STEELERS // RAVENS OVERVIEW
With the AFC South and the AFC East unlikely to produce more than one playoff team apiece (and with the AFC West likely to send the Chiefs and Chargers to the postseason), there should be room for two of the top three teams from the AFC North (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincy) to play into January. Pittsburgh lost the Week 4 clash between these teams on their home turf, but these clubs have been trending in opposite directions since then, with the Steelers riding a three-game win streak, and with the Ravens trying to buck back-to-back losses. Vegas has the early-week Over/Under set at 47.0, with the Ravens installed as three-point favorites. The last seven meetings between these teams (starting with the most recent) have produced point totals of 40 // 77 // 35 // 58 // 35 // 37 // 43. Baltimore has allowed the fewest yards per game and the fewest points per game in the NFL, while Pittsburgh has stepped up their defensive game lately, allowing 18 points to Cleveland, 21 points to Cincy, and 17 points to Atlanta.
Each team ranks top seven in plays per game — and while each has done so by notching above-average time of possession (i.e., this setup effectively takes away some minutes from what these teams typically expect), each team has also gotten there by playing at an above-average pace. The Steelers rank 11th in pace of play, while Baltimore ranks all the way up at second, behind only the Colts. The likeliest scenario here is a game that finishes below that Over/Under — though with pace and play volume high on both sides, there are extra opportunities created for offensive mistakes, which can lead to quick scores, and can lead to game flow changing unexpectedly. This creates some large-field tourney “stack appeal,” as backed up by the 77-point game these teams combined for last year and the 58-point game they combined for in 2016. More than likely we see low yardage and a low score, but there is a chance you could capture an unexpected shootout between a pair of offenses with plenty of play volume and with big-play threats.
STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
No team in football has allowed a lower catch rate than the Ravens, and only two teams have allowed a lower YAC per reception rate (with Baltimore shaving over 15% off the league average YAC/R). Last time these teams met (in Pittsburgh, where Ben Roethlisberger typically plays better), this led to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster combining for a 9-122-1 line, on 22 targets. Baltimore has allowed only seven touchdowns to wide receivers on the year (eighth best in the league), and only five teams have allowed fewer yards to the position. Unsurprisingly, only six teams have allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards.
While that’s the bad news for the Steelers, the good news is that AB and JuJu are going to get their looks, with each guy seeing double-digit targets in all but three games this year. When these teams last met, the Steelers tried to get the ball into Brown’s hands with short passes, and they tried to get JuJu going downfield, though it won’t be surprising if they mix things up with a different approach this time around. Regardless, the setup here remains fairly straightforward: the Ravens have yet to allow a 100-yard receiving game this year (incredibly, they have allowed only two games north of 70 yards — a 91-yard game to Tyler Boyd and a 90-yard game to D.J. Moore), and they don’t allow many touchdowns through the air either; but we know that JuJu and AB will see their targets, and we know that each guy has the talent to pop off in difficult matchups. Brown is the likelier of the two to hit, but either guy could theoretically go for a solid game. A week-winning game is not out of the question (A.J. Green posted three touchdowns in this matchup in Week 2 — good for 29.9 DraftKings/FantasyDraft points and 27.4 FanDuel points), but that is obviously not the likeliest scenario.
The weakest link for the Ravens is their tight end defense, with notable lines against them this year of 5-62-0 on five targets for Vance McDonald, 6-69-0 on 11 targets for David Njoku, 6-43-1 on six targets for Ben Watson, and 4-56-1 on four targets for Greg Olsen. McDonald’s snaps have been inconsistent from week to week, but he played 39 out of 62 snaps the last time these teams played (compared to only 27 snaps for Jesse James) — and given that the Ravens are best attacked with athletic tight ends, he shapes up as the likelier snap leader between these two.
STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
Baltimore has also been solid on the ground, ranking seventh in yards allowed per carry and 11th in rushing yards allowed per game, while only four teams have allowed fewer rushing yards to running backs per game. Through eight games, running backs have racked up only 70.25 yards per game on the ground against the Ravens, at an incredibly low 3.51 yards per carry. The Ravens have allowed only three touchdowns on the ground, and even with the Ravens not yet having enjoyed a bye, they have allowed the fewest receiving yards in the league to the running back position — at an average of 18.0 receiving yards allowed per game. In all, Baltimore has allowed a league-low 1.9 touchdowns per game. This is a tough spot for James Conner, coming off three of the best matchups a multi-use running back can have against the Falcons, the Bengals, and the Browns.
With all that said: as long as this game stays close, Conner should touch the ball north of 20 times. He has 15 or more carries in all but two games this year, and he has six or more targets in all but two games as well. Todd Gurley is the only running back with more carries than Conner inside the five.
RAVENS PASS OFFENSE
Teams don’t like to run the ball against Pittsburgh — and for good reason, as the Steelers are just about in line with the Ravens on the ground, allowing 3.52 yards per carry to running backs, while allowing only 66.4 yards per game to the position (they are one of only four teams that has been better than the Ravens in this category this year). The Ravens are the only team in the NFL that has allowed fewer receiving yards to running backs, and only three teams are facing a higher pass play rate than Pittsburgh. This is a very difficult matchup for yardage-and-touchdown dependent Alex Collins (1.75 receptions per game; no games this year north of 70 rushing yards), as well as for pass-catching back Javorius Allen and newly-acquired Ty Montgomery. Expect the Ravens to lean pass-heavy this week, and to focus on tight ends and receivers.
Pittsburgh has been less solid against the pass — ranking second in the NFL in lowest YAC/R rate allowed, but ranking dead last in the NFL in aDOT. Only three teams have allowed more passing touchdowns than Pittsburgh, and only four teams are allowing more fantasy points per game to quarterbacks.
Frustratingly, the Ravens do not give us a great setup from a DFS perspective for taking advantage of this matchup, as Joe Flacco has only topped 300 yards two times this year (one of these games was his last meeting against Pittsburgh), and he has not topped two touchdown passes since Week 1. With Lamar Jackson vulturing a touchdown each of the last two weeks, it is becoming more and more difficult to lock in Flacco for guaranteed points. Consider him a high-ceiling play with an uncertain floor.
Furthermore, the best way to move the ball through the air against Pittsburgh is with tight ends, as they entered last week (before the Njoku usage dud) facing the most targets and allowing the most receptions to the position. The Ravens have cut down their tight end rotation to three guys…but these three (Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle, and Mark Andrews) are all seeing roughly equal time on the field. Rookie Hurst has the highest upside, but he has yet to top three targets in a game, while Andrews has four games this year of four to five targets, and Boyle has four games this year of four to six targets. Any of these three will need a multi-touchdown game or an unexpected spike in usage to be a truly viable play on this slate.
While the tight ends are soaking up a good eight or nine targets per game (and should see a small boost in this one), Flacco is averaging over 42 pass attempts per game, and teams tend to see a bump in passing volume against the Steelers. Pittsburgh has held wide receivers to an impressively low 59.3% catch rate, but they have faced 23.86 wide receiver targets per game — the sixth highest mark in the league.
In his last seven games, John Brown has seen seven or more targets six times — producing boom/bust stat lines ranging from 3-28-0 (last week) to 7-134-1 (the week before). The last time these teams met, Brown hit for a 71-yard catch and run on a deep ball over the middle, en route to a 3-116-1 line on seven targets. He’s a boom/bust play this week with what should be locked-in volume in a downfield role.
Willie Snead runs the routes over the middle of the field that are likeliest to lead to floor points against Pittsburgh (he went 6-56-0 on seven targets against Pittsburgh in Week 4 — right in line with his standard stat lines this season), though his red zone role has been practically nonexistent, with only three targets inside the 20, and with no targets inside the 10. Michael Crabtree, on the other hand, has seen a recent rise in red zone looks as his six targets inside the 20 are only two fewer than Brown, while each guy has three targets inside the 10. Crabtree has only two games all year below eight targets, and eight to 10 looks is a fair projection for him in this spot. He has topped 66 yards only once, and his route tree and skill set are not conducive to per-play upside against one of the best YAC prevention teams in the league; but if he find the end zone, he’ll provide nice value to go with what should be in the range of four to six catches for 45 to 65 yards.
While there may be opportunities for Pittsburgh to create short fields and punch in touchdowns, it’s difficult to see a path to them piling up a big yardage game (or even a big game in the “receptions” department), making it difficult for any of these players to post a week-winning score. As always: the time to take a good player in a difficult matchup is when that player can break the slate wide open, which is unlikely in this spot. With that said: Conner sees enough volume to theoretically produce as a contrarian play, while AB has posted big games in difficult matchups before. Even JuJu carries sneaky upside, as a low-floor, moderate-ceiling bet. Naturally, I’ll be staying away from the main pieces on the Steelers myself on my Main Roster. I doubt I’ll have exposure to them in any multi-entry play, either.
The player on the Steelers likeliest to hit for a strong point-per-dollar day is Vance, though he obviously carries some question marks with his spotty and unpredictable usage. He’s an upside tourney consideration.
I expect the Ravens’ tight ends as a collective group to post a solid game, and if Baltimore notches multiple scores through the air, it is likely that at least one touchdown goes to the tight ends. With such a messy rotation, however, it is difficult to get behind any of these plays.
The rest of the Baltimore passing attack is interesting, but not standout, with Snead and Crabtree both carrying strong floor but thin ceiling, and with Brown carrying a strong ceiling by way of a thin floor. Obviously, a tourney shot on JB is in play. Depending on how value shapes up on this slate, Snead and Crabtree at least belong in consideration as safe point-per-dollar plays in cash games as well.
Flacco is an interesting tourney play, given that A) No one wants to play Flacco, and B) the Steelers force teams to the air and allow plenty of QB points. Flacco’s poor play recently and the risk of Lamar Jackson stealing red zone looks combine to pull him away from smaller-field stuff, but some large-field shots on Flacco with a multi-entry approach is not a poor idea.
Of course, each defense is in play as well. Baltimore ranks first in sacks, while Pittsburgh ranks second — though each team ranks near the bottom of the league in sacks taken, and each team also ranks near the bottom of the league in turnovers forced. I like these units for tourneys, but not as cornerstone plays.