One of the things that makes team defenses unpredictable in fantasy football is that on each defense, there are 11 moving pieces. Eleven parts that combine to create a unit. Some of those players are interchangeable. Some come. Others go. The defense doesn't miss a beat. But other pieces are crucial. Remove them from the equation, and the whole unit suffers substantially.
Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt is most assuredly one of those cornerstone defenders. And after a long absence as the result of a partially torn pectoral muscle, Watt was back on the field for the Steelers last week for the first time since the season opener.
There was talk of Watt seeing a reduced role in his first game in two months. But the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year wound up playing a relatively full workload—79 percent of the snaps against the New Orleans Saints. Watt didn't log a sack in his return, but as Steelers cornerback Levi Wallace told Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his impact on the Pittsburgh defense is immeasurable.
“Each and every play, I looked up and he was doing something,” Wallace said. “He's affecting every play. Just disrupting so much. You can feel his presence when he's out on the field.”
It's no coincidence that Watt's return coincided with arguably the Steelers best defensive effort of the season—Pittsburgh allowed just 10 points and less than 200 yards of offense on the way to a top-10 fantasy numbers. It was the Steelers' second-best fantasy effort of the season.
The best? The season opener against the Bengals, who the Steelers just so happen to host this week.
Philadelphia Eagles (at Indianapolis Colts)
After a perfect first half of the season, the Eagles came back to Earth a bit coming out of the bye. But even in defeat the Eagles defense was at least serviceable for fantasy managers, logging three sacks and a couple of takeaways. However, while Eagles may no longer be undefeated, the defense is still third in total defense, seventh in scoring defense, fifth in sacks, first in the league in takeaways and second in fantasy points. The Eagles face a Colts team Sunday that is tied for the league lead in sacks allowed with 36 and has surrendered more fantasy points per game to defenses than any team in the NFL.
New England Patriots (vs. New York Jets)
It's the same old story in New England—the numbers on the calendar may be different, but the Patriots are once again playing excellent defense. The Pats are sixth in the NFL in scoring defense, lead the AFC in sacks with 32, are tied for third in the NFL with 17 takeaways and lead all teams in fantasy points this season. The 6-3 Jets aren't the fantasy goldmine for defenses that they were a year ago, but the Jets also aren't exactly an offensive powerhouse. In Week 8, the Pats sacked Zach Wilson twice and picked him off three times on the way to a sixth-place finish among defenses that week.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. Carolina Panthers)
The Ravens defense doesn't get talked about as much as it did in the days of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, but it has played its part in helping Baltimore into first place in the AFC North. Despite not ranking especially highly in most statistical categories. It has also been helpful for fantasy managers, checking in inside the top-10 in fantasy points per game. This week, the Ravens play host to a struggling Carolina Panthers offense that ranks 30th in yards per game and 11th in fantasy points per game allowed to defenses. The return of Baker Mayfield at quarterback will help that second number more than it hurts.
Buffalo Bills (vs. Cleveland Browns)
The Bills have one of the best defenses in the league—seventh in total defense, seventh against the run, third in points allowed, tied for fifth in sacks, third in takeaways and fourth in fantasy points. That defense was admittedly exposed a bit last week against the Minnesota Vikings. But after back-to-back losses, the Bills are going to be angry on Sunday against a Browns team that has struggled to generate consistent offense of late. This has the makings of a "get right" spot for Buffalo—especially if the team gets edge-rusher Gregory Rousseau and safety Jordan Poyer back.
San Francisco 49ers (at Arizona Cardinals)
Much like the Buffalo Bills, the 49ers have spent most of the season ranked at or near the top of the NFL in a number of statistical categories—the Niners lead the league in total defense and run defense, rank eighth against the pass, fourth in points allowed, tied for third in the NFL in sacks and fifth in fantasy points. The Arizona Cardinals haven't been a great matchup for opposing defenses this season, but they haven't been a terrible one either—and that's with Kyler Murray under center. If Colt McCoy has to make another start, all the better.
New York Jets (at New England Patriots)
That's right. We now live in a world where the New York Jets defense is a startable fantasy asset in more matchups than not. The Jets defense has played a major role in New York's surprising 6-3 start, as evidenced by the performance they put on two weeks ago—five sacks, two interceptions and 17 points allowed in an upset of the rival Bills. The Patriots aren't a team that makes a lot of mistakes with the ball or allows a ton of fantasy points per game to opposing defenses. Over the last month, the Patriots have allowed the fifth-most fantasy points per game to opposing defenses.
STREAMERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!
New Orleans Saints (vs. Los Angeles Rams)
The Saints have something of a story in extremes defensively this year. There has been good—the team ranks in the top half of the league in yards allowed and sits seventh in the league with 28 sacks. But there has also been bad—while the Saints haven't given up a ton of yards, they have surrendered the seventh-most points per game in the league. This is a recommendation born more of who the Saints are playing than how the Saints are playing. The Rams are falling apart offensively, star wideout Cooper Kupp in on the shelf indefinitely and no team in the NFL has allowed more fantasy points per game to defenses this season.
Cincinnati Bengals (at Pittsburgh Steelers)
The Bengals are just a game back in the AFC North, but the team's defense of last year's AFC title has been…bumpy. The Bengals are a respectable 10th in total defense and rank in the top half of the league in points allowed, but the Bengals pass rush has been almost invisible and the team has just been average in generating takeaways en route to ranking outside the top-20 in fantasy points. However, the Steelers have made a habit of making opposing defenses look good this season—Pittsburgh has surrendered 27 sacks and the third-most fantasy points per game in the league to opposing defenses.
Denver Broncos (vs. Las Vegas Raiders)
The first year of the Nathaniel Hackett/Russell Wilson era in Denver isn't going at all according to plan. But Denver's defense can't be blamed for the team's dismal record. The Broncos rank first in the AFC in total defense and first in the league in both pass defense and points allowed per game. Despite those lofty numbers, a relative lack of big plays has the Broncos just outside the top-12 in fantasy points, but Week 11 sets up as a potential smash spot against the reeling Raiders—if Denver can take Davante Adams and Josh Jacobs away, there's nothing left behind them.
Los Angeles Rams (at New Orleans Saints)
That the Rams are this far down the list of Week 11 streaming plays goes a long way toward explaining the kind of season the Rams are having. Granted, Aaron Donald and the defense aren't floundering as badly as the offense, but they also aren't playing at the same level as last year's Super Bowl run. But Andy Dalton and the Saints might be just what they need to jump-start things on that side of the ball—among NFC teams, only the Rams offense has surrendered more fantasy points per game to opposing defenses than New Orleans.
Washington Commanders at Houston Texans
The Commanders were the first team to hand the Philadelphia Eagles a loss—and the Washington defense deserves most of the credit for the win. As a matter of fact, the Commanders were the highest scoring fantasy defense in Week 11 thanks to a sack, four takeaways and a defensive touchdown. With Chase Young working back up to speed, the Washington pass rush should only get better from here. And on Sunday the Commanders hit the road to take on a Texans defense that ranks 29th in total offense, 28th in scoring offense and seventh in fantasy points per game given up to defenses.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS
Dallas Cowboys (at Minnesota Vikings)
The Dallas Cowboys were fantasy football's No.1 defense in 2021, and for a good chunk of the season the team was in that same spot this year. Dallas is fifth in the league in points allowed per game, leads the NFL with 35 sacks and ranks third for the season in fantasy points among defenses. But last week against the Packers the Cowboys posted their worst fantasy effort of the season—two sacks, two takeaways and 31 points allowed. This week Dallas faces a Vikings team that just dropped 33 points on the Bills in Buffalo, so a second straight stinker is a real possibility.