Action Network senior editor Bryan Mears introduced a funnel defense metric in 2017, which helps identify potential value spots in which units can outperform expectations.
Let’s start with a brief explanation and then examine how to leverage that data in Week 1 of the NFL season.
Funnel Defense Explained
Funnel defenses are either successful at defending the run or the pass, but not both. In essence, the top funnel defenses will “funnel” the opposition towards its statistical weakness.
Oftentimes, these are not defenses that are overwhelmingly strong or weak overall as a team (although sometimes they are). Rather, they are exceptionally strong or weak at one defensive aspect. In 2018, the Houston Texans were very strong against the run but poor against the pass. The Denver Broncos? The exact opposite.
Using data to quantify the weekly strength of a defensive funnel is multi-dimensional. We consider the following factors:
- How effective is a defense against the running game and passing game? We employ Football Outsiders’ DVOA to measure this.
- What is the difference between DVOA production defending the run versus the pass? The larger the differential, the higher the probability of a funnel.
- What are the typical run/pass splits for the offense?
There are other factors you could consider, like defensive run/pass ratio, but those are less predictive. For this piece, we’ll use the three data points listed above.
Note: Since it’s Week 1, we’ll rely on last year’s data. However, changes in personnel and coaching can greatly affect a funnel rating based primarily on the prior season.
Potential Pass Funnels
By averaging pass funnel ratings for both teams in a given matchup, we can easily identify games that are likely to favor a dual passing-game script. Heavy passing volume presents opportunities for more scoring, turnovers and overall action. These games present opportunities for:
- Season-long fantasy plays
- Stacking players in DFS
- Betting the over on point totals for individual teams and game totals
However, it is important to consider multiple factors, especially early in the season, to determine the best funnel matchups. For example, the fifth-highest pass funnel Week 1 team is the Minnesota Vikings (hosting Atlanta). However, this number is misleading since:
- Minnesota changed offensive coordinators from pass-heavy John DeFilippo to run-oriented Kevin Stefanski
- Running back Dalvin Cook is now healthy
Therefore, even though Atlanta (ranked 29th in pass defense DVOA) was poor against the pass last season, the Vikings-Falcons game does not present a strong Week 1 pass funnel opportunity for Minnesota.
On that note, here are the top-two pass funnel opportunities for the opening NFL main slate.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay
This game has the highest average pass funnel rating of any game. Last season, the 49ers defense allowed 27 or more points in 10 games, including a 27-9 loss at Tampa Bay. In that game, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was 29-of-38 for 312 yards and two touchdowns, finishing as the overall QB6.
San Francisco ranked 12th in run defense DVOA but only 27th in pass defense DVOA, indicating a strong pass funnel opportunity. Tampa Bay projects to lean pass-heavy under new head coach Bruce Arians. In their last four seasons under Arians, the Cardinals averaged 593.5 passing attempts per season.
That could lead to big fantasy performances for wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
In last season’s win, Evans totaled eight targets, six receptions and 116 receiving yards. Godwin caught all four of his targets for a modest 42 yards but should inherit more opportunities as a result of vacated targets from DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries.
Last season, San Francisco allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to opponent wide receivers. In each of the past two seasons, the 49ers have ranked much better in run defense DVOA, indicating the mediocre backfield of Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones could find limited success on the ground.
Fortunately for San Francisco, the Buccaneers were simply a bad overall defense, ranking 30th in run defense efficiency and 31st in pass defense efficiency. While Tampa Bay does not profile as a typical pass funnel, in a game with a 49.5 over/under, the 49ers could lean pass-heavy if this game starts to shoot out.
Last season, UDFA quarterback Nick Mullens produced back-to-back 414- and 332-yard performances in Weeks 13 and 14. That bodes well for Jimmy Garoppolo, who should find success behind an offensive line returning all five starters. While a nebulous wide receiving group makes specific projections difficult, Tampa Bay’s poor pass defense will provide opportunities for San Francisco.
The Buccaneers allowed the 10th-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends last season, solidifying George Kittle as a great Week 1 start. The 40 Yards of Gold champion Marquise Goodwin is the best 49ers wide receiver play. In 2018, he ranked sixth with 17.2 yards per reception and fifth with 1.88 yards of separation.
Best Fantasy Plays: Winston, Godwin, Evans (Tampa Bay); Garoppolo, Kittle, Goodwin (San Francisco)
Detroit at Arizona
Similar to Minnesota vs. Atlanta, this game profiles differently than the numbers would indicate, especially for the Lions.
Arizona has the second-highest Week 1 pass funnel rating and faces a Detroit defense that was second-worst against the pass last season. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury will lean pass-heavy in his “Air Raid” offense, providing volume for Kyler Murray, Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald and dynamic running back David Johnson.
While the Cardinals were eighth-best against the pass last season, they are decimated in their secondary for Week 1.
If you can’t play Matt Stafford Week 1, then you can’t play him all season. https://t.co/9BJuCuJL4u
— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) August 31, 2019
There will be opportunities for Detroit playmakers Matthew Stafford, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, especially because the Cardinals were also second-best at limiting opposing tight ends in 2018. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell always favors the run, but he will likely need to pass out of necessity to win a road game in Arizona.
Best Fantasy Plays: Murray, D. Johnson, Kirk, Fitzgerald (Arizona); Stafford, K. Johnson, Golladay, M. Jones (Detroit)
Potential Run Funnels
Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are the biggest Week 1 favorite (-9.5) at home against the Bengals. This game profiles as the heaviest rushing game on the schedule.
Seattle offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer always wants to establish the run and will do so on the shoulders of Chris Carson. The third-year running back finished fifth in rushing last season in only 14 games. Schottenheimer has already said they hope to get Carson more targets in the passing game, making him the clear three-down focus on the ground. Seattle boasts the second-highest run funnel Week 1 rating.
The Seahawks are also dealing with an injury-ravaged receiving group. Their depth chart supports a strong run-heavy game script.
A stab at SEA’s WR depth chart:
1. Tyler Lockett
2. DK Metcalf (Q, knee surgery)
3. David Moore (out, shoulder)
4. John Ursua (7th-rd rookie)
5. Gary Jennings (4th-rd rookie)
6. Malik Turner (2018 UDFA)
— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 31, 2019
On the other side, Cincinnati faces many of the same concerns as Seattle, with All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green recovering from ankle surgery. The Bengals’ run potential is promising, especially against a Seattle defense that was only 17th-best against the run last year.
New head coach Zac Taylor is from the Sean McVay coaching tree, having just served as the Rams quarterback coach. The Rams passed on 57% of their plays last year, which is actually less than the Bengals’ mark (62%). Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon is an enticing, under-the-radar Week 1 play.
The Seahawks have the benefit of one of the NFL’s best home-field advantages, finishing 6-2 last year. Combining the funnel rating, coaching preference and personnel injuries, Seattle is the strongest run funnel offense in Week 1.
Best Fantasy Plays: Chris Carson (Seattle); Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard (Cincinnati)
Individual Team Run Funnels
- Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins
The Ravens have the fourth-largest team run funnel rating behind Seattle. Mark Ingram, Justice Hill and Lamar Jackson should all feast against a Dolphins team that ranked 24th in run defense efficiency. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman will ensure the Ravens lead the league in rushing attempts again.
- Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns
The Titans will rely on running back Derrick Henry to attack a Cleveland defense that was eighth-worst against the run in 2018. Tennessee’s run funnel rating is the highest of any team in Week 1. Per PlayerProfiler, Henry faced an average of 7.4 defenders in the box, the highest of any running back last season. Regardless of how the Browns defensive front plays, the Titans are determined to run the football.
- Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
The Eagles’ top-ranked offensive line will cause a problem for Washington’s 28th-worst run defense. The duo of bruiser Jordan Howard and athletic rookie Miles Sanders could reward fantasy owners in Week 1.
Pictured: Mike Evans and Chris Godwin
Photo credit: USAToday Sports