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Getting Defensive

Getting Defensive: Week 1

by Gary Davenport
Updated On: September 7, 2021, 3:38 pm ET

It's been a long time coming. But the big day is almost here. On Thursday evening, the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play host to the Dallas Cowboys in the first game of the 2021 NFL regular season.

And with that game, another season of fantasy football begins.

It's a time of great excitement for fantasy managers. After months of preparation and drafting, it is time to go from picking players to setting lineups—from assembling a winner to making with the actual winning.

Unfortunately, it can also be a nerve-wracking time of year—especially where team defenses are concerned.

There isn't a position in fantasy football that experiences bigger swings from year to year than on defense. Whether it's a personnel overhaul and/or coaching moves, an offseason can bring massive changes on that side of the ball—and raise equally massive questions.

Can the arrival of defensive end J.J. Watt in Arizona help offset the issues the Cardinals have in the secondary? What effect will the changes on the back end have for the Pittsburgh Steelers? How about the defensive overhaul in Cleveland?

There also isn't a position in fantasy football where matchups are more important than on defense. But the cold, hard truth is that we don't know which matchups are favorable (or unfavorable) yet. Not really.

Sure, it's a pretty safe bet that the Kansas City Chiefs are going to be an offensive buzzsaw while the Detroit Lions will be edentate. But we're basing that off 2020 performance. There will be a team that exceeds expectations offensively. And another that falls flat on its face.

It happens every year.

If you drafted an "elite" team defense this summer like Tampa or Pittsburgh, then the smart play is roll them out there regardless of where they show up in the inaugural edition of Getting Defensive here at NBC Sports Edge. Benching them out of the gate rather calls into question the wisdom of drafting them at all.

But if you're the hearty type of fantasy manager who streams team defenses based on matchups, then know going into the season that that particular Magic 8-Ball will likely be cloudy for a few weeks. If one of your matchup plays in September comes up short, it has less to do with the effectiveness of streaming than it does the early-season volatility that is part of that strategy.

Now let's get after it—because the new season is here!

 

THE NO-DOUBTERS

Los Angeles Rams (vs. Chicago Bears)

Last year, the Los Angeles Rams led the NFL in total defense, The team led the league in pass defense. The Rams were first in the NFL in scoring defense. And the team led the NFC in fantasy points among team defenses. Other than that though, Aaron Donald and company were just OK. Los Angeles has the league's best interior lineman in Donald. Arguably the NFL's best cornerback in Jalen Ramsey. And a home matchup in primetime against a Bears team with a shaky offensive line led by what's left of Andy Dalton. The Rams are going to feast on Sunday night.

 

Baltimore Ravens (at Las Vegas Raiders)

It has been a rough few weeks for the Ravens—losing running back J.K. Dobbins to a season-ending ACL team was a hammer-blow for a run-heavy team with Super Bowl aspirations. With that said, defensively the Ravens should be just fine—last year's seventh-ranked total defense, second-ranked scoring defense and fourth-ranked fantasy defense added some veteran help on the edge in Justin Houston and features the best one-two punch at cornerback in the league. The Raiders aren't a terrible offensive team, but they aren't an especially good one, either.

 

San Francisco 49ers (at Detroit Lions)

Last year, the 49ers were the first defense drafted on average according to Fantasy Football Calculator. What followed was an injury-marred mess of a season that saw the team finish well outside the top-15 in most fantasy scoring systems. But that same defense is still pretty stacked with talent, especially in the front-seven. It's healthy now. And in Week 1 the Niners travel to face a Detroit Lions team that may well possess the least amount of offensive talent of any team in the league. A Jared Goff-led offense with no talent at wide receiver and a banged-up running back is the definition of a great matchup.

 

Denver Broncos (at New York Giants)

I have beat the drum for the Broncos all season long as a great value pick on defense. Now it's time for all that cheerleading to pay off. Whether it's Von Miller and Bradley Chubb off the edge, Dre'Mont Jones up front or a loaded secondary spearheaded by cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Justin Simmons, the Broncos have assembled a formidable defense on paper—a defense that Vic Fangio should have playing at a high level. Only one team in the league allowed more sacks last year than the Giants, and judging from the preseason that O-Line is still a hot mess.

 

Miami Dolphins (at New England Patriots)

Calling the Dolphins a "no doubt" fantasy start in Week 1 might be pushing it a little. But many people don't fully realize just how good the Dolphins are defensively. If Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters in Baltimore are the league's best CB duo, then Xavien Howard and Byron Jones aren't far behind. The Dolphins were quietly sixth in scoring defense in 2020 and fifth among defenses in fantasy points. And you can bet the rent that Dolphins head coach Brian Flores will have a few tricks up his sleeve for a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start.

 

New England Patriots (vs. Miami Dolphins)

Flip sides of the same proverbial coin. The Patriots weren't a great fantasy defense last year—after a historic first half of the 2019 campaign, personnel losses caused the Pats to drop to the back end of the top-10 last year. But some of those personnel losses were opt-outs who have since returned to the team. Last I checked Bill Belichick has something of a reputation for coaching good defenses. And while the Dolphins won 10 games in 2020, they didn't do so with an offensive juggernaut. Add in that game is at Gillette Stadium, and the Pats will post a top-10 opener defensively. Book it.

 

STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Minnesota Vikings (at Cincinnati Bengals)

As recently as last season, the Vikings defense was being drafted as a starter in 12-team fantasy leagues. That didn't go so well—with edge-rusher Danielle Hunter out for the season and a suspect secondary, the Vikes finished the year 27th in total defense and 28th in fantasy points among defenses. But that was then, and this is now—the Vikings added Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland on the back end, have a healthy Hunter back to get after the quarterback and open the season against a Bengals team that allowed the fifth-most sacks and ninth-most fantasy points to defenses in 2020.

 

Carolina Panthers (at New York Jets)

The Panthers weren't an especially good defensive football team last year—Carolina allowed just over 360 yards and 25 points per game in 2020 and finished the season ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of fantasy points. But there's talent in Carolina, whether it's Brian Burns up front, Shaq Thompson at linebacker or safety Jeremy Chinn in the secondary. The real appeal here is the matchup at home against rookie quarterback Zach Wilson and a New York Jets offense that was dead last in the league in both yards and points per game in 2020.

 

Green Bay Packers (at New Orleans Saints)

The Green Bay Packers have long been the fantasy defense that managers like but don't love—the Packers are good enough to make some hay in the right matchup, but not so good that they can be trusted regardless of who they play. The season opener in Jacksonville against the Saints should be one of those hay-days. It's not just a matter of Green Bay not having to play in the Superdome, although that helps. It's also not a sure thing given all the changes in New Orleans this season. But given Jameis Winston's penchant for turning the ball over, there should be some "there" there.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars (at Houston Texans)

Yep. That's right. The Jacksonville Jaguars. The 1-15 Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jacksonville Jaguars that ranked 31st in the NFL in total defense last year and scored the third-fewest fantasy points among defenses. Those Jaguars. The thing is, the Jags aren't without some talent defensively. The hiring of defensive coordinator Joe Cullen was regarded in many circles as a solid (if unspectacular) move. But the real fulcrum for this recommendation is a matchup with a Houston Texans team that has all the makings of a fantasy bonanza for opposing defenses all season long.

 

Philadelphia Eagles (at Atlanta Falcons)

Given where the Eagles were one year ago as opposed to where they are now, it has been a rough 52 weeks—the team has a new starting quarterback, a new head coach and new faces all over the place. Of course, in many respects the same thing can be said about the Atlanta Falcons after a miserable 2020 season. An argument can be made for both teams as a lower-end matchup play in Week 1 given their respective issues offensively. But while the Falcons have the home field advantage, the Eagles have the better personnel—so Philly is the preferable play.

 

CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS

Pittsburgh Steelers (at Buffalo Bills)

In fairness, the Steelers were my top-ranked fantasy defense entering 2021—Pittsburgh has shown an aptitude for consistently turning out the kinds of big plays (especially sacks) that fantasy managers covet. And to be clear, the Steelers will all but certainly produce well for fantasy managers this season. But those same managers need to be prepared for a bumpy start to the season. No team scored more points per game in 2020 than the Bills. Only four teams gave up fewer fantasy points to defenses. Just take a breath and look forward to the Raiders in Pittsburgh in Week 2.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (vs. Dallas Cowboys)

Just like the Steelers, the Buccaneers are going to field a formidable defense in 2021. Just ask Patrick Mahomes if he ever stops running. And Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott could have a rough go Thursday against a Tampa run defense that barely allowed 80 yards a game on the ground in their march to the Super Bowl last year. But the Buccaneers can be had through the air if an opposing signal-caller has some time—see Tampa's first game against the Chiefs in 2020. If Dak Prescott can shake off the rust Thursday night, it's a game with quite a bit of shootout potential.

Gary Davenport

Gary Davenport is a Senior Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks, an NFL and Fantasy Football Analyst at Bleacher Report and a contributing author and Associate Editor at Football Diehards. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Gary was the winner of the 2017 and 2019 FSWA awards for Football Writer of the Year. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.