BRONCOS // BENGALS OVERVIEW
While both of these teams sit at 5-6 at the moment, they have gotten there in very different ways, with the Broncos winning each of their last two games and carrying an average scoring margin of 0.0, and with the Bengals losing three straight and entering this week with an average scoring margin of -6.5 — fourth worst in the league. The Bengals have placed Andy Dalton on I.R., and it feels very much like their season has been finished for a while in spite of their record saying otherwise. The Broncos, on the other hand, are trying to climb back into the AFC playoff picture, and with games across the next four weeks against the Bengals, 49ers, Browns, and Raiders, it would not be crazy to see them enter their Week 17 tilt against the Chargers with a shot to finish 10-6 and sneak into the final Wild Card spot.
Both of these teams rank top eight in pace of play, and neither team has been good at controlling games, with Denver ranked 29th in time of possession and Cincinnati ranked 31st. The combined time of possession for these two teams falls shy of 57 minutes, which should create opportunities for a few extra plays on either side of the ball. Things could be especially tough for a Bengals team that — even with Dalton — has posted the fourth worst three-and-out rate in the NFL. Denver ranks fifth in three-and-out rate forced on defense.
In spite of the Bengals ranking 31st in drive success rate allowed and 28th in red zone touchdown defense (leading to the most points per game allowed in the NFL), this game opened with an Over/Under of only 42.0 — the third lowest mark on the Main Slate. The Broncos have played five road games this season, and the only game among those five that fell shy of 42.0 came against the Ravens. All 11 Bengals games this year have topped 42.0, creating some sneaky opportunity for one or two players to matter more than the Vegas total suggests.
BRONCOS PASS OFFENSE
Only five teams are allowing a deeper average depth of target than the Bengals, and they rank middle of the pack in catch rate and YAC/R rate allowed — leading to a number 26 ranking in yards allowed per pass attempt, and providing Case Keenum with a quality matchup. Only four teams have allowed more completions to quarterbacks than the Bengals. Only one team has allowed more touchdowns. Only two teams have allowed more yards.
Keenum could use all the help he can get, as he has failed to top even 205 passing yards in three of his last five games, and he has been held to pass attempt numbers in this stretch of 21 // 34 // 42 // 32 // 28. His best bet for production is for the Bengals to take a lead and to force this offense to open things up through the air. With only 7.2 yards per pass attempt on the year, he could have a tough time piling up yardage if the pass attempts remain in the low 30s.
The “most reliable” piece in the Broncos’ passing attack has been Emmanuel Sanders — who has not been truly reliable compared to other name-value wide receivers, with recent bounce-around target counts of 7 // 4 // 9 // 6 // 12, but who does have six touchdowns on the season and five games of 86 or more yards (to go with five games under 60 yards). Quarterback play and his unpredictable target share are greater concerns than the matchup.
Behind Sanders, Courtland Sutton continues to see four to six targets each game. Sutton has exactly three catches and 58 or more yards in four of his last six games, which is a fair range for him in this spot. With a disappointing four red zone targets all season, he is having a difficult time scraping upside — but if he finally pairs an end zone visit with one of these 3-58+ games, he’ll become a useful piece at his price.
DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick have yet to make an impact this season, and neither has seen enough usage for much optimism to exist. Jeff Heuerman has gone to I.R., taking his five targets per game with him. Matt LaCosse stepped in for 27 snaps, 14 pass routes, and four targets last week after Heuerman went down, turning these targets into three catches for 34 yards and a touchdown. Tight ends in this offense do not typically see “upside” looks, but LaCosse did pick up a pair of targets that came 15 yards downfield in last week’s tight end positive matchup against the Steelers. This is another quality tight end matchup against a Bengals team that has allowed the third most touchdowns, the third most receptions, and the fifth most yards to the position. Keenum has been a fan of his tight end this year, making LaCosse stand out as a guesswork-driven but likely-safe salary saver who should pick up three or four receptions on five or six targets.
BRONCOS RUN OFFENSE
It took the rest of the DFS universe some time to catch on, but by now the world is fully aware of the fact that the Bengals are one of the best teams in the NFL to attack with running backs. This team ranks 24th in yards allowed per carry, but more importantly, they rank 31st in drive success rate allowed and 28th in red zone touchdown defense — allowing opponents to put together long drives against them, and to finish these drives in the end zone. This is a perfect setup for spiked production from running backs — and through 11 games, no team in the NFL has allowed more touchdowns to the position. The Bengals rank 31st in time of possession and allow the second most opponent plays per game. With the fifth highest opponent rush play rate allowed, the Bengals have faced the fifth most running back rush attempts in the NFL.
This potential volume spike for the Broncos’ backfield is noteworthy, as this team has no grasp on the idea of the “sunk cost fallacy” — i.e., they continue to force-feed Royce Freeman eight or more touches week in and week out for seemingly no reason other than the fact that he was their higher 2018 draft pick. Freeman is averaging a respectable but unspectacular 4.2 yards per carry. The electric bundle of running back energy known as Phillip Lindsay is averaging 5.8 yards per carry, and he has at least one run of 20+ yards in four of his last five games. In his last three games sharing the field with Freeman, Lindsay has carry counts of 14 // 11 // 14, with target counts of 1 // 5 // 0. His worst yardage game in this stretch was 79 yards, and he has seven touchdowns on the season, giving him plenty of upside on his 14 to 18 looks. He played 63.2% of the Broncos’ snaps last week — a reasonable expectation again in this spot.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
The pass game matchup for the Bengals is nonthreatening this week against a Broncos team that ranks 25th in yards allowed per pass attempt, with a league-average aDOT and a league-average catch rate allowed. The Broncos have allowed middling production to the quarterback position (14th most touchdowns, 13th most completions, seventh most yards), and they have allowed wide receivers to pile up the seventh most catches in the league.
Of greater concern for the Bengals is the switch from Andy Dalton to Jeff Driskel — a plus athlete with a backup-caliber profile at the NFL level. Last week, Driskel completed a remarkable 16 of 18 passes between the numbers…while going a remarkably poor seven for 17 on passes outside the numbers. He especially struggled on passes to the right side of the field outside the numbers, going two for eight. In spite of the presence of Chris Harris in the slot, the Broncos have graded out as the number 23 pass defense over the middle by Football Outsiders’ metrics, while ranking fourth on the left side of the field and sixth on the right side. Harris himself has allowed an awesome-low 5.7 yards per pass attempt into his coverage, but he has allowed a 62.5% completion percentage, which will at least give Tyler Boyd opportunities to pick up receptions if the targets are there. Last week, JuJu Smith-Schuster picked up only two catches for nine yards in Harris’ coverage, but the Steelers were able to get him matched up on Bradley Roby for a 7-144-1 line in his coverage. (The Steelers accomplished this by kicking JuJu to the outside on a season-high 47 snaps, playing him in the slot a season-low 19 times — a perfect example of good coaching to out-scheme a matchup disadvantage.) Two weeks ago, Keenan Allen went 6-69-1 against Harris. Of course, Ben to JuJu and Rivers to Keenan is a better setup than Driskel to Boyd, but there will be opportunity for positive production if the targets pile up.
This passing attack has been dead weight behind Boyd, with John Ross catching only seven of 20 targets with A.J. Green on the sidelines, without topping 39 yards in any of these games, and with C.J. Uzomah somehow managing only 103 yards on 22 targets (4.7 yards per target) in this stretch.
The best case for this passing attack would be for Green to return this week and to match up with Roby for most of the game. Roby has given up 672 yards and five touchdowns already this year, and Green will be used on a few downfield routes over the middle of the field if he is out there in Week 13. He’ll carry obvious floor concerns attached to uncertain quarterback play, but he’ll have a shot at notching upside if everything falls into place in this spot.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
As explored in this space last week: the Broncos have a reputation this year as an attackable run defense — a reputation built when Isaiah Crowell and Todd Gurley blasted this team for 200+ rushing yards in back-to-back weeks on only 43 total carries. If we remove those two performances from the Broncos’ season, however, they have allowed only 3.75 yards per carry to running backs, and they have recently allowed 53 yards on 13 carries to James Conner, 69 yards on 18 carries to Melvin Gordon, and 50 yards on 16 carries to Kareem Hunt.
In better news for Joe Mixon: after nearly splitting snaps with Giovani Bernard in Week 11 (34 snaps for Mixon // 26 for Gio), Mixon took command in a Week 12 blowout loss, seeing 53 of a possible 74 snaps (71.6%) and touching the ball 21 times. Gio played only 31.1% of the snaps and touched the ball two times. The Bengals average under 60 plays per game (only the Cardinals and Dolphins run fewer plays), and the matchup is difficult, creating floor concerns for Mixon; but if he can touch the ball 20 times again, his chances of reaching upside will be non-awful in this spot.
The Broncos’ passing attack doesn’t pop off the page with Keenum under center, but it won’t be surprising if Keenum posts a solid quarterback score, and there is certainly opportunity for Manny Sanders or even our boy Sutton to become a difference-maker on the slate. Each guy carries decent floor for his price on this team that has a narrow distribution of targets, and each carries strong point-per-dollar ceiling — likely creating room for Tier 3 placement this week. Behind these guys, LaCosse is no Ebron (he’s even no Njoku), but a solid game at a bottom-barrel price is not a poor bet. LaCosse could matter on this slate if he punches in another touchdown.
The Broncos’ backfield is not a standout spot, but Lindsay is intriguing for the pure per-play upside he carries in any week — with this per-play upside enhanced in a matchup like this. There is also an outside shot that Freeman punches in multiple touchdowns on his eight to 12 touches.
The Bengals’ passing attack is difficult to get excited about, but it is likely that we see the Bengals lean on the run early…only to fail, and to be forced to the air. It won’t be crazy for Driskel to pile up around 250 passing yards and a couple touchdowns, making him a risky but viable salary saver at quarterback.
The Bengals have not given Boyd more than 16 perimeter snaps in any game this year, and they have shown little ability to adjust based on matchup — opening risk that Boyd is stuck on Harris most of the day and goes for low yardage (or low efficiency) on his looks. But if Green is out again, Boyd will certainly be locked into targets — creating slim opportunity for him to hit.
If Green returns, he will also be a risky play given the reality that most of his targets will come outside the numbers — where Driskel struggled last week, and where the Broncos have been strongest; but Green does get some run over the deep middle, giving him opportunity to hit for a big play or two. He’ll carry steady touchdown upside in this spot as well.
I’ll have no significant interest in the Bengals’ backfield, as the Broncos have been tough on the ground, and Mixon’s workload is still a bit insecure. If you want to go here, realize that it’s not impossible for the Bengals’ lead back to crack a hundred yards and/or score a couple touchdowns, but the matchup is a challenge, and Mixon mixes in some risk of a dud in this spot as well.