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Getting Defensive: Week 13

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers

We could open Getting Defensive in this most important of weeks for many fantasy managers by talking about another huge stat line by the Dallas Cowboys defense. And another pick-six by Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland. But that’s getting so repetitious that I’m going to be accused of plagiarizing myself—if you can do that.

So, we’ll talk about something else—and someone else.

Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt is pretty good at football.

Last week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Watt amassed five solo tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble—a performance that gave the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year the league’s sack lead with 13.5. The Steelers also posted their third double-digit fantasy point effort in the last five weeks to move into the top five among team defenses for the season. Pittsburgh’s 32 sacks aren’t an especially high number, but the Steelers have quietly risen to fifth in scoring defense and their 20 takeaways are tied for third in the NFL.

Sunday, the Steelers will welcome in an Arizona Cardinals team that has gotten quarterback Kyler Murray back. For the season, the Redbirds have allowed the ninth-most fantasy points per game to defenses, and while the matchup hasn’t been quite as favorable with Murray under center, the Steelers should still be a quality start for fantasy managers.

Just not quite as good a start as that other team we’ll be leading the No-Doubters off with.

THE NO-DOUBTERS

Dallas Cowboys (vs. Seattle Seahawks)

After another big defensive effort punctuated by Bland’s record-breaking fifth interception return for a touchdown, the Cowboys are fantasy football’s top defense by a sizable margin. Dallas is third in total defense, leads the NFC against the pass, ranks fourth in points allowed, fifth in sacks and (of course) first in the league in defensive touchdowns. This week, the Cowboys will attempt to extend their home winning streak to 14 games against a Seattle Seahawks team that has struggled offensively of late. Look for the Cowboys to tee off against an overmatched opponent—again.

Cleveland Browns (at Los Angeles Rams)

The Browns struggled this past week against the Denver Broncos, in large part because the team lost star edge-rusher Myles Garrett to a shoulder injury. However, it appears that the team dodged a bullet, as an MRI on Garrett’s shoulder showed no structural damage and he’s been labeled “day to day.” If Garrett misses the game, it would change the dynamic here quite a bit, but the Browns lead the league in multiple statistical categories, including allowing the fewest total yards and passing yards per game in the league. The Browns also rank fourth among all defenses in fantasy points for the season.

Kansas City Chiefs (at Green Bay Packers)

When folks talk about the Kansas City Chiefs, the conversation always starts with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. However, an argument can be made that the Chiefs are actually better defensively than on offense this season. The Chiefs are quietly fourth in the league in total defense, one of five NFL teams allowing fewer than 180 passing yards per game; only the 49ers and Ravens have given up fewer points per game. The Chiefs rank fourth in the league with 37 sacks and Kansas City has amassed the seventh-most fantasy points among defenses in 2023.

Miami Dolphins (vs. Washington Commanders)

In the long-term, the loss of edge-rusher Jaelan Phillips to a season-ending Achilles injury is a huge blow to a Miami defense that was finally getting healthy with the return of defensive back Jalen Ramsey. But this week against Washington’s non-existent offensive line, the team should be fine with Bradley Chubb and Andrew Van Ginkel coming off the edge. This season, only the New York Giants have surrendered more sacks than the 55 the Commanders have allowed, and only the Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings have turned the ball over more than the 22 giveaways Washington has amassed.

Jacksonville Jaguars (vs. Cincinnati Bengals)

If you saw much of Jake Browning’s first start with the Cincinnati Bengals, then you know the team has become a matchup to target for opposing team defenses. With the Steelers loading the box to stop Joe Mixon, the Bengals ran for all of 25 yards in 11 carries. Browning was sacked four times, and the Bengals posted just 222 yards of total offense. The Jaguars have excelled at taking the ball away this season (third in the NFL with 20), and edge-rusher Josh Allen is among the NFL leaders in sacks. This is a game that could get ugly for the Bengals fairly quickly.

New York Jets (vs. Atlanta Falcons)

The Jets defense needs a hug. I mean really. A big ol’ bear hug. Maybe a pat on the head too. For the second consecutive season, the Jets have played well defensively, including ranking sixth in the league against the pass. But the New York offense’s inability to move the ball at all has put the defense in untenable positions far too often, and it’s showed in recent weeks. Still, the Jets have managed to hang around the back end of the top-12 in fantasy points, and this week Gang Green takes on a struggling Falcons offense that ranks just outside the top-10 in fantasy points per game surrendered to defenses this season.

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Detroit Lions (at New Orleans Saints)

After a hot start to the season, the Detroit defense has looked more like the unit that ranked dead last in the NFL last year. But the Lions still rank 10th in the NFL in total defense and fifth against the run. That latter number could be especially important Sunday against the Saints. New Orleans could ostensibly be down Chris Olave, Michael Thomas and Rashid Shaheed in Week 13, and for a team that has already struggled at times offensively this season not having their top three wide receivers could put a ton of pressure on running back Alvin Kamara, and play right into the hands of what the Lions do well defensively.

Atlanta Falcons (at New York Jets)

It’s gone largely unnoticed because no one cares about the NFC South (OK, that might have been a little mean), but the Falcons have actually played decent defense in 2023. The Falcons boast a top-10 pass defense in 2023, and while Atlanta hasn’t made a lot of big plays, they have been able to hold many opponents in check. Of course, everyone holds the Jets in check this season—New York is last in the AFC in total offense, 30th in the league in scoring offense, leads the AFC in fantasy points per game allowed to defenses and now has decided rolling out Tim Boyle at quarterback is somehow a good idea.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (vs. Carolina Panthers)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are reeling—after a 3-1 start to the season, the Bucs have managed just one victory since their Week 5 bye—in part because of a pass defense that has struggled mightily. The good news is that may not matter this week, because only the Jets and Giants have had less success throwing the ball this season than the Panthers, who also have surrendered the fourth-most sacks (43) in the league. The Buccaneers have tallied a respectable 31 sacks this season and allowed less than 96 yards per game on the ground. Carolina is also fourth in fantasy points per game allowed to team defenses this season.

Los Angeles Rams (vs. Cleveland Browns)

This Rams defense isn’t the same group that won a Super Bowl—Aaron Donald is still a force in the middle of the defensive line, but veterans like Leonard Floyd and Jalen Ramsey are gone. However, young players like edge-rushers Michael Hoecht and Byron Young and linebacker Ernest Jones have held their own, and this week’s opponent (the injury-ravaged Browns) don’t have the personnel to exploit the Rams’ young secondary. The Browns are also among the league leaders in giveaways, and Cleveland has given up the seventh-most fantasy points per game to defenses this season.

Indianapolis Colts (at Tennessee Titans)

There may not be a more under-the-radar team this season than the Indianapolis Colts, and that extends to the defense. The Colts have Kwity Paye and DeForest Buckner up front. Zaire Franklin at linebacker. Julian Blackmon at safety. Combined, the Colts defense doesn’t rank at the top of the league in any categories, but thanks to 36 sacks (sixth in the league) and 18 takeaways the Colts rank 10th in fantasy points among defenses ahead of a matchup with a Titans team rolling out a rookie quarterback and giving up the 10th-most fantasy points per game to defenses.

CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS

San Francisco 49ers (at Philadelphia Eagles)

The 49ers may well boast the best defense in the NFL—the line is that much more loaded with the addition of Chase Young. Fred Warner may be the best off-ball linebacker in the game. The Niners are fifth in the league in total defense, 12th against the pass, second in the league against the run, first in the league in points allowed, first in the NFC in takeaways and sixth among team defenses in fantasy points. However, the Eagles have allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to defenses, and DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown could be a problem for the weak link in the San Francisco defense.

Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year, Follow him on Twitter at @IDPSharks

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