BENGALS // CHARGERS OVERVIEW
When the Bengals headed into their Week 9 bye, this game looked very different on the schedule, as Cincinnati was sitting pretty at 5-3, and the Chargers were coming off their own bye in the midst of a four-game win streak with a 5-2 record. The Chargers extended that win streak to six before dropping a one-point game to the Broncos, and they currently control their own destiny for a playoff spot with a strong 9-3 record. The Bengals have lost four in a row since their bye, and they are essentially dead in the water in the AFC at 5-7, with no Andy Dalton and no A.J. Green. The Bengals have already fired their defensive coordinator, and they enter this game as massive 14.5 point underdogs (the largest spread on the slate). No team has a lower Vegas-implied total than the Bengals. Only two teams have a higher Vegas-implied total than the Chargers. Barring a complete breakdown by the Chargers, they will be in good position to control this game.
CHARGERS RUN OFFENSE
The days when we could target running backs against the Bengals at low ownership have long-since passed. Thirteen weeks into the season, the Bengals rank 24th in yards allowed per carry and have faced the most rush attempts in the NFL. With this team ranked 31st in drive success rate allowed and 26th in red zone touchdown rate allowed, they have managed to give up more running back touchdowns than any team in the league. The Raiders are the only team that has given up more rushing yards to running backs than the Bengals. Only six teams have allowed more receiving yards to backs.
Further benefitting the Chargers’ rushing attack here is the fact that their offense that ranked 30th in pass play rate before being forced to go pass-heavy in two of their last three games. As the largest favorite on this weekend’s slate, there is a good chance that we see another game for Philip Rivers under 30 pass attempts (which is where he has finished in six of his last eight games). The Chargers play at the slowest pace in the NFL and rank 29th in plays per game, but Cincy ranks 31st in time of possession and has allowed the second most opponent plays per game — which should add a few extra plays for this offense.
In last week’s game against the Steelers, Austin Ekeler dominated work in the first half — but after doing nothing for two-plus quarters and then dropping a screen pass in the second half, the Chargers plugged in seventh-round rookie Justin Jackson and watched him spark the offense. From that point forward, Jackson and Ekeler split time, with Ekeler playing in more passing situations and with Jackson carrying the load between the tackles. This week, head coach Anthony Lynn noted that Ekeler — as a core special teamer and a player they have used a lot at running back — is “wearing down,” and that they could use Jackson more. This comes across more as a good excuse to get Jackson involved on the ground than as the true reason for Ekeler to lose some work. The Chargers’ explosive change-of-pace back has looked more comfortable in that role than he has looked in his two stints this year as a lead back.
Ultimately, this still introduces some guesswork — but the likeliest setup here calls for Jackson and Ekeler to split work early in the game, with Jackson perhaps playing more snaps, but with Ekeler taking on a larger share of the passing work. In this scenario, Jackson would see more work as the game moves along and as the Chargers grind out the clock with a lead. There is also a chance that Jackson plays more of the Melvin Gordon role from the start, and that Ekeler returns to the role he has had throughout the year. Either way, the touches in this backfield will be valuable, in one of the top two or three matchups a running back can have.
CHARGERS PASS OFFENSE
The typically low-volume Chargers passing attack (pass attempt numbers for Rivers in his last eight games of 27 // 20 // 26 // 26 // 26 // 43 // 29 // 36 — with his 43 passes coming in a loss to the Broncos, and his 36 passes coming in comeback mode against the Steelers) is less exciting than the Chargers’ backfield. This has nothing to do with matchup, as the Bengals are adding 6.1% to the league-average aDOT and 2.4% to the league-average catch rate — ranking 26th in yards allowed per pass attempt and allowing the fifth most passing touchdowns in the league. Instead, it has to do with volume concerns in a game the Chargers should control. This team has shown a tendency to go run-heavy when playing with a lead, which could make it difficult for any of the players in this attack to reach their ceiling. If we assume expected game flow (i.e., a low-volume game from Rivers), here are the target counts on the Chargers in their six sub-30-pass games:
Travis Benjamin has also mixed in for one to three targets in his healthy games. The tight ends typically combine for around two to four targets.
If you want to bet on this high-powered passing attack in this butter-soft matchup, the best bet for production is Allen — who will have a tough time producing an elite price-considered score, but whose chances of failing in this spot are also slim. He has a good shot at seven targets even in a low-volume game for this passing attack as a whole.
Behind Allen, Tyrell and Mike could be chased for their big-play upside.
The likeliest path to a big game from one of these pass catchers is for the Bengals to unexpectedly jump out to a lead; as such, the best way to bet on this passing attack is to build a roster that tells this story.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
Of course…there is a reason the Bengals opened as 14.5 point underdogs here, with the lowest Vegas-implied total on the slate. This team is missing A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, and they will be taking on a Chargers defense that has allowed the eighth fewest yards per pass attempt and the ninth fewest passing touchdowns (allowing only three more than league-leader Minnesota). With a tight, zone-heavy coverage scheme and an elite four-man pass rush, the Chargers are forcing the fourth shallowest aDOT in the NFL while shaving 2.2% off the league-average catch rate. Across the last couple months, the Chargers have erased lower-quality passing attacks, holding Josh Rosen to 105 yards, Case Keenum to 205 yards, Derek Carr to 243 yards, Marcus Mariota to 237 yards, and pre-Kitchens Baker Mayfield to 238 yards.
Since ascending to the starting quarterback spot, Driskel has not embarrassed himself, going 46 of 70 (65.7%), but managing only 5.9 yards per pass attempt.
The player with the clearest shot at upside is Tyler Boyd, who will no longer benefit from A.J. Green drawing attention away from him — but who does have a slim shot to benefit from the usage he is seeing in this offense, as Cincy is using running backs and C.J. Uzomah on short-area routes, allowing Driskel to take intermediate shots to Boyd. Last week, five of Boyd’s eight targets came more than 10 yards downfield — with his other looks coming on a pair of bubbles out of the slot and a slant from the perimeter. He has a difficult matchup in the slot against Desmond King, who quietly carries PFF’s top coverage grade among all qualified corners — but King is still allowing a 79.7% completion rate on passes thrown into his coverage, limiting upside by forcing everything underneath. Boyd carries the low floor that is attached to this offense, but as the only viable option in this passing attack, he’ll be given chances to win in this tough draw.
On the outside, it will be John Ross dealing with Casey Hayward. Ross has now caught only 16 of 39 targets on the year (41.0%), for 189 total yards. His five touchdowns have provided a slim path to non-disappointing days. His big-play upside is more than theoretical, but he’s nothing more than a guess-and-hope play.
Behind these two, Cody Core, Alex Erickson, and Auden Tate have combined over the last two weeks for seven catches for 59 yards, on 15 targets. Core saw the most snaps last week (35 out of 68) with Tate a healthy scratch. Tate saw seven targets in Week 12 while playing 32 out of 74 snaps. He turned these seven targets into two receptions. All of these guys are in a difficult spot against the Chargers, with a backup quarterback under center.
This attack wraps up with C.J. Uzomah, who has an awesome 23 targets across the last three weeks, but with only 14 catches for 113 yards to show for these looks. Uzomah is seeing almost nothing up the seam, with most of his targets coming within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He has a tough matchup this week with Derwin James, who has helped the Chargers allow the eighth fewest tight end receiving yards in the league.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
In three of the Bengals’ last four games, they have mixed in Giovani Bernard enough for Joe Mixon to become an iffy-floor play with only a thin shot at price-considered upside. In these Gio-usage games, Mixon has touch counts of 13 // 15 // 14. He’ll need to hold onto a larger share of the workload this week in order to be relevant compared to other players in his price range. His shot at upside is further compromised by the likelihood of game flow working against him.
Gio is also seeing too little work to matter, with 11 touches last week, but with touch counts of 4 // 6 // 2 in the weeks leading up to that game. With the Bengals struggling to control the clock or sustain drives this year, there is a chance that this team runs too few plays for anyone to really make a dent against this tough Chargers defense.
The Chargers are the more appealing offense in this spot — with all eyes on the backfield. This has been one of the most effective and well-designed run games all season, and they will now be taking on one of the best running back matchups. Somewhere in the range of 30 to 35 combined touches for Jackson and Ekeler is not an outrageous projection, with Jackson likely to take on the larger share. There are some non-outlier scenarios in which Ekeler could actually outproduce Jackson — making him an interesting tourney name that most will overlook — but Jackson is the safer bet for a big workload, for clock-killing duties, and for goal-line work, and he should mix in two to four receptions along the way. I like him alongside Jaylen Samuels as one of the stronger salary-savers on the slate.
Outside of this backfield, I likely won’t bet on what I expect to be a low-volume passing attack, but there are paths to a strong game from Keenan Allen, and this offense would have a chance to smash if the Bengals somehow take (and hold) a lead. The game flow concerns in this spot could lower Allen’s ownership as well.
On the Bengals, I like Boyd more than I expected to, as the Bengals are continuing to hammer him with targets that provide opportunity for upside, and he could continue to rack up yards deep into this game if the Chargers take a big lead. He’s tourney-only in a tough matchup, at a still-elevated price, attached to a backup quarterback, but he has some clear paths to a strong game, and he’s a player most will overlook, making him a potential difference-maker if he does hit. The rest of this team is off the board for me. There are simply better plays on the slate.