). They are operating at the 11th-quickest seconds-per-snap pace and their games average the 11th most combined snaps. Despite profiling as a heavily pass-first offense, Cincinnati would probably like to be able to run the ball. So far they cannot, with a pitiful 59 rushing yards in two games, and Joe Mixon stuck at 27 yards on 17 handoffs (1.6 per carry). The Bills are theoretically softer against the run, but thus far opponents have passed against them on 67% of situation-neutral plays (seventh highest).
As Josh Allen grows more comfortable, the Bills have begun to quietly drive game pace. They opened the season in the no-huddle against the Jets and currently rank 10th quickest in seconds-per-snap pace. If we factor out overtimes, Bills games average the third most combined snaps (131). The formerly run-dominant offense sits 15th in situation-neutral pass rate, while showing signs they’ll feature their often-erratic young quarterback instead of hiding him. While Buffalo isn’t about to start pushing the pace like the Cardinals, they’ve shown hopeful signs of coming out of their shell.
Devin Singletary’s injury would move veteran pass-catching back T.J. Yeldon up a rung, perhaps leading the Bills to pass a bit more. Either way, there is little reason to hesitate on Allen, Frank Gore, or especially John Brown, if you’re considering them this week. Perhaps not as much as the Bills, but the Bengals also should benefit from extra snap volume, especially as some of their biggest plays have been called back due to penalties.
Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs
The Ravens lead the league in plays per game (72.5), picking right up from last year when they finished first with a 70.9-snap average. They are playing more slowly than in 2018, although their second-slowest seconds-per-snap pace has almost everything to do with squishing the fish all day in Miami, followed by trying to keep a lid on the Cardinals high-flying attack. Baltimore ranks a more reasonable 13th in situation-neutral pace – a measure they finished fifth quickest in last year. No matter how the Ravens would like to play, their opponent almost certainly will speed them up eventually.
The Chiefs allowed the second most plays per game last year, as their opponents played at the second-fastest rate (third-fastest while games were close). Possessing the ball and reducing the total number of possessions against Kansas City is the ideal, but everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth – and the Chiefs throw haymakers. They scored the most points per snap in 2018 and are well on their way again (fifth). Chiefs games averaged the third-most combined plays last year (Baltimore ranked second), and with the second-highest situation-neutral pass rate (73%), their contests should again be flush with play volume.
It doesn’t take a genius to know we want significant exposure to this matchup, and while it may not be Week 3’s most voluminous game from a snaps standpoint, we shouldn’t be overly concerned that play volume will be debilitatingly depressed. The main hesitation is a Kansas City backfield with a split workload matching up with a Ravens defense that’s allowed 1.8 yards per carry, while grading top three in run stopping by PFF. There are plenty of other directions to fire our fantasy bullets here.
SLOW PACED SLOGS
Oakland Raiders at Minnesota Vikings
While the plucky portion of the Raiders season isn’t entirely finished, the second quarter of their Week 2 pant-swatting by the Chiefs served as a reminder that Oakland remains a minor league outfit. Their low-risk offensive approach, combined with a slothy pace (fourth slowest seconds-per-snap rate), will continue weighing Raiders games down in the combined-snaps standings (fourth lowest). They both produced and surrendered bottom-10 plays-per-game rates last year, and they’re heading in the same direction now. With an ascending young running back and a franchise quarterback not known for testing defenses downfield (7.2-yard aDOT, 25th highest), we are left with a group of talent-challenged game-shorteners who occasionally beat flawed teams by limiting possessions.
Last year, after a solid Week 1 win in Minnesota, and then a tight game in Lambeau, the Vikings came home and got waxed by the underdog Bills. Aside from telling us almost nothing about this year’s team, at least that means the Vikings won’t overlook the Raiders. Mike Zimmer will harp on the upset and just how much he wants to #EstablishIt all over Jon Gruden’s face. Minnesota’s situation-neutral run rate leapt from a flukily-low 20% (second lowest) all the way to 41% (18th highest), despite trailing for nearly the entire game in Green Bay. Their 30.7 seconds-per-snap rate ranks 10th slowest, and Vikings games have so far averaged the 11th-fewest combined snaps. Play volume hasn’t been buoyed by a 49% situation-neutral run rate by opponents (fourth highest).
The good news about the Raiders is DFS prices have risen to the point where we can safely ignore them. As for the Vikings, there was actually preseason buzz about them picking up the pace and using some no-huddle. To this point, they have yet to run a single hurry-up snap. Regardless of such propaganda, we’ve seen Zimmer’s perfect image of a dystopian fantasy football hellscape, and there’s barely enough air there for Dalvin Cook. When the Vikings are a touchdown-plus favorite, like this week, expect the three-condom game plan.
Denver Broncos at Green Bay Packers
The Broncos dramatically careened from squaring their record and maintaining early-season home-field superiority, to a tragic supporting role in a slightly forced story of Bears kicker redemption. Joe Flacco being “elite” is more believable than Bradley Chubb’s roughing-the-passer penalty, but that’s the past and Green Bay is the future. The plodding, snap-sucking future. Not that the Broncos need to be convinced. Before their two final drives began well into the fourth quarter — filled with no-huddle snaps and ending in a Flacco-flung interception and a touchdown, respectively — Denver only produced 48 plays. They were pacing close to their meager 57 snaps from Week 1, and the Broncos have allowed 55 per game (second fewest). They rank seventh slowest in situation-neutral pace, have a strong defense, an old-school coach who’d prefer that defense be protected, a competent rushing attack, and Flacco indefinitely behind center. We don’t need special fantasy insight to keep a reasonable distance.
It is harder to stay away from fantasy Aaron Rodgers, even when he’s yelling at you. Things were looking up for the Packers against a good defense, with three touchdowns in three possessions, before a Geronimo Allison fumble sent them into an unrecoverable punt spiral. The problem is their pace, which ranks sixth slowest and third slowest during neutral situations. Green Bay also handed off at a higher situation-neutral rate in Week 2, and now rank 13th highest on the season. Opponents are running against the Broncos at the sixth-highest rate while games are within one score, so we can’t be surprised with another light day for Rodgers and a continually grinding clock. Opportunity remains the lifeblood of fantasy, even among the league’s most efficient offenses – and we’re not even positive the Packers fall in that category anymore.
For fantasy, it’s Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, and then a step down to Rodgers (yep) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. In matchups like the one with Denver, when play volume will be at a premium, we’d like to avoid taking that step if we can. While efficiency is more important than volume for fantasy quarterbacks, and Rodgers is historically uber-efficient, this offense is still finding its way. Denver doesn’t have it any easier in facing an ascending Packers defense. They are staring at a 50-50 backfield split and just enough pass-catchers to spread a depressed offensive snap total too thin. At the risk of doubting cyborg Emmanuel Sanders, we don’t want to force Broncos into our lineups this week.
Houston Texans at Los Angeles Chargers
The Texans offense hinted at its potential in New Orleans on the season’s first Monday night, before going dormant at home in Week 2. So far they are playing a full second per snap slower than last year (29.4 vs. 28.4) and averaging four fewer plays per game than last season’s 65 (seventh most). While there is no need to panic, and Bill O’Brien’s teams have a solid track record of up-pace results, Houston’s profile is not quite the same. Most glaringly, their run defense has sucked. It’s graded fourth worst by PFF and is allowing a league-worst 6.0 yards per carry. Getting pounded by a run-committed offense, especially if it’s playing slowly, is a sure way to leak play volume.
We know the Chargers want to play slowly, despite typically talented offenses. Of course, they are now down a lead running back and promising tight end. Austin Ekeler has filled in admirably for Melvin Gordon, but it hasn’t spurred Los Angeles to quicken its traditional ponderous pace. After finishing last in seconds-per-snap pace in 2018, the Chargers rank third-slowest through two games. Last season, their games averaged the second-fewest combined plays, and so far this year it’s the sixth fewest. Like Houston, Los Angeles’ run defense has struggled – allowing 4.9 yards per carry and grading fifth worst by PFF. Opponents have handed off against the Chargers at the league’s seventh-highest situation-neutral rate (47%), keeping the play clock grinding.
Considering the list of brand names in action, there is no way fantasy gamers will ignore this game. Los Angeles’ narrow touch distribution is appealing, and it mitigates a likely play volume shortage. On Houston’s side, Carlos Hyde will probably get just enough work to drain opportunity from others (sorry, Duke Johnson), while not getting the true workhorse touches that a relic like him needs for legitimate fantasy value. Beyond Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller, workloads are too muddled to confidently start Texans in a low-play-volume environment.
TILTED PLAY VOLUME
We finish up in the #FishTank, where the Dolphins took their second drubbing in two weeks. Now headed to Dallas, where they’ll have roughly the same number of fans cheering for them as in Miami, we can again credit Dolphins coaches for not turtling and draining clock during the blowout. They had the second-quickest seconds-per-snap rate of Week 2, and they sit at third quickest for the season.
Miami’s hopeless pluck keeps the majority of Cowboys fantasy options in play, especially as they’ve become one of the league’s more efficient offenses. Dallas also continues to incorporate the no-huddle into their game plans – sprinkling it in on their first three drives last week in Washington and sitting fifth overall in seasonal no-huddle rate (12%). Their situation-neutral pace ranks 12th quickest. Fire all Cowboys cannons with gusto in a matchup that will offer enough surplus play volume for an ancillary wideout (Devin Smith) or running back (Tony Pollard) to exceed value.