NFL Funnel Defense Ratings for Week 16: Saints, Steelers Poised for Shootout in the Superdome

Dec 21, 2018 3:17 PM EST
  • Ryan Collinsworth breaks down how you can leverage fantasy football matchups against funnel defenses.
  • The Steelers-Saints matchup present the most potential for a high-scoring game in Week 16

Action Network senior editor Bryan Mears introduced the funnel defense metric last season, and after a brief hiatus, it has made its glorious return.

These ratings use advanced data to analyze situations in which teams are more likely to pass or run than they usually do. For a comprehensive explanation of how Bryan developed this metric, check out his take here.

Let’s start with a brief recap, then dig into the Week 16 ratings and how to leverage them.


Funnel Defense Explained

Funnel defenses are successful at defending either the run or the pass, but not both. Strong funnel defenses are so good against either the run or the pass that they tend to “funnel” offensive play-calling toward their complementary weakness.


Measuring the Strength of a Funnel Defense

Using data to quantify the strength of a defensive funnel is complex. We must weigh several factors simultaneously:

  1. How good is a defense versus the running game and passing game? We employ Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric to measure this.
  2. What is the difference between DVOA production defending the run versus the pass? If the differential is great, it would imply the probability of a funnel.
  3. How good is an offense in the running game and passing game? We can use DVOA here, as well.
  4. What is the difference between offensive DVOA production?
  5. What are the offense’s typical run/pass splits?

Our metric weighs each of these statistical factors and produces weekly matchup-based ratings for each NFL team.

Week 16 Funnel Ratings

Check out our live odds page for the latest lines, spreads, totals and betting percentages.


Potential Shootout Games

By averaging the Pass Funnel ratings for both teams in a given matchup, we can more easily identify games that could favor a passing-game script on both sides. Heavy passing volume presents an opportunity for a potential shootout.

Consider rostering or stacking players from these high-volume games in DFS, and also consider taking the over on games toward the top of this list.

Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints

This epic showdown features the highest Combined Pass Funnel Rating (74.60) on the slate and has the second-highest Vegas total (53). Both teams are coming off poor scoring performances — but crucial wins — in Week 15.

Each squad should view the other as a measuring rod for post-season play, potentially igniting an offensive firestorm in the Superdome. The Saints are also coming off a three-game road trip and will be eager to show out for Who Dat nation.

Targeting the Steelers Offense

The Steelers will bring their fifth-ranked offense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA into hostile territory, looking to take advantage of New Orleans’ 15th-ranked pass defense DVOA. Pittsburgh averages the most pass attempts (42.4) and third-most passing yards (311.9) per game and heavily features star wideouts Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Both receivers could feast against a Saints secondary that has allowed the most fantasy points per game (27.9) to wide receivers this season. However, Brown may draw shadow coverage from stud cornerback Marcus Lattimore. That could enable Smith-Schuster to dominate on the inside.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has notorious career home/road splits, but he has made huge strides to narrow that disparity this season. For his career, Big Ben has averaged 25.8 DraftKings points at home versus 17.1 points on the road. This season, however, he has averaged 22.6 PPR points at home versus 19.9 points on the road.

That should inspire confidence that Roethlisberger has at least somewhat bridged the gap. As a result, he may go overlooked this week and could offer high upside and depressed ownership.

Targeting the Saints Offense

On the other sideline, quarterback Drew Brees also boasts remarkable home/road splits, famously performing at an elite level at home in New Orleans. As always, his favorite receiver targets will be Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, both of whom project favorably in this matchup.

The Saints offense has been highly concentrated on those two passing targets. The likes of Tre’Quan Smith, Ben Watson, Keith Kirkwood and Dan Arnold have been difficult to trust all season.

Nonetheless, among those tertiary options, Smith stands out as a potential high-upside play. Both of his huge fantasy performances this season have come at home. In Week 5 against Washington, he recorded three catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns. In Week 11 against the Eagles, he snared a season-high ten receptions for 157 yards and a touchdown.

This Week’s Top Run Funnel Matchup

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals

This matchup is all about Todd Gurley and David Johnson. The Rams are playing with house money in terms of playoff positioning. Accordingly, they could favor a conservative, run-heavy approach against the overmatched Cardinals.

Meanwhile, Arizona has struggled to find any passing momentum all season behind rookie quarterback Josh Rosen. Johnson remains the lone bright spot in an otherwise anemic offense.

Todd Gurley

Gurley is the most-valuable fantasy player in the league. I don’t have to provide statistical evidence to convince you of that. Nonetheless, he likely draws one of his best defensive matchups of the season against Arizona. Even for Gurley’s lofty standards, this matchup could still generate above-average rushing production.

The Cardinals rank a paltry 24th in run defense DVOA. They have allowed the most rush attempts (31.1) and third-most rushing yards (144.9) per game this season. They also rank dead-last in rushing touchdowns allowed (20).

The mismatch is readily apparent. However, there may still be cause to temper expectations slightly. Gurley has dealt with a knee injury in practice but is probable to play in Week 16. Even if he is fully healthy by game time, there is still notable concern that he may rest — or make an early exit — in preparation for the playoffs. Head coach Sean McVay has been notorious for resting players in the final games of the regular season.

There’s also some evidence that McVay may already be installing systematic rest for Gurley. Through the first seven weeks of the season, Gurley averaged 20.5 rush attempts per game. Since Week 8, that average has fallen to 16.0 attempts per contest. Perhaps that’s simply variance, or even a product of matchup-based game-planning.

On the other hand, it could also be legitimate sand-bagging to try to save Gurley from excessive contact. We’ve witnessed a similar approach taken by NBA stars like LeBron James, who has publicly acknowledged that he limits his physical exertion during the regular season.

He does so in order to save his body for the games that truly matter. In that same vein, it is ubiquitously common for NBA players to rest on the back-end of back-to-backs or towards the end of a long road trip.

Perhaps the forward-thinking McVay is invoking the same strategy with Gurley. Of course, this speculation is by no means legitimate cause to fade Gurley outright. Nonetheless, it could be cause to limit his exposure this week, especially in a stacked main slate.

David Johnson

Johnson has been underwhelming this season — at least compared to the lofty standards he set for himself in 2016. Nonetheless, he has definitively trended upwards since the firing of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy in Week 7.

In his first seven games with McCoy as the Cardinals’ play-caller, Johnson averaged 77 total yards and 14.6 PPR points per game. But, since Byron Leftwich took over coordinating duties, he has averaged 107.1 total yards and 17.0 PPR points per game — even despite lower touchdown volume.

Over that same span with Leftwich, his receiving statistics have increased markedly. He ranks among elite running back company in several receiving categories since Week 9.

  • Ninth in targets (33)
  • Tied for 13th in receptions (22)
  • Ninth in receiving yards (201)
  • Tied for fourth in target share (18%)

Moreover, the absence of Christian Kirk (foot — injured reserve) over the last two weeks has further elevated Johnson’s receiving usage. In his last two games, Johnson’s target share has swelled to 21%, and he has averaged eight targets, 5.5 receptions and 40 receiving yards per game.

The Rams are no pushovers on defense. However, if there’s one way to attack them, it’s definitely on the ground. The Rams rank 28th in rush defense DVOA, are tied for the league lead in yards per carry allowed (5.0) and concede the 12th-most rushing yards per game (123.3) to running backs this season.


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