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The Method to the Matchups Madness - An In-Depth Look

By Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Last year was my first year writing the matchups column for RotoBaller, and let me tell you it was a bear. Covering 12-14 games every week, and having to write about every single relevant player from each team is a time-consuming task no one should have to embark on. So when I signed up to do it again my first thought was "what the hell are you doing, man?" Even as I was spending 20+ hours a week a year ago writing the column, I knew there had to be a better way. I just had to find it. Well, I am happy to report that not only did I find it, but in the process I feel like I found a better way to determine the strengths of matchups as well. Basically, it is a win for everybody.

Since you clicked on this link I can only assume you are a nerd like me, and you want to understand how the matchups are calculated and why Player A is ranked high but Player B is ranked low. That's a good thing! I think it is important to not just blindly follow what someone says. There are a lot of "experts" out there with opinions - some good, some bad.

The nice thing about these matchups is there is 100% no bias in it at all. It is strictly driven by numbers and skill at a player versus player level. Often you might here someone say "sit player X because the Ravens give up the fewest points to running backs." But this ignores many factors that can impact a matchup in a given week. What if the Ravens played terrible run teams so far? What if they have injuries to key run-stoppers and no longer posses a good run defense? What if they are playing Barry Sanders? Football is a game played by teams, but the teams are made up of individuals. Like everyone, some individuals are better at certain things than others. By looking at the matchups at an individual level, not just of the offensive player but of all the defensive players as well, we get a much more accurate representation of what will happen. Plus, when an injury happens we can quickly swap out the injured player for his replacement and immediately see the effect it has on the defense and the matchup. Let's dig into the gritty details.

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Player Evaluation

I use Pro Football Focus (PFF) for all my player evaluations. I tested with them a few years ago and let me tell you, it is rigourous and they demand incredible accuracy. I didn't even come close to making the cut, the attention to detail they put into every player is mind-blowing. There is no one better in the business in my opinion. Are they 100% accurate? Probably not. They're human. But I would bet money they are at worst 98% or better. I'll take that.

By using player evaluations, I can see how a player performs in certain situations. How good is a running back at running the ball? What about pass catching? Is a linebacker better in pass coverage or run defense? Is that interior lineman a great pass protector but poor at opening holes for his backs? Luckily PFF does this for me, I just have to collect the data.

So that's the first step, collect the data. I collect data for every fantasy relevant offensive player, every starting offensive lineman, and a team's entire starting defense. This way when I look at a player who runs half his routes from the left, I can see how he matches up against the defenses right corner. If a running back primarily is asked to line up to the left side of his line, I can see how the left side of the line stacks up against the right side of the defensive line. I can do this with literally every position and get a look, at an individual level, to see where the best matchups lie. I don't know of any other matchup tool that does this (though they may exist).

Once I have all player data collected, I can then build matchups at a positional level. Let's look at each of those.



For quarterbacks I start with pressure. Pressure is the best way to stop a passing game and teams that apply more pressure are generally better against the pass. But pressure is not a one-way street. Just because a team has a strong front seven doesn't mean the quarterback will have less time to throw. If his offensive line can neutralize the front seven then he should have a clean pocket. So pressure is determined by looking at how well each offensive lineman pass protects, versus the player they will likely be tasked with blocking. A negative pressure number means the defense has the advantage, while a positive number means the offense has the advantage. Obviously, when targeting a quarterback you want one who has a positive number in this category.

Next I look at directional stats. Essentially I look at what percentage of the time a quarterback targets the left, middle, or right side of the field. I get this data from FFStatistics ( Quick shout out to Addison Hayes who has collected tons of data on his site, it is a must for fantasy players and is completely free. Though you should go donate. Once I know where a quarterback likes to throw the ball, I can look at the players that will likely be guarding that area of the field. Once I know where a quarterback prefers to throw, I can look at the wide receivers that are likely to be targeted there and how likely they are to be open versus the defender. It is the receivers job to get open, and the quarterback's job to see them and place the ball accurately. This is where the skill of the quarterback comes in. So by looking at the receivers versus the corners, then the skill of the quarterback, I can come up with a "Coverage" rating. Again, positive numbers are good, negative are bad.

Once I have the pressure and coverage rating, I just combine them to get an overall rating of the matchup. This is the number that will be used for the ranking.


Running Backs

Running backs are tricky because they both run the ball and catch the ball. Some run more than catch and some catch more than run. Therefore we have to look at both how likely the offensive line is to open up holes for the back, and how likely the linebackers will be at covering the back.

For rushing I start with directional stats from FFStatistics. I look at how often the player runs left, middle or right. From there I can see how strong the offensive line is on each side versus the defensive line on the same side. For example, a defense may have a very strong defensive line, but if they are only strong on one side, and the offense prefers to run to the other side, this could actually be considered an advantage for the offense. By knowing where a team likes to run the ball, and were defenders generally line up, I can better see advantages and disadvantages at each part of the line. Taking all of this into account gives us the "Rushing" rating.

For pass-catching, I look at the skill of the running back as a pass catcher, versus the skill of the linebackers in coverage. Since linebackers are usually the ones tasked with covering backs out of the backfield this makes the most sense. The number I get from this is called "Receiving", clever I know.

Lastly, I give each running back a "Role" number. 1 for primarily rushing, 2 for primarily catching, and 3 for both. Guys like Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell get the three numbers. There aren't a lot, and that is why they are such hot commodities in the fantasy world. Guys like Jordan Howard, C.J. Anderson and Marshawn Lynch get the 1 number. And players like Chris Thompson, Duke Johnson and Tarik Cohen get a 2. Based on a player's role I will put more or less emphasis on the rushing or receiving rating. That way we can more accurately compare Chris Thompson's matchup to Marshawn Lynch's matchup. The number I get from this is called "Rating" and is the final number for the matchup.


Wide Receivers

Receivers are pretty easy. Thankfully PFF has a WR/CB matchup chart that shows how often a receiver lines up to the left, the right or in the slot. Once I know how often they line up at each position, I can figure out how often they will face each of the defenses corners. This gives a much better representation of their overall outlook, not just the player they will be facing most often as other WR/CB matchup articles do. This forms the "Rating" number which is the overall outlook of their matchup.


Tight Ends

Like receivers, tight ends are pretty easy too. Since defense often use both safeties and linebackers to cover tight ends, I compare the skill of the tight end versus the players who he is likely to be covered by. First I compare him to the linebackers. This gives me the "LBRating" number. Then I compare him to the safeties, this gives me the "SafRating". I then average these two numbers to get a look at how his overall matchup looks, this is the "Rating" number. That's it.



I hope this helped you better understand how these matchups are determined. Like I said, it is completely unbiased, as I let the data be my guide. If the data says someone has a good matchup that I don't agree with, I may dig deeper, but I never change the numbers. Use these as a guide too, but don't let them be the end all to your decisions. Remember, ultimately it's your team and your decision, and you have to live with it.

But most importantly remember it's just a game, so have fun!


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