Welcome to the Week 5 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 obstacles to projecting Week 5. In addition to an overall lack of glaringly up-pace matchups, the status of several signal-callers has complicated our outlook. The Bills, the Jets, and to a far lesser extent, the Redskins, all have unknowns behind center that affect how their games shape up.
Whether Josh Allen starts probably doesn’t affect the Titans’ pace. Actually, Tennessee has been more elevated than we’re used to (20th quickest), as their games have produced the 17th-most combined snaps. It’s the Bills, whose contests have combined for the fourth-most plays, who might go into a shell without their drunken gunslinger of a quarterback. At first glance this game looks like a stay-away from a pace perspective, but Allen would at least make it interesting.
Whether Sam Darnold’s spleen shrinks enough for him to fit into his pads on Sunday affects more than just a little thing like his long-term health. If Luke Falk is heading back out there, there’s zero chance of Adam Gase using tempo or a back-and-forth affair – even with cornerbacks the Eagles picked up outside of Home Depot. Robbie Anderson, Jameson Crowder, and Chris Herndon are ready to pop, but will need more than some Falk throwing to them. There is sneaky shootout and pace potential here if the Jets motivate the Eagles offense just a little bit.
It probably won’t matter which quarterback Jay Gruden shoves out there for the Patriots defense to gnaw on – although someone should call the police if it’s poor Dwayne Haskins. The chances that New England will be driven to an elevated pace are slim. The Patriots are 10th quickest during neutral situations, but only 21st quickest in overall seconds-per-snap pace. Only the Bills have pushed them this season. Washington won’t, but at least they might shadow Josh Gordon with Josh Norman. We take what we can get.
Due to the above unknowns, plus two teams on bye and a gaggle of offenses with interesting pace profiles (Rams, Seahawks, Colts, Chiefs, Browns, 49ers) not on the main slate, we’re featuring four matchups below instead of the usual six. No need to shoehorn in two games with cloudy outlooks. However, there’s an expanded Pace Notes section below. Good luck this week, everyone.
UP IN PACE
Arizona Cardinals at Cincinnati Bengals
After getting waxed at home by the Seahawks, there is understandable disgust over the Cardinals’ winless first month and impotent offense. While Kyler Murray and company deserve their fair share of the blame, it hasn’t helped that Arizona’s defense has been even more toothless than we’d feared. With a single forced turnover through four weeks, and bottom-10 defensive showings in both yards per pass and per rush, it’s no wonder opponents produce the fourth-most plays per game and hold the ball for an average of 34 minutes and 55 seconds (second highest). The Cardinals are still playing quicker than any offense during neutral situations (via Football Outsiders) and lead the league by a mile in no-huddle rate (41%), but it’s a “hurry up and punt” operation. At least for now, we must be wary of opponents who are inclined and equipped to play keep-away on offense – something we too easily overlooked against Seattle.
Speaking of patsy opponents who struggle to maintain possession, the Bengals are a perfect match not only because they don’t hog the ball, but also due to the mutual pace spark these offenses offer. Arizona ranks second highest in neutral-situation pass rate (69%) and Cincinnati ranks first (73%) – meaning the clock will stop more and two suspect run defenses will be tested less. The Bengals’ run defense grades fifth worst (via PFF) and has faced a 49% run rate while games are within one score (second highest). The Cardinals grade sixth worst in run stopping and have allowed the fifth-most yards on the ground. The Bengals are operating at the twelfth-quickest situation-neutral pace and allow the third-most points per play, while Arizona gives up the seventh most. Just a little extra snap volume will go a long way here.
After the Bengals’ pathetic display on Monday night in Pittsburgh, many will be scared away from an apparently inept offense. Good. The Steelers have the top-graded pass rush, while the Cardinals rank 22nd. Back home, Andy Dalton should have more time to throw against Arizona’s soft pass coverage. Tyler Boyd, Tyler Eifert, and even John-Ross-replacement Auden Tate are all in play at what should be light-to-moderate ownership – although the Arizona Tight End Clown Show will afford Eifert some buzz. The Cardinals offense won’t be too highly regarded either, and their target tree was trimmed by Christian Kirk’s injury. Figuring out his slot replacement will be profitable (Andy Isabella time?). Larry Fitzgerald is in a smash spot on the other side. After surrendering 16 catches, 160 yards and two touchdowns to Steelers running backs, the Bengals must look like a juicy steak to David Johnson.
Atlanta Falcons at Houston Texans
The Falcons are a disaster. In their three losses, Atlanta was trailing by an average score of 22-3 at halftime. That’s been the main driver behind their league-high 176 pass attempts, a third-place ranking in no-huddle rate (18%), and an elevated overall pace. Yet when games have been within one score, the Falcons still rank fifth highest in pass rate (66%), and their situation-neutral snaps pace ranks fifth quickest. Texans opponents are throwing at the eighth-highest rate while games are close. This is relevant because Atlanta’s matchup with Houston is projected to remain relatively tight (Texans are a 5-point favorite). It also increases the chances of the rare back-and-forth Falcons game, which would really ripen the spot for a gaggle of thus-far inconsistent fantasy mainstays.
Speaking of slow starts, the supposedly high-flying Texans offense ranks 25th in passing yards and currently has just a single receiver ranked in the top 56 positionally (DeAndre Hopkins; PPR WR18). Just about the only thing Deshaun Watson leads the league in is pressure rate and bruises. Perhaps he’ll take a lesson from Marcus Mariota, who just lit up the Falcons for three touchdowns while registering the third-quickest time to throw of Week 4 (2.4 seconds). Watson ranked 28th and took another beating. We do know he’ll chuck it often, as Falcons opponents are passing at the seventh-highest clip in neutral situations and scoring the ninth-most points on a per-snap basis. Texans games haven’t yet been the high-snap affairs to which we’ve grown accustomed, but with Houston’s situation-neutral pace still relatively high (13th quickest), patience will be rewarded.
Targeting these passing attacks against a pair of pass funnels makes sense in a potential shootout. The loss of Kenny Stills narrows receiver targets for Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee. Even Duke Johnson crawls back toward relevancy against Atlanta’s notoriously soft running back pass defense, as his routes spiked last week. Things should finally loosen up a bit on the outside for Falcons perimeter wideouts, but this is no time to pivot away from Austin Hooper. While Devonta Freeman is a far cry from Christian McCaffrey, his three-down profile should allow for some damage against a defense that had zero answer for the Panthers’ do-it-all back last week.
Slow Paced Slogs
Minnesota Vikings at New York Giants
Public opinion is turning on Mike Zimmer, or at least everyone without an AOL email account. Even Adam Thielen is sick of running wind sprints while Davlin Cook slams into walls. Ex-Vikings play caller John DeFilippo is molding a rookie who’s the toast of the NFL and 95% of middle-aged Jacksonville women, while the team that fired him gets lapped by the Jaguars in TD%, INT%, completion rate, and passer rating. Minnesota is averaging 56.5 plays (third fewest) and their tractor pulls games produce 121.8 combined snaps (fifth fewest). They operate at the eighth-slowest snap rate and hand off at the sixth-highest situation-neutral rate (47%). There’s a better chance of Zimmer driving you to Giants Stadium in his Buick than speeding up his offense because of outside pressure, a glaring passing game mismatch, or general 21st century progress.
On the other end of the public opinion spectrum sits Daniel Jones upon his throne of dimes. His bandwagon is officially full after he played well against the Buccaneers and, well, played against the Redskins. A major step up in weight class to the Vikings defense hasn’t given pause to the many Giants enthusiasts who for years had been trapped under the decaying husk of Eli Manning. Last week, Jones handed off on 45% of situation-neutral snaps (seventh highest). Unlike the prior week in Tampa Bay, he wasn’t facing a major pass funnel. He won’t again on Sunday. Minnesota’s pass rush and coverage grade top-10, and opponents have leaned run-heavy on average. While it’s not crazy to think the Giants could help nudge the Vikings up in pace, the remote chances of a play-volume ceiling game are outweighed by the likelihood the matchup whiffs entirely.
If you’re dying to dive into this game, a focus on the Vikings’ concentrated touch distribution is the way. It again starts with Cook — this time against a wiped-out Giants linebacking crew – and Kirk Cousins gets the scraps. Stefon Diggs came through last week and will be more highly owned. He and Thielen should pay off, however, with the big-play potential to overcome limited volume. Sterling Sheppard, Evan Engram, and now, Wayne Gallman, got the requisite opportunity to pay off last week. Facing the Vikings might produce a different volume result, and almost certainly cause a step down in efficiency. On a projected low-scoring slate, we can selectively pick at this matchup, but it’s not the fantasy fireworks show you’re looking for.
Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers
Before we get too excited about the Broncos operating at the third-fastest pace of Week 4, or Joe Flacco’s annual 300-yard passing day, let’s recognize that their surprisingly compelling game with the Jaguars was an anomaly. Denver only ranks 21st quickest in situation-neutral pace, they pass at the 14th-highest rate while games are within one score, and their opponents average the fifth-fewest plays per game. The Broncos are also a run funnel, ranking third worst in opposing rushing yards per game and fifth best in average passing yards allowed. Denver has faced the third-highest run rate during neutral situations. Perhaps Von Miller and Bradley Chubb (RIP) didn’t hit the ground running, but there was a good reason why Gardner Minshew put the ball in Lenny Fournette’s belly a career-high 29 times despite deficits that swelled to two touchdowns. It remains the path of least resistance.
The chewed-up Chargers didn’t fully awaken from their cross-country trip to the Fish Tank until late in the second quarter. Then they meandered their way to 24 unanswered points and a Dolphins mercy killing in Austin Ekeler’s final Melvin-Gordon-free game. We can expect less passing once Gordon fully returns to the backfield, and as soon as this week their ninth-ranked 63% situation-neutral pass rate should settle closer to last season’s 58% range (14th highest). It was little surprise Los Angeles turned in the second-slowest seconds-per-snap pace of the week, as they rank third slowest for the season. Chargers games have averaged the fewest combined plays so far (117.3), and their opponents have produced the fewest snaps in the league (55.5 per game). It’s been this way for several seasons, and expecting anything more than random spikes in play volume is not wise.
The Broncos defense is crippled beyond only Chubb, and it sets the Chargers up to control this game and its pace. Their injury-narrowed pass-catching corps mitigates a potential lack of volume. The exact backfield split is an unknown, but with how often and how poorly Denver has defended the run, both Gordon and Ekeler get the green light. Even if Flacco flings it around 40-plus times, at his flaccid 6.9-yard aDOT (33rd deepest), he’ll barely breach the surface of fantasy relevancy. We can take a random shot at Emmanuel Sanders or Courtland Sutton, but guessing at what’s essentially a 50-50 backfield split, in a low-play-volume environment, is scratching lotto tickets.
All of a sudden, the Bears are a no-huddle offense. They are up to second in hurry-up rate (17.9%) and, in Week 4, nearly doubled how often they went no-huddle (35.8%) compared to the prior week (19%). That was when we first witnessed Matt Nagy turn to the hurry-up to jump-start Mitchell Trubisky. It sort of worked that Monday night in Washington, and it apparently convinced Bears coaches to continue the experiment on Sunday against the Vikings. Hey, desperate times.
It was notable that even after Trubisky was injured six plays into the game, Nagy stuck with the no-huddle when Chase Daniel took over. He completed nine of 13 hurry-up attempts (69%) for 81 yards, which was in line with what he accomplished after huddles. That this new wrinkle is taking place regardless of Trubisky’s presence is encouraging for an offense that often stagnates, to be kind. Now, if only they’d snap it more quickly, we might be onto something.
Just when we though the Cowboys had turned a corner, they laid a game-plan egg. Much of what they’d been doing differently than in recent seasons was thrown out the window. That included passing more on early downs, whether or not Jason Garrett disputes the sky is blue. They also nearly cut their play-action pass rate in half (39% to 20%) despite significantly more success on play fakes. Dallas eliminated the use of tempo almost entirely, except for the first drive of the second half – which resulted in a touchdown.
Dallas fell from a 14% no-huddle rate (fourth highest) after three weeks, to 11% (sixth highest), and dipped from the seventh-highest situation-neutral snap rate to eighth. The Cowboys clearly turtled in the face of their first quality opponent. While we should also credit the Saints, Dallas’ reversion to the ultra-conservative plan that failed them was disheartening. It’s unknowable how they will approach the Packers on Sunday for a matchup with a wide range of pace outcomes.
Ezekiel Elliott has the better paper matchup with Green Bay’s 30th-graded run defense than Dak Prescott does against an ascendant pass rush and coverage unit. He won’t have Tyron Smith’s protection or Michael Gallup stretching the field. To predict an elevated pace requires too much faith in the Cowboys coming back out of their shell, and it would ignore the Davante-Adams-less Packers’ run-heavier, more deliberate offensive approach. This game looks shiny – and it’s brilliantly one of only two games on the late slate – but it’s likely a slog.
On the other side of the Cowboys crashing to earth stood the Saints. Not only did their top-10-graded defense deserve kudos, the Teddy Bridgewater led offense milked the clock and first down markers well enough to hold the ball for more than 36 minutes. We can argue the long-term validity of such an approach until our thumbs punch through our phones, but the most relevant point for fantasy is New Orleans is not changing what worked.
Even before his injury, Drew Brees was less a driving force and more just a driver. Bridgewater, whose league-low average depth of target (5.4 yards) is even shorter than Brees’ was last year (7.6 yards), is essentially throwing handoffs. It makes New Orleans’ 40% situation-neutral run rate (17th highest) appear deceptively low. They also handed off at a higher rate (44%) on Sunday against the Cowboys. Saints games average the second-lowest combined snaps, and the offense operates at the third-slowest neutral-situation pace. At least for now, New Orleans is a pace and play-volume trap – and a bunch of Bucs backers will jump in on Sunday.
While it’s not on the main slate, gaining exposure to the Colts – Chiefs matchup on Sunday night should be profitable. With a projected total north of 55 points, that’s not exactly breaking news. Yet Patrick Mahomes looked almost mortal in Detroit, and we know how the down-pace Colts will approach this matchup. They clearly subscribe to the Lions’ philosophy of slowing games and limiting possessions. Indianapolis allows the fourth-fewest plays per game (58.3) and operates at the fourth-slowest situation-neutral pace.
Expect the Colts to hand off as much as they can, for as long as they can – something they do at the third-highest rate while games are within one score. It might actually work, for a while, as the Chiefs are a true run funnel. Their run defense grade ranks dead last and opponents have handed off against them at the fifth-highest rate in neutral situations. Assuming he’s healthy, Marlon Mack will be a busy for maybe half of the game. Pass catching back Nyheim Hines needs to again be on our radar, one week after leading the backfield in snaps.
As double-digit favorites, we can safely project the Chiefs to eventually take control and drive game script. Kansas City passes at the league’s third-highest rate when games are close, they operate at the fourth-quickest situation-neutral pace, and their games average the eighth-most combined plays (129.8). The Colts are banged up on defense, are playing on the road, and likely won’t hang with the Chiefs long enough to force a second straight “just okay” offensive result. Plus Mahomes is finally out of that damned dome.