Cincinnati Bengals (1-1, 1-1 ATS) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1, 1-1), 1 p.m.
Implied Team Totals: Bengals 20.5, Steelers 23.5
Spread/Total Movements: 5.5 to 3, 45.5 to 44
Weather: 65 degrees, 5% chance of rain, 10 mph
Bengals Injuries to Watch: WR Tee Higgins (shoulder, doubtful), CB Trae Waynes (hamstring, doubtful), DT Larry Ogunjobi (groin, probable), OG Xavier Su’a-Filo (knee, doubtful)
Steelers Injuries to Watch: QB Ben Roethlisberger (pec, probable), WR Diontae Johnson (knee, out), OLB T.J. Watt (groin, questionable), CB Joe Haden (groin, probable), MLB Devin Bush (groin, probable), OLB Alex Highsmith (groin, out), NT Tyson Alualu (ankle, IR)
Brolley’s Bengals Stats and Trends
These teams played in two games with a combined ATS margin of 44 points. The Bengals beat the Steelers 27-17 in late December as 14.5-point home underdogs with Ryan Finley at quarterback. The Steelers beat Joe Burrow and company 36-10 in mid-November as 6.5-point home favorites.
The Bengals are 1-4 ATS and 3-1-1 toward unders in their last five road games.
Joe Mixon has 20+ carries in each of the first two games, but he slipped from 4/23 receiving in the season opener to just a two-yard catch against the Bears last week. He’s still run a promising 40 routes through two weeks but he’s seen just an 11% target share. The Steelers lost NT Tyson Alualu (ankle) last week but Pittsburgh is limiting RBs to 3.3 YPC and 58.5 rushing yards per game.
Joe Burrow is averaging just 28.5 passes per game through two weeks after averaging 41.1 passes per game in his nine full contests last year. He’s thrown two TDs in each of his first two games but he had his first multi-INT of his career last season, with his three INTs coming on three consecutive attempts. The Steelers have some major injuries to watch this weekend, most importantly OLB T.J. Watt (groin), and Derek Carr torched their undermanned defense with 382/2 passing.
Ja’Marr Chase notched his second touchdown from 40+ yards away last week, which masked his otherwise quiet second game — he finished with 2/54/1 receiving on four targets (13% share) against the Bears. Henry Ruggs burned the Steelers’ secondary for a 61-yard touchdown last week.
Tee Higgins has been the most consistent of Burrow’s big three WRs in the early going. He saw a team-best 10 targets (33% share) last week, which he turned into 6/60/1 receiving to give him 15+ FP in each of the first two games. He now has double-digit FP in his last nine full games with Burrow (9-of-10 overall), and he went for 7/115/1 receiving in his lone game against the Steelers with his quarterback in the lineup.
Tyler Boyd bounced back with 7/73 receiving on nine targets (30% share) last week after seeing just four targets in the season opener. Slot WRs Hunter Renfrow (5/57 receiving) and Cole Beasley (8/60) have each reached double-digit FP against the Steelers to open the season.
Brolley’s Steelers Stats and Trends
The Steelers are 1-4 ATS in their last four home games.
Pittsburgh has failed to cover in five straight games as a favorite.
The Steelers are 4-1-1 toward unders in their last six games as a home favorite.
Najee Harris put up another pedestrian rushing line (10/38) last week against the Raiders, but he got going in the passing game with 5/43/1 receiving, including a catch-and-run TD from 25 yards away. The Bengals have given up exactly 20/61 rushing to both David Montgomery and Dalvin Cook (with a rushing TD) and they combined for 8/61 receiving in two games.
Ben Roethlisberger completed 27/40 passes for 295 yards (7.4 YPA), one touchdown, and one INT in a lackluster loss to the Raiders in Week 2. He’s failed to reach 15+ FP in either game and he’ll now be playing through pain this week after picking up a pec injury. The Bengals are giving up 233.5 passing yards per game to QBs through two weeks.
Diontae Johnson can’t go more than a game without feigning death on the field, but he picked up an actual knee injury on a meaningless final play against the Raiders in Pittsburgh’s Week 2 loss. He avoided a long-term injury but his status for Week 3 is still up in the air. He dominated targets for the second straight week with 12 looks (30% share), which he turned into 9/105 receiving. Johnson’s 22 targets are nine more than the next closest players (Claypool and JuJu) in the passing attack. Diontae hung 14/175/2 receiving in two games against the Bengals last season
Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster would obviously get target boosts if Johnson is unable to play this week, and James Washington stepping into the #3 WR. Claypool is running third in routes (60) behind JuJu (77) through two weeks, but they’re tied in targets (13) and with Claypool’s aDOT sitting at a gaudy 17.4 yards and JuJu’s at a paltry 4.6 yards. JuJu stole a jet-motion rushing TD last week, plays that Claypool scored twice on last season. Claypool posted 7/110/2 receiving and JuJu had 12/92/1 receiving in two games against the Bengals last season.
Pat Freiermuth is already starting to outsnap Eric Ebron (33 to 24 in Week 2), and he held a 23-to-20 advantage in routes. Pittsburgh’s second-round pick caught all four of his targets for 36 yards against the Raiders while Ebron failed to catch both of his targets in Week 2. The Bengals have given up just five catches for 41 yards to tight ends through two weeks.
Barfield’s Pace and Tendencies
Week 1-2 – Pace (seconds in between plays): 33.1 (29th)
Week 1-2 – Plays per game: 60.5 (24th)
Week 1-2 – Pass: 58.2% (21st) | Run: 41.8% (12th)
Week 1-2 – Pace: 26.6 (14th)
Week 1-2 – Plays per game: 56 (20th)
Week 1-2 – Pass: 69.0% (5th) | Run: 31.0% (28th)
Maybe it’s the Bengals wanting to be careful with their star quarterback or a total change in philosophy (or both), but this is not the same Bengals offense we saw in 2020 from a structural standpoint. Last year, Cincinnati was top-12 in pass rate and ran the most plays per game (76.9) before Burrow went down and they have now morphed into a slow-paced, balanced attack. I understand not wanting to put too much on Burrow’s plate too fast, but they’re on par with the Browns in terms of their run tendencies right now. Cleveland is 56% run-heavy on early downs and those runs have generated 5.6 YPC so far. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is 55% run-heavy on early downs… but for a measly 4.3 yards a pop. Now, I’m not saying the Bengals need to turn into the Buccaneers and throw it 70% of the time, but HC Zac Taylor is doing his QB a disservice by calling mediocre early-down runs near the league’s highest rate. Hopefully, we’ll see the Bengals mix in more passes to set up more manageable situations this week – especially against a Pittsburgh front-seven that has stonewalled opposing RBs for 3.05 YPC (fourth-lowest) and a 28.9% success rate (sixth-lowest) per SIS.
(Note: We’re dealing with very small sample sizes early in the season – so I’m saving the deep dive into play-calling tendencies until Week 4.)
Huber’s Key Matchup Notes
First-round rookie WR Ja’Marr Chase has been everything Cincinnati hoped for when they selected him with their first pick. He has supplied 14.1 yards in return for each target sent his way (ninth-best). And his 146.8 targeted passer rating is fifth-best among qualified WRs. We’re a ways off from constructing a reliable coverage chart for Chase so, until then, we need to play the surface matchups. But it’s great to see Chase working all across the offensive formation. With a 24% rate of routes run out of the slot, he will have an opportunity to cash in on Pittsburgh allowing the third-most slot FPG to WRs. Obviously, that’s good news for Tyler Boyd too in the expected event Tee Higgins (shoulder, doubtful) has to sit.
The struggles of Ben Roethlisberger have resulted in defenses nearly eliminating the Steelers’ ground game. Pittsburgh ranks dead last with an average of only 57 total rushing YPG. Lacking a ground game and the ability to attack downfield, it’s no surprise to see Pittsburgh averaging the eighth-fewest PPG (20). And that rough sledding will not see any signs of letting up against a Bengals’ defense locking up opposing backfields to the eighth-fewest FPG. It’s a tough task for RB Najee Harris, against a defense that gave up the same exact 20/61 line to both Dalvin Cook and David Montgomery.
Dolan’s Vantage Points
This is a divisional matchup that I wouldn’t be surprised if it were impossibly ugly or shockingly fun for fantasy — both teams have skill-position talent, but both have struggled to look explosive in the early going.
Let’s start with Cincinnati, which has WR Tee Higgins dealing with a shoulder injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday and renders him doubtful this week. Higgins leads the Bengals with 15 targets, to Tyler Boyd’s 13 and Ja’Marr Chase’s 11. If Higgins can’t go and someone like Auden Tate has to fill in, the most likely scenario is that Joe Burrow targets Boyd and Chase more. I like both quite a bit as WR2s, and while the Bengals do move their guys around, one would have to think Boyd would see the majority of the slot snaps (91% slot rate), an alignment where the Steelers are giving up the 3rd-most FPG. If Higgins goes, I think I’ll consider him a very risky WR3 in this matchup, given Steeler CB Joe Haden (groin) seems almost certain to play. But don’t expect to see Higgins.
I’m passing on Burrow this week in a tough matchup — Pittsburgh is 16th in FPG allowed to opposing QBs despite facing Josh Allen and the NFL’s leading passer, Derek Carr, so far.
It’s not a great matchup for Joe Mixon, as the Steelers have given up the 4th-fewest FPG to opposing RBs, but I simply can’t sit a running back who has played 80.9% of his team’s snaps so far… including 84% of their pass plays (a huge rise from 55% last year, when healthy). Mixon could be in line for more targets if Higgins misses, as well.
My conviction with Mixon extends to the other side of the ball, where Najee Harris leads all running backs with an absurd 97.3% snap share. The line hasn’t been good and teams are able to stack the box against Harris, but someone with that level of participation is going to get his eventually. It’s good to know Harris scored a receiving TD last week, because he could be needed through the air in this one…
… because Diontae Johnson (knee) is not going to play. Johnson has seen double-digit targets in 12 of his last 16 games where he played more than 25% of the snaps, so that’s a lot of production Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to find elsewhere. Johnson’s aDOT of 8.3 is higher than you might think this year (above Terry McLaurin… but still 48th among WRs with 10 or more looks), which could mean more work in the intermediate areas for James Washington if you’re desperate. Of course, Ben could always continue to check down to Najee and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has an impossibly low aDOT of 4.1, ahead of only Adam Humphries.
If you’re looking for a reason to back Chase Claypool this week, his aDOT is 17.4m and the Bengals’ defense has surrendered 15 completions that have traveled 10 or more yards in the air, tied for 4th-most in the NFL. I’d have a lot more faith in Claypool if Ben’s arm wasn’t shot (and he wasn’t also dealing with a pec injury), but I feel a breakout game is coming. The Bengals should get CB Trae Waynes back from a hamstring injury this week, however.
One thing to monitor if you’re dumpster-diving at TE: rookie Pat Freiermuth is already starting to outsnap vet Eric Ebron (33 to 24 in Week 2), and he held a 23-to-20 advantage in routes in that contest. Pittsburgh’s second-round pick caught all four of his targets for 36 yards against the Raiders while Ebron failed to catch both of his targets in Week 2. The Bengals have faced two teams — Minnesota and Chicago — who don’t have great TE threats so far, so they’re relatively untested.