BENGALS // STEELERS OVERVIEW
The Steelers may very well head into the offseason after Week 17 having to pick up the pieces and figure out what happened — having to answer questions about how a team that ranks fourth in points per game and 15th in points allowed per game (a team that could legitimately make a Super Bowl run if they make the postseason) ended up missing the playoffs. One simple answer is that the Steelers may in fact be the seventh best team in the AFC (in terms of average scoring margin, the Chiefs, Ravens, Chargers, Patriots, Colts, and Texans all rank ahead of the Steelers — and the smart money has those six teams making the postseason this year), while another answer is that the Steelers have simply had a difficult schedule, with close losses to the Chiefs, Chargers, and Saints. You could also talk about the refs in that game against the Saints, or the Boswell banana peel slip in Oakland…but when it comes down to it, this is a team that most people expected to be in the playoffs, and now they need a win and a Ravens loss to make it. The Steelers should be able to take care of business in this spot, where they have been installed as 14.5 point favorites at home against this hapless Bengals squad. Because the NFL — in spite of its flaws — remains an awesome product: the Ravens will be taking on Cleveland in the same time slot, and the Steelers will have to hope that Baker Mayfield and the upstart Browns are able to pull off the upset to flip the script when it’s all said and done.
On last week’s 12-game Main Slate, the Bengals — minus Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, and Tyler Eifert — shaped up as one of the worst offensive units to target in DFS, on the road against a solid, aggressive Browns defense. They lived down to expectations in that spot — managing only 18 points and only 209 yards (not a typo) of total offense. This week, the Bengals enter an even tougher spot, carrying the second lowest Vegas-implied team total on this 15-game slate into Pittsburgh, where they will face a defense that ranks third in sacks per game and has everything in the world to play for. While the Steelers are non-elite on defense (they rank 21st in pass defense DVOA, 26th in takeaways, and a middling 14th in drive success rate allowed), they do enough to make life consistently difficult on opponents — with a creative, blitz-heavy scheme that aims to get after the quarterback and make life uncomfortable — and the Bengals boast very little in the way of viable weapons at the moment, lowering expectations across the board. Last week, the Bengals trotted out a three-wide set of John Ross, Cody Core, and Alex Erickson. Ross has continued to play poor, unpolished, low-effort football — with two catches on 10 targets across the last two weeks, and with only 20 catches on 53 targets all year (37.7%). Core is not an NFL-caliber player, with 13 catches on 27 targets this year (48.1%), and with no games all season above 36 receiving yards. Erickson profiles as a slot-only player, and he has yet to top 35 receiving yards this year. If you want to bet on a wide receiver in this Jeff Driskel-led attack, Erickson has the best matchup against a Steelers defense that has struggled to defend the slot across the last month and a half. He will look to top his career-high in yardage (62) this week. The other “best matchup” in this passing attack belongs to C.J. Uzomah, who has recent target counts of 6 // 3 // 5 // 5, with recent yardage totals of 33 // 37 // 27 // 49. Yardage upside is slim for Uzomah, requiring him to score in order to produce strong value — though the Bengals should at least be chasing points in this spot, creating some opportunity once again for Uzomah to be more than a disappointment. His offensive environment as a whole is toxic, but he has an outside shot at coming through this week.
Of course, if the Bengals had their way, none of these players would matter, and this team would be able to control the game on the ground — leaning heavily on Joe Mixon and allowing him to carry them to victory (or at least to a competitive start-to-finish contest). In the same way that we expected the typically-attackable Browns run defense to collapse on the run last week and force Driskel to beat them, however, we should expect the strong Steelers run defense (seventh fewest yards allowed per carry // seventh fewest rushing yards allowed to running backs) to focus on taking away Mixon. If you want to go here, you can take heart in the fact that Mixon had 19 touches last week even in a blowout loss (after seeing 29 touches in a blowout win the week before and 31 touches in a close loss to the Chargers the week before that) — but with Boyd now off the field for this squad, it has become nearly impossible for them to sustain drives, making it tough for any player on this offense to truly gain the sort of slate-breaking score that we optimally want to be able to find on any player we roster.
The Steelers should be fully expected to play their core offensive pieces from start to finish in this spot — with everything in the world to play for when the game kicks off, and with no reason for the Steelers to “rest players” if it turns out in the late third quarter or early fourth quarter that the Ravens have pulled away from the Browns. Furthermore: the Steelers are not a “take the foot off the gas” kind of team, and we should expect them to play hard from start-to-finish here, looking to make a statement even if it turns out that they will not be playing beyond this week. On the year, the Steelers have point totals at home of 37 // 14 // 41 // 33 // 52 // 30 // 17 — with the 14-point game coming against the Ravens and the 17-point game coming against the Patriots. Both of those teams have extremely strong cornerback play that was able to slow down the elite wide receiver duo of the Steelers. The Bengals’ defense does not boast any such assets.
While all of this speaks to the upside of the Steelers’ offense as a whole, it is worth noting that Pittsburgh has two blowout wins at home this year — a 41-17 takedown of the Falcons, and a 52-21 thrashing of the Panthers. In those games, the Steelers pulled in the reins on Ben Roethlisberger — calling on him to throw only 29 times against the Falcons (19 completions // 250 yards // three touchdowns), and holding him to only 25 attempts against the Panthers (22 completions // 328 yards // five touchdowns). Either of those games would be strong from a raw-points perspective (we’ll get to the wideouts in a moment), but with pricing elevated across the board on this offense, it is worth noting that the first game (which produced 22.6 fantasy points on both DraftKings and FanDuel) would be a price-considered disappointment this week. There is very little risk that Big Ben and the Steelers’ passing attack will have a bad game in this spot, as this is the pass-heaviest team in football, taking on a Bengals pass defense that ranks 28th in DVOA and 27th in yards allowed per pass attempt, with the second most passing touchdowns allowed this year (i.e., if the Steelers somehow struggle early, they will keep passing until they find success); but with a low likelihood that the Bengals are able to keep pace in this game, there is risk that volume gets cut off early for Big Ben — requiring him to get in his haymakers while he can.
As Ben goes, so go his wide receivers — and from a raw-points perspective, there is a ton to like about Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who each (incredibly) rank top three in the NFL in targets per game. But AB had only six catches in each of those blowout wins (going 6-101-2 in one, and going 6-96-1 in the other), while JuJu produced his lowest reception totals of the season in those two games (4-34-1 // 3-90-1). Personally, I don’t read much into the fact that AB produced at a higher level in each of those games than JuJu, as production has fluctuated between these two all season — but the main takeaway is that a blowout win would not necessarily guarantee elite production for these guys, and it could even lead to a disappointing price-considered game for one of them.
With all that said: this is the NFL — which means there is no guarantee that the Steelers pull away as quickly (or as completely) as they should, opening opportunities for a high-volume game from Ben (and for a wall-to-wall smash for AB and JuJu). When we get to this high end of the price range, there are obvious risks inherent in targeting a wide receiver in a potential blowout win — but from a raw-points perspective, both of these guys have solid projections this week.
Swinging over to the backfield: James Conner practiced in full on Wednesday and is trending toward a return to the field. Across the last three seasons, the Steelers have not been a “split backfield” type of team, creating a likeliest scenario in which Conner steps back into his snap-heavy role against a Bengals defense that ranks 28th in DVOA against the run, 26th in yards allowed per carry, and dead last in the NFL in touchdowns allowed to the running back position. The last time these teams played, Conner pasted the Bengals for 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground, adding a 4-18-0 line through the air. In the Steelers’ two blowout home wins, Conner went 21-110-2 on the ground and 4-75-0 through the air against Atlanta, while disappointing against the Panthers for a 13-65-1 line on the ground and a 1-8-0 day through the air. The matchup is of no concern in this spot; the only thing to worry about is the nature of Conner’s injury (ankle) and the effect it likely had on his conditioning over the last few weeks. With Jaylen Samuels playing well in Conner’s absence, there is a chance we see Conner play more like 65% to 70% of the snaps, instead of the 90% we are used to. Consider Conner a safe, high-upside play — though consider his chances of reaching his true ceiling (those monster games he has popped off for throughout the year) to be a bit lower than the matchup itself implies. With that said: the Steelers will likely be grinding out clock down the stretch, and that’s where Conner will be particularly useful. As long as Samuels doesn’t siphon away touchdowns, Conner should be able to push for a high-end score this week.
Outside of these three pieces, Vance McDonald, Jesse James, and the ancillary wide receivers are afterthoughts, and all of them should see slim volume in a game the Steelers should be able to control with their stars. These guys are hope-and-pray options behind the big names on this team.
It probably goes without saying that I will not be on any Bengals players myself, but there is certainly a case to be made for looking toward the Steelers, who currently carry the second highest Vegas-implied team total on the Main Slate and are in prime position against the downtrodden Bengals to post a strong offensive game. I’ll likely have heavy interest in Conner myself, as he should post a strong game even if he fails to pop for a monster score — and as long as he’s truly healthy this week, his chances of a monster score (say 100+ yards and multiple touchdowns) are as high as any player on the slate. I’ll also gravitate toward Big Ben and his elite wide receivers on at least a chunk of my large-field builds in the hopes that this is a blowout in which the action flows through them — though I’ll ignore these guys on my Main Builds (for smaller-field and single-entry tourneys), as the likeliest scenario is strong, but non-elite scores from these guys once pricing is factored in.