Defense Wins Championships

Updated: September 4, 2013
Bears defense

(Editors note: Dylan has always been very active on Reddit with his weekly ranking systems, and has helped more than his share of readers dominate their league. I’m excited to have him and his rankings on board, and I know I’ll be listening to his advice – Corbin).

We fantasy footballers have access to one of the greatest and most accurate predictive models for football scoring. It’s 100% free, completely public, and is usually updated with up-to-the minute information about everything from the weather, injuries, and so much more. They’re not always a perfect input variable, but widely available gambling lines on NFL football games are going to be a huge part of this weekly column. Here, we’ll have but one goal:

Ruthlessly optimize our D/ST plays every week by playing the waiver wire.

D/ST scoring is primarily made up of two parts. Obviously, limiting the opposing team’s scoring is good, but it is far more important for a D/ST to be forcing turnovers. The real value in D/ST scoring – scoring defensive TDs – is a highly variable function of how many turnovers your D/ST can force.

Armed with the above, let’s take a look at Week 1 in the NFL for D/STs:

  1. Chicago (11.55)
  2. New England (10.21)
  3. St. Louis (9.65)
  4. Denver (8.85)
  5. Tampa Bay (7.95)
  6. Pittsburgh (7.93)
  7. Houston (7.88)
  8. Seattle (7.76)
  9. Cleveland (7.58)
  10. Arizona (6.86)
  11. Miami (6.68)
  12. Cincinnati (6.65)
  13. San Francisco (6.27)
  14. Kansas City (6.19)
  15. Indianapolis (6.00)
  16. NY Giants (5.57)
  17. San Diego (5.56)
  18. Detroit (5.35)
  19. NY Jets (5.24)
  20. Washington (5.18)
  21. Tennessee (5.14)
  22. Carolina (4.66)
  23. Minnesota (4.19)
  24. Dallas (4.02)
  25. Green Bay (3.83)
  26. Jacksonville (3.77)
  27. Buffalo (3.63)
  28. Atlanta (3.50)
  29. New Orleans (3.22)
  30. Baltimore (2.75)
  31. Philadelphia (1.90)
  32. Oakland (0.89)

Those of you who followed along last year will notice something immediately improved – I’ve quantified an “expected score” for each team rather than just an ordered ranking! These are based off of ESPN Standard scoring options, and as with any model at the moment, they are heavily dependent on statistics from 2012. However, as we accumulate more data from 2013, we can expect to see them sharpen week-to-week.

A word on methodology

All of the expected team totals are derived from Vegas scoring totals. Also, I am assuming that every team is roughly equivalent (or that the “skill” is sufficiently random) when it comes to converting turnovers (either fumbles or interceptions) into touchdowns. For 2012, fumbles forced were converted into defensive touchdowns 4.95% of the time, whereas interceptions were converted into touchdowns at the sweet, sweet rate of 15.17%.

Eh, the 9ers suck anyway (and other things a Seahawks fan might say)

As of this Tuesday evening, ESPN suggests that the following D/STs are owned in 100% of all leagues: Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, New England, San Francisco, Seattle, and Houston. Pittsburgh are also close enough at 97.5%. However St. Louis (89.8%), Tampa Bay (32.5%), Cleveland (7.7%), and Arizona (22.2%) are all featured in the top 10 of my list! If you’ve got the roster space and you’re holding San Francisco or Cincinnati, you’ll have the option to squeeze out an extra 3 points of expectation this week by playing the waiver wire. Even those of us in deep leagues should have solid plays available on the waiver wire, so if you drafted a D/ST like Dallas (oh god, why?) or Kansas City (hey, I think they might be fine this year) in a 16-team league, don’t be afraid to drop them for Tampa Bay or Cleveland this week.

Obviously, no one should be looking to drop San Francisco or Cincinnati this week. The more-hyped D/STs will probably average more points over 16 games, but last year’s exercise in ranking taught me that in maximizing D/ST scoring, we don’t care about 16-game averages. Instead, D/ST scoring is incredibly situational, and tier 1 or tier 2 options are often available on the wire every week.

Just keep in mind that of the top four options off the waiver wire, only Arizona (versus Detroit) have a particularly exploitable week 2 matchup. St Louis (at Atlanta), Tampa Bay (versus New Orleans), and Cleveland (at Baltimore) are all pretty wretched, but we will survey the rest of that landscape after week 1 has been decided.

As for me? I’m starting my title defense with St. Louis D/ST holding down the fort. The Arizona Cardinals paid off D/STs like a slot machine last year, and I don’t see any reason to think those days are over yet.

Potential pitfalls

It’s only Week 1. In fact, Week 1 has yet to begin! It remains to be seen how teams have changed since last year. Injuries happen every day. Players’ motivations or drive may change from week-to-week or within a single game. Sometimes weird stuff happens. In trying to distill countless variables into a single number, we will inevitably miss important factors. However, we will also filter out much of the statistical noise that our brains do not intuitively do for us.

I’ll leave you with a parting thought for the weekend: The difference I’ve calculated between starting Cleveland D/ST over Green Bay D/ST this week (3.75 points) is more of a difference than starting Ray Rice over Shonn Greene was over every game last year. Being able to eke out every extra advantage week after week is how fantasy football championships are won or lost.

Best of luck in week 1!


Dylan Lerch

@dtlerch on Twitter

Win Your League This Week? Want to thank the Nerdball staff for helping you achieve glory? Feel free to throw something in the tip jar. It's up to you how much you want to donate, so be as generous as you want!


  1. Aaron

    September 5, 2013 at 12:24 am

    I have been playing for years and did not realize that there was that big a difference in D’s. Ill be watching this column closely!

  2. kelly reid

    September 5, 2013 at 4:45 am

    Dylan “I’m The Front Page Of the Internet” Lerch. yeah.

  3. Pingback: Defense Wins Championships, Week 2 - Nerdball Magazine

  4. Pingback: Defense Wins Championships, Week 3 - Nerdball Magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>