Thursday, September 30, 2010

Return game a factor in defense roulette

By Michael Rushton

Philadelphia, PA - A friend of mine in college used to tell me about a certain dating practice he would use when trying to meet women.

Said friend told me that he would always start with the second most attractive female in the room and work his way down. His thinking was that while the rest of his competition was putting in time with the top target, he could walk away with a solid acquisition in a quicker and less painful timeframe.

(As to how often this worked for my buddy is another story.)

Fantasy owners often take this approach when drafting a defense/special team. While there are always people out there who are going to jump on the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings in the middle rounds, a healthy number of drafters would rather build bench depth and grab a unit towards the end of the selection process.

Those same owners will often drop and add different defenses throughout the season in a little game I like to call "defense roulette."

One factor some forget to consider is that of the return game. It can often be used as the deciding element when choosing between different teams, but one that can be overlooked.

Take the Seattle Seahawks for example. Yes, they have allowed 51 points over the last two weeks, but their most recent effort was salvaged thanks in part to a pair of kick returns for touchdowns by Leon Washington.

Washington is no stranger to the return game as he owns six career touchdowns on kickoffs. I guess we can all safely assume he is fully recovered from his series leg injury suffered a season ago and his game-breaking ability makes the Seahawks defense an attractive addition.

Upcoming matchups with the Rams, Cardinals and Raiders don't hurt either.

No, the Seahawks aren't going to pitch shutouts week in and week out, but if you decided to pass on an upper-tier defense, you need all the advantages you can get.

Below are some other defenses that might be available and could consider a look due to strong return games.

Chicago Bears - While it's okay if not everyone has heard of Washington, one would be hard pressed to find a fan of the NFL who doesn't know the name Devin Hester. The first player to ever take the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl to the end zone, Hester has sped 12 returns to the end zone during the regular season, a total he just added to Monday night versus Green Bay. Chicago isn't the regarded defense it once was, but it did just hold the high-powered Packers to 17 points and has an upcoming schedule of the Giants, Panthers, Seahawks and Redskins as well.

Kansas City Chiefs - Dexter McCluster was drafted in the second round by the Chiefs because of his ability to play multiple positions, but the one fantasy owners should be most enamored with is the return game. The Mississippi product is averaging 23.7 yards per punt return, including a 94-yard score, and another 18.7 yards on kickoffs. The 22-year-old should remain the focus of Kansas City's return game for the season and adds value to an already- surprising unit. Be aware the Chiefs are on a bye in Week 4.

Arizona Cardinals - Steve Breaston's elevation to the second wide receiver moved him out of the return game, but it has also opened a door for LaRod Stephens-Howling. The second-year running back took both a punt and a kickoff to the house a season ago and should have two returns for a score this year. However, a penalty negated one in Week 2 versus the Falcons, so owners had to settle for his 102-yard kick return this past weekend versus the Raiders. Eight of Stephens-Howling's 13 kick returns have gone for at least 20 yards and he is averaging 27.1 yards per return. Upcoming games against the Chargers and Saints before a bye should leave the Cardinals defense on the waiver wire for a few weeks, but the club still has plenty of games versus the NFC West left in addition to meetings with the Buccaneers and Panthers.

Buffalo Bills - The Bills are by far the riskiest pick on this list. They have allowed 72 points over their last three road games, host the suddenly potent Jets this weekend and play in a tough division. Not to mention they still have games versus the Ravens, Bengals and Steelers on the docket. Still, C.J. Spiller was drafted for a reason and his 31.2 average on kick returns isn't something to turn your head at. No, he isn't returning punts, but he does own one return touchdown and has taken all but two of his kick returns over 20 yards. At the very least, Spiller could cancel out some of Buffalo's defensive deficiencies and owners could catch lightning in a bottle on any given week.

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