A year ago (when the whole world was laughing at Jon Gruden), it would have been inconceivable that “a higher-priced Raiders running back” would shape up as potentially one of the chalkiest plays on the weekend — but here we are. The 5-4(!) Raiders are set to take on the 0-9(!) Bengals — a team that has given up more notable stat lines on the ground than any other team in the league while allowing 4.79 yards per carry to backs and ranking 29th in DVOA against the run. This Bengals team is in such rough shape, they handed the ball off 30 times to Joe Mixon last week in a 36-point loss, and talked openly afterward about how they were working on some things in their run game and didn’t see any reason to make things more difficult on Ryan Finley than they already were by asking him to throw relentlessly against an ears-pinned-back defense facing obvious passing situations. From a logical standpoint, that actually all makes sense (as I’ve said before: as unpopular as this take is, I actually like this coaching staff) — but it’s also a very clear and obvious answer (as if we didn’t have one already by this point) to the question we asked in our preseason preview of this team: are the Bengals using this year to try to win games (i.e., calling games around their personnel in an effort to win ugly in whatever way possible), or are they instead using this year to try to build the foundations of their system? It would be nice to see this team improving throughout the season more than they have (not all coaches can be Brian Flores — who, in addition to being demanding of his players, would be a really easy coach to get behind and play for), but the main takeaway here is that this team is more interested in running things the way they run things and “using games as practice” than they are in creating some sort of unexpected approach to sneak away with a victory.
We’ll start on the Raiders’ side of the ball, then, where there is really nothing the Bengals can do with the personnel on hand to become better against the run than they are — and as noted all season (starting in Week 1 against Chris Carson) :: the Bengals are an above-average run defense up the gut; but there is just nothing they can do to stop runs to the edges. The Raiders’ rushing attack — as we all know by now — is built around getting to the edges, with 67% of Josh Jacobs’ explosive runs this year coming off-tackle or off the edge. The Bengals are facing 24.3 running back rush attempts (and 29.2 running back touches) per game, while Jacobs has 75% of the Raiders’ running back carries this year. The Bengals’ 24.3 running back rush attempts faced per game also fails to account for the fact that this defense has faced Russell Wilson, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, Gardner Minshew, and Lamar Jackson (twice), with these quarterbacks combining for 58 rush attempts. There aren’t many game flow scenarios in which Jacobs falls shy of 20 touches.
The Bengals are facing the lowest opponent pass play rate in the league (while the Raiders are the fifth run-heaviest team in football — trailing only the 49ers, Ravens, Vikings, and Colts, while just topping the Seahawks and Cowboys), and with the limited pass attempts this team is facing, they have incredibly faced the fewest wide receiver targets in the NFL. The matchup is non-threatening for opposing passing attacks, as Cincy is boosting league-average YAC/r by an incredible 41% — but between the low aDOT this team forces (7.3% shaved off the league-average aDOT) and the roughly league-average catch rate allowed, only two pass-catchers all year have topped 100 yards in this spot, with Dede Westbrook going 6-103-0 and Cooper Kupp going 7-220-1. The Raiders have not yet had a wide receiver top eight targets, so you’re looking for efficiency (likely in the form of a busted play and a big YAC gain) if going here this week.
The Bengals have been less “stingy” to tight ends, ranking middle of the pack in most categories to the position — and it seems likely, with Gruden calling the shots, that the Raiders stick to their general approach throughout most of this game, which should net five to eight targets for Darren Waller (recent target counts of 8 // 5 // 8 // 8 // 2 // 5). Waller has failed to top 53 yards in five of his last six games (as noted throughout the season, his role doesn’t typically carry him downfield), but he should be able to post efficient production on whatever targets are there this week.
The Bengals’ side is interesting largely in that it cannot help but be noticed that Mixon had 30 carries in a blowout loss, and it seems likely that most content providers (and thus, a large chunk of the field) will simply apply that as a trend moving forward. The Bengals’ coaching staff, however, has seemed to specifically pin that decision to the opponent they were facing (i.e., ‘We know we don’t have a good offensive line, so why allow the Ravens to blitz our young QB all day when there’s literally no way we’re coming back in this game anyway?’). It’s still Ryan Finley under center (with A.J. Green still out and John Ross still joining him), but against an Oakland team that ranks 29th in DVOA against the pass, this spot is interesting in that it’s a good matchup that no one will be on. The Raiders have allowed the seventh most passing yards and the second most passing touchdowns. Only five teams have allowed more yards to wideouts and only six teams have allowed more touchdowns. The Raiders have also allowed the second most touchdowns to tight ends, the third most yards per pass attempt, and the fifth most fantasy points per game to quarterbacks. Perhaps most importantly for the Bengals’ young QB (behind their awful offensive line), the Raiders rank near the bottom of the league in pressure rate — and they’re now down Arden Key, who ranks seventh on the team in pressures. Finley threw only two passes 20+ yards downfield last week and otherwise primarily stayed within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, but the same was the case for Andy Dalton against the Ravens, while Cincy was comfortable allowing Dalton to open things up more against the Jags and Rams in the weeks that followed. Again: it’s Ryan Finley. But the Ravens are allowing 14.73 fantasy points per game to QBs (Finley scored 10.88), while the Raiders are allowing 22.34.
The target distribution for the Bengals was roughly the same with Finley under center as it had been with Dalton, with Tyler Boyd seeing eight out of 30 looks (recent target counts of 14 // 7 // 14 // 9 // 8) and Auden Tate seeing six out of 30 looks (recent target counts of 6 // 11 // 6 // 13 // 6). Alex Erickson checked out early with a back issue and is currently looking questionable for this week, while Stanley Morgan filled in for Erickson and saw four looks of his own. Tyler Eifert (four targets), Joe Mixon (three targets), and Giovani Bernard (one target) soaked up the scraps.
The matchup is less helpful on the ground, where the Raiders have allowed only one running back (Dalvin Cook) to top 100 yards against them this season. Mixon finally had his first 100-yard game of the year last week — though again, this came on 30 carries (with Gio getting hurt, then ruled out, then eventually returning), and as explored above: there is certainly no guarantee that this type of usage shows up again in this spot.
JM’s Interpretation ::
As always when guesswork is introduced, you could side with what the field is likely thinking here and assume another large workload for Mixon (which would make him a solid mid-priced option — as would be the case for almost any running back seeing 30+ touches!), and the Bengals are starting to incorporate more man/gap run blocking looks in place of the zone scheme that has been failing so miserably for them (a zone-blocking scheme should allow a lesser line to still block effectively, but this unit has simply not come together the way they needed to), which could make this a more effective rushing attack down the stretch.
While I’ll likely avoid Mixon myself (or have minimal exposure if I do go to him), the Bengals’ pass catchers stand out to me a bit in tourneys — as “a big game” is not the likeliest scenario for any of these guys, but it’s a far likelier scenario than the field will assume. If going here, Boyd will be my first choice, but Tate and (if he is healthy) Erickson will also be viable options.
On the Raiders’ side, the pass catchers will likely land as deeper Tier 3 plays — with their best path to production being a game in which the Bengals do a good job through the air and keep this game close enough for some volume to show up; though the golden play over here, of course, is Jacobs, who should clear 20 touches fairly easily, and who has plenty of upside in this spot. Jacobs’ pass game role still leaves something to be desired (he saw a season-high five looks last week, but he’s had three or fewer targets in every other game this year, and he has yet to top 30 yards through the air), but his touches and his red zone role (third in red zone carries; sixth in carries inside the 10) create plenty of clear opportunities for good things to happen.
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