The final game of NFL Week 15 features the Pittsburgh Steelers heading to Cincinnati for a primetime showing against the division rival Bengals on Monday Night Football. Here’s a fantasy football preview of each team heading into tonight’s game.
Steelers fans cross their hopeful fingers, wishing for a rerun of the Week 10 shellacking that Pittsburgh delivered to their divisional foe, Cincinnati. In that November bout, Pittsburgh poured on the water, shoveled on the coal, stuck their head out the window to see QB Ben Roethlisberger roll to his season-best performance—a thunderous 27/46-333-4-0 stat line. The contest was the second consecutive week where Pittsburgh produced the markedly higher 1st-half, early-down passing rate that’s come to define the second half of their season. Toggling through the appropriate drop-down menus on SharpFootball.com’s Situational Run:Pass Ratios page, fantasy managers can see that Pittsburgh’s 1st-half, early-down passing rate puttered along at a league-average, 54% clip during Weeks 1-8. Since the seasonal halfway mark (Weeks 9-14), Pittsburgh has thrown on 1st-half, early-downs 64% of the time—the NFL’s 3rd-highest mark—regardless of opponent. The shift is offensive philosophy coincides with Pittsburgh’s losses of impact defensive players ILB Devin Bush (ACL tear, placed on Injured Reserve on October 23rd), rotational defensive lineman Chris Wormley (spent three weeks on Injured Reserve with a knee injury, starting on October 31st), and multi-week injury-induced absences to starting DL Tyson Alualu and starting CB Mike Hilton in early November. Since then LBs Bud Dupree and Robert Spillane have also ended up on Injured Reserve and running back James Conner has battled COVID-19. By limiting analysis to 1st-half, early-downs, we’re able to see what the Steelers game plan was—an important distinction to make, when trying to discern a team’s intention. The 2nd-halves of games, as well as 3rd down, are oftentimes reactions to either the score, or the distance to-go. What the Steelers’ 1st-half, early-down play-calling shows us is that the simplest solution to their defensive woes was to stop worrying about containing/slowing opposing offenses. Add to that, the fact that the Steelers couldn’t control the clock with their compromised run game and voila! Head coach Mike Tomlin’s intentions became clear; He would attempt to light up the scoreboard by throwing the ball and in the process, stop worrying about what he, and the Steelers’ defense, couldn’t control—the opposing team’s offensive success.
With the new playoff format allowing just one team, the respective conference’s No. 1 Seed, to receive a 1st Round bye and home-field advantage, expect the Steelers, currently one game out of 1st Place in the AFC, to keep the pedal to the metal. Ben Roethlisberger should have no issue lighting up the Bengals’ hapless pass defense. He’s a top five option at the position this week.
The Bengals’ overall inability to stop anything has lead to a more balanced level of passing and rushing production allowed, rather than one category looking significantly worse than the other. That said, their pass defense really is awful. Their 16.9% QB pressure rate is 3rd-worst in the NFL and their nine interceptions ranks Bottom 10. Given that the Steelers actually lead the league in passes dropped with 37, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them try to exorcise some of their passing demons, namely those residing within X-receiver Diontae Johnson who leads the league with 12. Tight end Eric Ebron, with seven, is hot on his trail and the remnants of Pittsburgh’s powerful 4-wide corps, Chase Claypool (5), James Washington (3), and JuJu Smith Schuster (3) aren’t far behind. Given the dearth of options that Roethlisberger has at his disposal, each WR has a wide array of potential outcomes tonight. Fantasy managers in need of a big showing can roll with all four of them as high-floor/high-ceiling flex plays. Each player has top 12 potential at the WR position. With the Bengals allowing 12.8 .5PPR PPG, 3rd-most in the league, Ebron is a rock-solid TE1 play here.
In James Conner’s Weeks 13, COVID-19-induced absence, Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels split the majority of the backfield snaps, with Anthony McFarland Jr. being sprinkled in behind them. At best, Snell is just a high-floor play here, given the play-calling tendencies listed above. Samuels is up for DFS-only, contrarian consideration.
Cincinnati is rolling out their 3rd-string quarterback, Ryan Finley, due to the knee injury suffered by no. 2 QB Brandon Allen in Week 14. In short, the only Cincinnati Bengal up for season-long consideration this week is slot receiver Tyler Boyd, who fantasy mangers can expect to see a heavy workload. Pittsburgh’s league-best 33.1% QB pressure rate is likely to be the dominant factor when it comes to the Cincinnati offense. Finley will be under pressure all day, to the point that Pittsburgh’s D/ST is a better fantasy bet to score a touchdown that the will-be embattled signal caller. Boyd’s high-value slot routes will come in handy for safety blanket purposes but one really can’t expect more than a floor performance out of him. Avoid the remnants of this roster wherever possible.