With the exception of a few players, you have to play the matchups in fantasy football. That’s especially true with running backs, who can go from a 20-point outing one week to being completely erased the next week. Why is that? Defense. Every season there are a handful of teams that can wipe out the ground game every week, even holding down studs like Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry.
On the flip side, you can always count on a handful of teams that will be an absolute gift to fantasy owners, getting rolled over by even the most average of running backs. Knowing who those teams are, not to mention when your starters are playing against them, will go along way toward giving you a big boost in crucial weeks.
Worst run defenses in 2020
Houston Texans: If you had Derrick Henry on your fantasy team last season when he ran through the Texans defense—or you lost because you played against him in one of those weeks—you know just how bad Houston’s defense was. Henry topped 200 yards in both games and scored four times. Houston allowed an average of 160 rushing yards per game and gave up a total of 24 rushing touchdowns.
Detroit Lions: The Lions didn’t have the worst overall numbers for rushing defense, at least not with the traditional measures, but not even the Texans gave up as many fantasy points to running backs. Besides being easy to gash on the ground (139 yards per game, 27 touchdowns), the Lions were the worst in the NFL when it came to stopping running backs in the passing game. Detroit allowed the position to rack up a league-worst 770 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags gave up 23 rushing touchdowns last season, fourth-most in the NFL, along with an average of more than 153 yards per game. Sure, they had to play Derrick Henry and the Titans twice, but Joe Mixon of the Bengals had 181 total yards and three touchdowns against them in Week 4.
Las Vegas Raiders: The Raiders tied for the second-most rushing touchdowns allowed (24) last season, while giving up an average of more than 125 rushing yards per game.
Projecting the worst run defenses in 2021
Houston Texans: The Texans are a mess, but you knew that already. This defense returns two starters who were a huge problem against the run last year: linebacker Zach Cunningham and safety Justin Reid, who together accounted for 37 of the team’s 142 broken tackles last season.
Detroit Lions: How many of the Lions’ defensive problems last season can be attributed to the messy end of Matt Patricia’s reign? It’s hard to say, but the team’s offseason moves don’t herald a greatly improved unit here. It doesn’t help that the scoring-challenged offense is going to leave the defense on the field for too many snaps.
Cincinnati Bengals: The lone bright spot for the Bengals defense last season was their relative success in keeping opposing running backs out of the end zone. Most of that is thanks to two very good safeties, Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell. Unfortunately, the guys in front of them are mostly not great at what they do (the linebackers) and well past their prime (the defensive line.)
Best run defenses in 2020
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Sure, Tom Brady got all the press, but there would have been no Super Bowl win without this defense. Last season, the Bucs were the best in the NFL, allowing just 80 rushing yards per game and giving up 10 scores on the ground all season.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints gave up just 11 rushing touchdowns last season, tied for the second-best mark in the league. New Orleans was also one of just five teams to allow an average of less than 100 rushing yards per game (93.9). But in terms of fantasy points allowed, in traditional formats, they gave up the fewest average points per week to running backs.
Indianapolis Colts: Teams struggled to get anything going on the ground against the Colts, who allowed just over 90 rushing yards per game and gave up just 16 rushing touchdowns all season. This was a team that gave up just 63 rushing yards to Dalvin Cook last season.
Los Angeles Rams: Sure, everyone talks about Aaron Donald and the terror he brings to quarterbacks, but he also had 41 stops. The entire unit allowed just over 91 rushing yards per game and gave up 12 total rushing scores. Unfortunately for the Rams, maybe no unit on this list was hit as hard by offseason personnel losses.
San Francisco 49ers: The Niners gave up just 12 rushing touchdowns all season and an average of 106 rushing yards per game. They were the second-best team when it came to fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs.
Projecting the best run defenses in 2021
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This defense only got better.
Washington Football Team: The WFT was absolutely monstrous against the pass last year, but they were also pretty good at stopping the run and fourth-best in points allowed to opposing running backs. While this group’s sack numbers are going to get all of the attention, it’s an incredible unit at stopping the run from front to back. And they’re a deeper unit this year thanks to the addition of first-round pick linebacker Jamin Davis and the return of safety Landon Collins.
San Francisco 49ers: Health was a big problem for the Niners defense last season, more so in the secondary, and they still managed to finish as one of the best defensive units in the NFL, certainly against the run. The point is, imagine if they have a little more luck with injuries this season. The key to this team’s run defense is linebacker Fred Warner, whose first three years proved his worth and landed him a five-year, $95 million extension shortly before camp opened.
Honorable mentions: Pittsburgh Steelers, Indianapolis Colts, and New Orleans Saints. All three of those teams should be run-stopping stalwarts this season too.