Next Gen Stats: Week 4 fantasy football matchups

Now in its third season, Next Gen Stats has quickly exploded. The statistics are featured in game broadcasts, they are leveraged in countless articles, tweets, and podcasts throughout the week, and the Next Gen Stats database is free to access.

In this weekly column, we'll dive deep into Next Gen Stats' metrics and explore player and team-based matchups. The goal is simple: Next Gen provides truly unique analytical data we can use to uncover edges when making fantasy lineup decisions. Most importantly, Next Gen Stats' deep data coffers make us more informed viewers of the game.

Let's dive into the Week 4 slate through the lens of Next Gen Stats.

Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET)

For the third-straight week, the Falcons' defense has to deal with a shifty receiving back. In Week 2, Atlanta was crushed for 14/102 receiving by Christian McCaffrey. Then, Alvin Kamara dropped 15/124 on 20 targets last week. Per Next Gen, the Falcons defense has already allowed 29 receptions to receivers out of the backfield -- by far the most in the NFL. Buffalo is the next closest team (25). Over the last two years, Gio Bernard has averaged 7.3 targets per game when Joe Mixon is out (or plays less than 10 percent of snaps). Both Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara have averaged 7.3 targets per game, most among RBs in this span. Bernard is going to gobble up catches in Week 4.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears (1 p.m. ET)

You can only hope to slow down the bearded-one, the breaker of air yards, and definite first of his name: Ryan FitzMagic.

Seriously, though -- Fitzpatrick's start is unprecedented. Since the 1970 merger, only Tom Brady (1,327 yards in 2011) has thrown for more passing yards in Weeks 1-3 of the season than Fitzpatrick has this year (1,230). It's just incredible. Per Next Gen, Fitzpatrick (10.7) is third behind only Deshaun Watson (12.1) and Patrick Mahomes (11.6) in air yards per attempt. Fitzpatrick's expected completion percentage, based on the difficulty of his throws, is 63.2 percent. In reality, Fitzpatrick has completed 70.3 percent of his attempts -- the second-best differential in the league.

Fitzpatrick and the Bucs are intent to air the ball out relentlessly, and they now face their most difficult challenge so far in Week 4. Chicago leads the NFL in sacks (14) despite blitzing just 18.6 percent of the time (eighth-lowest rate).

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET)

When Sean Lee misses time, the Cowboys defense falls apart. Last year, the Cowboys field general was out for five games -- causing a cataclysmic effect on Dallas' defense. Without Lee in the lineup in 2017, Dallas allowed the NFL's highest passer rating (105.1). When Lee played, the Cowboys defense was close to league-average (82.1; 15th-of-32 per Next Gen Stats).

What's more, per The Quantitative Edge, the Cowboys allowed a massive 4.88 yards per carry (most) and a 47.8 percent rush success rate (fifth-worst) when Lee did not play last season. Fresh off their 26-10 drubbing of the Patriots in Week 3, the Lions are set up to leverage Lee's absence in this pivotal Week 4 game between two 1-2 teams.

Buffalo Bills at Green Bay Packers (1 p.m. ET)

Perhaps the biggest key to any matchup this week will be the Bills' pressure-heavy front seven against a gimpy Aaron Rodgers (knee). Through three games, the Bills lead all teams in pressure rate (34.4 percent) while Rodgers' 5.2 pass yards per attempt when under duress is eighth-worst:

bills pressure vs rodgers

However, Rodgers still looks downfield often when he is pressured as 18 of his 24 attempts (75 percent) under pressure have gone to receivers split out wide or in the slot. Buffalo can take the Packers off schedule by harassing Rodgers in the backfield, but it likely won't delay Davante Adams' target load (8, 12, 9 passing looks in Weeks 1-3).

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts (1 p.m. ET)

At least for fantasy football purposes, it's time to panic about Andrew Luck. Through three games, no quarterback has a lower average depth of throw than Luck (5.5 yards). T.Y. Hilton's average air yards per target has cratered this year with Luck back under center. Most worryingly, Luck just hasn't been efficient enough to warrant starting him in fantasy. His 5.3 pass yards per attempt is significantly worse than Joe Flacco's league-low last season (5.7). Luck was forced to chuck the rock 53 times in Week 1, leading to a QB11 weekly finish, but he has ended outside of the top-20 fantasy quarterbacks in both Weeks 2 and 3.

Now, Luck and Co. have to face the in-division Texans -- who have forced a tight window throw on 23.6 percent of attempts this season, the best rate in the NFL per Next Gen Stats. Houston is also blitzing extremely often, sending five or more pass rushers on a gargantuan 34.4 percent of pass plays (fourth-highest rate). It's a potential disaster scenario. Luck's 72.1 passer rating against the blitz is fifth-worst in the NFL.

New York Jets at Jacksonville Jaguars (1 p.m. ET)

After laying an egg in Week 3 against the Titans, the Jags are in a prime bounce-back spot for a home win against the youngest QB ever in Week 4. This season, Jacksonville owns the fifth-best completion percentage differential (actual completion percentage minus expected), they have forced pressure on 29.7 percent of pass dropbacks (11th-best) and allowed a TD on just 2.1 percent of pass attempts (third-best). After a hot start in Week 1 against Detroit, Darnold has crashed back down to earth in Weeks 2-3 (59.0 passer rating; worst in NFL in span). Good luck, rookie!

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots (1 p.m. ET)

It's bizarre to see the Pats' offense struggling in so many categories. Right now, New England is 26th in passing offense, 20th in rushing offense, and third-from-last in third-down success. After finishing sixth in rushing first downs in back-to-back years, the Pats are only 17th this season. What's more, Brady and Co. were fifth and sixth, respectively, in rushing TDs in 2016-17. Now, New England is one of just five teams without a rushing score to begin this season.

Back at home against the Dolphins, Sony Michel and the Pats' run game are in a decent position to get rolling in Week 4. Per Next Gen, Miami only has one defensive lineman (Davon Godchaux) that ranks inside of the top-40 in stuffed runs. Over the first three weeks, Miami is a fairly pedestrian 14th in rush success rate allowed (46 percent), too. Now down Rex Burkhead (neck), New England needs to find a semblance of continuity on offense.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans (1 p.m. ET)

Explosive and efficient passing undeniably wins games in the NFL but completely taking away the run forces offenses to be one dimensional. That's exactly what Philadelphia is doing. The Eagles pass defense has been so-so to start the season, but their run-eating front has kept their defense afloat.

Among the 129 defensive linemen with at least 50 snaps this year, the Eagles have a preposterous four players inside of the top-20 in Next Gen Stats' disruption rate. That's right. Derek Barnett (17.9 disruption rate), Chris Long (13.7 disruption rate), Brandon Graham (11.2 disruption rate), and Fletcher Cox (11.2 disruption rate) are all ripping enemy offensive linemen to shreds. Philadelphia has stopped 35 percent of runs against them for a loss or no gain, by far the best rate in the NFL. The next closest team is Buffalo (31 percent). Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry have a tough day ahead of them in Week 4.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals (4:05 p.m. ET)

Josh Rosen is finally under center after a brutal start from Sam Bradford in which Arizona was last in scoring drives (9.7 percent), yards gained per play (5.0), and points scored per drive (0.65) in Weeks 1-3. Even after three measly contests, the change was overdue.

Johnson's slow start can be attributed to a number of things working against him. Arizona has only averaged 47.3 plays per game, by far the worst clip in the NFL. The average offense runs around 63 to 64 plays per contest. The simple lack of play volume has, unsurprisingly, obliterated Johnson's touch count. Because the offense can't even sustain a drive between the 20s -- much less get in scoring position -- Johnson is averaging just 14.7 touches and 59.7 yards from scrimmage per game. In 2016, Johnson averaged 22.9 touches and 129.9 yards from scrimmage, as the Cards' offense designed by former head coach Bruce Arians ran the second-most plays per game in the NFL (67.9).

New offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is also not treating Johnson as an offensive weapon, too. In his monster 2016 season, Johnson ran 26 percent of his total routes split off from Arizona's formation. This year, McCoy has deployed DJ as a wide receiver just eight percent of the time. This Next Gen heat map shows McCoy's lack of innovation. Here's where Johnson has lined up on all of Arizona's pass plays this season:

johnson alignment

Last week, head coach Steve Wilks said Johnson would, "run more routes in the slot... I have total confidence." That didn't happen in Week 3 (zero slot snaps). Now facing a Seahawks side that has allowed just 11 receptions to RBs so far (fifth-fewest) coupled with Arizona's struggling offense and coaching staff, Johnson's Week 4 outlook remains lowered.

Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders (4:05 p.m. ET)

Mayfield only attempted 23 passes in Week 3 in relief of Tyrod Taylor (concussion), but there was plenty to get excited about. Per Next Gen, Mayfield completed 76 percent of his passes and owned a 103.7 passer rating from inside of the tackle box against the Jets. Over the full season, Taylor has struggled with pocket command -- completing only 49 percent of his passes and owning a 64.4 rating inside the tackle box.

What's more, while Taylor has struggled to complete throws we should usually expect a quarterback to make, Mayfield owned a 5.2 percent completion rate above expectation in Week 3:

Now, Mayfield faces a Raiders side that has allowed the sixth-highest passer rating (101.9), the third-most pass YPA (8.7), and forced pressure at the league's lowest rate (15.8 percent) to begin the season. It's a perfect spot for Mayfield's official debut.

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Chargers (4:25 p.m. ET)

C.J. Beathard started five games for the Niners last season, and the results weren't pretty. Beathard owned a not-nice 69.2 passer rating (second-worst) and averaged just 6.4 yards per pass attempt (sixth-worst) last season as one of the league's least-efficient QBs. Beathard especially struggled under pressure as a rookie. Per Next Gen, Beathard only completed 38.3 percent of his passes (sixth-worst) and owned a 32.4 Passer Rating (second-worst) when under duress last year. Over the last two years, Jimmy Garoppolo has completed 54.2 percent of his passes and has a sturdier 63.1 rating under pressure.

San Francisco's offense is going to change drastically under Beathard. Here's how the two Niners QBs of record have distributed their targets over the last two seasons:

Hopefully, an offseason of maturation has helped Beathard slow down and process under pressure. What remains to be seen is if Beathard relies on his RBs a little less heavily after leading all 2017 quarterbacks, by far, in running back target rate. Pending health, Matt Breida (knee) may be in for an uptick in targets with Beathard under center. Last year, former-Niner Carlos Hyde averaged 8.3 targets per game with Beathard in the lineup versus 3.8 targets per day with Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer. Meanwhile, teammate and non-receiving threat Alfred Morris has just averaged 0.88 passing looks per game during his career. Breida and perhaps FB Kyle Juszczyk may be the only Niners that doesn't see a sizable downtick in output with Beathard at the controls.

New Orleans Saints at New York Giants (4:25 p.m. ET)

Through three games, Michael Thomas has set a single-season record for most receptions (38) in Weeks 1-3 in NFL history. Thomas' absurd counting stats and 95 percent catch rate can likely be attributed to his increased slot usage, that has shot up from 12.7 and 22.8 percent in his first two years to 32 percent this season. As a result, just 7.5 percent of Thomas' total passing targets have been thrown into a tight window this year -- per Next Gen Stats. 23.5 percent of Thomas' targets last year came through a tight aerial window.

After starting with 16/180/1, 12/89/2, and 10/129 receiving, Thomas is in yet another blow-up spot in Week 4 against a Giants' secondary that has allowed a 78.9 percent catch rate and 10.3 yards per attempt to enemy slot wideouts. Both figures are sixth-most in the NFL. Look out.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET)

The best wideout in the league faces the best secondary in Week 4 in primetime. Of course, it's the matchup of the week.

This year, the Ravens' secondary has been white-hot -- allowing a 62.8 passer rating (second-lowest), just 5.0 yards per pass attempt (lowest), and a 52.7 percent completion rate (lowest). Keep in mind, the Ravens early success has come without Jimmy Smith, who is suspended one more game.

As the Next Gen team notes, the Ravens have used press coverage incredibly often (40.7 percent; second-highest rate) since the start of 2016. Meanwhile, Brown consistently faces press coverage on his routes and still averages 9.0 yards per target when he's pressed at the line of scrimmage:

brown vs press

Since the start of 2016, Brown has the upper hand against Baltimore (7/85/1, 10/96/1, 4/34, 11/213 receiving). While Brown deals with press coverage on the boundary, JuJu Smith-Schuster may face easier coverage from the interior. This year, JuJu has run 80 percent of his routes from the slot while 43 percent of the Ravens' passing yardage allowed has come from enemy slot receivers. Three of the four passing scores Baltimore has allowed has come from a slot wideout, per Next Gen. Smith-Schuster is averaging nine receptions and 124.3 yards per game without Le'Veon Bell in the lineup (includes Week 17 last year) and would stand to benefit further if Brown gets press-based attention on the boundary.

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET)

What Patrick Mahomes is doing right now is nothing short of incredible. Despite facing pressure on 37.1 percent of his dropbacks this year (third-highest rate), Mahomes is still shredding enemy defenses at all field depths:

Now, Mahomes and the Chiefs' attack gets one of their toughest tests to date in Denver. This year, the Broncos are blitzing at the league's sixth-highest rate (31.6 percent) and their four sacks when blitzing are tied for fifth-most. This year, Kansas City's offensive line has done a poor job at absorbing blitzes -- allowing pressure on 58.3 percent of Mahomes' dropbacks when the defense sends five or more rushers (third-highest rate). Denver's aggressive blitz scheme against Mahomes' aerial assault makes for an incredible Week 4 storyline on Monday Night.

-- Graham Barfield is the managing editor for fantasy football content at NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBarfield.

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