Using run-pass data as a viable fantasy matchup tool

On pass-happy teams like the Arizona Cardinals, multiple receivers are viable fantasy options. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

We’re looking for bettable samples in the early season and one place I have always looked after three games is play-calling trends.

Simple run-pass splits are easy to find. But we’re going deeper here. With the help of our friends at Pro Football Reference, we seek to make our splits more game-flow neutral. This is obviously tricky but I’m focusing only on plays where the game was within seven points and I’m not including the final seven minutes as teams try to rally or close out wins.

We’re focusing on the offenses that are way above or way below the NFL average 55% pass plays in these situations. And we’re doing the same thing with defenses. I want to caution you that the offensive numbers are more reliable always than the defensive ones. In other words, a team that wants to pass irrespective of the score is more likely to pass more frequently than average in future games regardless of opponent. If they happen to face a team that other teams like to run against, they’ll probably pass more frequently anyway. But noting the teams that are run or pass very heavily against certain defenses at least gives us a sense of where opponents feel these defenses are weakest.

In addition to focusing on plays where the score wasn’t a big factor in play-calling, we also looked only at teams that had significant samples (50-plus plays) in these situations. 

Let’s focus first on the teams that have wanted to pass well above the average of 55%, again when games are within a touchdown. 

There are no real surprises here: Packers (67% pass), Cardinals (63%), Steelers (62%), Eagles (61%), Raiders (61%), Falcons (60%), Lions (60%) and Patriots (60%).

What’s actionable about this is that the above teams are more fertile ground for playing multiple receivers since the volume can support them — for example you can own any of the three main Arizona wideouts including Jaron Brown, who almost had two TDs on Monday Night (one was called back). You also don’t have to worry much about the point spread in the games and whether they are going to need to pass because these teams WANT to pass.

The Giants, Jets, Rams and Saints are all pass heavy but just don’t have enough plays where games were closely contested.

While the above teams are more fertile ground for quarterbacks and pass catchers (at least two and perhaps even three per team), the run-heavy teams are where you want to concentrate your running backs, especially in non-PPR.

The old-school, run-first teams so far are Panthers (56% run vs. 45% average in these game situations), Bengals (53%), Bills (53%), Browns (53%), Bears (47.5%) and Colts (51%). 

Offenses seem to see weakness against the pass in the following defenses, based on how often they pass against them when not forced to: Eagles (72%), Lions (67%), Redskins (64%), Bears (63%), Bills (62%) and Falcons (62%). Again, we’re not counting defenses with less than 50 plays against in these situations. 

And offenses want to attack the following defenses on the ground, where again the league average is just 45% runs: Steelers (56%), Jets (56% but somehow having just destroyed Jay Ajayi), Raiders (54%) and Packers (51%).

This data is a good matchup tool. For example, Thursday night, the Bears want to run and face the Packers who teams want to run against. And on the other side of the ball, teams want to pass against the Bears defense and the Packers are the league’s most pass-happy team. So expect a fantasy outburst here. (Note also that the belief that these Thursday night games depress scoring is classic confirmation bias, meaning we remember what we believe; teams on Thursday night since 2014 average significantly more points than overall, even before last week.)

The Bills seem like a good matchup for the Falcons; a defense that teams want to pass against faces one of the NFL’s most aggressive passing offenses.