RAVENS // BENGALS OVERVIEW
This AFC North matchup pairs a couple of sinking ships to see which team can stick around in the playoff conversation a bit longer (and to see which head coach is likelier to get the hook at the end of the year). The Bengals have tumbled to a 5-4 record with only one win in their last four games (to be fair: the losses came against the Steelers, Chiefs, and Saints), while the Ravens have lost three straight to fall to 4-5. Things have gotten so bad with the Cincinnati defense (32nd in yards per game…31st in points per game…31st in drive success rate allowed…26th in red zone touchdown rate allowed) that Teryl Austin has been fired, Marvin Lewis is taking over the defensive play-calling, and Hue Jackson (yes, that Hue Jackson) has been brought in to help with the offense. As for the Ravens: Joe Flacco is shaping up as a game-time decision — and while one function of fantasy sports is that people stop worrying about how the sport is played and instead care only about “talent” and “measurables,” Baltimore clearly does not feel that Lamar Jackson is ready to run the offense just yet, as they are not only willing to let Flacco play without practicing, but there is also talk that Robert Griffin III will start at quarterback if Flacco misses. Because we are unlikely to truly have clarity on this spot until Sunday, we’ll move forward with this writeup and work around the unknowns — breaking down the Ravens in a standard manner up top, and using the “Interpretations” section to sort through the adjustments that I’ll be making in expectations if Flacco sits. Hopefully before Sunday morning we get a better feel for who will be under center.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
The Ravens have played at the second fastest pace in the NFL, they have thrown the ball at the eighth highest rate, and they have played great defense — all of which has added up to allow this team to lead the NFL in plays per game, making it all the more incredible that they rank only 15th in yards per game and 17th in points per game. Their play volume should be locked in place this week against a Cincy team that ranks 31st in time of possession and has allowed the second most opponent plays per game (one year after the Bengals ranked dead last in both categories), while the matchup against a pass defense that ranks 26th in yards allowed per pass attempt should provide a further boost. Cincinnati allows an above-average aDOT, an above-average catch rate, and an average YAC/R mark. Only six teams have allowed more receptions to wide receivers, and only three teams have allowed more yards. The Bengals have also allowed the second most pass plays of 20+ yards.
Targets among Ravens wide receivers across their last three games have looked like this:
Most of the major damage against the Bengals has come from true Number One Receivers, with Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Julio Jones all hammering this team for big lines — but guys like Mohamed Sanu and Adam Humphries have come through as well, creating some optimism for this group.
Brown can be comfortably projected for around seven targets each week, with three games in which he has risen above that mark. This team appears to be past the point where they will force-feed JB looks, and he has connected on only 50.7% of the targets that have come his way — but while this lowers his floor, his downfield role and the matchup combine to keep his ceiling intact.
Crabtree has fallen shy of eight targets only three times all year — but two of those three have come in his last two games. Crabtree leads the NFL with 10 dropped passes (four more than anyone else in the league), and his YAC/R rate of 2.7 is a full 2.1 yards shy of his xYAC/R — so it makes sense for this offense to phase him out as much as they can. With very little to work with behind Crabtree, however, he is still going to see his looks. He has topped 66 receiving yards only once all season, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he cracks that mark this week.
Snead has seen an increase in work lately as a more reliable set of hands, but he has not topped 60 yards in a game this year, and he has only one touchdown and a measly three red zone targets on the season. This team ranks first in the NFL in pass attempts, yet Flacco has only two games all season of 300+ yards.
This passing attack wraps up with a three-way tight end rotation (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Hayden Hurst) that has combined for 19 total targets across the Ravens’ last two games, with none of these individual players hauling in more than four catches in a game, and with a max of 50 receiving yards.
RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
The Bengals have also been generous to running backs — allowing the fifth most yards per carry and the third most running back touchdowns. There is nothing in this matchup that should scare us away, as we have been targeting this unit with running backs for nearly two months now. The one thing that makes this matchup less appealing is the Ravens’ backfield itself.
Alex Collins has topped 12 carries only once in his last six games, and he has not yet rushed for even 70 yards in a game this year. With only 15 catches on the season, it is difficult to get excited about the upside he provides. He’ll need a couple long plays or a multi-score game to become a usable piece.
Now that Ty Montgomery has had the bye week to learn the Ravens’ playbook, we also do not know how he and Javorius Allen will see their playing time divvied up. Allen has only five carries across his last four games, but he has averaged four targets per game in that stretch. It won’t be surprising to see Montgomery cut into some of that work, and it won’t even be a shock if he takes over some of Collins’ work as well. As with the Baltimore tight end rotation: it is unlikely we see one guy emerge as a go-to option in this group.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
The Bengals’ offense is in disarray — ranking 25th in yards per game, 31st in time of possession, and 29th in plays per game. They will be taking on a Baltimore team that allows the second fewest yards per game and the second fewest points per game in the league. As of this writing, we do not yet have a line for this game (Vegas is waiting for more clarity on the Flacco situation), but it won’t be surprising if the Bengals end up with the second-lowest Vegas-implied total on the slate, ahead of only the Raiders.
Baltimore’s pass defense has paired a below-average aDOT allowed with the lowest catch rate allowed and the second lowest YAC/R rate allowed — adding up to the fewest yards per pass attempt allowed this season. Only two teams have allowed fewer passing touchdowns. Only six teams have more sacks.
When these teams last played, Tyler Boyd busted out for a 6-91-1 line in Week 2 — announcing himself to those who were paying attention, and setting us up to capture the great Boyd run that began in Week 3. This week, Boyd will be the only guy for Andy Dalton to really throw to, as A.J. Green (in spite of some optimism from Marvin Lewis) is expected to miss at least a couple more games. Dalton threw only 20 passes last week (a more comfortable projection is 33 to 38 attempts in this spot, against a fast-paced Baltimore team that allows a middling number of opponent plays per game), so Boyd’s four targets should be taken with a grain of salt. A fair projection for this spot is something like eight to 10 looks, in one of the more difficult wide receiver matchups in football. Baltimore has allowed the eighth fewest catches and the second fewest yards to the position.
If Green returns, he will be playing at less than 100% in an obviously-challenging draw, though he should return to his typical eight to 10 looks. He would be a “talent over matchup” bet.
With Green out of action last week, John Ross played 36 out of 43 snaps, Cody Core played 20 snaps, and Alex Erickson played 16. Core went 2-17-0 on two targets; Erickson saw zero looks; and Ross unsurprisingly caught only two of his six targets (he now has a 40.9% catch rate on the year), for 39 yards and a touchdown.
The “best” matchup goes to C.J. Uzomah, as the Ravens have allowed the 10th most catches and the 10th most yards to tight ends. Uzomah has topped four targets only once this season, and he has finished under 25 receiving yards in five of his last seven games.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
Baltimore has also been stout against the run, ranking ninth in yards allowed per carry while giving up only five total touchdowns to the position (the third lowest mark in the league). No team has allowed fewer receiving yards to running backs, creating a difficult spot for Joe Mixon all the way around — on a struggling offense with a low scoring expectation.
Even with Giovani Bernard missing most of these games, Mixon has recent touch counts of 15 // 16 // 24 // 13, as this offense has had a tough time sustaining drives, and this team has been constantly playing from behind. This is a good spot to point out that these “playing from behind” games came against the Steelers, Chiefs, and Saints — creating an opportunity this week for Mixon to rise back to 20+ touches — but the matchup still leaves you betting on talent and workload. At his elevated price, Mixon will almost certainly require a multi-touchdown game to become a difference-maker on the slate.
Behind Mixon (29 out of 43 snaps last week), Gio played only 12 snaps. His role may grow a bit moving forward, but this should be Mixon’s backfield for the remainder of the year.
In spite of the quality matchup for the Ravens’ passing attack, this team spreads volume too thin and has shown too little upside for me to have much interest in any individual pass catcher, regardless of who is under center. Of course, the matchup does create a case for targeting JB for upside or even taking a “floor with upside” shot on Crabtree or Snead, but there will prove to be better on-paper plays than this. The most appealing spot on this team would be the tight end position — but with Hurst, Andrews, and Boyle continuing to rotate, it would be nothing but a guessing game to target this spot.
The Ravens’ hesitation to pull the trigger on Jackson or RGIII with Flacco ailing tells us a lot about the comfort level they feel with these other two at the moment. If one of these two starts, I don’t expect to find my interest in these pass catchers suddenly rising; the matchup means that any of these wide receivers have upside for a good game — but a QB change would not provide any sort of “floor” boost, leaving these guys in the same category for me as before.
One change that could occur for me if Flacco misses is interest in the Baltimore QB position, as RGIII or Jackson would carry dual-threat upside in a tremendous matchup. Frankly, Jackson will likely be overhyped (and over-owned) if he starts — on a slate with plenty to like at quarterback, including plenty to like among cost-effective options. As a raw rookie in his first career game (in an offense that is not all that good), there is no guarantee he performs well; but the matchup would obviously give him a boost. Of course, it appears right now that the likeliest scenario is RGIII starting if Flacco sits. This would be easier for me to ignore, as RGIII looked “good not great” in the preseason, and an RGIII start would likely include several packages in which Jackson is on the field.
As much as I have loved attacking the Bengals with running backs this year, it would also be tough to go there with the Ravens’ multi-headed attack. It won’t be a shock if Collins posts a useful game or if Montgomery takes on a larger role than expected — but neither guy has week-winning upside, and there are better plays than this.
On a slate with plenty to like in other spots, I’ll leave the Bengals alone myself. If you want to go here: there is a case to be made for Boyd as a low-owned number one receiver in a “tough, but not impossible” matchup. Boyd’s floor is low here, but it wouldn’t be crazy to see him go something like 6-90-1 again, and if he added another touchdown to that line he could be a solid piece. Of course…there are wide receivers priced close to him who are genuinely likely to post a line like that — making it tough for me to justify taking on such a low floor to get there.
The same “game theory” case could be made for Mixon (low ownership, and not crazy to think he could post a strong game). But again: if taking on this floor, I would want upside for a true top-of-the-slate score, and I’m just not seeing that this week.