Week 9 brings us an “AFC North clash” between a 6-2 Ravens team fresh off whipping the Patriots and an 0-8 Bengals team fresh off nothing.
What the Ravens want to do ::
The Ravens have built their offense off of a physical, downhill run game that hammers opponents up the middle with big backs and allows Lamar Jackson to hammer opponents on the edges — with a spread-the-wealth passing attack building off the run game (in which Mark Andrews is the only reliable volume bet).
What the Bengals might be able to stop ::
The Bengals “probably” cannot really stop the pass (they are shaving 20% off the league-average aDOT — quietly forcing the shallowest aDOT in the league, in fact — and they’re average at catch prevention, which is impressive for a team that forces a short aDOT; but they are adding 38% to the league-average YAC/r rate, which is by far the largest bump in the league, and which speaks to the same issues that plague Cincinnati against the run), but it has remained difficult to say for certain how attackable this team might be through the air, as teams are simply not even bothering to attack in that manner. Keep in mind that the Seahawks last year were the first team in a half decade to rush on more than 51% of their plays. This year, the Bengals are facing an opponent run on a ridiculous 53.3% of their plays. The Ravens, meanwhile, are pushing to beat the Seahawks’ rush play rate from a year ago, with a 53.3% rate of their own.
While the Bengals cannot stop the run, however, we should also keep in mind what we noted the last time these teams played: the Bengals are built well up front, and are strong against runs up the gut (see below, courtesy of Sharp Football Stats). The last time these teams faced off, Mark Ingram posted 52 yards on the ground while Lamar Jackson centuried that number with an absurd 152. As we noted heading into this matchup last time: “This doesn’t mean that Ingram can’t post a big game with a couple long runs and/or a touchdown.” But as we also noted last time: “Lamar sets up better in this spot.”
Can the Bengals do anything on offense?
The Ravens are an aggressive, physical defense that likes to blitz and harass quarterbacks. This week, they will be taking on the atrocious offensive line of the Bengals, and will be facing fourth-round rookie Ryan Finley (after beating Russell Wilson and Tom Brady in their last two games). As explored throughout the season, the Ravens are strong against the run, while the Bengals rank dead last in rushing yards per game. We should expect the Ravens to work to put this game in the hands of Finley and force him to win. (Of course, one added layer here is: “When the Bengals have the ball.” The Ravens — with their dominant, run-heavy approach — rank first in time of possession, at an unbelievable 35:15. The Bengals — with their disappointing, pass-heavy offense and their awful run defense — rank 29th in time of possession, at 27:34. If we actually run the calculation there, the Ravens increase league-average TOP by 17.5%, while the Bengals increase opponent TOP by 8.1%. If we played out this slate a hundred times, we would expect the Ravens to possess the ball roughly 38 minutes in this spot, on average. When these teams last played, the numbers came out close to that, with the Ravens handling the ball for 39:42 and the Bengals possessing the ball for only 20:18.)
If he does indeed return, the matchup in this spot actually favors A.J. Green, with Marlon Humphrey now manning the slot with Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters on the outside. That’s not to say that Green has a good matchup (or is particularly likely to hit in his rookie quarterback’s first game), but targets have a chance to tilt in his favor.
Boyd will match up primarily with Humphrey — requiring either big volume or a couple broken plays to be worth a roster spot. Behind Boyd, it will be only scraps remaining if Green returns — while if Green misses, Alex Erickson (recent target counts of 6 // 14 // 7) will continue to operate as the most “unexpectedly attractive” option on this team. The matchup wouldn’t be any easier for Erickson than it would be for Green, but his low price and apparently locked-in usage would keep him in the mix.
JM’s Interpretation ::
You can make a case for Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown in Tier 3 (the Ravens will lean run-heavy, but both of these players can hit from anywhere on the field, and the Bengals have enough issues preventing big plays that they could turn into valuable tourney pieces), but the key piece on this side of the ball is Lamar, who is a “do it all on his own” machine, in an excellent matchup. Lamar had 19 carries and 33 pass attempts the last time these teams played — and while that was in a close contest (not at all guaranteed to be the case again), the usage is locked-in enough to establish both floor and ceiling.
I don’t expect to have other pieces from this game on my tighter builds, though I do think Green is interesting in large-field play if he’s out there, as I’d be shocked if many people have him in his first game back in what has been a bad offense. Finley is unlikely to be a major downgrade from Andy Dalton, and we should keep in mind that Boyd and John Ross were producing earlier in the year in what is a well-schemed offense when it has players who can do things on the field. It’s not crazy to think that Green has some big games in him down the stretch — though play volume, matchup, and game environment are enough to keep him off my tighter builds.
I also think you have to at least take note of last year’s AFC rushing champ Joe Mixon at his plunging price; though unlike last week (when I “embraced the uncertainty” on Melvin Gordon on my main build), there isn’t anything in this spot that actually points to a potential breakout; and it’s tough for any running back in this matchup to post a slate-winner (even a price-considered slate-winner, at Mixon’s salary), making this more “guess and hope on a good player at low ownership and a good price” than it is “locking in a strong shot at production.”
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