There are two very clear ways that this game could play out (along with a few other tributaries you could consider), but there is only one scenario that should truly capture our attention in DFS. We’ll hit that scenario in a moment; but first:
Last week, we talked in the NFL Edge and on the Angles Podcast (where they were our cheap defense of the week) about the fact that the 49ers defense might very well be good this year. Their defensive line is one of the scariest in football; their linebackers are smart and talented; and their secondary — while lacking in marquee names behind Richard Sherman (who is still good, but is more technique than talent at this point in his career) — is assignment-sound and not really a matchup-booster when paired with this pass rush. This week, they are taking on the Bengals without A.J. Green (and with Joe Mixon potentially hobbled), while Andy Dalton will be playing behind a poor line that should allow plenty of pressure from this front of the 49ers.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers didn’t have a great training camp on offense, and this carried over into Week 1, where they played poorly against a non-threatening Buccaneers unit. And for how bad the Bengals were last year on defense, they entered last season with most expecting them to be an elite unit; and it is likely this year that they prove to be at least average. The Bengals also showed a level of adaptability on defense in last week’s game (more on this in a bit) that speaks to smart coaching from Lou Anarumo. Anarumo was focused this offseason on coaching and perfecting technique from his players, and while this is not enough to make up for a talent gap against a smart, talented offense, this could be enough for the Bengals to give plenty of trouble to an offense that has shown sloppy play so far in 2019.
Honestly, these two elements drag the “likeliest scenario” for this game down, to a point where we would expect this game to finish under its early-week line of 44.5 more times than not if we played out this slate a hundred times. There are individual pieces in this game that you could lean on with a decently high level of confidence even if those scenarios hold true (George Kittle, to a lesser extent Matt Breida, and if Mixon unexpectedly misses, Giovani Bernard), but what should interest us in tourneys is just how extreme this game could swing to the other side. If you watched the Bengals game against the Seahawks, you’ll know there are reasons to be optimistic about this team.
The Bengals showed an aggressive mindset in their game against the Seahawks, with a wide variety of looks and plays tailored around the specific skills of their individual pieces. John Ross benefited the most from this adaptability from Zac Taylor — as the rookie head coach schemed looks for Ross all over the field and squeezed more production out of him than Marvin Lewis ever thought possible. But even beyond Ross, this offense looked quick and comfortable chewing up yards in Seattle.
If Taylor’s adaptability as a coach stretches into Week 2, one of the shifts we’ll likely see is a heavier focus on the run. While the Bengals were facing a team last week with an above-average run defense and a poor secondary, they will get to take on the 49ers’ wide nine, ears-pinned-back pass rush (full of individual pieces who are much better against the pass than they are against the run). While most of the public’s attention will likely be on Ross, there are reasons to consider “Cincy RB” in tourneys. The best case for us in DFS would be for Mixon to be announced out late, and for Gio to get all the work as a run/pass option in a matchup that sets up well. Though even if we don’t end up with that scenario, Mixon would become viable in large-field tourneys for the low ownership and upside he would pair.
It’s not crazy or point-chasey to go after Ross this week, either, as the Bengals used him creatively, all over the formation and from different sets and motions, and tried to make things easy on him while making things difficult on the defense. Ross is still going to have some boom/bust to his game, so if ownership swings too far, it would be +EV to go underweight and hope he hits one of his duds (especially as his duds have potential to be craters, which opens opportunity to jump past those who overreact to one game). But taking out game theory, Ross is a solid upside piece once again. Tyler Boyd will be featured in the short areas of the field — and while he had a couple opportunities for a bigger game last week, his ultra-low 7.5 yards per reception remind us that he will need a busted play or multiple touchdowns to reach week-winning upside at his price (not impossible, but not “likely,” either).
The Bengals’ defense last week slowed down the Seahawks’ power running game by mixing in usage of five-lineman sets — masking their deficiencies at linebacker while maximizing their strength up front. This exact approach won’t be effective against the 49ers, as Breida’s game is built on getting to the edge in a zone rushing scheme (which, we should note, gives Breida a little jolt of additional upside as well, as he’ll be able to take advantage of a major weakness of the Bengals if the 49ers can get him to the second level); but the big takeaway for me was the adaptability of Anarumo to what the Seahawks wanted to do. (Anarumo also showed this adaptability in heavily double-teaming Tyler Lockett and forcing Russ to beat them through the air with other pieces — a factor that introduces some concern on Kittle as a cash game piece, as he’s the player the Bengals would be most likely to try to isolate this week.)
One way to look at this matchup is to think that Anarumo could be equally adaptable this week against San Francisco (maybe shifting into a big-nickel at times to increase speed to the edges), and could come up with something that will work. Another thought is that he had all offseason to prepare for that first game against the Seahawks, so he may just roll with the base defense and hope Breida doesn’t find cutback lanes to the second level. (Breida is priced almost exactly right on both sites for his median projection; but from a ceiling perspective, he’s an interesting guy to keep on the back burner for cash games, and he’s a strong upside option in tourneys.) I expect we’ll see some mix of those two thoughts this week from the Bengals — but either way, they’ll need some things to go right in order to keep Breida from at least a solid game.
If the 49ers get the run game going, this could also open opportunities for big plays from George Kittle as the 49ers use the run success to get the defense out of position for big pass plays (especially effective with Kittle, as they can boot out and bring him across the field so that he only has a couple of defenders to beat for a long YAC score). This means that Kittle and Breida can be used on the same tourney roster if you want to bet on this balance of play calls for the 49ers going well; and it also can be included in the scenario alluded to above — the one that could really lead to this game mattering on the slate — in which the 49ers and Bengals both put up points, and this game becomes a sneaky way to pick up upside for your rosters.
The rest of the 49ers are pretty “hope and pray” right now, as it has been a while since Jimmy Garoppolo has looked like a guy you would want to bet on for the top quarterback score (or even a top point-per-dollar score) on the slate, while the 49ers pass catchers behind Kittle are merely dart throws after none of them saw more than three targets last week.
JM’s Interpretation ::
I like both of the defenses in this spot in tourneys, as the Bengals may be able to build another winning game plan and capitalize on Garoppolo’s mistakes, while the ferocious line of the 49ers could pile up sacks against the Bengals’ uninspiring offensive line. The likeliest scenario in this game is that a few mistakes, sacks, turnovers, etc. lead to the points not quite keeping up with the potential — making these defenses worth thinking about in tourneys, and making the offensive pieces in this game less intriguing for cash.
In looking at those deeper levels, however, I like Mixon as a large-field tourney play — a guy who feels riskier than he really is if he’s healthy, and who has enough upside to matter — while I’ll be holding out hope for Mixon to miss this game, and for his status to not be known until later in the week so we can get workhorse Gio at lower ownership. Ross is also in play in tourneys on this side of the ball (especially if you want to bet on points piling up in this game). I’ll likely be underweight against a sure-to-overreact field; but Ross’ Week 1 usage does indicate that his production wasn’t totally fluky, and you can make a clear case for chasing that upside again. (The only other pieces to really talk about on this team are Tyler Eifert and Damion Willis. For Eifert: his matchup isn’t great (as highlighted last week); and with so many tight ends to like on this week’s slate, he’s easy for me to avoid outside of large-field builds that want to bet on this game shooting out and Eifert being involved. The same could be said for Willis — though he’s even more of a long-shot to hit.)
On the other side, Kittle is probably safe enough for cash, though I would look to avoid him in that format myself (even on FanDuel where tight end pricing is so condensed), as it’s likely that Anarumo will be isolating Kittle as a guy he wants to take away. Questions on whether or not the Bengals actually have the pieces to pull off any such plans leave Kittle still very much in play in tourneys — and if Kittle has a big game, it increases the chances of this game environment as a whole being elevated to a point where a couple players on both sides of the ball end up mattering on this slate.
And at least on-paper, the best play in this game is Breida, who should see 14 to 17 touches, and who should be able to turn in a solid score at that level of involvement — with upside for some big plays against the Bengals second level.