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Week 2 Defense (DEF) Streamers and Starts - 2021 Fantasy Tiers, Rankings

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What a Week 1. As we've come to expect from the NFL, we saw the unexpected. We had some young teams (like the Eagles) break out and some veteran teams (like the Packers) fall short. However, it's important that we keep our heads on straight. It was only one week and, barring injury, that shouldn't cause us to change months of analysis and research. However, Week 1 did solidify my main argument when choosing a defense: DON'T ELEVATE A BAD DEFENSE BECAUSE OF A GOOD MATCHUP.

I begged you to stay away from Jacksonville. I urged you in writing and in my weekly video series. We talked about Tyrod Taylor not taking bad chances, but, mainly, we talked about Jacksonville simply not being a strong defensive unit. They proved that this week, finishing with -3 points, which was good for 31st overall. On the other hand, the 49ers defense weathered a late Detroit scoring barrage and still finished as the 4th-ranked defense (using FantasyPros scoring) because the talent of the unit allowed them to create opportunities for sacks and points.

Overall, we finished with four of the top-10 defenses correctly chosen, which is not the best showing. However, as we begin to learn more about each team, both offensively and defensively, I expect that number to climb.

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Picking The Right Defenses

Just a quick recap of my general philosophy and what we discussed at length last year: when choosing a defense, you want to look for defenses that get consistent pressure and takeaways. Sacks and turnovers are more valuable for fantasy defense than preventing yardage and even, to a certain extent, preventing points.  If a defense allows a stingy yards per play number, that's great and I'll cite some of those numbers below - but they better also be able to get into the backfield or force turnovers, or else it won't really matter in the long run.

Essentially, we need to move away from points against as being the most important factor in choosing a fantasy defense. Last season, NFL offenses gained 359 yards per game and scored 12,692 points or 24.8 points per game, which is the most in the Super Bowl era.

With offenses putting up video game numbers, it means that we can't continue to judge a defense solely by the number of points they allow or the number of yards they give up. Those numbers will naturally be higher than we're used to. Instead, we need to look for which offensive lines are truly weak points and which defenses will either be blitz-heavy or get consistent pressure with their pass rush. These are all incredibly important pieces of information in determining which defenses to play in any given week.

Once we get a few weeks into the season, we will also be able to identify the offenses that we want to attack based on performance. As I mentioned above, attacking these teams doesn't always work and you don't want to elevate a bad defense too far just because they get one of those teams as an opponent; however, it is a key factor to keep in mind when making your decision.

Starting the right defense every week can be a difference-maker, so remember to check back here during the week as I will make updates once we get more information on some of these injuries and also get a better sense of the weather for the game.

Week 1 Defenses To Start and Stream: Tiered Rankings

Returning for this year: Confidence Ratings (out of 15) - Since every league's DST scoring is different, projections don't always make a ton of sense. The confidence rating is a guideline for how much more I like one team over another instead of just a point projection. A zero means "do not start," then the confidence rises from there. Typically the top three tiers will be DSTs you should target, with Tier 4 being options in deep leagues, and Tier 5 being desperation plays or above-average defenses in horrendous matchups.

New this year: DOWN (Defenses of Weekly Note) Rankings. This is my defensive rankings formula based on the stats that I think are most conducive to fantasy success. You can see the full leaderboard and formula explanation here. It's important to clarify that the DOWN rankings ARE NOT to be treated as weekly rankings and probably won't stabilize until a few weeks into the season so don't overreact to them after one week. DOWN is meant to tell us who the best fantasy defenses are, but depending on the matchup, they might be ranked differently in a given week. That's why we have this column where I will be breaking down my rankings for each week and an explanation of why I have the defenses ranked the way I do. The rankings will take into account their DOWN ranking, opponent, injuries, weather, etc., but I hope my explanation will help make sense of each ranking.

Tier 1 Defenses

If the Houston Texans can finish as the 9th-ranked defense against the Jacksonville Jaguars, then imagine what the Broncos can do. Yes, the New York Giants are not an explosive offense in their own right but Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard exceed the talent of any of the Jaguars' skill position players, and the Giants' offensive line is pretty similar in its lack of production to the Jaguars' line. So when I see that the Broncos gave up on 314 total yards to the Giants, were 11th in the league in yards per play allowed, and finished as the 7th-ranked defense in Week 1, I'm feeling pretty confident that they can do even better against the Jaguars. The Giants used a quick hit offense to keep the Broncos pass rush from getting to Daniel Jones too much, but I expect the Broncos to at least match the two sacks they had in Week 1 and turn Trevor Lawrence over once or twice en route to pushing for a double-digit fantasy day.

Sure, it wasn't a great first game for Washington, finishing tied for 12th in Week 1 rankings while allowing 424 yards and two offensive touchdowns to the Chargers. However, the Chargers are a pretty solid offense, and Washington was still able to notch two sacks and two turnovers against Justin Herbert and company. They are now going to get a much easier opponent in Daniel Jones and the Giants. Saquon Barkley only had 50% of the Giants' rush share in Week 1, and I still expect him to split some of the work with Devontae Booker, which limits the explosive upside of the Giants offense. Jones also still demonstrates an ability to make boneheaded turnovers, so even though I mentioned the Giants having some strong offensive weapons, they are not, as a whole, an offense I am scared of. I think Washington should be in the backfield often and can surpass the effort Denver put up against the Giants on Sunday.

The Steelers defense absolutely shut down an explosive Bills offense on Sunday, limiting Josh Allen and company to 16 points while getting in the backfield with ease all afternoon. The Steelers had three sacks but also forced six holding penalties and had Josh Allen uncomfortable in the pocket all game. Despite questions about their secondary, they also schemed perfectly to limit big plays from Stefon Diggs and generally looked like one of the NFL's elite defenses. T.J. Watt and the rest of the defense will get an easier test this week against the Raiders. While the Bills offensive line isn't great itself, it's a step up from the Raiders offensive line, which features a rookie right tackle in Alex Leatherwood, who will be asked to handle Watt. I like Darren Waller and Bryan Edwards and some of the pieces of this Raiders offense, but I think Pittsburgh is going to be too physical at the line of scrimmage, and I expect the Las Vegas offense to have a much difficult time than they did on Monday night, when they allowed three sacks and threw one interception in a miraculous come-from-behind win over Baltimore.

The Patriots played a pretty solid defensive game on Sunday, holding Miami to 259 yards of total offense and notching two sacks. They also forced an interception, allowing them to finish tied for 12th in Week 1 DST rankings. All in all, a solid showing, but nothing spectacular. However, we also just watched the Jets' offensive line get abused by the Carolina Panthers en route to allowing six sacks. What's worse for New York, their best offensive lineman, Mekhi Bechton, suffered a knee sprain and will likely miss a few weeks. That should cause the Patriots to be licking their chops. I'm not sure how good the Patriots defense will truly be when all is said and done, but I think they're on par with a Panthers team that finished 6th in the rankings after Week 1, so let's put the Patriots just above there for Week 2.

#Jets' QB, Zach Wilson was sacked four times in 13 pass plays after Mekhi Becton left the game with a dislocated knee cap👀

— Context Matters (@dwainmcfarland) September 14, 2021

The Browns didn't have a great fantasy day in Week 1, but that can be expected when you're playing Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense. I'm almost willing to throw Week 1 fully out the window when discussing the Browns. They were a top-10 unit last season in terms of creating turnovers, but my optimism comes from the moves they made in the offseason. Since the end of last season, Cleveland has signed Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson, John Johnson, Anthony Walker, Ronnie Harrison Jr., and Troy Hill to add to a defense that already features some elite talent in Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward. I expect this defense to really shine against a porous offensive line in Houston, and even if Tyrod Taylor can escape some sacks, I don't envision this offense being nearly as productive against the stingy unit Cleveland has put together.

Tier 2 Defenses

We start tier two off with a team many might expect to see in the first tier. The Rams were an elite defense last year and finished tied for 7th in Week 1 with a strong performance against the Bears. They held Allen Robinson to 35 yards and allowed only 322 total yards of offense while sacking Andy Dalton three times. However, they also allowed David Montgomery to rush for 108 yards and gave up some big holes in the running game at times. That could be a problem with Jonathan Taylor and the Colts' tremendous offensive line on tap next. I don't expect Aaron Donald and the Rams to dominate the line of scrimmage as much as they usually do, which will limit sack opportunities and fantasy upside. I'm also not scared of Carson Wentz and the Colts' passing offense, so the Rams are still a strong play this week, but I think they lack the upside of the tier one defenses.

The Bucs would historically be ranked higher, but they did struggle to contain a strong Cowboys offense last week and get another challenge against the Falcons. Sure, this is not the same Falcons offense as two or three years ago but Matt Ryan and Calvin Ridley can still do damage against opposing defenses, and Kyle Pitts looked every bit of the potential matchup problem he was reported to be. The Falcons also gave up three sacks to the Eagles and only put up 260 total yards of offense, so this is not a team without warts. I think people were too down on the Eagles coming into the season, especially as a fantasy defense, but I also think this is a Falcons offense that can be beaten upfront. Given the Bucs' talent on the defensive line, I expect them to have a strong showing here. Just remember that this Bucs defense gave up a lot of big plays last year, in addition to doing it again in Week 1. I know the dominant performance in the Super Bowl is fresh in our memories, but they also had their fair share of letdown weeks last season, so this is not an infallible unit.

The Saints' defense just handled the Packers' offense, yet people don't seem to want to give them respect in the rankings. I covered them as one of my draft targets, saying, "They finished as the sixth-ranked unit last season using my formula, primarily because they were eighth in drives that ended in a turnover, eighth in sacks, and sixth in pressure rate. This is a consistently opportunistic defense that puts pressure on the opposing offense throughout an entire game, which often leads to mistakes and fantasy points." On Sunday, they had two sacks, turned the Packers over three times, and limited Aaron Rodgers and a generally explosive offense to 186 yards. I don't think that happens more than twice if these teams play ten times, but it shows what this Saints defense is capable of. They will have their hands full again on Sunday with Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Robby Anderson, but I expect them to overmatch the Panthers' offensive line and put a lot of pressure on Sam Darnold, which has historically led to some really positive fantasy defense performances.

Well, the Cardinals were the top defense in Week 1, so they certainly got our attention. I covered them as one of my sleeper defenses in the preseason, suggesting that "The Cardinals' scheme is conducive to sacks, as they finished fifth in the NFL with 48 last year, again, BEFORE adding Watt to pair with Chandler Jones, who only was able to play five games for the Cardinals in 2020." The Cardinals then went out and has six sacks against an average Titans offensive line and won't face much of an upgrade in the Vikings' unit. I remain concerned about Arizona's secondary, which could be a problem against Justin Jefferson and Adam Theilen, but if they are going to put that much pressure on the quarterback, they are going to create chaos, racking up turnovers and fantasy points in the process. I may need to see another week or two of this to really think they are a top-tier fantasy defense, but I'm certainly buying in on them as a top-10 unit already.

Tier 3 Defenses

The Bills defense may have finished outside the top-20 in fantasy production in Week 1, but if you watched the game, you know how strong the defense's performance was. The Bills put a lot of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger early, forcing the Steelers to go back to the quick-release passing game they implemented last year. The Bills also completely took away Najee Harris and the Pittsburgh running attack, which is often their team identity. However, with the Bills offense doing nothing, the defense wore down a bit late in the game, but the Steelers' only offensive touchdown came on a drive in which Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool had to make incredible catches to gain yards and score. The Miami Dolphins are a team moving in the right direction, but they don't have the wide receivers that Pittsburgh does and their offensive line has similar issues. I expect the Bills to come out ready to play on Sunday and secure a top-10 defensive effort.

The Ravens want to run the ball. We all know that. So when you take away their top two running backs due to injury, you dull the teeth of the offense a bit. Lamar Jackson is still an obvious threat, but I'm not so sure this Ravens offense is any more dangerous than the Browns offense that the Chiefs just played. Considering the Chiefs finished tied for 12th in Week 1, I think this is a pretty fair ranking. The Ravens offensive line and Lamar Jackson's ability to improvise will make this tough, but the Chiefs love to make big plays, forcing two turnovers and registering two sacks last week. I think that gives them a higher floor than many expect, and there is a non-zero chance that this Ravens passing offense simply can't get much going without the consistent threat of a running game.

Yes, I have the Packers as a Tier 3 defense, and yes, I watched the game last weekend. I also saw the Saints gain only 322 yards of offense and take advantage of a tremendously poor effort from the Packers' offense. This was not a defense that just got demolished. Considering the Lions' offense spent three quarters failing to get much of anything going, I'm fairly confident the veteran Packers team can bounce back and put on a good showing at home, taking some of their anger about Week 1 out on Jared Goff and a relatively mediocre Lions offense.

The 49ers put up tons of points last week, but Raheem Mostert's injury puts a lot of pressure on a rookie running back against a solid rush defense in Philly. We also just saw the Eagles limit Matt Ryan and the Falcons to under 200 yards of passing offense, and Calvin Ridley remains better than any of the 49ers' wide receivers. I still think Deebo Samuel and George Kittle provide solid weapons, but Jimmy Garoppolo is an underwhelming starter, so there is a chance the Eagles can force turnovers, like they did on Sunday, and break a few big plays to give them another strong fantasy day. They're not a consistent unit, but they're a big-play unit, which always keeps them in the conversation.

The Panthers destroyed the Jets, but they get a massive step up in competition this week. However, as I mentioned above, it wasn't really the Saints' offense that ran all over the Packers. Jameis Winston was efficient, which was slightly surprising to see, but this passing offense wasn't able to get a lot going, so I'm not yet 100% buying into Winston, Tre'Quan Smith, and Marquez Callaway as a dynamic passing game trio. This Panthers defense made some real upgrades in the offseason, and there is a chance they are building a truly strong unit again.

The loss of Jason Verrett for the season is a real blow to a 49ers defense that just can't seem to catch a break. I still like this unit, but I'm a bit nervous about it containing the Eagles' passing attack while playing short-handed. Jalen Hurts continues to look like a true playmaker, so I think many people are a bit too high on the 49ers this week.

The Arizona Cardinals just registered six sacks against the Titans, and the Seahawks were able to notch three against an elite Colts' offensive line, so that's not something we should ignore. I expect the Seahawks to put up points, which means the Titans will need to throw to stay in this game, which opens up the door for sacks. I also expect Tennessee to play more competent offense than they did last week, but they are also dealing with a new offensive coordinator after Arthur Smith left for Atlanta, and the new offensive scheme seemed to be less aggressive and use play-action way less, which is bad news for Ryan Tannehill and the offense. I'm not yet ready to write off the Titans offensive yet; they have too many explosive playmakers, so I think this game is a shootout, which limits Seattle's upside a little bit.

I know many people think Taylor Heinicke isn't a major downgrade for the Washington offense, but I'm not sure I'm one of them. He looked great in the postseason last year and was solid in relief last week, but I don't think he brings the composure and play-making ability that Ryan Fitzpatrick does. As it stands, I'm a bit less scared of this Washington offense with him at the helm. I think he's a fine quarterback, and Washington certainly isn't going to become an offense to attack, but it caps their upside. I also don't think the Giants are a bad defense.

Tier 4 Defenses

I can't believe I have the Ravens this low, but it's the Chiefs. I certainly would not be dropping Baltimore, and they will provide enough of a floor to not actively hurt your fantasy team this week, but if you can run another defense out there, it might not be the worst idea.

The Colts and Chargers are also two solid defenses in this tier, but I simply can't recommend them against the offenses that they are going up against. The years of the Bears being a dominant fantasy unit, I fear, are behind us.

Tier 5 Defenses

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