Minnesota Vikings (0-0, 0-0 ATS) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-0, 0-0), 1 p.m.
Implied Team Totals: Vikings 25.25, Bengals 22.25
Spread/Total Movements: 3 to 3.5 to 3, 48.5 to 47.5
Weather: 85 degrees, 10 mph, 0% chance of rain
Vikings Injuries to Watch: T Christian Darrisaw (core, questionable), TE Irv Smith (meniscus, IR), WR Chad Beebe (foot, IR)
Bengals Injuries to Watch: CB Trae Waynes (hamstring, out)
Brolley’s Vikings Stats and Trends
Minnesota finished with an NFC-best 11-5 mark toward overs last season, including an 8-3 over run in its final 11 games.
The Vikings have failed to cover in seven straight games entering the season, including an 0-5 skid as favorites.
The Vikings had covered four straight season openers before last season’s 43-34 loss to the Packers as one-point home favorites.
Dalvin Cook finished as the RB2 with 24.3 FPG last season behind only Alvin Kamara. Cook’s 312 carries, 1557 rushing yards, and 16 rushing TDs ranked him second behind only Derrick Henry, and his 17 total TDs were also second to only Kamara (21). The Bengals allowed the fourth-most rushing yards per game (125.1) to RBs last season.
Kirk Cousins finished as the QB12 in FPG in 2020 despite attempting 30 or fewer passes in six games — he even attempted FOURTEEN passes in one full game. He posted a career-high 35 TDs on just 516 pass attempts for an elite 6.8% TD rate, which was 5th-highest in the league. The Bengals allowed multiple TD passes in 10 games last season.
Justin Jefferson posted the fourth-most FPG (17.1) and second-most yards (87.5) per game by a rookie wide receiver all-time on his way to a rookie record 1400 yards — he wasn’t even a full-time player until Week 3. From that point on, Jefferson averaged 95 yards and 18.4 FPG with a 28% target share and 41% air yards share. The Bengals allowed the 16th-most FPG (36.4) to WRs last season.
Adam Thielen caught 14 TD passes on 74 receptions last season, an absurd 18.9% rate, en route to a finish as the overall WR11 with 16.9 FPG. Thielen’s 20 end-zone targets (18.5% of his total targets) led the NFL, and 17% end-zone target rate ranked second in 2019, behind only D.K. Metcalf. The Bengals allowed the fifth-most receiving TDs per game (1.3) to WRs last season.
Irv Smith will miss the next 4-5 months after meniscus surgery on Sept. 1, which will likely keep him out for the entire 2021 season. Tyler Conklin is going to have a significant role and he should hold the edge over recently acquired Chris Herndon since this is his fourth year in Minnesota and Herndon has been trending in the wrong direction since his rookie season in 2019. Conklin saw more targets (21 to 20) than Smith in the final four games of last season with Kyle Rudolph out, and he had a 13.7% target share and he ran routes on 60.9% Cousins’ dropbacks during that stretch. The Bengals allowed the sixth-most FPG (14.6) to TEs last season.
Brolley’s Bengals Stats and Trends
Cincinnati went 6-3 ATS in the nine games finished by Joe Burrow last season, including a 3-1 ATS mark at home.
The Bengals are 5-2 ATS in their last seven home games.
Joe Mixon is entering life without Giovani Bernard for the first time in his four-year career. In four career games without Gio, Mixon is averaging 16.8/82.5 rushing and 3.5/14.5 receiving per game on 20 targets with four total touchdowns. Minnesota allowed the sixth-most FPG (26.6) to RBs last season.
Joe Burrow averaged 18.9 FPG in his nine full games played before his catastrophic knee injury, which would have ranked him at QB12 among passers who made eight or more starts during the regular season. He’s making his first start since his injury and the Bengals need to do a better job of protecting him. Burrow dropbacked 45.3 times per game (2nd-most) and he was pressured on 32% of his dropbacks, which was 18th-most out of 35 QBs (per PFF). The Vikings gave up the 11th-most passing yards per game (266.7) to QBs last season.
Tee Higgins is coming off a spectacular rookie season in which he posted 67/908/6 receiving on 108 targets, outproducing Bengals legend A.J. Green by nearly double for fantasy (195.6 to 111.2) despite seeing just four more targets over the course of 16 games. Higgins averaged 69.9 yards per game with Burrow and 46.5 without him, which extrapolates to 1118 yards with Burrow. The Vikings allowed the second-most receiving TDs per game (1.5) to WRs last season.
Ja’Marr Chase is coming off a shaky preseason filled with drops, but he still comes into the league as one of the best WR prospects in recent history. He opted out of the 2020 season, but he averaged 6.0 catches and 127.1 receiving yards per game over 14 contests in 2019 while scoring 20 times and averaging a ridiculous 21.2 YPR with Burrow at LSU. The Vikings allowed the sixth-most receiving yards per game (179.8) to WRs last season.
Tyler Boyd averaged a nice 6.9 catches per game for 71.0 receiving yards in his 10 games with Burrow last season, and he hit 16+ FP in six of those games. Minnesota gave up the sixth-most FPG (41.1) to WRs last season.
Barfield’s Pace and Tendencies
Vikings (2020 season)
Pace (seconds in between plays): 28.4 (T-24th)
Plays per game: 63.4 (18th)
When the game is within a score — Pass: 50.3% (30th) | Run: 49.7% (3rd)
When the team is ahead — Pass: 43.0% (28th) | Run: 57.0% (5th)
When the team is behind — Pass: 62.5% (23rd) | Run: 37.5% (10th)
Bengals (2020 season | Joe Burrow’s starts)
Pace (seconds in between plays): 26.4 (8th)
Plays per game: 76.9 (1st)
When the game is within a score — Pass: 62% (T-2nd) | Run: 38% (T-31st)
When the team is ahead — Pass: 59% (3rd) | Run: 41% (30th)
When the team is behind — Pass: 67% (11th) | Run: 33% (22nd)
The Bengals were among the league’s most pass-heavy teams last season before Joe Burrow’s season-ending knee injury and, ideally, HC Zac Taylor would love to scale that back some in 2021. Cincinnati going run-heavy might be a tall task in Week 1, though. The Vikings are field goal favorites and have significantly improved their defense after they were routinely waxed last season. In fact, 13 of the Vikings 16 games combined to score over 50 points in 2020. HC Mike Zimmer doesn’t want to be a shootout team and would love to run the ball 35 times per game, and this sets up as a perfect game-script for just that. The Bengals allowed 5.53 YPC (tied for most) and 115.2 rushing yards per game (most) to enemy RBs last year and even though they added two new starters (DT Larry Ogunjobi and DE Trey Hendrickson), this is still an amazing spot for Dalvin Cook to get out of the gates hot.
Key Matchup Notes
While this should be a fantastic matchup for Viking QB Kirk Cousins given the types of coverages he’s likely to see from the Bengals, and the fact that top CB Trae Waynes is out with a hamstring injury is a boost to WRs Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
With Eli Apple and Chidobe Awuzie patrolling the perimeters, there should be a lot of room for the Vikings’ receivers to make plays in this game. The biggest question I have about the Viking pass-catchers will be how much they need to be used, because RB Dalvin Cook has a heck of a matchup, as well. The Bengals allowed a first down on 27.6% of carries last year, 9th-highest in the NFL (SIS).
As for Cincinnati, RB Joe Mixon is expected to finally get the bell cow role with Gio Bernard in Tampa, but beware of the fact that he matches up with Viking LB Eric Kendricks, one of the better cover LBs in the NFL, which could affect his production.
I quite like this matchup for QB Joe Burrow and the Bengals’ passing game. That will be one of the most important details emerging in this game is the intended direction of the Minnesota coverage scheme under second-year co-OCs Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer. Normally we would assume the scheme would be maintained. However, GM Rick Spielman added Bashaud Breeland, Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander, and Tye Smith this offseason. As I passed along in Minnesota’s Franchise Focus, the common factor between those four CB additions is they come from defenses that played Cover 1 at the 13th-, first-, eighth-, and ninth-highest ‘20 rates, respectively. A shift toward featuring Cover 1 is on the horizon. That benefits Burrow.
He’ll be throwing to a talented group of receivers, too — we don’t know if Minnesota will shadow its CBs, but their outside duo of Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland is a gifted one, so it could be tougher sledding for Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase. Tyler Boyd will see the easiest matchup of the group from Alexander in the slot.
Dolan’s Vantage Points
In recent years, Minnesota has been one of my favorite fantasy teams to break down. For season-long players, their “narrow” touch distribution is a godsend. You know you’re playing Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson every week. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a good matchup, because those guys are getting the ball anyway. But the fact that Cincinnati is a good matchup makes it all that much better.
The guy you have to make a decision on each week is Kirk Cousins, and quite frankly, I’m willing to fire him up as my starter this week. Cousins has more upside than you think — he finished as a top-12 weekly QB nine times in 2020, and three of those times he was a top-5 QB. The fact that former Viking CB Trae Waynes is out of this one makes Cousins all the more appealing. If you drafted Cousins to caddy for an upside rookie like Justin Fields or Trey Lance, you flopped the nuts with your Week 1 matchup.
What I’ll be watching closely in Week 1 is the Vikings’ TE breakdown following the injury to Irv Smith. They’re likely still going to run a bunch of 12 personnel with Tyler Conklin and Chris Herndon. The stats down the stretch last year — and comments from coach Mike Zimmer this off-season — suggest we may have been underestimating Conklin’s role even before Smith went down. Over the final four games of 2020, games Kyle Rudolph missed, Smith averaged 12.8 fantasy points per game, which made him the TE8 in Weeks 14-17. Smith also ranked 9th among TEs in routes run per game in this stretch. However, he actually saw fewer targets than Conklin over that span — 21 for Conklin to 20 for Smith, and Conklin’s 102 routes run were only 11 behind Smith. Both players caught 15 passes, with Smith’s 3 TDs to Conklin’s 1 being what separated them for fantasy. And indeed, while Smith’s 71% snap share in those four games was only a modest increase from his games with Rudolph active, Conklin’s 70.1% share was about a twofold increase. Meanwhile, Conklin has a strong argument for being a better athlete than Smith — while Smith ran a 4.63 40 to Conklin’s 4.8, Conklin is a bigger man (6’3”/254 to Smith’s 6’2”/242), and beat Smith easily in every explosion and agility drill at the NFL Combine. This is a big opportunity for Conklin, but he’s not someone for a Week 1 season-long lineup.
For Cincy, though I do like the matchup for Joe Burrow, I’m not taking the chance on him in a 1-QB format in Week 1 until I see what his surgically repaired leg looks like behind that offensive line. If I’m getting exposure to this Bengal passing game, and I’d like to, it’s with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd as WR3s. Ja’Marr Chase, based on his preseason struggles, is a volatile WR4/FLEX.
At the risk of being Lucy Footballed, I’m in on Joe Mixon this year. In four career games without Giovani Bernard slurping up targets and snaps, Mixon is averaging 16.8/82.5 rushing and 3.5/14.5 receiving per game on 20 targets with four total touchdowns. And it’s a good matchup — Minnesota allowed the sixth-most FPG (26.6) to RBs last season. I’m buying Mixon as a top-10 RB this week.