Now that we're into the heart of the season, between byes, injuries and unmet expectations of certain big-name players (aka The Chris Johnson Effect), it's difficult to put together your "A" team from week to week. Anticipating this, we try our best to fill our bench with suitable replacements.
It's become fashionable to do this by scouring the waiver wire each week and trying to pick up the hottest hands and emergency starters. I get caught up in this occasionally, although I prefer to add players only after they've shown they're not one-week wonders.
This approach means I will miss out on the occasional player who parlays a big game early into sustained success, but it also means I avoid playing waiver roulette with the Kevin Ogletrees and Brian Hartlines of the world.
Now, to my point. Regardless of how you to decide to put your bench together, you are forced to make decisions regarding those players. Usually, those decisions go something like this: Two of my regular starters are unavailable. To fill their spots, I have Mediocre Player A, Mediocre Player B and Mediocre Player C. Whom do I play? My best answer: Forget the individual merits of the players; if their merits mattered, they'd have names. All things being equal (and they usually are with bench players), look at the matchups. Guessing right on this can make the difference between essentially forfeiting a game and picking up an unexpected win.
To do this right, don't think too much. Just look at the opponent. By this point in the season, it's clear which defenses are fantasy-friendly and which are not. In the aforementioned scenario, let's say Player A faces the Saints, Player B faces the 49ers and Player C faces the Bills. You can forget Player B. The 49ers' defense is the best I've seen since the Ravens' heyday more than a decade ago. It's a no-brainer to avoid that matchup.(A quick reminder that we're focused on weekly fill-ins here, not regular starters. Do not sit Eli Manning or Victor Cruz this week against San Francisco. As always, "Start your starters.")
That leaves Player A and Player C as your weekly replacements. By choosing the Saints, 49ers and Bills, I purposely went with the extremes. The choices won't always be that easy. To make it a little easier, though, I'll quickly break down the defenses (good and bad) to keep in mind.
49ers: As mentioned, they're to be avoided whenever possible. The Bills have a lot of talent on offense and San Francisco completely shut them down last week. Completely. A fringe fantasy player (the type we're talking about) has no chance.
Texans: Led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt, they picked up where they left off last year. The season-ending knee injury to linebacker Brian Cushing hurts, but Houston will remain a tough draw for fantasy owners.
Bears: It's not a stretch to say they're the best "player" on plenty of fantasy teams right now. From a numbers standpoint, the unit has been unbelievable the past two weeks, collecting 7 INTs and returning 4 for TDs. On the season, the Tampa 2 is as effective as it's ever been in Chicago. Unlike the 49ers and Texans, however, the Bears' defensive core is relatively old, so remaining effective means staying healthy.
Cardinals: They don't get the national exposure of the previous three teams, but there are plenty of opportunistic playmakers in Arizona. And the team's questionable offense results in low-scoring games.
Seahawks: The controversial ending to their Monday night game against the Packers overshadowed the fact that they had Aaron Rodgers running for his life for four quarters. Whoever these guys are (can you name any of them?), it doesn't matter. Seattle is the 21st-century version of the No-Name Defense.
Rams: I'm not kidding. They made Matthew Stafford look terrible, kept Robert Griffin III in relative check and limited the Bears' offense to 286 total yards before they started finding their groove. St. Louis is coming off a 9-sack, 3-point performance and Jeff Fisher is the coach.
On the flip side
Bills: I assume they still use all 11 players on defense, though you wouldn't know it from the ease with which teams have been embarrassing them. Last week, in a 45-3 loss to San Francisco, Buffalo became the first team in league history to give up 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in a single game. And that came on the heels of 52-28 loss to New England in which the Bills gave up 45 points in the second half and allowed two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers. You could do pretty well each week just picking up random players facing the Bills and plugging them into the Flex spot. They're that bad.
Saints: Not on the level of the Bills, but they've given up 40, 35, 27, 28 and 24 points this season. Included in those games was a 233-yard performance by Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles. New Orleans is consistently bad and can be counted on to make your decisions easier.
Redskins: No pass rush and a bad secondary is a terrible combination in reality, but great for fantasy owners with players facing them. Included on their resume: a 15-catch, 160-yard, 1-TD performance by Rams WR Danny Amendola. Last week was one of Washington's better efforts, but Falcons QB Matt Ryan still managed 2 TDs and TE Tony Gonzalez, WR Julio Jones and RB Michael Turner found the end zone.
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