Welcome to the Week 4 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
Carolina Panthers at Houston Texans
Despite a tumultuous start at quarterback, the Panthers have the third-quickest seconds-per-snap rate and their games average the league’s most combined plays. Carolina is throwing at the ninth-highest situation-neutral rate, and as of Week 3, they finally have a passer healthy enough to deliver stats gaudier than his hats. A week after toying with the NFL’s softest secondary, Kyle Allen will face the pass-funnel Texans. Opponents are throwing against Houston at the fifth-highest situation-neutral rate, and their sixth-worst-graded pass coverage (via PFF) is a poor fit for Carolina’s speedy wideouts. More throwing and an elevated pace from the Panthers should be enough to jumpstart the slow-to-launch powder-keg offense on the other side of the field in Houston.
While the Texans have been uncharacteristically low-volume so far this season, their pace should be picking up. After years of finishing near the top of the plays-per-game and situation-neutral pace standings, Houston sits 25th in snaps (59 per game) and 10th in pace. An easy explanation for their games averaging only the 20th-most combined snaps (123) is they’ve faced the Saints (24th in pace), Jaguars (32nd), and Chargers (29th). While it won’t fix the front office clown show, a visit by the Panthers should cure what ails the Texans – at least from a pace perspective. Considering Houston’s recently widened touch distribution — in both the backfield and among their pass catchers — extra play volume is just what the fantasy doctor ordered.
DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller (who popped up this week in Josh Hermsmeyer’s Air Yards Buy Low Model) are obviously locked into lineups, but the additional plays in this matchup push Kenny Stills into consideration as he gains a larger snap share. While workload shouldn’t be an issue, the sledding should be tough for Carlos Hyde behind a still-gelling offensive line against Carolina’s meaty front. Perhaps Duke Johnson can reverse a surprisingly negative playing time trend amidst extra snap volume. The Panthers’ main pass catchers are clear starts as well, with Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore, and especially, Greg Olsen all extremely attractive plays in a plus draw for matchup and play volume.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams
After surprisingly competent showings against the self-destructive 49ers offense and a lame Cam Newton, the Bucs defense was its familiar self in helping to launch Daniel Jones’ career at a folk-hero level. While they aren’t quite as inept as we’ve grown accustomed, Tampa Bay remains accommodative enough to support up-tempo, back-and-forth affairs. So far their games average the fifth-most combined plays, and the Bucs are operating at the 16th-highest situation-neutral snaps pace. Jameis Winston turned in his second consecutive encouraging outing – a.k.a. “not face-meltingly disastrous” — which should theoretically lead to more confidence in calling pass plays. Through two weeks, only three teams had a lower situation-neutral pass rate than the Bucs (49%), but that mark crept up to 53% on Sunday.
Tampa Bay is a pass funnel, having faced the ninth-highest situation-neutral pass rate, while grading 10th worst in pass coverage and league best in run defense. Jared Goff is well known to perform better at home, and no matter where the Rams play, since Sean McVay took over they have moved quickly while games are close. Their situation-neutral pace ranks second quickest, and they’re producing the ninth-most plays per game (65.7). Los Angeles is fifth in no-huddle rate, and they set a season-high (17%) while successfully using it to spark their offense on Sunday night. The Rams’ backfield situation may be a fantasy headache, and Cooper Kupp’s reinsertion into the receiver rotation might be limiting Robert Woods, but a home date with the Bucs figures to lift all ships from both a volume and efficiency angle.
Well, maybe not all ships, as Tampa Bay is allowing the third fewest yards per carry (3.0) and the Rams can’t block their way out of a wet paper bag (PFF’s second-worst-graded run blocking). Los Angeles’ split backfield – which is getting few passing game looks — is worth dipping our toes into only due to the matchup’s elevated volume and scoring ceiling. Dive in at your own risk, however, as the Rams passing game is the far more appealing target. This might be the season’s first Woods week, as he’s showing in the Buy Low Model and should find success against the Buccaneers zone. The Bucs backfield has even more of a split, as Ronald Jones retook most of his share in Week 3. Even with spiked play volume, it’s tough to take a confident fantasy stance on anyone but Tampa’s passing game weapons this week
Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals
The eighth-quickest offense by seconds-per-snap, Seattle has played faster than we’re used to. Pete Carroll doesn’t want to be operating so quickly, as evidenced by the Seahawks’ 31st-quickest pace while games are close. Carroll wants to be more conservative than Mitt Romney’s ascot, punt from his opponent’s 39 on 4th-and-4 while losing, and run the damn ball. While Seattle ranks as the third-most run-heavy offense during neutral situations (50%), the problem is their defense – particularly the eighth-worst-graded pass coverage. They feature a true pass funnel, with the 10th-best-graded run stopping allowing the fourth-fewest rushing yards, and a league-high 75% opponent pass rate during neutral situations. Fortunately for Carroll, and for us, the uber-efficient Russell Wilson produces in both high- and low-volume environments. The Seahawks rank 10th best in points per snap – and allow the fourth most – so even if there’s less volume than expected, the scoreboard will still light up.
The Cardinals don’t need to face a pass funnel to chuck it. They rank second highest in situation-neutral pass rate (70%), and with a 69.7-plays-per-game average (64.3 without overtime), it’s no wonder they lead the league in pass attempts by a good margin. It hasn’t all gone smoothly on offense – particularly during the second half last week when Kyler Murray mostly threw passes shorter than he is – but Arizona’s pace has been a boon for their play volume and for their opponents’ (70.3 per game; third highest). The Cardinals defense is easily bottom-10 versus both the run and the pass, and only three teams are allowing more points per game (29.3). It bears watching that they cut way back on the no-huddle last game (22%) from Week 2 (72%), but there is little fear Arizona will play at a pace that’s anything but sharply catalytic for snap volume.
While Chris Carson has no future catching fish at Pike Place Market, Carroll will reportedly give his fumbling hands another shot in a tasty matchup – while DFS ownership will be down after last week and due to Rashaad Penny’s impending return. There’s much less reason to avoid a volume-buoyed Tyler Lockett, D.K. Metcalf, and emergent tight end Will Dissly against a barely-there pass defense. Dissly, especially, is in a great spot after the Nick Vannett trade and going up against a weak tight end defense. While it was encouraging to see Murray benefit from some designed run calls, getting back on board with Cardinals passing game weapons won’t be comfortable. Yet, after Sunday’s disappointment, we’ll be doing it when they are less popular, and in a matchup with a comparable ceiling to last week.
SLOW PACED SLOGS
Oakland Raiders at Indianapolis Colts
Already playing out the string before October dawns, the only threat the Raiders posed the Vikings during their low-play-volume matchup was death by boredom. While it would be unfair to say Oakland didn’t care about losing, as they oozed out 58 ineffectual plays at a relatively plodding 29.4 seconds per snap, it’s tough to say they tried very hard to win. Derek Carr’s flaccid 5.6-yard average depth of target mark ranked 33rd of 37 passers in Week 3. The Raiders seem to be content in keeping their games close, and considering those contests average the league’s fewest combined plays (118.7), the chances of us consistently finding voluminous fantasy days from anyone other than Darren Waller are pretty slim. Knock on wood if you love Friendly Losses.
The Colts opened up the offensive at times on Sunday, before holding on for their lives against the Falcons. While they let Jacoby Brissett throw 37 passes, Indianapolis still operated slowly (30.4 seconds per snap; seventh slowest of Week 3) and the game produced only 116 combined plays. Their seasonal average ranks third lowest in that category (119.3), and the Colts rank third slowest in situation-neutral snaps pace. While a quad injury for red-zone dominator T.Y. Hilton prunes their target distribution tree, it will do little to persuade an offense that already ranks fourth lowest in situation-neutral pass rate to dial up fewer handoffs. The Colts are far from a bad offense. They just don’t have much of a ceiling – especially when their opponent is unlikely to push them toward one.
Starting tight ends against the Colts’ zone defense is a proven winner. Add on Waller’s ridiculous 30% target share and likely tilted game script, and it’s an easy play. Believing Jon Gruden when he says he’ll get Josh Jacobs more passing game work is a tougher sell. This is the same guy who said he’s cool with a crazy person secretly recording him. Going hunting for Hilton’s replacement in a low-volume environment looks like a fool’s errand considering the number of tight ends and receivers Indianapolis has running routes – although Dion Cain easily outpaced the rest with 29 on Sunday.
Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Few matchups scream “slow-paced slog” more than a Vikings visit to Chicago. While a full overtime period, or an act of God, would be needed for this game to overflow with play volume, at least there are a few factors preventing it from a full fantasy fade. Vikings games average the fourth-fewest total combined plays (120.7) and Minnesota is running the third fewest by themselves (56). They also have blown out two of their three opponents – something unlikely to happen during a projected close road game. The difference between their raw seconds-per-snap rate (31st quickest) and their situation-neutral rate (fifth quickest) gives hope for a moderate Vikings pace. They passed at a far higher situation-neutral rate (56%) during a close Week 2 game in Green Bay than on Sunday at home against Oakland (43%). While this doesn’t mean Mike Zimmer will have Kirk Cousins chucking it around Soldier Field, or that he even knows Stefon Diggs’ name, at least Minnesota will likely be forced to peek out of their shell.
Matt Nagy tried something new with Mitchell Trubisky on Monday night, using the no-huddle to help get him into an early rhythm. He completed six-of-seven hurry-up passes, albeit for just 7.3 yards per attempt. The Bears still finished with the second-slowest seconds-per-snap pace of Week 3, but that was mainly due to a game script courtesy of Case Keenum still playing like a John Elway quarterback selection. Bears games haven’t been total play-volume voids, however, averaging a mediocre 126.7 combined snaps. While Chicago should play slowly against the Vikings, who opponents are handing off against at the fifth-highest situation-neutral rate (48%), we are gaining some clarity in the backfield as David Montgomery’s playing time rises, and Taylor Gabriel’s concussion likely trims a pass catcher off the target tree.
The low play volume is mitigated by Minnesota’s narrow touch distribution, and this matchup strangely sets up as Diggs’ best shot yet to join Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen as viable fantasy options. While Diggs is also appears in the Buy Low Model, it is clearly not a play for the faint of heart. Neither is investing in Trubisky-aided assets against a quality defense – particularly after he produced jack squat in their two meetings a year ago (164-yard average, 0.5 TDs). Allen Robinson joins Diggs this week on Hermsmeyer’s prophetic list. In what projects to be a mostly low-scoring fantasy week, we may need to pick from matchups like this one. Just don’t dig too deep.
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens
The Browns are worryingly close to the same muted pace at which they operated down the stretch in 2018 once Freddie Kitchens began calling plays. While they are averaging more than the 57.6 snaps per game produced under Kitchens last year – they’ve mustered 61.7 through three weeks – their games have yielded only 121.3 total combined snaps (fifth fewest). Cleveland is operating at the 10th-slowest situation-neutral pace even though they’re passing at a 66% clip while games are close (sixth highest). They have run a single no-huddle play the last two weeks, despite Baker Mayfield looking sharp while using the hurry-up during the preseason. With a flawed offensive line and disjointed passing attack, we may start seeing even more Nick Chubb runs. Considering Kitchens said giving up play calling to OC Todd Monken is “not even being considered,” we shouldn’t expect that a trip to Baltimore prompts the Browns to pick up the pace.
Play volume has not been an issue for the Ravens in 2019 – or in 2018, for that matter. Baltimore leads the league in snaps with 74.3 per game, although opponents have inflated that figure. They dominated the DOA Dolphins in Week 1 (73 plays), were juiced by the Cardinals pace in Week 2 (72), and frantically tried to keep up with the Chiefs juggernaut on Sunday (78). The plodding Browns, who’ve yielded only 59.7 snaps per game (eighth fewest), won’t be the same type of spark for the Ravens play volume. Driven by the second-highest situation-neutral run rate (52%), Baltimore has hogged possession with a ridiculous 36-minute, 50-second average, and given up the second-fewest plays per game (55). Neither offense has pushed the pace during neutral situations, and there are few indications they’ll start on Sunday.
Aside from Chubb and, if you’re feeling contrarian, a slumping Mayfield, Odell Beckham is the only attractive play. The Ravens secondary is vulnerable and he doesn’t need many opportunities to pay off. Jarvis Landry is infinitely more volume dependent, and this game doesn’t set up well from that angle. On the Baltimore side, Mark Ingram has a solid enough share of backfield touches that team-level play volume worries don’t threaten him. Ravens primary pass catchers enjoy a tight target distribution, similarly insulating Mark Andrews and air-yards deity Marquise Brown – who’s hoping Browns cornerback Denzel Ward takes one more week to recover. Ancillary Ravens weapons shouldn’t currently be considered, especially in a potentially slow-paced game.
An underreported aspect of their Kellen Moore-inspired facelift is that the Cowboys’ keep-away, snap-sucking offensive approach is morphing. While signs of a shift began showing around the time Dallas traded for Amari Cooper, and Dak Prescott’s natural progression has accelerated the change, the difference has been notable since this season kicked off.
The Cowboys are pass-heavier during neutral situations (59%) versus last year (57%) and in 2017 (51%). They are operating at a far quicker situation-neutral pace now (seventh quickest) versus last year (21st) and in 2017 (19th). They’ve gone no-huddle more often (14% of plays; 4th most) versus last year (9%; 11th) and in 2017 (10%; 13th).
The extra offensive urgency is resulting in elevated snap volume (64.7 plays per game) relative to last year (63.9) or in 2017 (62.8). Their games are averaging the ninth-most combined plays – a long way from recent seasons (19th, 24th, and 25th). Dallas hasn’t been truly challenged yet, and while it’s unknown how they’ll react when the schedule stiffens, avoiding Cowboys games in fantasy due to diminished play volume is mercifully a thing of the past.
The 49ers head into their bye with plenty to tighten up – five turnovers on Sunday for starters – but there’s a lot to like about their 3-0 start. Already one of the fastest situation-neutral offenses (fourth quickest), San Francisco went to the no-huddle when they needed a spark in Week 3 (15.1%) after ignoring it the first two weeks (1.6%).
Jimmy Garoppolo completed 3-of-4 no-huddle attempts for 11.8 yards per throw while finishing the 49ers comeback. Hopefully the hurry-up remains on their tool belt when they emerge from the week off, as San Francisco’s ungodly rotation of running backs and wideouts resembles a rush-hour subway platform. This is one fantasy offense that can use all the play volume it can get.
While it’s nowhere near as pronounced as Dallas’ shift in approach, the Lions aren’t playing quite as slowly as last year. Opponent and overtime skewed Week 1, and Detroit didn’t play fast in Week 2 (the Chargers had a lot to do with that). Yet, the Lions deployed a 27.7 seconds-per-snap rate in Philadelphia (12th quickest of Week 3) despite essentially leading for the entire game.
Before we get too excited, the Lions only ran 60 plays – in part due to a kickoff return touchdown. A Week 4 visit from the Chiefs, for which they may be without top cornerback Darius Slay, could prompt a futile attempt to slow the game and limit possessions. The Chiefs have a way, however, of speeding up opponents in spite of themselves.
Whether or not Detroit’s modest uptick in pace lasts all season, or Kansas City forces then into it for stretches of just one more game, at least for this week, it’s a rare environmental positive for Lions fantasy options. Now if only they’d let Matthew Stafford run some no-huddle again, we’d be in business.