RAVENS // BENGALS OVERVIEW
We open the week with a Thursday night game that pairs two division opponents who combined for only 20 points against each other in Week 1 last season, before closing out the 2017 year with a combined score of 58 in Week 17. Each offense is better than it was last season; but each defense may be better as well.
After finishing in the top eight last year in pace of play, the Ravens ranked 12th in Situation Neutral pace of play in Week 1 (prior to slowing things down with a monstrous lead). The Bengals, on the other hand, followed up their low-volume 2017 season with the second-slowest pace in the NFL in Week 1, and with the fewest offensive plays in the week.
With an Over/Under of 44.0 to open the week, this is not a game we would be particularly drawn toward on the main slate, and it’s not something to attack in cash games; but if you are playing the Thursday slate, there are some interesting tourney pieces in this spot. This is the type of game in which it makes sense to put only a very small percentage of your bankroll into play — but to be willing to take some risks with that bankroll in order to take advantage of the “lower-likelihood, high-upside plays” that may go overlooked in this spot.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
In Week 1, the Bengals’ pass defense played a lot of soft zone and cover 4 shell that kept the Colts’ receivers in front of them — allowing Indy to reel off an astonishing 77 plays in regulation (compared to only 50 for the Bengals). Given what Andrew Luck and Frank Reich showed in preseason (a surprising lack of interest in pushing the ball downfield), it would have made sense for a coach to try to take away that area of the field in Week 1. Instead, Teryl Austin’s new Bengals defense was content to allow those short passes to be completed all day. This enables us to feel comfortable predicting that this is simply how the Bengals are set to play: with plenty of four-man rushes, and with deep balls a more dedicated focus than defending short passes.
In Week 1, the Ravens took on a Bills defense that also forces short throws, and we saw Joe Flacco spread the ball around to four different wide receivers, three different tight ends, and two different running backs — with none of these guys seeing more than six targets. This is obviously a hellish setup for fantasy, and would take this entire offense off the board if this game were on the main slate.
The Bengals’ biggest coverage deficiency is in the middle of the field, where their linebackers are unable to hang with tight ends and running backs. Reich and Luck took advantage of this in Week 1 by targeting tight ends and running backs on over 52% of their passes, and it would not be surprising to see a similar approach from Baltimore.
While Baltimore gave playing time to three tight ends, Nick Boyle ran almost as many pass routes (22) as Maxx Williams and Mark Andrews combined (24). Any of these three could grab a touchdown, but Boyle is the best bet for volume.
Javorius Allen also ran 22 pass routes, and he snagged five catches in a blowout win. With Kenneth Dixon back on the shelf, Allen will be the breather back and the third-down back, and he should get a chance to pick up five to seven catches against the Bengals’ linebackers. Allen has receiver-like skills and is a good fit for this matchup.
Following a quiet offseason, Willie Snead surprised last week out of the slot and should be in line for more work over the middle where the Bengals are weakest. He’s an interesting floor play.
Michael Crabtree and John Brown have the toughest matchups on the outside. I wouldn’t feel comfortable projecting either for more than six or seven targets, but each guy has a red zone role, while Crabtree will be used to move the sticks and Brown will have at least one or two deep shots designed for him in this game. Crabtree is the floor play; Brown is the ceiling play.
RAVENS RUN OFFENSE
Alex Collins saved his day with a touchdown on Sunday, but lucky he did, because he played fewer than half the team’s snaps and ran the ball only seven times. Part of this was the blowout, but a larger part of it seemed to be punishment for putting the ball on the ground. With Kenneth Dixon on the shelf this week, Collins should have a clear path to all the early-down work (the Ravens have always been hesitant to trust Allen too much beyond his pass game work). The Bengals looked good against the run last week after struggling in 2017 (22nd in yards allowed per carry), but we should keep in mind that their Week 1 opponent — the Colts — have a bottom-tier offensive line and were starting a fifth-round rookie in the backfield. Especially with Vontaze Burfict still out, I’m sticking with this as a neutral to above-average matchup for running backs; as long as Collins is out of the doghouse this week, his 15 to 20 touches should turn into a solid all-around game on the short slate.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
In Week 1, Joe Mixon looked awesome — running smooth and clean, while showing definite burst and quickness he did not have last season. The Bengals’ offensive line looked at least average, and Bill Lazor showed a willingness to feed a huge workload to Mixon, playing him on almost 80% of the team’s snaps and giving him over 20 touches. Mixon also ran 24 pass routes, while Gio Bernard played 12 snaps and ran only eight routes.
The Ravens have a likely top-10 run defense, and they were strong last year against pass-catching running backs, ranking sixth in DVOA, 12th in fewest receptions allowed, and ninth in fewest yards allowed. On the short slate, however, there’s a lot to like about a guy who is going to touch the ball 20+ times with all the goal-line work and a handful of receptions.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
A.J. Green dominated work last week against the Colts, receiving 60.52% of the team’s air yards (one year after leading the NFL with 46.3% of his team’s air yards), and running a route on 33 of Andy Dalton’s 34 drop-backs. In a pair of dates last season against Baltimore, Green totaled seven catches for 91 yards and zero touchdowns (on a whopping 20 targets), with the worst of these games (2-17-0) coming with Jimmy Smith off the field (same as he will be this week). The Ravens should tilt all their attention this direction, which creates a tough matchup for Green. He can beat a tough matchup (in both 2015 and 2014 he torched similarly stout Ravens defenses), but his chances of hitting are lowered by this spot.
The rest of the Bengals’ pass attack is a bit of a mess, with John Ross playing only 66% of the Bengals’ snaps last week and Tyler Boyd (a near-every-down player) lacking upside with his limited role from the slot. While Boyd could get lucky with a short touchdown, Ross is the higher-risk/much-higher-reward play between the two. His speed puts him one touch away from a long touchdown every game.
The Bengals eased in Tyler Eifert last week, playing him on only 23 snaps — though he was used almost exclusively as a pass-catcher, as he ran a route on 18 of those snaps. He has the best matchup against a Ravens defense whose only clear weakness is against the tight end. Eifert will likely need a touchdown in order to really pay off, but if this game stays close toward the end, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cincy squeeze a few more snaps out of him.
My first thought here is, “Wow — how did I write so many words about a game I like so little?”
If this game were on the main slate, we could have made much quicker work of it, but since it is on the Thursday slate (and since there are no clearly “good” plays), it required some deeper digging.
In spite of the difficult matchup, Mixon is a solid bet to post the highest score on the slate. His touch floor is just so high, he’s worth a spot on every roster in this game — a game that will likely yield low fantasy outputs all the way around.
Elsewhere on the Bengals: Andy Dalton Under Pressure is not a place I want to look (Dalton has always performed far better with a clean pocket, and the Ravens’ pass rush will make that a challenge), but you could go there simply for differentiation, as it’s unlikely that many will be on him. A.J. Green brings talent-driven upside, while Ross brings likely low ownership and a high ceiling (to go with his obviously low floor). Eifert is safe for a few points, though he’ll likely need a touchdown in order to really be worth a roster spot.
The Ravens have an easier matchup, but they also have a more spread-out distribution of offensive work. The safest projection for Collins is about 85 rushing yards and one or two receptions; if he hits those marks and punches in a touchdown, he’ll be a strong play in such a poor game for offense. Javorius Allen is a dark horse candidate to lead the Ravens’ skill position players in fantasy points, as their coaches should look to get him isolated against Cincy’s linebackers as much as possible.
Elsewhere on the Ravens: Joe Flacco carried over his sharp preseason to Week 1, and he has as good a shot as Mixon to post the top score on this slate. He’ll likely spread the ball around again, but the matchup should filter some targets to Nick Boyle and Willie Snead (similar to last week), while Brown is worth a tourney shot for his guaranteed involvement and big-play upside, and Crabtree should be able to pick up at least four catches for 40 or 50 yards, with room to grow from there.
It’s an ugly game, and it’s likely that an ugly roster will win tourneys. I wouldn’t put much bankroll in play here, but there are some interesting elements to consider in this game.
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