Welcome to the Week 6 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.
Unlike last week, when we needed to squint beyond Houston and Cincinnati to find games projecting for elevated pace, there is no shortage this Sunday. We will hit on a couple bonus up-pace game candidates in the notes section at the end, so let’s dive right in.
UP IN PACE
Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
The Texans surely took note of how the Colts limited the Chiefs in the first half on Sunday night, and then choked them out by allowing only 19 second-half plays. While their offensive line isn’t the smoking crater it was last year, and Houston’s PFF run-blocking grade has them barely outside of the top half, they are not equipped to mimic Indianapolis’ plan. The Colts rank first in run blocking grade and are more committed to establishing it, handing off on 53% of situation-neutral plays (third highest). The Texans run at the 13th-highest rate. They are beginning to resemble their former selves under Bill O’Brien, as their play volume and seconds-per-snap pace has slowly picked up. Their fifth-best-graded run defense also has helped stave off opponents who wish to grind game pace – not that this will be an issue with Sunday’s foe.
The Chiefs operate at the third-quickest situation-neutral pace and, even with the recent Colts clunker, their games average the fifth-most combined snaps. Kansas City passes at the NFL’s highest rate while games are within one score and will face the Texans’ seventh-worst-graded pass coverage. Houston has the look of a pass funnel, as their stiff run defense is allowing running backs only 3.4 yards per carry since Week 1, despite facing Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Devonta Freeman, and Austin Ekeler. Patrick Mahomes will elevate the offense’s pace if his ankle injury isn’t prohibitive, and with Tyreek Hill due back to loosen an already strung-out secondary, it’s likely that Sunday night’s game of keep-away with the Colts will quickly fade from memory.
Extra snaps can smooth over plenty of rough opportunity edges, but if Kenny Stills is active, things get thin for Houston’s pass-catchers – especially if their increasing two-tight-end usage continues after the Colts used heavier personnel to trample the Chiefs. Still, avoiding DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller in this matchup would take more balls than brains. Keke Coutee, Duke Johnson, and Stills are thinner plays – but with four teams on bye and a 50-plus-point total, it’s tough to argue hard against them. Carlos Hyde is the obvious choice if we think Houston can #EstablishIt. If you need to be told to start your Chiefs in a possible shootout, perhaps you should try fantasy hockey.
San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams
The 49ers didn’t need to play with much pace while wiping their field with the Browns, but they did sprinkle in a few no-huddle snaps before the opening second-half drive put them up 25 points. Still, when games are close, they operate at the fourth-quickest snaps pace, and it’s helped them average the fourth-most plays per game (68). San Francisco’s tempo is available when they need it, and in what projects to be a tight road game, they’ll want it against the Rams. The 49ers are scoring the second-most points per snap, while Los Angeles is allowing the eighth most. Despite what’s been mostly a ground-based offense, Kyle Shanahan’s versatile bunch has been among the league’s most explosive units.
Last we saw the Rams, they were barely edged out by the Seahawks in an eventful Thursday night for both offenses. Jared Goff looked awful early, but came around when Los Angeles picked up the pace. He completed 82% of his no-huddle passes for 10.5 yards per attempt (110.6 passer rating), versus 53% of all other throws at a 7.3 yards-per-attempt clip (73.3 passer rating). The Rams are up to third in no-huddle rate (16%) and are playing at the league’s fastest situation-neutral seconds-per-snap pace. They have averaged the second-most plays (69) and Rams games average the league’s most combined snaps. These teams have matched up for more than one barnburner since Shanahan and Sean McVay took over, and this game sets up similarly.
A rising tide is lifting Rams receiving ships, as Los Angeles has easily thrown the most passes over the last two weeks (119). That is unsustainably high, but especially if Brandin Cooks can’t clear the concussion protocol, we can still feel confident about playing Cooper Kupp (32 targets since Week 3), Robert Woods (24), and Todd Gurley (20) – plus going back to emergent tight end streamer Gerald Everett (20). An up-pace matchup eases stress caused by San Francisco’s incessant shuffling of running backs and wideouts, although the non-George-Kittle pass-catchers remain confounding. It’s at least notable that Dante Pettis’ snaps rose to 63% and his routes have increased each game (1 > 12 > 16 > 22).
Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals
Around halftime of Sunday’s Bengals-Cardinals game, most of fantasyland was pledging to never again invest in matchups with bad teams simply because they play fast. Welp, here we are. At least this time Arizona’s opponent is more than minimally competent offensively, and perhaps is even worse than the Bengals defensively. Only the Dolphins allow more points on a per-game or per-snap basis than the Falcons – which bodes well when projecting another up-pace contest. Their games average the 10th-most combined snaps, as Atlanta has played at the sixth-quickest seconds-per-snap pace. While that is affected by their near constant negative game scripts, the Falcons still rank fifth quickest during neutral situations. They’ve used the third-most no-huddle and pass at the fifth-highest rate while games are within one score.
The Cardinals don’t have the defensive personnel to neutralize Atlanta’s passing game weapons – or pretty much anybody’s weapons. By now we know how Arizona’s elevated snaps pace – which ranks second quickest during neutral situations – leads to more play volume for both sides. Their games average the eighth-most combined snaps when overtime is removed. With the 11th-highest situation-neutral pass rate, the Cardinals further boost play volume by throwing often. Their more run-heavy approach last week (53%) was compounded by 10 quarterback carries. The Falcons’ sixth-worst-graded pass coverage, which has gotten flambéed recently, makes for an easy target. This is especially the case when combined with the same limp pass rush that pressured Deshaun Watson at the second-lowest rate of Week 5 (17%). Prior to that, his suspect pass blocking allowed the second-most pressure (48%). Kyler Murray would buy that for a dollar.
Atlanta almost certainly prefers to run more, and although Devonta Freeman’s backfield split with Ito Smith is too equitable for a major fantasy investment in the veteran, a projected close matchup with the Cardinals is nevertheless an interesting spot. There is zero reason to sit your Falcons passing-game horses in this eruption spot, or not to break ties in favor of ancillary options. Without Christian Kirk available, Larry Fitzgerald is a lock for volume, and facing Atlanta raises his efficiency floor. Perimeter threats appear back in play as well. Kyler Murray reversed a September trend that saw his average depth of target plummet from 10.7 yards in Week 1, to 5.0 yards in both Week 3 and Week 4. Against the Bengals, it returned to 10.2 yards. KeeSean Johnson is a fine play, and whether it’s David Johnson or Chase Edmonds, we want exposure to backfield pieces against Atlanta.
Slow Paced Slogs
New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Saints and Teddy Bridgewater are receiving plenty of deserved credit for an uber-efficient passing day against the Buccaneers. However, they remain a predominantly run-based offense that has passed on just 57% of situation-neutral plays over the last two weeks (16th). Even against the pass-funnel Bucs, as Alvin Kamara was averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry, the Saints ranked only 16th in Week 5 pass rate. New Orleans operates at the league’s slowest seconds-per-snap pace and their games average the third-fewest combined plays. This is not a new development, as they were one of the more plodding offenses of 2018 as well. While their matchup with the Jaguars is projected to be close – Jaguars are one-point favorites – a fast moving, back-and-forth barnburner is unlikely if someone doesn’t pick up their pace.
The Jaguars rank fourth slowest in situation-neutral snap rate, and while second-half comeback attempts propelled them to 76 and 77 plays the last two weeks, Jacksonville does not have a pace-driving offense. That will be needed against the Saints if their matchup is to produce elevated play volume. Jaguars games have averaged only 3.6 more plays than Saints contests, and Jacksonville is also handing off at a slightly higher rate than New Orleans during neutral situations (43%). Their seventh-worst-graded run defense was just shredded by the Panthers, and we know what the Saints prefer to do on offense. If the Jaguars can’t force more of a passing posture, they’ll sit hopelessly on the sidelines while the game clock dwindles. As New Orleans’ defense has begun to ascend, they’ve possessed the ball for meaty averages of 36:04 and 33:27 the last two weeks.
Not that any matchup shouldn’t prominently feature him, but this looks like a Kamara game. The Saints target tree is not expansive, so a projected drop in overall play volume shouldn’t alter our plans much. We’re starting Michael Thomas everywhere, and shying away from ancillary options, with the possible matchup-based exception of a Latavius Murray dart. With all due respect to Gardner Minshew Mania, this isn’t the greatest spot for the Jaguars, although by now we’ve seenD.J. Chark get loose often enough on moderate opportunity to not overlook him. Leonard Fournette’s elite workload keeps him in play in a low-play-volume environment, even if New Orleans’ top-eight-graded run defense isn’t ideal.
Philadelphia Eagles at Minnesota Vikings
While a significant number of factors peg this matchup as slower-paced, there are enough rays of hope – and fantasy-relevant participants – that it might actually loosen up. The game, that is — not Mike Zimmer. The Eagles have teased some no-huddle usage over the last few weeks, registering a 25% rate in Week 3 to speed up the Lions, and again in Week 4 during a win in Lambeau (12%). They toyed with it early on Sunday before the Jets did Jets things and quickly flushed themselves. Philadelphia is also a classic pass funnel, featuring the seventh-best-graded run defense and a suspect cornerback group. Opponents are passing against them at the fourth-highest situation-neutral rate. Of course, unlike the Vikings coach, they don’t believe throwing footballs will summon fiery damnation and hairy palms.
Perhaps we’re being too hard on Zimmer. His offense threw on 55% of situation-neutral snaps against the Giants’ barely-there pass defense in Week 5 (18th highest), which was a shade more than their to-date rate (53%; 27th). Maybe he’ll notice the Eagles’ pass funnel and give Kirk Cousins some extra leash. And maybe Laquon Treadwell will suddenly start Moss’ing defenders. One never knows. Zimmer’s fifth-highest-graded coverage unit should push the Eagles toward the ground game, something they’ve already been doing behind their fourth-highest-graded run blocking at the ninth-highest rate while games are close (44%). We should probably have more faith in Doug Peterson morphing their game plan to attack a relative weakness than hoping Zimmer and Kevin Stefanski look past their own noses. There’s a reason Vikings games average the seventh-fewest combined plays.
The minor bump in situation-neutral pass rate, and an expectation that the coverage-deficient Eagles will keep the game close, surround Stefon Diggs with enough hope for us to crawl out on a limb. But not too far. Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook remain auto-plays, with Cousins a contrarian DFS dart. Things are murkier on the Eagles side, as a road game in Minnesota is unfavorable from a matchup standpoint. The game script pendulum should swing away from recent fantasy darling Jordan Howard, and Miles Sanders’ theoretical explosiveness will be needed to overcome limited play volume.
Seattle Seahawks at Cleveland Browns
As ridiculously efficient as Russell Wilson has been – he has wide leads in passer rating both while pressured and from a clean pocket – the Seahawks still want him in the backseat. The quarter-pole MVP is 18th in dropbacks, but Seattle is 4-1 and won’t change their approach. They rank 29th in situation-neutral pass rate (48%), and seem to prefer getting into trouble so Wilson can bail them out. Seahawks games average the 12th-fewest combined snaps, as their opponents rank 27th in plays per game (59.4). Seattle operates at the sixth-slowest situation neutral snap rate and they step on the gas only when pushed. Whether or not the schizophrenic Browns are up to that task is an unanswerable question, but it’s probable Seattle stays in the slow lane.
The Browns limp home, where they’ve yet to win, after embarrassing themselves. They mustered only 13 second-half plays and 46 total snaps. Since Freddie Kitchens took over, win or lose, the Browns produce pathetic play volume. Under Kitchens, they average 57.9 plays per game, which would’ve ranked 30th or worse every year for the last decade. Cleveland didn’t run a single no-huddle snap despite getting immediately slapped around. Perhaps Kitchens believes they’d wander into the stands without a huddle, but we’ve seen Baker Mayfield play well with tempo. Either way, Browns contests average the fourth-fewest combined plays despite Cleveland throwing at the fourth-highest rate when games are close. They operate at the fifth-slowest situation-neutral pace, and if you can see innovative change on the horizon, I’ll have some of what you’re having.
More easily seduced by a productive hand-off than a high school kid, Brian Schottenheimer must have been drooling on Monday night. The 49ers trampling the Browns will do nothing but encourage Seattle to continue running at a ridiculous rate. With top CBs Greedy Williams and Denzel Ward due back, and a stiff pass rush, starting Seahawks receivers is a bet on efficiency overcoming a lack of opportunity. Other than Tyler Lockett, they’re hard to trust in this play-volume-deficient environment. Seattle’s defense offers a passing game matchup advantage, and returning home after a spanking is a theoretical bounce-back spot, but who knows which Browns offense we’ll get — or how few plays they’ll run? At least Cleveland is contrarian again.
Despite finding themselves down by two touchdowns with five minutes remaining in the first quarter, and trailing by multiple scores until late in the fourth quarter, the Chargers never seemed to be in a hurry. Between plays, Philip Rivers looked like he was herding 10 toddlers at a pool party, making sure they didn’t move too quickly and fall down. Their raw seconds-per-play rate ranked only 12th quickest on the week, even though they were losing from the jump.
The Chargers operate at the league’s slowest situation-neutral pace and their games easily average the fewest combined snaps. They’ve produced just enough play volume to fuel the fantasy-viable pieces (63.8 per game), since their temporarily narrowed touch tree looks nothing like the Rivers family tree. However, Los Angeles only allows 55.4 snaps (second fewest) and 18.8 points on a per-play basis. Steelers games rank fourth lowest in combined snaps, and even if they manage to rub two sticks together at quarterback in time for Sunday night, they’ll be playing in quicksand against the soul-sucking Chargers.
While we can’t say for sure if firing Jay Gruden was the correct move, we do know a couple things: a fish rots from the head, and fossils who want to ground-and-pound are not good for play volume. Washington already ranked third slowest in situation-neutral pace. They averaged the third-fewest plays per game, and fourth-fewest points per snap. It’s not news that they are a disaster, but at least opponents – who produced the sixth-most plays per game (67.2) and third-most points per snap – could reap the full benefit of stepping on Dan Snyder’s steaming pile.
Enter Bill Callahan, who was offensive coordinator when the Cowboys famously started playing keep-away, along with several other coaching stops where cavemen tried to make football great again. He is an accomplished offensive line coach, but what little play volume is left in Washington – their games average the 23rd-most combined snaps – looks like it will be ground to dust one Adrian Peterson three-yard struggle at a time. At least this week’s opponent, the Dolphins, speed up when they fall behind and foster opponent play volume. Washington will grind clock in the name of old-school football and friendly losses.
Sam Darnold’s spleen is finally smaller than his head, so he can get hit again. It’s science. More importantly, his presence opens the possibility the Jets offense not only won’t totally suck, but also may operate with increased tempo. Darnold was clearly sick when New York ran a season-high 14% no-huddle plays in Week 1, so perhaps they try to go even faster in Adam Gase’s promised up-tempo offense. Well, at least the offense won’t totally suck.
The Cowboys still rank top-five in no-huddle rate (12%), their games average the 14th-most combined plays, and they’re operating at the 11th-quickest situation-neutral snaps pace. Opponents are throwing against the pass-funnel Jets at the seventh-highest rate while games are close, and Dak Prescott should have a healthier offense around him this week. The matchup isn’t a candidate for 150-plus snaps, but having both sides viable behind center at least gives the game some back-and-forth appeal.
The London game is 2019’s first divisional rematch, a spot we typically avoid investing heavily in. Of course, the two-point-favorite Panthers will have a healthier quarterback this time around, and scoring won’t he held down by late-season NFL weather, as sometimes occurs during rematches. We can confidently say things will be different enough from the Cam-Newton-hobbled, 20-14 Thursday night meeting in Week 2 that expectations for a higher-ceiling outcome are warranted.
The Buccaneers are an extreme pass funnel, with PFF’s highest-graded run defense and second-worst pass coverage. Opponents are throwing against them at the sixth-highest situation-neutral rate and their games average the second-most combined snaps. Panthers games average the third-most combined snaps, and they operate at the league’s eighth-highest situation-neutral pace. We’ll have to get up early to watch this potentially tight back-and-forth matchup, but with the way the tempo sets up, we may not even need booze in our coffee.