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Fantasy football rankings, Week 12: Defense/special teams

In this week's defense/special teams rankings, we're still fine-tuning the mathematical formula to solve all your fantasy defensive ills.

If you read through and followed my calculations in this space a week ago, first of all, bless you. Not that I'm the best statistician out there or anything, but it was a lot of numbers. It was more than 1,000 words, and I never named a single player.

Mathias Kiwanuka. There.

All that said, I was (am) trying to find an objective, math-based method for ranking team defenses week-to-week, as it has historically been a crapshoot of a position, especially if you aren't the owner of one of the top handful of units. Also, I think the defense's opponent is far more important than it normally gets credit for being — for example, if you told me that the Seattle Seahawks were playing a random team, and I had to guess the D/ST's production, I would say 10 or 11 points. Meanwhile, if you said the Jaguars, I'd guess 2, maybe 3. But then you tell me either team is playing the Chiefs, and I'm guessing somewhere between 4 and 7 fantasy points. With no hesitation.

In 10 games this season — with opponents as varied as the Jaguars, Titans, Broncos, and Cowboys — every single defense that has faced the Chiefs has scored in that range. Facing a team that doesn't turn the ball over, like Kansas City, limits the upside of a D/ST. On the flip side, the Giants love to turn the ball over, meaning no team has given up more points to opposing defenses.

Back to my original point. If you read last week's piece, you might have noticed that my formula was missing a piece. As a refresher, my formula from last week ranked defenses based on their average fantasy scoring (weighted double) and their consistency rating, as described in my Week 5 rankings, creating a ranking of all the defenses based on a neutral opponent. I then did the same calculations for each team based on the defenses they faced, for a ranking of all the opponents facing a neutral defense. From there, it was simply a matter of scaling the two lists to have a specific ranking.

There was, though, a missing piece — recency. Defenses get better and worse all the time; while it's foolish to see a defense go from poor production to dominant in one game, sample sizes in football become meaningful fairly quickly. For example, the New York Giants' defense had -0.833 (yes, negative) points a game in their first six games. In their four wins since, the unit has averaged 14.75 points. The awful early scores matter, sure, but should the improvement matter significantly more?

My formula last week didn't do much to account for this. The Giants' average was improving, sure, but the fluctuation meant that their consistency rating was going the other way.

I conceded last week that, while I see a team's consistency as important, it can't be argued that the actual score is moreso, which is why I double-weighted the average. It was simple, but inelegant, like using a semi truck to deliver pizzas. To fix the inelegance, and account for recency, I ditched the double-weighting, and replaced it with a team's average over its last four outings. Four games are enough to establish a new trend without incorporating so many games as to make the whole exercise pointless.

That gives the formula three variables — overall scoring average, last-four scoring average, and consistency rating. This is still a work in progress, but that phrase includes the word "progress," so ... good stuff.

Anyway, the following table is a ranking of the defenses against neutral opponents. In other words, it is a functional ranking of the defenses down the stretch, if you're picking someone up now and riding with them over the season's final six weeks:

Rank Team Scoring average rank Average (Last 4) rank Consistency rating rank
1 Seattle 3 7 2
2 San Francisco 6 6 10
3 Arizona 5 T4 14
4 New Orleans 10 12 3
5 Carolina 2 3 21
6 New England 12 9 8
7 Cincinnati 4 1 27
8 Cleveland 8 T16 9
9 Houston 22 T14 1
10 Buffalo 11 8 20
11 Tampa Bay 18 T14 T6
12 St. Louis 7 T4 30
13 Kansas City 1 13 31
14 Miami 17 T10 18
15 Denver T14 T10 23
16 Chicago 13 21 15
17 Tennessee 9 26 17
18 Philadelphia 28 20 4
19 San Diego 30 T18 5
20 Baltimore 16 T16 22
21 N.Y. Giants 24 2 29
22 Oakland T14 T18 28
23 Jacksonville 32 27 t6
24 N.Y. Jets 25 28 13
25 Green Bay 21 T22 24
26 Detroit T26 31 11
27 Pittsburgh 29 24 16
28 Washington 23 25 25
29 Dallas 19 T22 32
30 Indianapolis 20 29 26
31 Atlanta 31 32 12
32 Minnesota T26 30 19

At the end of this piece, I am again going to include both my subjective rankings and my formula's objective ones. I did this a week ago, and the formula's rankings were slightly closer to reality than my subjective ones. Hopefully, with enough tweaking and fine-tuning, I'll get it even closer. I'll never get it perfect, or if I do, it'll be my last piece on this site, as I will immediately blow this popsicle stand for Vegas.

Until then, feel free to chime in in the rankings (again, because I got some good feedback last week, and thank you). Here is a look at a few defenses this week:

Cleveland Browns (No. 2 in my rankings, No. 6 in the formula) — The Steelers have two primary weapons — Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. I'm sorry, I'm not buying in on Jerricho Cotchery yet. Well, the Browns do two things really well on defense: they stop the run, and they make Joe Haden do things. Haden held the Bengals' A.J. Green to two catches and seven yards Sunday, limiting Andy Dalton to only 93 total passing yards. On a team that relies on a running back and one dominant receiver, the Browns could have a field day.

Arizona Cardinals (No. 6 in my rankings, No. 5 in the formula) — I don't actually care much about the Tyrann Mathieu "redemption story," or whatever you want to call it. Frankly, as a (wannabe) numbers guy, I'm rarely excited by some off-field/court narrative. What I do care about, especially as it regards Mathieu, is that he was a third-round pick in 2013 who has become a stout defensive player, already winning Defensive Rookie of the Month once. He and Patrick Peterson are a stout combination, and it bodes well for the whole unit.

Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 25/23) and Houston Texans (No. 13/2) — My formula loves the Texans this week, based primarily on the success every defense in the world has facing the Jaguars. I think this game will be a heck of a litmus test as to whether the Texans are done-done, with the potential of 2-14 or 3-13, or whether they will be respectable down the stretch, maybe getting to 5-11 or 6-10. Practically, subjectively, that means that there is a wide range of slots both defenses could be ranked this week. But the Texans have two of their next three games against Jacksonville. Now's the time, Texans.

Now, to the rankings:

Rank My ranking Opponent System ranking Opponent
1 Carolina Panthers at Miami Carolina Panthers at Miami
2 Cleveland Browns Pittsburgh Houston Texans Jacksonville
3 New Orleans Saints at Atlanta New Orleans Saints at Atlanta
4 Tennessee Titans at Oakland San Francisco 49ers at Washington
5 San Francisco 49ers at Washington Arizona Cardinals Indianapolis
6 Arizona Cardinals Indianapolis Cleveland Browns Pittsburgh
7 Kansas City Chiefs San Diego Green Bay Packers Minnesota
8 St. Louis Rams Chicago Baltimore Ravens NY Jets
9 Green Bay Packers Minnesota Tennessee Titans at Oakland
10 Baltimore Ravens NY Jets Dallas Cowboys at NY Giants
11 Chicago Bears at St. Louis Chicago Bears at St. Louis
12 Oakland Raiders Tennessee San Diego Chargers at Kansas City
13 Houston Texans Jacksonville New York Jets at Baltimore
14 Dallas Cowboys at NY Giants Oakland Raiders Tennessee
15 Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland
16 New York Giants Dallas Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit
17 New York Jets at Baltimore St. Louis Rams Chicago
18 Miami Dolphins Carolina New England Patriots Denver
19 Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Miami Dolphins Carolina
20 Denver Broncos at New England Indianapolis Colts at Arizona
21 Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland New York Giants Dallas
22 San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston
23 New England Patriots Denver Kansas City Chiefs San Diego
24 Washington Redskins San Francisco Denver Broncos at New England
25 Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Detroit Lions Tampa Bay
26 Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Washington Redskins San Francisco
27 Detroit Lions Tampa Bay Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay
28 Atlanta Falcons New Orleans Atlanta Falcons New Orleans

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