BENGALS // COLTS OVERVIEW
This game has clocked in with a modest Over/Under and a surprisingly low Vegas-implied point expectation for the Bengals — creating a situation to potentially gain a small edge on the portion of the field that relies too heavily on Vegas totals. There are a few interesting pieces on the Bengals’ side of the ball against a Colts defense that should still be attackable throughout the 2018 season.
This is also a great week for us to get an early feel for the new Teryl Austin Bengals defense and the new Frank Reich Colts offense in a matchup that is less appealing for fantasy, and can therefore become a low-pressure “study situation.”
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
Only a couple teams faced more rush attempts than the Colts last year, but while the Colts finished near the bottom of the league in rushing touchdowns allowed, they were actually above-average in yards allowed per rush attempt, and the volume was due more to game flow than to teams “going out of their way to attack on the ground.” We should head into Week 1 viewing the Colts as a neutral run defense matchup, and we should still be viewing the Bengals’ offensive line as a trouble spot after they were arguably the worst unit in the league last year — with the additions of Cordy Glenn and rookie Billy Price not quite enough to pull them out of the slums.
Joe Mixon has garnered a lot of hype this offseason after averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per carry last year, and I’m a noted non-believer in Mixon as a self-creator (a sentiment that is backed up by him ranking 100th in the NFL among RBs in PFF’s Elusive Rating last year). I will be underweight on him in the early portions of the year until he proves me wrong — but if you are among the many Mixon truthers, it is worth noting that he received 18+ carries in three of his final five games last year, and he should be good for two to three targets (with potential for more targets if his preseason usage from the slot continues). Again: the Colts are a neutral matchup, so Mixon truthers should feel good about this spot. While touchdowns allowed can be fluky (i.e., I’m not putting too much stock in the Colts allowing an above-average number of rushing touchdowns last year), scoring-position usage is entirely non-fluky. Last year, Mixon ranked second in the NFL in percentage of team carries inside the five-yard-line.
Behind Mixon, Giovani Bernard will continue to play on passing downs, and is a sneaky bet for a bigger role than most are projecting after he quietly averaged 19 touches per game across the Bengals’ last five games last year — three of which were games in which Mixon played. He’s a -EV play on this slate, given his small guaranteed role on a week-to-week basis, but it won’t surprise me if he dashes off a big play or falls into the end zone, and he could be an interesting piece of a low-dollar game stack.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
The Colts’ pass defense was an absolute mess last year, allowing the most yards per pass attempt and the most pass plays of 20+ yards, while ranking near the bottom of the league in average depth of target and ranking in the bottom half of the league in YAC allowed per catch. The return of future superstar safety Malik Hooker and the turnover on the coaching staff will make this a unit to watch closely through the first few weeks, but heading into the season I am still bullish on this defense as a unit to attack in the pass game — especially with explosive weapons. In John Ross and A.J. Green, the Bengals happen to have two such weapons.
A.J. Green ranked eighth in the NFL last year in targets per game (8.9), and he ranked first in the NFL in percentage share of team air yards, vacuuming up 46.3% of the Bengals’ total air yards. Last year, the Bengals allowed the most opponent plays per game, leaving their offense on the short end of the volume stick (dead last in plays per game), which provides room for Green’s volume to grow — though it is also noteworthy that Andy Dalton has never proactively funneled targets to Green the way other QBs do with the league’s top receivers; in 2016, Green averaged 10.0 targets per game, but his 2015 and 2014 marks fell shy of his 2017 mark.
John Ross will likely settle in this year at around four-to-seven targets per game (a few short looks each week to get the ball into his hands, and a couple deep looks), and he’ll likely hover around a 50% catch rate. This makes him a boom/bust option, with the Colts elevating his “boom” potential. Tyler Eifert rounds out the viable pass game weapons here, against a Colts defense that ranked bottom-half last year in yards allowed to tight ends, and bottom-five in touchdowns allowed to the position. Expect around 35 to 45 plays from Eifert, with him resting sometimes when the Bengals are between the 20s, but coming onto the field near the end zone — giving him a modest (non-roster-breaking…or, I should say, non-back-breaking…(sorry)) floor, but a ceiling that many may overlook.
COLTS PASS OFFENSE
Outgoing Bengals DC Paul Guenther’s units focused on forcing short passes to the middle of the field (last year, only four teams allowed a shorter average depth of target than the Bengals), while new DC Teryl Austin’s Lions defense focused more on forcing the ball outside, staying aggressive, and tackling well after the catch. A new scheme would create some interesting shifts in our expectations for Bengals opponents this year, so this will be a great week to begin gathering information on forward-looking expectations. For now, we should continue to consider this to be a very difficult matchup for passing attacks, after the Bengals held receivers to 82.4% of league-average fantasy points on FanDuel and 84.2% of league-average fantasy points on DraftKings and FantasyDraft last year (the third- and fourth-best marks in the league, respectively). The Colts’ offensive line ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate last year, while the Bengals are shaping up to have a ferocious pass rush this season after racking up a respectable 40 sacks last year (13th in the NFL).
In spite of all the negative data points for the Colts’ passing attack, T.Y. Hilton and the tight ends all deserve some consideration. Hilton has averaged 9.9 more yards per game on the fast turf at Indy in his career than he has on the road, and on an offense bereft of difference-makers outside of him, he should be fed relentlessly; he’ll have some six- or seven-target games this season, but it won’t be surprising if he has an equal number of 13- or 14-target games. I expect Reich to proactively scheme the ball into his hands, often spacing out the defense in such a way that Hilton has room to run. He’ll have some monster games this year — likely including a couple against good defenses; and if the Bengals’ scheme has shifted to more of a Teryl Austin look than the Guenther look it had the last few years, this will play better to Hilton’s skill set.
The Bengals finished 30th in the NFL last year in DVOA against tight ends — part of a four-year slide that saw them drop from 4th in 2014 to the bottom of the barrel last season. The Colts will work in plenty of “12” personnel this season (two tight ends) under Reich, and Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle will both be used as pass catchers on a team lacking strong secondary options. I expect one of these two to finish as a top-12 tight end this week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one will rise. Behind these guys, Ryan Grant and Chester Rogers will split time on the field in low-volume roles.
COLTS RUN OFFENSE
Cincinnati struggled against the run last year, ranking 24th in DVOA and 22nd in yards allowed per carry, but the Colts’ backfield is nothing more than an early-season dart throw. Reich is expected to carry a system similar to the one instituted in Philly, which called for various backs to be featured in various game plans — leaving things unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. The Colts’ backfield is also a mess of question marks, with Marlon Mack dealing with a hamstring injury, Nyheim Hines struggling throughout camp and preseason, Jordan Wilkins showing average but uninspiring skill, and Christine Michael being ever-unpredictable. The Colts will have a number of games this year with a running back who performs well, but unless something changes in this backfield over the next few weeks, value would have to be unbelievably thin on a week before one of these guys could be considered a +EV play.
I won’t be on Mixon with all the other available value this week (watching preseason film, I still see a guy who is slow to make decisions, who is sloppy in his route-running, and who is average at making guys miss — all on an offense with a poor O-line and a third-down back who is a better pass-catcher and possibly even a better early-down back than he is), but if you are among the many Mixon Truthers, recognize that this is a neutral matchup. Mixon’s locked-in goal-line work is obviously a strong bonus.
I don’t need to pay up for A.J. Green in cash games or single-entry tourneys on a week when it is just as easy to climb up to Antonio Brown and his locked-in volume, but I love Green as a tourney play. Week-to-week volume unpredictability will always keep him out of the discussion of “safest high-priced WRs,” but his upside is mouthwatering in this spot. John Ross and Tyler Eifert are also very worthy tourney targets (each likely has a four-target floor, with nice upside), and it won’t surprise me if I find myself with a handful of teams led by Andy Dalton in lower-dollar tourneys, attempting to capitalize on a high-upside spot that should go fairly overlooked.
I will leave the Colts’ backfield alone. I may take a cheap tourney shot on T.Y. Hilton (he would look nice on a Dalton/Green/Ross-or-Eifert roster), and I will probably grab a bit of Doyle and Ebron exposure, while keeping them away from any significant portion of my bankroll for the week. The upside on those two is awesome, but the usage unpredictability will be frustrating this season.
Finally, the Bengals’ defense is a sneaky, deep tourney play. The Ravens will emerge from this article as pretty clearly the best play on the slate, but DST is a volatile position, and the Bengals will be an interesting tourney pivot in case Luck shows some rust in this one and the Bengals’ pass rush is as dominant as it looks like it should be. Guenther’s less aggressive scheme led to the Bengals finishing second from the bottom in turnovers forced last year, but Austin’s more aggressive scheme led to the Lions finishing third in the NFL in turnovers forced.