Here is one of the main keys to winning your fantasy league: Defensive matchups.
Every year you have to mark on your weekly schedule who is facing a cupcake and who is facing a nightmare. It's never easy to bench a player you drafted to be a starter but if there's a player whose matchup looks too good to be true then you could be costing yourself a victory.
That's not to say that you should bench Tom Brady for Colt McCoy just because of the different defenses they are facing. (I'm not having that conversation again!) However, it is important to know when to not look a gift horse in the mouth. Personally, I never look a horse in the mouth for fear that he or she will bite my face off. I don't care what kind of horse it is, those teeth look menacing. Okay fine, I have an irrational fear of horses.
What was I saying again? Oh yeah, matchups. It's never too early to start thinking about what defenses are for real and which ones are a mirage. Every year teams improve and disintegrate and the truth is that two weeks might be too early to be sure which ones are matchups you don't want to face... it's also never to early to try and figure it out.
That's what I'm going to do today. Take a look at the early two week returns on defense and see whether or not these defenses are really improved or really not a team you have to fear. Rank in scoring defense in parantheses;
Houston Texans (1, 10 ppg)
Well, this is a dramatic turn-around now isn't it? Last season the Texans were 29th in scoring defense, 30th in total defense, and last in passing defense. Their 2-0 start in 2010 was marred by a defense that couldn't keep them from dropping 8 of 9 during the season despite a solid offense. Everything is bigger in Texas, especially points allowed.
However, Houston got sick and tired of their defense being sick and tired and if Gary Kubiak didn't want to be executed in Texas as the head coach, they would have to make some changes. And those changes were not minor. Houston hired Wade Phillips to be the new defensive coordinator and changed their defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which in turn meant that star DE Mario Williams would move to outside linebacker.
Additionally, they used their first 5 draft picks on defensive players and signed cornerbacks Danieal Manning and Jonathon Joseph to make stops in the air. It's a move that has so far led them to the #1 scoring, passing, and total yards defense in the first two weeks. How legitimate are those returns? Let's check after the jump...
The Texans caught a break in week one when news broke the Peyton Manning would be out and Kerry Collins would be in. Everybody figured that Collins would stink, but at least he was facing 2010's worst pass defense. But when he went 16 of 31 for 197 yards was it because he was Kerry Collins or because Houston was better? By comparison, Collins was 19 of 38 for 191 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT against Cleveland in week two, a team that saw Andy Dalton go 10 of 15 for 81 yards against them without a pick in week 1.
In week two the Texans faced the Dolphins, with Chad Henne trying to follow up his 416 yard, 2 TD game against the Patriots. His followup was 12 of 30 for 170 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT to Joseph. Even if Henne isn't a superstar, and the Patriots pass defense looks very bad, the Texans still made it more difficult on Henne than what you'd expect from even an average defense.
As it currently stands, they are 17th in rushing defense after Daniel Thomas had a nice debut against them, but they have yet to give up a rushing touchdown.
I believe the Texans defense is much-improved, even if they won't stay at the top or even the top 5. In Phillips last stand at DC, for the Chargers from 2004-2006, they ranked between 7th and 13th in defense. That would be a perfectly acceptable improvement for Houston. This week they face their first test of the season against the Saints in New Orleans. How would I rate Drew Brees and co. this week? I think Drew Brees stands a perfectly reasonable good chance of getting 300 yards and a couple scores because he is Drew Brees. But I don't think that the Texans should feel bad about that. It's also worth noting that though they've limited passing yards more than any team in the league, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Marshall both had good fantasy days.
Their upcoming schedule is: NO, Pitt, Oak, Bal, Tenn, JAX, Cle, TB
Detroit Lions (2, 11.5)
Where the Texans made a lot of changes over the offseason to improve their defense, the Lions mainly just got a year older, more experienced and prepared in hopes of getting better. They potentially drafted the best player in the 2010 draft with Ndamukong Suh, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year who might also be the best defensive lineman since Reggie White.
The Lions have less big name stars than your typical top 10 defense, but Kyle Vanden Bosch, Stephen Tulloch, Corey Williams and Chris Houston are better than you think. Meanwhile defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, considered one of the best in the business, is in his third year of rebuilding this team from when they finished last in the NFL in defense for three straight seasons (scoring and total yards.)
How'd they get here?
They opened up against the Buccaneers, the youngest offense in the league. They completely dominated the run which pushed Josh Freeman to pass the ball 43 times for 259 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. Tampa Bay put up 20 points and had no real fantasy stars. In week two against the Vikings, the Bucs rebounded and LeGarrette Blount scored twice, and Preston Parker had nearly 100 yards and a score receiving against a Vikings defense that held San Diego to 24 points. The same amount of points the Bucs had on them.
The Lions faced Kansas City in week two and held them to 3 points after Jamaal Charles left the game and the 2011 season with a torn ACL. It should be noted however that Charles and Dexter McCluster both broke off 24-yard runs against Detroit but Matt Cassel was picked off three times and held to 133 yards passing. Dwayne Bowe did have 101 of those yards.
Detroit faces another good matchup against Minnesota this week but then travels to Dallas. If the Cowboys have managed to get stem-cell research approved in the U.S. before week four so that they can have all their key players healthy by this matchup then we could find out how for real the Lions defense is. They should also improve when 1st round pick DT Nick Fairley returns from a foot injury. It's a ridiculous pairing with Suh.
Their upcoming schedule is: Minn, Dal, CHI, SF, Atl, Den, CHI
New York Jets (3, 13.5)
We know how the Jets got here. New York has basically been a top 5 defense since Rex Ryan arrived in 2009.
Dallas didn't do a bad job passing on Antonio Cromartie in week one and Maurice Jones-Drew had 88 yards on 18 carries in week two. The Jets are a defense you always want to be aware of, and whoever is facing Darrelle Revis is always a scary play. They are probably going to key a lot of their focus on Darren McFadden this week and challenge Jason Campbell to beat them.
Their upcoming schedule is: Oak, Bal, NE, Mia, SD, Buf, NE
Tennessee Titans (4, 14.5)
The strength of the Titans under Jeff Fisher in 2007 and 2008 that got to them the playoffs both years turned into a weakness in 2009-2010 that got Fisher fired after so many years of leading the Titans to being "just good enough" or if you prefer "always on the cusp!"
I really liked Fisher as a head coach but the idea of change in Tennessee sounds like it was about time. He's been the guy there since 1995, but since 1999 they were never able to get over that hump. They always felt like they were overachieving in the years that they were successful and it always showed in the playoffs.
Mike Munchak was hired as the new coach of the Titans and he hired former Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray to improve the leagues 26th ranked defense. Gray helped lead Buffalo to the #2 defense in 2003 and 2004.
In week one they bottled up Luke McCown for 175 yards and 0 TDs, but if I'm being honest the whole performance should have been a major disappointment for Tennessee. They held Luke McCown to 175 yards and they didn't intercept him, they gave up 175 yards, and he was 17 of 24. That's like eating 10 burritos and telling everyone how proud you are that you didn't crap your pants. Not an accomplishment. And it showed in McCowns matchup against the Jets how bad he is.
They also gave up 97 yards and a TD to Maurice Jones-Drew.
Things changed in week two against Baltimore. A week after having no issues against Pittsburgh in the first game, they held Joe Flacco to 15-of-32 for 197 yards, 1 TD and 2 INTs. They also held the running game to 45 yards on 17 carries. Flacco's only weapon was dinks, dunks, and check-downs. They're hoping rookie LB Akeem Ayers and 2nd-year DE Derrick Morgan can improve enough to keep this defense in the top 10.
They face an incredibly banged-up Denver this week, who is now down to 1 WR last I checked not including Tebow. Hilarity ensues.
Their upcoming schedule is: Den, Cle, Pitt, Hou, Ind, Cin, Car
Baltimore Ravens (5, 16.5)
The Ravens have been a top 10 scoring defense in 10 of the last 12 seasons. They're always a tough matchup. They've stopped Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson so far, but they've give up good games to Mike Wallace and Kenny Britt.
Their upcoming schedule is: STL, NYJ, Hou, JAX, AZ, Pitt, Sea
Washington Redskins (6, 17.5)
Lastly, a look at the surprising Washington Redskins. They finished 21st in scoring defense and 31st in total defense in their first year under Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. The Redskins drafted LB Ryan Kerrigan in the first round and he quickly made an impression by scoring a TD in his first game.
NT Chris Neild was the 2nd to last pick in the draft and took over for Albert Haynesworth, quickly notching 2 sacks in his first game. They also return veterans DeAngelo Hall, London Fletcher, Rocky McIntosh, and already-2-time-Pro-Bowler Brian Orakpo.
In their first matchup against the Giants they held Eli Manning to 18 of 32, 268 yards, 0 TD and 1 INT. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs combined for 73 yards on 19 carries. Hakeem Nicks had 7 catches for 122 yards but the other receivers were kept in check.
In week two they faced a revamped Cardinals offense and Kevin Kolb was 17 of 30 for 251 yards, 2 TD and 1 INT. Beanie Wells had 93 yards on 14 carries and a score. Larry Fitzgerald, like Nicks, had no problems with 7 catches for 133 yards and a TD. Again, no other receivers made an impact.
The Redskins defense is clearly talented and improved, but not foolproof. They've got playmakers, but are vulnerable to big plays and Wells was able to run on them very... well. They face a real test against the Cowboys this week, depending on that stem cell research.
Their upcoming schedule is: Dal, STL, PHI, Car, Buf, SF, Mia
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Next time we'll look at which bad defenses are really that bad.