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Splitsville: Dialing down Dez

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Dallas hasn't had many deep thoughts about Dez Bryant this season. (USAT)

“Splitsville” this year replaced the “Matchup Decider” we did here for years. Some of you have contacted me on Twitter (@michaelsalfino) and said you missed it. So let’s begin this week by looking at the defenses this year when it comes to the fantasy football points they allow.

Teams that have given up the most passing points to QBs (you can extrapolate WR matchups from there): Packers (30.2 points per game), Eagles (28.8), Cowboys (28.2), Vikings (27.8), Redskins (27.4), Chargers (27.1), Falcons (27.1), Giants (26.1), Rams (25.7) and Dolphins (24.3).

Toughest fantasy football defenses for matchup purposes against your passing-game skill players measured the same way: Colts (10), Seahawks (10.6), Chiefs (11.4), Saints (12.1), Browns (12.1), Panthers (13.3), Texans (15.1), Lions (15.4), Niners (15.5) and Patriots (15.6).

Looking at run defenses, the worst matchups for running backs have been: Cowboys (7.8), Cardinals (9.0), Bucs (9.4), Jets (9.4), Panthers (11.3), Patriots (12.0), Ravens (12.2), Falcons (12.2), Dolphins (12.9), Titans (12.9) and Bengals (12.9).

Easiest run defenses to play against: Jaguars (22.4), Steelers (21.3), Rams (20.9), Redskins (20.2), Niners (19.9), Lions (18.6), Giants (18.3), Eagles (16.7), Colts (16.7) and Vikings (16.5).

Key takeaway: San Francisco no longer seems to be a defense to worry about when you’re picking running back matchups.

A common fantasy football meme is that the Steelers can’t run block, so who really cares who their running back is. That is simply untrue, according to the great ProFootballFocus, which grades every lineman on every run snap. The Steelers line grades out at No. 10, ahead of teams like the 49ers, Chiefs, Vikings, Lions and Redskins.

The best run-blocking environments for backs in order are: Eagles, Chargers, Patriots, Panthers, Packers, Titans, Texans, Bengals, Broncos and Steelers.

The worst run-blocking lines (worst first): Bills, Jaguars, Ravens, Jets (if someone says that Bilal Powell is a stiff to me again, I’ll scream; he’d doing it on his own), Seahawks, Rams, Giants, Saints, Raiders and Dolphins.

We’re down to eight QBs with YPAs over 8.0, which brings with it an average TD rate of about 30 scoring strikes per 500 passes. They are: Peyton Manning (9.4), Michael Vick (9.2), Aaron Rodgers (8.7), Drew Brees (8.6), Philip Rivers (8.4), Russell Wilson (8.2), Matthew Stafford (8.1), Geno Smith (8.0). I know: Geno Smith? But he’s No. 1 right now in average pass length on completions, though that’s also a source of his interception woes.

What about the quarterbacks who, presumably through better accuracy and timing or maybe because they have the most explosive running receivers, generate the highest yards after catch: Vick (8.38), Stafford (7.48), Rodgers (6.43), Manning (6.35), Matt Ryan (6.17), Terrelle Pryor (6.15), Brees (6.14). Least YAC: Cam Newton (3.21), Jake Locker (3.3), Jay Cutler (3.36), Matt Schaub (3.72), Carson Palmer (3.9), Tony Romo (4.11), Rivers (4.19) and Wilson (4.71).

Which teams utilize the most players on offense (frustrating for fantasy football) and which teams the least (better for projections, presumably)? The fewest: Packers (just 26 unique offensive 11-man lineups according to the NFL), Eagles (29), Bears (34), Bills (40), Broncos (40), Bengals (44), Dolphins (44) and Browns (45). The most unique combinations: Seahawks (106), Raiders (97), Saints (95), Steelers (85, but probably will come down now with more certainty at running back), Chiefs (84), Jets (83), Colts (83) and Falcons (80).

Looking at this another way, the range of snaps with the most common lineup ranges from the Jaguars (6.3 percent) to the Eagles (52.8 percent).

Chris Johnson has played a remarkable 68 straight games at RB - among starters, No. 2 currently (but probably not for long) is C.J. Spiller at 41.

There was a lot of talk about the Eagles generating so much more fantasy football scoring because all of the plays they’d be running with the hurry-up/no-huddle. An analyst I respect estimated the Eagles would threaten the 100-plays-per-game mark. But the Eagles have run just 66.75 plays per game so far, 10th most. Still, it’s useful to know which teams at least play with a pace that’s more conducive to running more plays and which ones do not. Of course, turnovers (and lack of them) factor into this, too -- as does the shut-down ability of the team’s defenses.

Top plays per game: Texans (75.5), Bills (72) Patriots (71.8). Broncos (71), Browns (70). Browns? Yes, this is not a misprint. The Jets are another shocking team with a seventh-most 69.

Least plays per game: Giants (59.8), Raiders (60), Niners (61), Dolphins (61), Vikings (61.75), Steelers (62.5), Cowboys (62.5), Cardinals (62.5). It can’t be mostly turnovers since the Jets and Giants turn over the ball at about the same rate. Of course, the Jets defense is much better than Big Blue’s.

Dez Bryant owners will not like that the Cowboys are 30th with four passes to the deep left sideline and 30th with five deep right. But deep middle to tackle-like Jason Witten? They’re down with that: seven plays ranks 12th. Last year, to Dez’s (primarily) right side, the Cowboys had a fifth-most 49 plays (current pace is 20).

More bizarrely, this year when the Cowboys do throw deep left or right their average gain is elite: top-ranked 21.25 yards to the left and third-best 20.2 yards to the right.

Generally, the deep sideline throw is the most underutilized NFL play. While odds of completion are low, the interference is always in play, especially on an underthrow. And the interception risk is extremely low because if the defensive backs could catch these passes, they’d be wide receivers.

Staying with deep passing, Newton (19.3%), EJ Manuel (16.9%), Ben Roethlisberger (16.7%), Cutler (16.2%), Flacco (15.4%) and Smith (15.4%) throw the highest percentage of passes 20-plus yards downfield.

The lowest percentage of deep throws is by Robert Griffin III (8.8%), Peyton Manning (9.0%), Tom Brady (10.8%), Palmer (11.2%), Rivers (12.0%) and Brees (12.7%).

Maybe the way to defend Peyton is to force him to do what he does not seem that eager/able to do, throw deep.
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