With a healthy dash of context, it could be helpful -- actionable, even -- to know how a defense is being attacked.
Are enemy offenses peppering the middle of the field against a certain defense, leading to a glut of tight end opportunity? Are wide receivers having their way against a defense, commanding a massive target share? Are running backs seeing plenty of dump off opportunities against a particular defense?
These are questions I’ll address in this space during the regular season, examining which positions are seeing the most opportunity against a certain defense in an exercise that might serve as the tiebreaker in your weekly agonizing start-sit decisions.
With every passing week, our understanding of how offenses are going after defenses should improve. Context will be key, as a bunch of targets to Travis Kelce doesn’t mean Tyler Eifert is going to see the same kind of opportunity against the same defense. If only it were that easy.
Irv Smith (MIN) vs. Chicago
Smith as a plug-and-play Week 15 option hinges somewhat on Kyle Rudolph’s availability after he missed last week with a foot injury. Smith didn’t play a full complement of snaps against the Bucs, but he came down with four of four targets for 63 yards and a touchdown against Tampa.
Before Smith was sidelined with a groin injury for much of late November and early December, he was running more pass routes and seeing more targets than Rudolph. That probably means Rudolph being active this week against Chicago doesn’t sink Smith’s prospects.
Tight ends have seen 24.83 percent of the targets against the Bears this season, the second highest rate in the league behind only the Bengals (Eric Ebron is again a top play this week against Cincinnati). The Panthers and Bills are the only teams that have allowed more tight end receptions than the Bears in 2020, and only the Jets have given up more tight end touchdowns.
Even in a down week for tight ends against Chicago, Jordan Akins and Darren Fells in Week 14 combined for seven targets. Akins dropped an easy touchdown too. The week prior, Detroit tight ends -- led by T.J. Hockenson -- combined for eight catches on 13 targets against the Bears. In Week 13, Green Bay tight ends saw ten targets, catching eight for 88 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Rudolph and Tyler Conklin caught six balls for 74 yards in Week 10 against the Bears, with Smith sidelined. You get the idea: Chicago is being gouged by enemy tight ends.
The hope here is that Smith -- another week recovered from that nagging groin issue -- runs more than the 17 routes he ran in Week 14 against Tampa. That should put him in an ideal spot to exploit a matchup against a Bears Defense that’s been torched by tight ends for much of the season’s second half.
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Noah Fant (DEN) vs. Buffalo
Fant, who is uncertain for this week with some kind of non-COVID illness, would be a borderline top option if he’s able to suit up against the Bills. Fant throws up a lot, according to fellow Denver tight end Nick Vanett. Hopefully he can stop vomiting by the weekend.
In touting Eric Ebron against these same Bills in Week 14, I did not anticipate the collapse of the entire Pittsburgh offense in a critical prime time matchup. That offensive letdown -- and a couple costly drops by Ebron -- sunk his prospects in a spectacular matchup. He ended up catching two of five targets for 30 yards.
Buffalo remains an objective great tight end matchup, allowing a 23.5 percent target share to the position -- the third highest rate in the league. Even after last week’s Ebron debacle, tight ends are averaging 8.16 targets per game against Buffalo. The Bills, meanwhile, allow the ninth lowest target share to opposing receivers.