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Getting Defensive

Getting Defensive: Week 1

by Gary Davenport
Updated On: September 9, 2020, 6:14 pm ET

Well folks, here we go again.

After an offseason that was both the weirdest in memory and seemed to take 11 years, we're only a couple of days away from the NFL season opener between the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs—and that means another season of fantasy football.

Halle-freaking-lujah.

Over the past several weeks, fantasy draft season has been in overdrive—thousands of leagues constructed the framework for the season to come. Now that that's finished, the real work begins—putting together the best starting lineup possible and getting closer to a fantasy playoff berth one win at a time.

Great, now I'm nervous.

And for the third year (I think—what year is this?) for me here at Rotoworld, that means it's time for another season of Getting Defensive.

The concept is simple (obviously, since I'm writing it)—every week during the season I examine the fantasy landscape and point out some sure-fire (hopefully) winners among team defenses, some streaming options that should be on the waiver wire in many leagues and a few team defenses that are potentially best left alone.

This early in the season, it's admittedly a speculative exercise. A lot can change in the NFL from one year to the next, and what seems like a great matchup based on last year's data can look terrible by the second week of October.

But we have to play the hand we're dealt. So, let's get to sorting through the D/ST options for the first weekend of the 2020 NFL season—beginning with a high-end fantasy defense that opens the year at home with a matchup that wouldn't be tastier if it was soaked in gravy.

 

THE NO-DOUBTERS

Buffalo Bills (vs. New York Jets)

The Bills made the playoffs for the second time in three seasons last year largely because of a defense that was third in the NFL in yards allowed, second in the league in points allowed, fourth against the pass, ninth in sacks and ninth in takeaways. Despite all those positive statistics, the Bills were a middle of the pack fantasy defense, but after some offseason improvements the team enters 2020 ready to make some fantasy noise. It won't take long for the party to start, either—Sunday the Bills host a Jets team that is already dealing with injuries in the passing game. Last season, that same Jets team allowed the most fantasy points per game in the league to team defenses.

Pittsburgh Steelers (at New York Giants)

The 2019 season was a forgettable one as a whole for the Steelers. But the defense was worth remembering. The Steelers paced the NFL with 54 sacks. Pittsburgh also had more takeaways (38) than any team in the league. AS a result, the Steelers were also right at the top of the league in fantasy points among defenses. If the pass-catchers for the New York Giants are healthy in 2020 (they are at the moment), the Giants should be better on offense and a tougher matchup than the team that surrendered the seventh-most fantasy points to defenses in 2019. But that doesn't mean they aren't still an offense to target—especially given Pittsburgh's proclivity for making teams pay for miscues.

San Francisco 49ers (vs. Arizona Cardinals)

The 49ers were one of the first team defenses selected in fantasy drafts this summer, and with good reason—the Niners led the NFC in pass defense, ranked sixth in the league in sacks, sixth in takeaways and well inside the top five in most fantasy scoring systems. The Arizona Cardinals have been something of an offseason darling in 2020 and aren't likely to be as favorable a fantasy matchup as the team last year that gave up the 12th-most fantasy points per game to defenses. But the last time these teams met, the Niners held Arizona under 300 total yards, sacked Kyler Murray four times, forced a pair of turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown.

Baltimore Ravens (vs. Cleveland Browns)

Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Offense stole most of the headlines during last year's 14-2 campaign, but the defense wasn't exactly cat food—Baltimore was fourth in total defense, seventh in takeaways and finished the season well inside the top-10 in most fantasy scoring systems. The Ravens bolstered that defense in a big way in the offseason with the addition of veteran defensive end Calais Campbell and rookie linebacker Patrick Queen, and to kick off the season the Ravens draw a Cleveland Browns squad that was seventh in the NFL in giveaways in 2019. The smart money says the Ravens should at least finish in the back half of the top-10 in Week 1.

Chicago Bears (at Detroit Lions)

Ask many fantasy managers about the Bears Defense in 2019, and you'll likely get a few dirty looks—after pacing the league in fantasy points by a sizable margin, the Bears fell off significantly in just about every category. However, when it comes to fantasy defenses a short memory is a good thing. This remains a team that sports talent at all three levels—including a former Defensive Player of the Year in Khalil Mack. A team that gets a healthy Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan back in 2020. And a Bears team that opens the season against a Lions team that won three games in 2019. The Bears aren't necessarily an every-week must-start in 2020. But they are worth rolling out in Week 1.

New England Patriots (vs. Miami Dolphins)

Given that the New England Patriots were far and away the No. 1 fantasy defense in 2019, it might seem odd to see them this far down the list. In fact, over the first half of last season, the Pats weren't just the No.1 defense - they were a top-10 option overall. That's unheard of in most leagues. But that was before the Patriots were decimated first by free agency and then by player opt-outs. You quite literally can't count the number of starters the Pats lost on one hand. Bill Belichick is as good a defensive coach as has ever yelled at anyone in the NFL, and the Dolphins were fifth in fantasy points allowed to team defenses in 2019. But this one is less slam dunk and more pull the trigger and hope.

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STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!

Indianapolis Colts (at Jacksonville Jaguars)

The Colts may well have the pieces in place for a sneaky good defense. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner should help take some pressure off of Justin Houston up front. In just two seasons Darius Leonard has become one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league. And the secondary is both deep and talented. But fantasy managers should be all over the Colts in Week 1 less because of who they have and more because of who they are playing. Simply put, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a dumpster fire—arguably the least-talented team in the league. Savvy fantasy managers would be well-served to target Jacksonville's opponents all season long—ala the Jets and Dolphins a year ago.

Los Angeles Chargers (at Cincinnati Bengals)

There's a fair amount of reluctance surrounding the Chargers Defense in 2020—some of it justified. The Tyrod Taylor-led offense probably isn't going to do the defense any favors. The loss of safety Derwin James to yet another season-ending injury was a blow. And the team's Week 1 matchup in Cincinnati isn't as good as it first appears—the Bengals have an improved offensive line, a shiny new quarterback in Joe Burrow and the team gets veteran wideout A.J. Green. However, just because the Bengals aren't going to be 2-14 terrible doesn't mean they will be good. The Chargers still have Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and a solid stable of cornerbacks.

Philadelphia Eagles (at Washington Football Team)

To be fair, the Eagles aren't without issues on the defensive side of the ball as the 2020 season dawns. A defensive line that posted an average 43 sacks in 2019 is nicked up. The linebacker group consists of a bunch of unproven young players. The secondary added a veteran corner in Darius Slay but lost their leader in safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the problems the Eagles face on defense are nothing compared to Washington's issues on offense. Washington has a young quarterback who struggled as a rookie, exactly zero proven running backs (ok, Peyton Barber might be half of one) and a pass-catching corps that consists of Terry McLaurin and…yeah. Washington was sixth in fantasy points given up to defenses in 2019—and they may well be worse in 2020.

Denver Broncos (vs. Tennessee Titans)

Frankly, just about everything I'm about to say about the Titans also applies to other slice of bread in this streamer sandwich—by which I mean the Titans. Both teams ranked in the teens in fantasy points last year defensively. Both teams face offenses that have some talent but aren't exactly the 2013 Broncos either. The Broncos have better personnel on the edge in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb and get the benefit of playing at home (if there is one in 2020), so if picking between the two Denver is likely the better play. But it wouldn't be at all surprising to see both teams sneak into the back of the top-12 in what has the makings of a low-scoring Week 1 finale.

Las Vegas Raiders (at Carolina Panthers)

The Las Vegas Raiders were admittedly not a good defensive football team in 2019—the team allowed over 350 yards per game and tallied the third-fewest fantasy points in the league. But if you're in a deep league or you're a dedicated streamer, consider the new and improved Raiders Defense in Week 1. The Raiders overhauled the LB corps in the offseason and added young talent in the secondary. More importantly, the Raiders open the season against a Carolina Panthers team that's not expected to be especially competitive in 2020. Carolina might not be a top-five fantasy matchup again under Teddy Bridgewater, but they aren't going to morph into Drew Brees and the Saints, either.

 

CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS

Minnesota Vikings (vs. Green Bay Packers)

The Vikings pulled off one of the bigger coups of the past several weeks in the NFL, landing talented edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville for what amounts to a bag of magic beans. Paired with Danielle Hunter, that gives the Vikes a great edge-rushing duo—and it may have shifted the balance of power in the NFC North. But even if the Vikings win this important divisional matchup in Week 1, the odds of a big fantasy day defensively aren't good. The Packers have long been a poor matchup for team defenses due to Aaron Rodgers' maddening propensity to not screw up—last year Green Bay allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points to the position.

Los Angeles Rams (vs. Dallas Cowboys)

Life comes at you fast in the NFL. Just ask the Los Angeles Rams. While the Rams suffered through a disappointing 2019 season that saw the team miss the playoffs, the Rams were still a top-five fantasy defense. But the personnel exodus that started last year kicked into overdrive in 2020. Leading tackler Cory Littleton is gone. So are edge-rushers Clay Matthews and Dante Fowler. There are still perennial Pro Bowlers in L.A. in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, but the Rams Defense feels headed for a backstep in 2020. And given that the Rams draw a Cowboys team in Week 1 that led the NFL in total offense last year and allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points to defenses, said backstep will likely take its first step this weekend.

Gary Davenport

Gary Davenport is a Senior Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks, an NFL and Fantasy Football Analyst at Bleacher Report and a contributing author and Associate Editor at Football Diehards. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Gary was the winner of the 2017 and 2019 FSWA awards for Football Writer of the Year. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.