There was a time, not too long ago, when Bengals-Steelers was a matchup that meant something. Between 2013 and 2017, either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati was crowned king of the AFC North at season’s end, with these two squads often partaking in some hard-hitting, closely contested battles. However, as the kids say, this ain’t it. Ben Roethlisberger will miss the remainder of 2019 with an elbow injury, Marvin Lewis is now a special advisor down at Arizona State, and Vontaze Burfict is a Raider; although one that is still getting ejected and suspended from games regularly. Time waits for no man and it would seem, in the immediate future, that this rivalry has been put on hold.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still play a little DFS. Let’s break down this Monday Night Football meeting from a Showdown perspective.
Note: All salaries will be Flex prices unless noted as Captain’s Pick prices.
Pittsburgh SteelersIf you’re one of the people who has been patiently awaiting a James Conner ($10,600) breakout, tonight’s going to be your night. The Bengals have been absolutely gutted on the ground so far this season, allowing 138.0 rushing yards per game to opposing backfields through three weeks. While that’s actually just the second-highest figure in the NFL, know that the Dolphins are the lone team that’s mustered a more feeble run defense and they, unlike Cincinnati, are actively trying to lose. That’s also not the only area where the Bengals have come up short in regards to the running back position. Cincinnati’s surrendered a whopping 4.95 adjusted line yards per carry entering Week 4, a flaw that becomes even more of an issue when you consider what level of volume this efficiency is attached to. Due to their general inclination to play from behind, the Bengals have induced a massive 54.2% opponent rushing rate – once again a mark that sits as the second-highest in football. Essentially, they know what’s coming and they still can’t stop it. Add in that RBs are averaging 7.9 yards per target in this matchup and you’ve got the ideal spot to utilize Conner. Heck, you could even play with the idea of getting some Jaylen Samuels ($3,200) exposure, with the obvious caveat of the sophomore not garnering a single touch in Week 3.
Another reason to invest in Conner is the presence of Mason Rudolph ($9,600). It’s not like the second-year quarterback played especially poorly in the Steelers’ loss last Sunday, but it was clear that the team’s approach to their passing attack was relatively conservative up until a second-half deficit necessitated forcing the issue. Rudolph managed a mere 6.8-yard aDOT on his 27 attempts versus San Francisco, while his 156 air yards were the fifth-lowest total of the 32 starting QBs last Sunday. Really, if not for JuJu Smith-Schuster’s ($10,400) ability to turn a short crossing route into a 76-yard touchdown, Rudolph’s numbers would have been generally underwhelming across the board. With most teams seemingly content to run the ball down the Bengals’ throats, I wouldn’t expect a particularly voluminous performance from Pittsburgh’s pivot this evening.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to ignore some of the Steelers’ receiving threats. It’s been a down year for the aforementioned Smith-Schuster through three weeks of action, but the 22-year-old did see a team-high seven targets against the 49ers. He remains the club’s No. 1 option in the passing game and he draws a fantastic matchup in Tony McRae on Monday. The undrafted corner has only overseen 82 routes going back to the start of last season; yet, in that span, he’s allowed wideouts to catch 94% of their targets, while also surrendering an eye-popping 1.82 yards per route covered. Dionte Johnson ($6,600) and James Washington ($6,200) have the potential to emerge as values, too. Though count me as leaning my preference towards the latter. Johnson was the one who ended up with the touchdown last weekend, but it was Washington that out-snapped Johnson 49-42. That might not appear to be all the large a discrepancy, yet, with the history that Rudolph and Washington share, it’s enough for me to go back to the well after a disappointing showing as low-end chalk in Week 3. I’d definitely play Washington over Johnson and I prefer both to Nick Vannett ($4,200) – brought in by Pittsburgh just a few days back after the injury to Vance McDonald ($5,600).
Cincinnati BengalsIf it seemed like most everyone on the Steelers was in a good matchup this evening, that trend will carry over to when the Bengals find themselves with the football. Pittsburgh has consistently been a mess on defense through the beginning of 2019, surrendering 442.0 opponent yards per game – the second-most of any unit in the NFL entering Week 4. In fact, the Steelers allowed 436 total yards to the 49ers last Sunday with Mike Tomlin’s bunch only managing to stay in the contest thanks to five ugly and mostly unforced turnovers by San Francisco. The defense has been particularly poor when it comes to corralling quarterbacks, as no AFC team has given up more passing yards per game than Pittsburgh (306.0). These are the kinds of embarrassing traits that can develop when a team lets opponents connect on 74.0% of their attempts and pick up a massive 8.7 yards per throw. In other words, Andy Dalton ($9,800) should be set up quite nicely tonight – and it’s not only because of the Steelers. Dalton came into Week 4 possessing an elite level of volume, as the veteran’s 141 drop backs were the most of any AFC pivot. That has directly led to Dalton currently sitting third in the league with 326.3 passing yards per start. The game script is a little hazy in a tilt between two winless teams; however, with Dalton having attempted 51 passes in Cincinnati’s one-point loss to Seattle in Week 1, it appears there will be no scenario where the QB isn’t highly involved.
Obviously, the aerial inclination of the Bengals offense also benefits the roster’s wide receivers. Tyler Boyd ($9,200) has had an interesting season to this point, entering the week as one of just five wideouts with at least 30 targets to his name through three games. However, that volume has not led to any touchdowns, with odd sequencing being the biggest culprit in Boyd’s inability to score. Despite the fact that few quarterbacks have dropped back as frequently in 2019 as Dalton, the TCU product has attempted a mere eight passes in the red zone – with Kirk Cousins the lone qualified QB with fewer opportunities. This isn’t some purposeful wrinkle in Cincinnati’s system, it’s simply the result of John Ross ($8,400) having mustered three receiving touchdowns of over 30 yards in the season’s first three weeks. At some point, Boyd will get his high-leverage looks and the output will start matching the immense opportunity. As for Boyd, this is not the matchup to start lamenting the former first-round pick’s highly unstable path to consistent fantasy production. Pittsburgh’s allowed 15 passing plays of over 20 yards and Ross’ archetype has exploited this defense in the very recent past. Think Phillip Dorsett streaking to the end zone twice in Week 1. At the very least, Boyd and Ross represent the concentrated nature of the Bengals’ passing game, with the duo catching 45.7% of the team’s completed attempts to this point. In fact, no other Cincinnati player even has 100-plus yards receiving. Still, Auden Tate ($4,800) did play 88.3% of the offensive snaps versus the Bills and recorded an impressive 10 targets. With his stock rising, a salary under $5K seems viable, especially with Damion Willis ($200) not even seeing a single snap.
Finally, there’s Joe Mixon ($8,800). Let’s all channel our inner Robin Williams as we express to Mixon that his inability to be an impactful DFS piece isn’t really his fault. It’s just difficult to run behind what might be the NFL’s worst offensive line. It’s not hard to see how the Bengals got to this point, either. First-round pick Jonah Williams was ruled out for the year before the preseason even began; Cordy Glenn has been in the concussion protocol for over a month; Clint Boling retired in the offseason and, on top of all that, Michael Jordan and Andre Smith have recently been limited in practice with injuries. All this has combined to curse Cincinnati with an offensive line that has managed a paltry 2.68 adjusted line yards per carry – easily the lowest mark in all of football. Considering Gio Bernard ($3,800) plays roughly 40% of the team’s offensive snaps and is $5K cheaper than Mixon, he’s the direction I’d rather go with my builds this evening; especially with Pittsburgh surrendering a league-high 29% positional target rate to opposing backfields so far in 2019. That’s really more Bernard’s area to shine.
THE OUTCOMEWith two defenses that have proven to be absolutely inept, I think this game has the potential to be sneaky high-scoring. Regardless, James Conner ($15,900 CP) is justifiably priced as the slate’s most expensive piece, as he’s far and away in the best spot this evening. Cincinnati’s been abysmal when attempting to stop the run in 2019 and will in no way dissuade the Steelers from feeding their lead back with over 20 touches when its all said and done. Andy Dalton ($14,700 CP) or even Gio Bernard ($5,700 CP) could also be featured as a Captain’s Pick, but no one else presents Conner’s limitless ceiling and elevated floor.
Final Score: Pittsburgh 30, Cincinnati 24
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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is theglt13) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.