Welcome to the Week 7 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.
We have four fantasy friendly teams on bye this week – well, Cleveland and Pittsburgh were supposed to be fantasy friendly. Nevertheless. There are several high-octane matchups on the main slate, but not all are in projected to be up-pace games. More on that in Pace Notes — but since there’s a lot to get to, let’s dive right in.
UP IN PACE
Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants
Following a predictably rocky indoctrination to the NFL due to unfamiliar talent (or lack thereof), a tough September schedule, and an unorthodox offensive scheme, the Cardinals take a two-game winning streak on a cross-country trip to scenic New Jersey. Although their no-huddle rate has decreased during the last month (27%) from where it was after two weeks (54%), Arizona still ranks first and continues to play quickly. No one has a faster situation-neutral snaps pace, and they’re fourth in plays per game. Their contests average the fourth-most combined snaps. Rookie QB Kyler Murray is coming off of his two best-graded games of the season via PFF, and the Cardinals finally have the services of top cover CB Patrick Peterson now that his six-game suspension is served. However, they have a ways to go before their 23rd-graded coverage can be considered a strength, or they meet a tight end they can hang with.
The Giants were doing fine under their own rookie quarterback, Daniel Jones, until running into the Vikings and Patriots. Fortunately, the Arizona defense is not Minnesota or New England, and New York is on track to get Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley back in the lineup. Giants games average the 13th-most combined snaps, and New York has operated at the 11th-quickest seconds-per-snap pace. This matchup of suspect pass-coverage units projects as a tight, back-and-forth affair (field-goal spread). In a surprising twist, the Giants came out firing from the no-huddle in New England, well before the game got out of hand. It could be a game-plan-specific blip or something Jones is comfortable enough with to use on a consistent basis. Either way, it won’t hurt game pace.
The Giants (first) and Cardinals (third) rank top-three in surrendering passes of 15-plus yards. They also rank seventh and ninth, respectively, in allowing 15-plus-yard runs. Couple that big-play potential with the additional play volume this matchup will yield, and it’s hard to sit even borderline fantasy options in a four-team bye week. Christian Kirk is due back at the right time, and Chase Edmonds and fringe Cardinals receivers are viable in a pinch. The Giants have a more narrow touch distribution, and it’s unlikely anyone has a realistic alternative to starting Barkley or Engram in their first game back from injury. If Barkley can’t go, Wayne Gallman is an excellent play, and Air Yards maven Darius Slayton gets another Sterling-Shepard-less week as an intriguing contrarian dart, despite projecting for heavy snaps in Peterson’s coverage.
Los Angeles Rams at Atlanta Falcons
The league’s fastest offense during the last month, the Rams have scrambled to keep up on the scoreboard as their franchise quarterback regresses back into a baby bird. Their games average the league’s most combined snaps, and Los Angeles has passed at a 60% clip during neutral situations (14th). However, with pressure prompting Jared Goff to melt faster than Football Twitter during pass interference review – and he’s felt heat on 43% of dropbacks during the last month (fourth highest) – the Rams have gotten far more volume than efficiency. Fortunately the Falcons’ recent foes have enjoyed pocket picnics before passing. Deshaun Watson (second lowest pressure rate of Week 5) and Kyler Murray (second lowest pressure rate of Week 6) had been consistently harassed before meetings with Atlanta, in which they skewered the Falcons’ pathetic pass defense. The Rams head east for a nearly guaranteed passing game cure.
No one could blame Matt Ryan if he dropped a “gosh darn it,” or even a golly-bomb on Atlanta’s defense. He’s a top-10-graded passer and has thrown for 300-plus yards in every game, while the 1-5 Falcons have lost four straight. They allow the second-most points per snap and sixth-most yards per play. Atlanta features pass-funnel characteristics, with the second-worst-graded pass coverage and a top-10 run defense. While games are close, the Falcons operate at a top-10 pace and they pass at the fourth-highest rate (65%). Both teams figure to be aggressive in the dome on Sunday, and neither seems capable of pulling off a ball-control approach. The Rams’ time of possession rates have plummeted (33:16 > 28:23 > 27:24 > 24:42 > 21:08), while the Falcons are bottom-10 in yards per carry and bottom-five in rushing yards per game.
Investing in Goff feels dirty until we consider he will be comfortable in the pocket against Atlanta’s tickle rush, which means there’s little reason to hold back on the top three Rams wideouts and Gerald Everett. The overall target crunch due to Everett’s increasing passing game profile is somewhat offset here by play volume. The extra snaps this matchup offers should mitigate the crowded Los Angeles backfield – which requires monitoring of Todd Gurley’s health and clues as to how many more touches Darrell Henderson earned. The Falcons backfield is more interesting than usual, as Devonta Freeman showed signs of life from a usage standpoint. His split with Ito Smith is less worrisome when there’s elevated play volume in a projected close game. The subtraction of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib is a boost for Atlanta’s passing game as a whole, although how the Rams will use Jalen Ramsey is a wildcard with major implications on Julio Jones’ outlook.
Slow Paced Slogs
San Francisco 49ers at Washington Redskins
The last two weeks have left little doubt about the 49ers’ place among the league’s elite, and their second-highest-graded defense changes how we view them from a pace perspective. While Kyle Shanahan waits for his offensive line to heal, he’s admitted to taking fewer chances and slowing games down with the rushing attack. San Francisco may still project as a high-volume offense, but their opponents can no longer say the same. Only the Ravens (+18.2) have a wider positive gap in average play differential than the 49ers (+14.2). During the last month, that gap has a ballooned to a ridiculous +24.3 plays for San Francisco, and only the Patriots have a larger points-per-game differential (+17.3 versus +15.0). With an ascending defense and a commitment to the running game that has them handing off at the fourth-highest rate during neutral situations, the 49ers look like a classic grinder of opponent play volume.
The grinder travels cross-country to Washington for an early game against another clock-draining outfit – albeit one of inferior quality. Whereas the 49ers limit opponent plays, the Redskins limit themselves. They have the second-worst average play differential (-13.7), in addition to the second-worst average point differential (-12.8). Washington’s “successful” trip to Miami will only convince interim head caveman Bill Callahan that his ground-and-pound approach is correct. More likely it works best when the opponent is historically awful, and will fail spectacularly against a defensive front overstuffed with high-end talent. Of course, Callahan won’t see it that way, will repeatedly dial up Adrian Peterson dust clouds, and the game’s muted play volume will be felt by only one offense.
With the 49ers averaging the second most time of possession (36:29) and Washington averaging the second least (26:39), it’s clear where we want our chips. Even in a low play volume environment, we can ride San Francisco’s split backfield by starting either Matt Breida or Tevin Coleman. The non-George-Kittle pass catchers are less clear, but we’re obligated to continue mentioning Dante Pettis’ rising snaps as long as it keeps happening. Rules are rules. On the other side, this is a scary spot for Terry McLaurin, although he’s tough to bench in seasonal leagues. If repeatedly watching Peterson get spanked by Robert Saleh is your thing – and plenty of people are into that – this matchup sure has the obstinate play-calling and defensive enthusiasm for you.
New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears
It hasn’t entirely sunk in that the Saints no longer play games on fertile fantasy soil, but we’re getting close. Not only is their defense consistently improving and their offense far from shootout-worthy, but most comatose co-eds creep down Bourbon Street quicker than Teddy Bridgewater moves New Orleans’ offense. Both for the season and over the last month, the Saints have the slowest seconds-per-snap rate, and their games average the second-fewest combined plays this year. They lean only slightly run-heavy, as do their opponents, but Bridgewater’s flaccid 5.8-yard average depth of target (35th out of 35 non-Luke-Falk passers) caps any prayer of explosiveness. Watching the Bridgewater Saints is like leaf peeping – it’s what you do in the fall, but we’re expecting to see something cool that never happens.
The Bears had an extra week to think about what they did in London. How they’ll approach the Saints is a less certain projection than vice versa, but it will almost certainly be slowly. Even as they’ve fiddled with the no-huddle recently – second-highest rate since Week 2 (24.4%) — the Bears actual pace of play has remained slothy. The fourth-slowest seconds-per-snap rate over the last month has yielded the seventh-fewest snaps (59.4) and sixth-fewest points on a per-game basis (17.4). Chicago has actually passed at the third-highest situation-neutral rate this season (67%), but with Chase Daniel offering only a theoretical upgrade on Bortlesian first-round flop Mitchell Trubisky, they still can’t consistently maintain drives long enough to establish significant play volume. Trubisky’s possible return against the Saints defense is unlikely to help.
If Alvin Kamara doesn’t suit up, there’s a volume-based argument for Latavius Murray, even in a game that projects for muted snaps. We are not chasing Jared Cook’s two-game touchdown streak or Ted Ginn’s two catches, leaving us with Michael Thomas and hopefully in-check expectations. On the Bears side, Allen Robinson deserves some faith – he’s been in tighter spots with worse quarterbacks – but that’s where it should end. There’s no need for us to force it here. Trubisky has that part covered.
Los Angeles Chargers at Tennessee Titans
We don’t need to spend too much time on this one, especially for anyone who caught the Titans game in Denver, or the Chargers game in Pittsburgh San Diego Los Angeles. Both the Chargers (32nd) and Titans (23rd) operate at slothy situation-neutral paces. Chargers games average the fewest combined snaps and Titans contests rank seventh lowest. Neither team is interested in operating quickly unless they’re desperately behind on the scoreboard. Opponents hand off against Los Angeles at the fifth-highest rate during neutral situations (48%). Considering Tennessee can barely decide between two bad quarterbacks, and is about to relearn a lesson the Dolphins already know, chances are they’ll be happy to hand off as often as possible. Considering Los Angeles can’t keep a pass rush off their elderly quarterback, we can expect a similar run-based plan, and the clock will continually grind. If that sounds like a fantasy matchup to get excited about for, maybe read it again.
Whether it’s Austin Ekeler or Melvin Gordon getting the 60% snap share, they’re still dividing a tiny pie filled with sadness. Adding Hunter Henry and a healthier Mike Williams back to the passing game should aid efficiency, but it dilutes a similarly small passing-game pie. Keenan Allen felt that opportunity crunch the last three games, with only 40% of the targets (17) he saw in the first three games (42). It’s doubtful your fantasy alternatives are plentiful on a four-bye week, while Williams and Allen are prominent on this week’s Air Yards Buy-Low list — but with these pies, we shouldn’t expect anyone to get peppered. As for the Titans, consider that the Chargers have an infinitely better situation. Start Derrick Henry if you have to, and start drinking if you have to start anyone else.
Ravens-Seahawks has several elements that would land most matchups in the Up Pace section. Baltimore’s defense is a pass funnel with well-graded run stopping and holes in the secondary, even after trading for Marcus Peters. Opponents pass against them on a hefty 67% of situation-neutral plays. The only team keeping them out of first in opponent pass rate happens to be the Seahawks (70%). Seattle has the sixth-highest-graded run defense and 25th-graded pass coverage. The Ravens allow the fifth-most passes of at least 15 yards, while the Seahawks give up the seventh most. Baltimore produces the most plays per game (73.3) and Seattle averages the eighth most (66.2).
A late afternoon full of downfield passes against vulnerable secondaries gets the fantasy juices flowing. However, the Ravens (45%) and Seahawks (47%) pass at bottom-three rates during neutral situations. While Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson augment that ratio with their rushing, it’s inarguable that Baltimore and Seattle are run-first (and second) offenses by design. Their deliberate pace of play – especially the Seahawks – exacerbates a ground-based approach’s draining effect on overall play volume. The Ravens allow the fewest plays per game (55.2) and the Seahawks the sixth fewest (59.7).
While play volume will be muted, the good news is the touch distribution is narrow in most areas of these offenses. Obviously Jackson and Wilson are top plays, and the backfields are self-explanatory – although we may need to monitor an evening of Baltimore’s running back touches. Mark Andrews is a lock and Marquise Brown looks like he’ll again be in play. However, volume questions cancel out ancillary options. Seahawks wideouts run deep, but other than Tyler Lockett, only D.K. Metcalf matters here. How they distribute Will Dissly’s snaps and targets will be interesting, with professional sleeper Jacob Hollister now in line for more work. While this is a fantasy-target-rich environment with plenty of projected points, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should expect elevated play volume.
Texans-Colts is tougher to project from a pace perspective. On one hand, the last time these offenses met in Indianapolis, they went to overtime and combined for 71 points and 167 snaps. Of course, that was back when Andrew Luck bought green bananas. Their other two meetings last season had considerably fewer points and less play volume. Things have been more plodding this year, with the Colts operating at the third-slowest situation-neutral pace and handing off at the second highest rate (53%) while games are within one score. The Texans play faster (eighth quickest in neutral situations) and hand off less (45%; 11th most), but have yet to drive a quick pace.
With the game projected to be close (one-point spread), and both teams favoring their rushing attack while contests are tight, we cannot call for a play volume bonanza. The Colts limit big passing plays, which Houston will need for this to turn into a shootout. The Texans are limiting Deshaun Watson’s exposure, which has reduced the sacks and hits their offensive line has allowed – from 35 through six weeks last year, to only 13 now. Other than load-bearing running backs Marlon Mack and Carlos Hyde, each offense’s fantasy options are subject to the type of deep rotations that moderate-to-low play volume negatively impacts. This matchup is tempting to go heavy on, but while nobody is sitting DeAndre Hopkins or T.Y. Hilton, being selective with ancillary options looks like the best fantasy approach.
The Bills don’t play glaringly fast, ranking 15th in seconds-per-snap (20th during neutral situations). Yet they’ve averaged 67.4 plays per game (fifth most), and more during the last month. The positive 6.4-play gap they average over opponents ranks seventh best, and it’s grown during the past month (+11.3). They have also increased their no-huddle rate in each of the four games heading into their bye, culminating in the fifth-highest mark of Week 5 (14.3%). While they are far from the Kingsbury Cardinals, they are not your older brother’s Bills.
The clearest sign that Buffalo will enjoy elevated play volume this week is their opponent. The Dolphins allow 7.2 more plays per game than they produce, which pales in comparison to their comically negative 27.6 differential in points per game. They also play fast, ranking 12th in situation-neutral pace – which means they usually return the ball to the other offense quickly. Buffalo isn’t the first place we think of going for maximum fantasy opportunity, but considering their tendency to dominate play differential, for this week we can act like a Bills tailgater and dive in headfirst.
Kansas City’s league-worst-graded run stopping is a problem for fantasy. Opponents gash them for 5.2 yards per carry (third most), and are attacking the Chiefs on the ground at a 52% clip while games are within one score (second highest). Their games are being shortened, as Kansas City is producing the eighth-fewest plays on average and the third-worst time of possession. Both their plays (67 > 57 > 47) and possession times (32:35 > 27:16 > 26:06 > 22:45 > 20:12) are headed in the wrong direction.
With a backfield split only a Belichick could love, and several options rotating in and out at wide receiver, the last thing Chiefs investors need while Patrick Mahomes works through health and efficiency issues is for play volume to plummet. A quick turnaround to a Thursday night game in Denver isn’t an impossible task, but it also is not ideal. Broncos games average the sixth-fewest combined snaps and Denver operates at the sixth-slowest situation-neutral rate. Their gelling defense is not a needed reprieve for an otherworldly offense feeling its mortality.
After the Seahawks matched the Browns’ opening drive touchdown with one of their own, Cleveland did what many folks have clamored for and unleashed the no-huddle offense …for a drive. Baker Mayfield went 5-of-6 for 53 yards from the hurry-up as the Browns marched quickly into the endzone. He completed his next no-huddle pass to Odell Beckham for 18 yards and ran for a first down from the hurry-up. Then he threw an interception and Freddie Kitchens scrapped the tempo.
Despite completing 83% of no-huddle passes at an 8.8 yards per attempt clip (103.5 passer rating) on Cleveland’s first dedicated hurry-up drive of the season, Kitchens got cold feet. Watching Mayfield complete 57% of his huddled passes for 6.4 yards per attempt and a 58.3 passer rating was apparently preferable to him. The slow-paced Browns have a week off to decide how they’ll approach a teetering season. Hopefully they reconsider one of the few things that worked for their sideways offense.