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The opening week of the 2021 NFL season taught fantasy managers a couple of lessons where team defenses are concerned.
The first is that elite defenses are drafted to be every-week starters for a reason. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the first team at the position selected in many drafts. But Cameron Heyward and Co. had a difficult matchup to open the season—on the road against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, who led the AFC in points per game last season.
The Steelers gave up 371 yards and managed just three sacks, but Pittsburgh limited Buffalo to a single touchdown and blocked a punt for a score in a 23-16 win. When the dust settled, Pittsburgh was a top-five fantasy defense for the week.
Meanwhile, some managers who stream defenses looked at the Green Bay Packers as a potential option. The Packers were facing a quarterback in Jameis Winston who has been known to turn the ball over. The New Orleans offense is short approximately all its wide receivers.
So of course Winston threw five touchdown passes without an interception and the Saints exploded for 38 points in a rout.
There are two morals for this story, The first is that if you spend a (relatively) early pick on an elite defense like the Steelers or Los Angeles Rams, just roll them out there every week. More often than not you'll like the result.
The second is that while streaming can be a highly effective strategy, it also carries risks—especially early in the season. All you can do is shake it off and move on.
Los Angeles Rams (at Indianapolis Colts)
The Rams didn't blow the doors off defensively on Sunday night, but it was still a solid effort—14 points allowed, three sacks, a fumble recovery, and an interception. Now the fighting Aaron Donalds travel east to face Carson "The Statue" Wentz and the Colts. Indy has a talented running back in Jonathan Taylor, but last week was the first time in over a year that the Rams allowed a 100-yard rusher, and the Colts are going to be hard-pressed to throw the ball against Jalen Ramsey and the Rams secondary. This feels like a game where Donald will be in full "kill" mode with the Rams leading in the second half.
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Las Vegas Raiders)
It's still too early to make any sweeping generalizations about the Pittsburgh Steelers after just one game. But if that Week 1 win in Buffalo was any indication, the Steelers will go as far in 2021 as the defense takes them. With that said, the home opener sets up well as a game where that defense will be able to assert itself. A Raiders offensive line that is breaking in three new starters had trouble protecting Derek Carr on Monday night, and running back Josh Jacobs isn't 100 percent due to a toe injury. The Raiders just don't have the offensive firepower to take advantage of the few things Pittsburgh doesn't do well defensively.
New England Patriots (at New York Jets)
The good news for the beleaguered fans of the New York Jets is that the team appears to be better offensively in 2021 than it was in 2020. The bad news is that doesn't mean that the New York offense is good—the Jets barely cracked 250 yards of total offense last week, rookie quarterback Zach Wilson was sacked six times and now left tackle Mekhi Becton will miss at least a month after dislocating his kneecap in last week's loss to Carolina. This feels like one of those games where Belichick's defense completely flusters a young quarterback with different looks—and notches a few takeaways as a result.
Washington Football Team (vs. New York Giants)
The Washington defense is likely disappointed by last week's effort. The team didn't play badly defensively, but Washington couldn't hold the lead late. Luckily Thursday brings that which will make any defense feel better—a Giants team that allowed the third-most fantasy points to defenses in 2020. The Giants allowed the second-most sacks in the league last year, and if New York's Week 1 loss to the Broncos was any indication, the offensive line isn't one bit better. And when "Danny Dimes" gets guys in his face consistently, turnovers usually follow shortly thereafter.
Denver Broncos (at Jacksonville Jaguars)
The delicious matchup tour to open the season continues for the Jaguars—after faring relatively well last week against the Giants now Denver heads south to play a Jaguars team that just got pasted by the Houston Texans. Yes, you read that right—pasted…by…the…Houston…Texans. In that Week 1 loss, Trevor Lawrence looked very much like a rookie quarterback at times, throwing three interceptions. This time around Lawrence will have to face Von Miller and potentially Bradley Chubb, which could well force the youngster into even more mistakes.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (vs. Atlanta Falcons)
The Buccaneers were in the "Caveat Emptor" section of this article last week, and that turned out to be the correct call—Dallas didn't have much success on the ground against Tampa, but Dak Prescott lit the back end up like a Christmas tree. But that was then, and this is now. Last week, the Atlanta Falcons were hot garbage offensively in a blowout loss to the Eagles at home—just 260 yards of offense, six points and three sacks allowed. The odds that Mike Davis will be able to do anything on the ground are non-existent, which means that Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul can pin their ears back and get after Matt Ryan.
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STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
New Orleans Saints (at Carolina Panthers)
There wasn't a more surprising result in Week 1 than the butt-kicking the Saints laid on the Packers ay their home away from home in Jacksonville. The Saints held Aaron Rodgers out of the end zone, gave up just 43 yards on the ground, picked Rodgers off twice and notched a pair of sacks. This week the Saints travel to face a Panthers team that got a win over the Jets in Week 1, but Carolina failed to crack 20 points in that game and the defense Sam Darnold will face in Week 2 is just a tad better than Robert Saleh's piecemeal unit in New York.
Cleveland Browns (vs. Houston Texans)
Yes, the Cleveland Browns just gave up 33 points to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Yes, the Houston Texans just dropped 37 points on the Jacksonville Jaguars. No, neither of those things matter in Week 2. The Browns are no doubt seething after blowing a late lead against the Chiefs, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney should be able to get consistent pressure against Tyrod Taylor. And at the risk of sounding mean, I just don’t think a bad Texans team is going to play well two weeks in a row. The Browns will get a lead in this one and then turn the pass rush loose in the second half.
New York Giants (at Washington Football Team)
The 2021 season hasn't gotten off to the best of starts for the defending NFC (L)east champions. It wasn't bad enough that Washington lost a close one at home to the Chargers in Week 1. The team also lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury that landed him on injured reserve. With Fitz and his beard watching from the sideline, Taylor Heinicke will take the reins for the WFT on Thursday night against the Giants, which takes quite a bit of the wind out of the team's passing game. The Giants aren't a great fantasy start in Week 2, but Big Blue is a viable streaming option.
Green Bay Packers (vs. Detroit Lions)
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! Yes, the Packers were just embarrassed by the New Orleans Saints. And Jared Goff and the Detroit Lions looked relatively competent offensively in the second half of last week's loss to the San Francisco 49ers. But the Packers aren't a bad defensive football team, and much of that offensive competence came after San Francisco had pulled out to a massive lead that was buoyed by a pick-six. After what happened in Week 1, the Packers are going to be looking to do more than just win. Green Bay is going to want to pummel a bad Lions team into goo.
Carolina Panthers (vs. New Orleans Saints)
There were quite a few fantasy managers (and by quite a few, I mean me) who picked up the Panthers as a Week 1 streamer. And Carolina will be right back in this spot next week when the Panthers face the Texans. But in the interim, the question is whether the buzzsaw we saw last week against the Packers is the "real" Saints team. This is not a call for the faint of heart. But the Saints are all kinds of beat up at wide receivers, and it's worth bearing in mind that Jameis Winston has 88 interceptions and 50 fumbles in 77 career games. Just saying.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS
San Francisco 49ers (at Philadelphia)
I could list the Baltimore Ravens here, but I feel like if I have to tell you that defenses facing the Chiefs could be in for a long day that you're beyond my help—especially after Derek Carr smoked Baltimore for 435 passing yards Monday night. The Niners posted a solid score for fantasy managers Sunday that included Dre Greenlaw's interception return for a score. But they also gave up 430 yards of offense and 33 points to the Lions. Jalen Hurts looked great against the Falcons, and his mobility makes him that much more difficult to defend. San Fran is at the back of my top-12 in Week 2. There's more than a little risk with this start.