The buzz around the office as the weekend approaches centers around fantasy match-ups, match-ups, match-ups... "Who am I playing?" "Who are you playing?" "Who are my players playing?" Who are my players player's playing?" "I have a bad match-up." "You have great match-ups."
What constitutes a good vs. bad match-up? Project Halo has a few rules of thumb to consider (in order of importance):
1. Home vs. Away - this is the most important aspect of a running back's match-up. It has been statistically proven that running backs perform much better at home than on the road. Wide receivers and quarterbacks, however, only fair slightly better at home.
Why is this? Well, Project Halo believe that the nature of offensive and defensive line play determines much of what running backs are able to accomplish. Home conditions are much more conducive to run blocking as home team lineman control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. At home, offensive linemen are able to hear the snap count clearly and get off the ball quickly. On the road, offensive lineman cannot get off the ball as quickly due to the crowd noise. Offensive lineman are positively motivated by their home crowd, and conversely, are more susceptible to discouragement by hostile fans on the road, especially as the game wears on and the home team accumulates a lead into the fourth quarter.
Pass blocking, on the other hand, does not require explosion off the ball, and is made easier for road teams with the silent count. And with the advent of the West Coast Offense, passing attacks emphasize more short drops and timing patterns, which allows offenses to execute on the road even when their offensive lineman are being routinely beaten by good defensive lineman.
2. Opponent Defense - this is not ranked number one in importance because of uncertainty. Home vs. Away is a fact, but figuring out which teams have a "good defenses" vs. "bad defenses" is not a perfect science. In fact, it is often wrong.
Why is this? Well, early in the season, figuring which teams have good defenses is impossible, because year to year defensive personnel changes dramatically due to free agency, the draft, and aging. When the season starts, many unrelated factors can impact the number of points and yards allowed during the first three or four games: offensive personnel, offensive execution, weather, field position/special teams.
For example, Tennessee has played two jungle cats with no claws thus far. In week one, the Titans played the Jaguars who started Matt Jones and Dennis Northcutt at wide receiver. To no one's surprise, Garrard struggled to convert third downs and the Titans won 17-10. In week two, the Titans beat an undisciplined Bengals team in 50 mph Hurricane Ike winds. Neither game tells you much about Tennessee's defense.
Two weeks into the season, some "experts" are advising fantasy owners to sit Matt Schaub (!), because "the Titans have a great pass defense." Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but based on weeks one and two, it would be a fools errand to make a start 'em/sit 'em decision based on the strength of the Titans defense, because pinpointing good defenses early on is impossible. Start your best players (at home if possible) during the early part of the season and ignore their opponent.
As the season wears on, however, the opposing defenses begin to accumulate a number of games played sample size that allows fantasy owners to identify good vs. bad opposing defenses and factor that into start/bench decisions. Similar to home vs. away, statistics show that running backs fantasy production is significantly impacted by the opposing defense while wide receivers and quarterbacks are impacted only marginally.
Why is this? Well, Project Halo has found that the answer lies in the game situations faced by offensive players. In week one, the Texans were blown out at Pittsburgh, but Schaub, Walter, and Johnson all put up good fantasy numbers, because home teams with good defenses stop the run first and foremost, and often accumulate a double digit lead going into the fourth quarter. In that situation, even great defenses relax into a more preventative mode as the losing team begins passing exclusively. A couple meaningless touchdowns later, a losing quarterback or wide receive has put up a good fantasy day. Meanwhile, the losing team's running back ends the day with little production, barely seeing the field in the fourth quarter.
3. Weather - this is the most underrated factor. Bad weather (see Bengals vs. Titans) can inhibit teams from moving the ball up and down the field and ruin a fantasy day. If you see high winds or driving rain forecasted, bench that player if you have a suitable replacement.
4. Turf vs. Grass - this is an almost meaningless match-up factor. All stadiums have installed some form of synthetic/grass composite that provides for maximum drainage, traction, and cushion. So don't bench Torry Holt, because he is playing on "grass" and don't think that Steve Smith will be even quicker, because he's playing in a "dome." Be ware that there are rare exceptions, however. Last year, Heinz field was forced to install new turf grass after the field was destroyed by consecutive high school championship games. Therefore there are special cases where the playing surface can impact fantasy production.
In summary, match-ups matter, but not as much as many experts think. Project Halo recommends that you start your best players and not over-think things. Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson will be just fine whether the Titans are good or not.