STEELERS // BENGALS OVERVIEW
The Steelers have had an underwhelming start to the season, with a 2-2-1 record, but they have a shot to get right back in the thick of the AFC North race if they are able to knock off the 4-1 Bengals on the road. Unsurprisingly, Vegas is giving the nod to the home team in this spot, with the Bengals carrying a slim 2.5 point edge in the early-week line. This game opened with the second highest Over/Under on the main slate (third highest on the FantasyDraft main slate), and it is one of only two games that appears to shape up nicely for a shootout.
Each of these teams is playing at an above-average pace (Pittsburgh ranks sixth in pace of play, while Cincy ranks 11th), and each team ranks top five in the NFL in “most opponent plays allowed.” This is a pace-up spot that should lead to a few more plays than normal on both sides of the ball.
Shootout upside in this game is further enhanced by the red zone stats on each team — as the Steelers rank second in the NFL in red zone touchdown rate, and the Bengals rank fifth. Pittsburgh ranks 13th in red zone touchdown defense, while Cincy ranks all the way down at 25th. Cincy also ranks third in drive success rate on offense — and while Pittsburgh ranks a disappointing 18th, they will take on a Bengals defense that ranks 29th in this category, which should help the visiting Steelers to keep drives going throughout the game.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
Five weeks into the season, the Bengals have retained most of the old Paul Guenther defensive concepts that they have been running for years — rarely rushing more than four, and playing a zone defense that aims to clog up all areas of the field, forcing teams to march the length of the field and complete drives at the end. This worked well in 2015 to 2017, as Cincy finished middle of the pack in drive success rate each of those years (reminder: drive success rate measures the percentage of “sets of downs” that result in a first down or a touchdown; or, to put that another way, “first downs and touchdowns equal a good drive success rate”), but ranking top seven each of those years in red zone touchdown rate. In other words: a classic “bend but don’t break” approach that allowed teams to move the ball but kept them out of the end zone. This year, however, this approach has collapsed with Cincy playing so poorly in the red zone. This could change as the season moves along — but for now, consider this to be a “bend but don’t break” defense that continues to bend all the way to the end of the drive.
The Bengals rank ninth in yards allowed per pass attempt — a result of elite tackling, as they are middle of the pack in catch rate and aDOT, but top five in YAC allowed per reception. Explosive plays are tough to come by against this team (Cincy’s 15 pass plays allowed of 20+ yards is only four behind league leaders Tennessee and Jacksonville, at 11 apiece), but the Steelers should be able to march up and down the field.
Although we prefer to roster the Steelers in matchups where they are able to attack downfield (“attacking downfield against man coverage” is the optimal setup for them — see: “vs KC”), Ben Roethlisberger should still be able to post solid numbers in this spot. Explosive numbers may be difficult to come by, however; in his last six games against the Bengals, Ben has zero games of 300 yards, three games of one or zero touchdown passes, and only one game of three touchdown throws.
A big part of the reason Ben has failed to put up big numbers vs Cincy is the way this team has managed to slow down Antonio Brown, as he has topped 100 yards in only two of his last seven contests against them. To be clear: A.B. has still posted solid numbers in most games against the Bengals, but he has had a tougher time posting those 25-point FanDuel, 35-point DraftKings/FantasyDraft games that we really pay up for him in the hopes of landing. The Bengals can tilt their zone toward A.B.’s side of the field, tightening up the available windows in the spaces where he is running routes. This approach limits the monster mismatch created by A.B.’s route-running skills and short-area quickness, while also allowing Cincinnati to throw off timing by being physical at the line.
In the first meeting between these teams last year, Pittsburgh worked around the Bengals’ pass D by running the ball 35 times with Le’Veon Bell. In their second matchup, Ben posted one of his best games against this Cincy team when the Bengals jumped out to an early lead and the Steelers decided to target Antonio Brown relentlessly. Ben went 24 of 40 for 290 yards and two touchdowns, while A.B. picked up 101 yards and a touchdown on eight catches (16 targets).
The likeliest scenario here is a run-leaning approach for the Steelers, though the second likeliest scenario calls for the Bengals to jump out to a lead, and for the Steelers to respond by targeting A.B. heavily. As we witnessed last week: when the Steelers are having a hard time moving the ball the way they want to, they will turn to A.B. more aggressively.
Not that this excludes JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose role has grown since these teams met last year. Before his four-target dud last week, JuJu had seen at least eight targets in all four games, with 11 or more looks in three contests. Expect another eight to 11 looks in this one, with upside for more. His aDOT of 8.0 isn’t the best for upside-hunting against a defense that capitalizes on tackling well, but Pittsburgh will be picking up yards and scoring opportunities throughout the game and JuJu will have a chance to get in on the action.
Behind these two, James Washington carries theoretical upside as the Steelers’ primary deep threat.
Last week, Vance McDonald and Jesse James split tight end routes almost down the middle; it won’t be a surprise if one of them pops in this spot against a defense that has allowed the eighth-most tight end receptions on the year, but it will be difficult to predict which guy that will be, and each guy also carries a dud floor. Given his awesome YAC upside, Vance would be the preferred play.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
Last week, the Steelers made a point of getting back to James Conner — not only giving him 21 carries and four targets, but also lining him up at wide receiver again at the expense of Ryan Switzer. Conner played 73.8% of the team’s snaps, so this is not quite the “Le’Veon Bell role” that he carried in Week 1, but his usage mirrors what Joe Mixon provides on the other side of this game, making each as intriguing as the other. Conner has the better matchup, vs a Cincy team that ranks 23rd in yards allowed per carry. The recent return of Vontaze Burfict could change this, but Frank Gore and Kenyan Drake had no trouble picking up chunk gains on the ground last week at Cincinnati.
BENGALS PASS OFFENSE
After ranking first in the NFL last year in sacks, Pittsburgh’s pass rush came alive last week vs Atlanta, catapulting this team back to the top of the sacks leaderboard. The Steelers were flying around the field last Sunday, playing ultra aggressive ball and constantly forcing Matt Ryan to either take a sack or get rid of the ball more quickly than he wanted to. Pittsburgh has faced one of the deepest aDOTs in the league this year, but they have stuck to an average expected yards per target by allowing a low catch rate and tackling well after the catch. With their pass rush back in business, it will now become tougher for opponents to attack deep — which will likely turn this into an above-average pass defense once again.
Joe Haden is expected to shadow A.J. Green for much of this game, which sets up poorly for the Bengals’ superstar receiver. Last year, Green called Haden the second-toughest corner in the NFL (behind only Patrick Peterson) — and while a lot of wide receivers would disagree, it seems that Green simply does not match up well vs Haden. Throughout their career against one another (having played in the same division for almost a decade now), Green has a catch rate of 46.3% on plays in Haden’s coverage, with a 19-323-2 career line. Green is a better player than Haden, and he’ll spend some plays away from him, so take all that for whatever you feel it’s worth. Green has target counts on the year of eight, nine, eight, eight, and 10 — which is not enough work to truly support his elite price tag (he has topped 100 yards only once on the season), but his aDOT of 13.0 and his big-time talent give him a shot at posting a price-justifying score.
Tyler Boyd continues to operate as a “second alpha” for the Bengals, with an aDOT of 9.6 and a percentage share of team air yards of 28.5% — marks that put him in the same range as players like Davante Adams and Jarvis Landry (to be clear: Cincy does not run enough pass plays for his raw targets to quite match those guys; but his usage in this offense is the same as the usage those guys have in their offenses). He has target counts over the last four weeks of nine, seven, 15, and seven. The best place to attack Pittsburgh is over the middle of the field, where Boyd will see most of his action.
C.J. Uzomah saw only two targets last week, while Green (10 looks) saw his largest target count on the year in a game in which Andy Dalton threw the ball only 30 times (following three consecutive weeks of 40+ attempts). Boyd also saw his second largest target share of the season. This passing attack will center around those two guys.
BENGALS RUN OFFENSE
Last week, Joe Mixon played 78.3% of the Bengals’ offensive snaps, while handling 22 carries and three receptions. He has been active for three games so far this year, and he has 22 or more touches in every one of those games.
The Steelers have been middling against the run to begin the year, and while they have allowed the second fewest running back receptions, they have played several teams (the Chiefs, the Bucs, and the Falcons) who don’t involve their running backs much in the pass game (and their other games were vs Cleveland and Baltimore — neither of whom light the field on fire with passes to backs). This is quietly Mixon’s softest matchup on the year, after facing Indy (11th in yards allowed per carry), Baltimore (10th), and Miami (7th).
These teams tend to play each other tough and physical, and in the seven games they have played against one another since the start of the 2015 season, they have yet to combine for more than the 53.0 points at which this Over/Under is set. They posted exactly 53 combined points once, and they scored a combined 44 or fewer points in each of the other six games. This is a better Bengals offense than those of the past, but the Steelers’ defense looks to have its legs under it again, and the Bengals’ defense has the pieces to fix their red zone issues. None of that is to say I expect this to be a low-scoring game, but I am going to be less enthusiastic about this potential shootout than I will be about the other. There are more things that could go wrong in this spot.
In planning to build three teams this week, I will almost certainly be locked onto the quarterbacks in the Tampa/Atlanta game — and if I move away from those, I’ll likely go off the board instead of eating chalk in this spot. It won’t surprise me if one of these quarterbacks posts 300 yards and three touchdowns, but that’s not the likeliest scenario in what should be a physical battle, and we are unlikely to see a true shootout (the sort of “5+ touchdowns per team” game that can break a slate wide open).
I will still have interest in individual players, however, with Tyler Boyd in particular still standing out as underpriced, and with A.J. Green, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Antonio Brown all capable of challenging the Falcons and Bucs receivers for the top scores on the slate. None of these stand out as “must plays,” but all four will be in consideration for me this week.
I also like both Conner and Mixon. This game should remain balanced enough for Conner to stay involved, while Mixon’s role should remain fairly matchup-proof as the clear third piece in the passing attack.
Finally, you can actually make an interesting tourney case for the fierce pass rush of the Steelers. Andy Dalton has been prone to interceptions this year, and an aggressive defense such as this one can turn sacks or picks into points.