Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: David Johnson
I’ll be leveraging my experience as a fantasy analyst with a statistics background and a high school football coach to identify aspects of one matchup every week that you can take advantage of while setting your fantasy football lineups and/or placing bets on the upcoming slate.
This week we’re focusing on Sunday’s matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs.
David Johnson’s Early-Season Disappointment
Johnson enjoyed a fantastic 2016 season, carrying the ball close to 300 times and catching 80 passes. He totaled north of 2,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns. Even after losing his 2017 season to injury, it was expected that Johnson would come right out and dominate again in 2018. He was routinely a top three selection in fantasy drafts.
But that isn’t what happened.
Through the first seven games of the season, Johnson was averaging only 3.2 yards per carry. He was on pace for a pedestrian 1,145 yards — only a little more than half of what he had in 2016.
Fantasy owners were also discouraged. Johnson hadn’t been a total waste with an average of 15.2 PPR points per game through seven weeks, but it still ranked outside of the top 12 at the position.
For a player taken so early in drafts, Johnson was an absolute let down.
Some of Johnson’s struggles can be attributed to former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Johnson owned only a 14% target share and 0.9 average depth of target through seven games. For context, in 2016 under Bruce Arians, Johnson was targeted 18% of the time and saw those targets deeper down the field. His aDOT of 4.7 was the highest in the league for any running back with at least 20 targets.
The Cardinals were also moving at a league-worst pace under McCoy, running only 52.6 plays per game. Overall, McCoy failed to create an environment conducive to Johnson’s success. This, along with averaging only 13.1 points per game, led to McCoy’s termination after Week 7.
McCoy’s replacement, Byron Leftwich, had been the team’s quarterbacks coach since last season and had spent time with Arians in Pittsburgh in his final stop as a player.
Early returns on Leftwhich have been positive.
The Cardinals ran 64 plays in his first game as the offensive coordinator (the league average is 63.7) and managed 1.55 points per drive, which was far higher than the 0.95 they averaged through the first seven games.
Johnson missed some time in that first game with Leftwich due to injury, but still managed to score 14 PPR points. (DJ is expected to be fully healthy for Week 10.)
More importantly, Leftwich made it a priority to get Johnson the ball in space, deploying an effective screen game featuring the running back. Johnson even got the ball on a screen from out wide. Leftwich and the Cardinals likely spent the bye week revamping the offense as they saw fit.
Why the Chiefs Are Johnson’s Ideal Matchup
The Chiefs play loads of man coverage as part of Bob Sutton’s scheme. They were first in man coverage rate in 2017 and second in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. Kansas City runs a ton of Cover 1, specifically, which is man coverage with a free safety.
In Cover 1, linebackers are often responsible for covering the opposing running back. Kansas City’s linebackers have been terrible in coverage this season. Middle linebackers Reggie Ragland and Anthony Hitchens rank outside the top 60 in coverage for PFF qualifiers at the position, and edge defenders Dee Ford and Breeland Speaks rank outside the top 70.
This has manifested itself routinely in fantasy production.
The Chiefs have allowed the second-most receptions and the most receiving yards to opposing running backs to go along with roughly 34 PPR points per game, the most in the NFL.
Johnson is one of the most prolific receiving backs in the NFL. His career 7.3 yards per target ranks fourth among all running backs since 2014 with at least 100 targets. And Duke Johnson, sixth on that list, just dusted the Chiefs for nine catches, 78 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
Play David Johnson, but Don’t Back His Team
As a 16.5-point underdog to the Chiefs as of writing (see live odds here), expect the Cardinals to do plenty of passing.
Coming off the bye, the offensive coaching staff should have new plans in place to get Johnson the ball as a receiver. He’s less than $7,000 on both DraftKings and FanDuel, making him a great DFS play this weekend.
However, if you’re looking to bet this game, your money should be on the Chiefs.
Favorites facing opponents coming off 14 days rest are 98-85-5 against the spread since 2004, good for a 4.7% return on investment according to Bet Labs.