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The Funnel Defense Report: Week 18

Ken Walker

Below is a look at the league’s most extreme run funnel and pass funnel defenses through Week 17 — teams being consistently attacked on the ground or through the air regardless of game script.

Having an understanding of which defenses are being bludgeoned via the rush or pass should help us identify matchups that may be better than we think in Week 18. All of these matchups are, of course, subject to wonky game script that could nullify any trends in how a defense is being best exploited.

Run Funnel Defenses

Indianapolis Colts

One more Colts blurb for the road: Indy, as funnel defense enthusiasts surely know, is and has been among the NFL’s most pronounced run funnels. Almost every Colts opponent has deployed a run-first approach, especially when they grab a lead against Shane Steichen’s crew. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise considering Pro Football Focus grades the Colts as the league’s ninth worst run defense.

Indianapolis opponents this year have a 45 percent rush rate in neutral game script (when the game is within seven points either way), the third highest in the league. Teams playing the Colts have run the ball at a 50 percent rate when they have the lead. Last week, despite falling behind by multiple scores, the Raiders were 2 percent below their expected drop back rate against the Colts.

What it means for Week 18: We can expect a balanced attack from the Texans in their crucial Week 18 matchup with the Colts. Houston was just 1 percent above its expected drop back rate when these teams clashed in Week 2, and the Texans have been (almost) perfectly balanced in their three games without Tank Dell.

The puzzle pieces aren’t tough to figure out here. Devin Singletary, who has 25 of the team’s 35 running back rushes over the past two weeks while running a route on around half of Houston’s drop backs, is (likely) set up for a solid workload against Indy. It might not hurt that Singletary will hit a $250,000 contract incentive if he gains 73 scrimmage yards in the regular season finale. With a little positive script, Singletary should easily clear that mark. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were the Texans’ offensive focal point in Week 18.

Arizona Cardinals

Some are saying Eagles coaches are reading the Funnel Defense Report. After I highlighted how extreme the Arizona funnel tendencies had become, Philly came out in Week 17 and posted the league’s lowest neutral pass rate (35 percent) and logged 22 rushes to 23 pass attempts in a back-and-forth affair. They were 6 percent below their expected drop back rate. Shoutout to the Eagles brass reading the column.

Arizona opponents have the league’s highest neutral rush rate this season. The trend has accelerated of late. Since Week 12, Cardinals opponents have a 55 percent rush rate in neutral situations, by far the highest in the NFL.

What it means for Week 18: It is, by every indication, Ken Walker Szn, as the Seahawks fight for their postseason existence against an apparently rejuvenated Arizona team. Though Walker is going to be limited in practice with a lingering shoulder injury, he should be fine for Sunday’s game.

Walker, in case you missed it, has seized control of the Seattle backfield. He has 45 of the team’s 53 running back carries over the Hawks’ past three games, including almost all the red zone work. Seattle was 8 percent under its expected drop back rate when these teams faced off in Week 7; Walker had 104 yards on 26 carries. There’s little reason to expect anything different in Week 18. With a signature long Walker run or two, it could be a stat sheet-stuffing day for the explosive back (Please note that James Conner is in a shockingly good spot against a Seattle rush defense that has deteriorated and is now, by every measure, the worst in the NFL).

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers were shredded to tiny little bits on the ground last week. Probably this isn’t shocking to anyone who has paid attention to how teams are attacking Carolina’s defense. The Panthers are now the league’s third most pronounced run funnel defense, with teams posting a 47 percent neutral rush rate against them.

The Panthers have obliged to such an approach with the tenth highest rush EPA allowed since Week 11.

What it means for Week 18: With or without Baker Mayfield, we can expect the Bucs to establish it against Carolina. Tampa has gone from one of the league’s most reliably pass-heavy offenses to a slightly run-heavy unit (I think this is because they’re trying desperately to hide Mayfield as he regresses back to Regular Baker).

Rachaad White has continued dominating backfield touches for Tampa. That won’t change in their Week 18 battle to win the NFC South and get a home game in the first round of the playoffs. I expect the Bucs, coached by the hyper-conservative Todd Bowles, to play scared out of their minds this week and force feed White in hopes of escaping the Panthers and sneaking into the postseason.

The AFC East is on the line as the Dolphins host the Bills to wrap up the NFL regular season, Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock! Click here to watch

Pass Funnel Defenses

Buffalo Bills

The Bills make their first appearance in this column because, well, there aren’t a whole lot of meaningful games in Week 18, and if you can glom on to one contest in which both teams with play for something, we might as well target a defense that has pushed opponents toward the pass in recent weeks.

Buffalo opponents since Week 13 have a 60 percent neutral pass rate, the ninth highest over that stretch. While that’s not extreme by any means, it hints at what might transpire in an all-important Sunday Night Football showdown.

What it means for Week 18: The Dolphins in Week 4 against the Bills were 4 percent above their expected drop back rate, a bit above their season-long rate of 2 percent. Miami dropped back to pass on 71 percent of their offensive snaps in that blowout loss to Buffalo.

It’s when the Dolphins fall behind that they let it rip in the passing game. Miami has a 74 percent pass rate while trailing over the season’s second half. If you, like me, believe the injury-marred Fins will be chasing points against the streaking Bills on Sunday night (and yes, I will be waiting all day for Sunday night, as if you needed to ask), Tua Tagovailoa should have plenty of pass volume. A pass-heavy script would certainly mean a dozen or more targets for Tyreek Hill, and if Jaylen Waddle (ankle) can’t suit up, Durham Smythe and Cedrick Wilson could be somewhat interesting for fantasy purposes.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are the NFL’s most extreme pass funnel through Week 17 even after the Cardinals were 17 percent below their expected drop back rate against Philly last week. Maybe the Eagles defense has melted down to the point where opponents can attack them any which way.

On the season, Philadelphia opponents have a 64 percent neutral pass rate. That’s because from Week 1-9, teams facing the Eagles had a 70 percent pass rate in neutral script. Over the past month, that number has dropped to 58 percent. So things are changing.

What it means for Week 18: The Giants have weirdly become analytics kings over the past three weeks: They have the NFL’s highest neutral pass rate (70 percent) and in Week 17’s near-upset against the Rams, the G-people were 10 percent above their expected drop back rate. That generated a lot of drop backs and targets and production for Tyrod Taylor and his pass catchers.

It’s tough, with the Eagles potentially resting starters, whether the Giants will air it out against Philly this week. While we might not see the all-out passing approach New York took in Week 17, they could still lean toward the pass against a miserable Eagles coverage unit, graded by PFF as the NFL’s seventh worst. That should be a boon for downfield threat Darius Slayton — a Regression Files interest this week — and Wan’Dale Robinson, who last week against the Rams led the team in targets and receptions.

Robinson — and to a lesser extent, Darren Waller — gets an excellent matchup against a Philly defense that has been bludgeoned via the slot throughout the season.

Detroit Lions

It’s tough (impossible) to say if Dan Campbell and his snake-bitten Lions are going to play their starters in Week 18. This is written with the assumption that Campbell will play his guys with an outside shot of securing the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

Detroit since Week 12 has allowed the second highest neutral pass rate (66 percent), about 5 percent higher than their season-long rate. The Cowboys just last week were 8 percent over their expected drop back rate against the down-horrific Lions secondary, which has allowed the NFL’s fifth highest drop back success rate this year.

What it means for Week 18: Look for Nick Mullens and the Vikings to air it all the way out against the pass-funnel Lions in a must-win affair for Minnesota. Probably that won’t change much for a Vikings offense with the league’s fifth highest pass rate over expected. They’ve been over their expected drop back rate in 10 of the past dozen games.

Mullens and company were a cool 15 percent above their expected drop back rate a mere two weeks ago against Detroit, with Mullens completing 22 of 36 attempts for 411 yards, two touchdowns, and yes, four picks. Justin Jefferson, who saw 42 percent of the team’s air yards and 28 percent of the targets in Week 16 against the Lions, is locked in for another target bonanza.

Johnny Mundt — who was second on the team with a 21 percent target share in Week 17 — should be a halfway decent option if he maintains his route-running role. And Jordan Addison profiles as a high-variance but certainly viable play in such a pass-heavy scenario.

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