Normally, I’ve got a witty take or catchy soundbite to repeat as I lead into the Thursday game. I say “normally” like I’ve been doing this fantasy column for years, but you get the idea. But I got nothing today. My Bengals fandom has me focused on tonight. And honestly, I can’t call it.
Cincinnati took steps in the right direction last week. I’ll get to their improvements shortly, which is why I’m hopeful about their chances tonight. But Miami just bested Buffalo on Sunday, leaving Josh Allen in shambles. And the Dolphins did it after running just 39 offensive plays.
After Week 3, I’m trying to figure out if either result was a fluke — but let’s dive into the game first.
AFC Battle in Cincinnati (to See If Last Week was Real)
Miami hinted at this offense all offseason, but folks scoffed at the idea. Detractors were certain things would look different in a real game. Cynics cited Mike McDaniel’s low neutral passing rate in San Francisco as evidence the team wouldn’t air it out often. And coaches can talk all they want at press conferences about their intentions. But you can’t lie with your wallet.
Tyreek Hill, Chase Edmonds, and Jaylen Waddle were all top-20 at their position in YAC last season. You don’t acquire the first two players and expect a 46.9-percent passing rate on early downs. Something had to give. And while I’m almost positive I’ve played against Coach McDaniel in League of Legends, he’s created art on the football field.
Waddle TD dots. Bills in 2 high but Hill's gravity pulls the other safety and... 👏 pic.twitter.com/azGjVyLbFU
— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) September 25, 2022
Hill and Waddle comprise 71.2% of Tua Tagovailoa’s passing yards. And yet, McDaniel can still find ways to get one of them open at will. Both are in the top 40 in average separation, per NextGenStats. Their contributions have pulled Tua into another level of passing, creating a potent aerial attack.
The Dolphins are third in pass rate over expectation (PROE). OK, I already mentioned why we should’ve expected such a shift. However, the volume isn’t the only factor in Tua’s rise. It’s the aggression.
In 2021, his 7.7 aDOT on non-play-action passes ranked 25th. It’s a full yard deeper through three weeks of the season. He’s also ninth in attempts of 20-plus yards. Miami’s offense will give Cincinnati all they can handle.
Hopefully, the Bengals will show up with a similar approach to tonight as they did on Sunday:
What an effort by Higgins, at least that.pic.twitter.com/OuiJzW2TzM
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 25, 2022
I don’t care what the refs said. Tee Higgins scored a touchdown there. But the success of the passing game shadowed one of their biggest flaws: They can’t run the ball.
Cincinnati is 30th in rushing EPA and dead last in success rate. Some blame goes to the line. Even with the upgrades, they’re bottom-four in adjusted line yards. But the play-calling has also become a factor in why the team relies heavily on Joe Burrow’s arm.
Their offense has a tell. When Burrow is in a shotgun formation, he’s passed on 80.0% of his dropbacks. Conversely, he’s at a 44.8% passing rate when under center. It’s created a level of predictability, so defenses tend to load the box when they see tighter formations. However, they took a step forward on Sunday.
Burrow passed on only 43.5% of his shotgun dropbacks against the Jets. He hit a season-high 28.2% usage of play-action. Joe Mixon and the line will get things back on track. And the Dolphins did fall from fourth to league average in rushing EPA allowed after last week. If the Bengals continue to weave their offensive plays together versus their previously siloed approach, they can pull off the win against one of the remaining undefeated teams.
Now, let’s look at some fringe fantasy options for tonight.
Don’t Bench These Guys
Tonight’s game feels more like an exciting real football game than a good fantasy one. Both teams have condensed passing trees. Their defenses are above-average, too. However, this contest still has some fantasy value outside the marquee names. If you're making last-minute lineup decisions, I’ve got a couple worth keeping in your lineup.
No, this isn’t because of his long touchdown on Sunday. Sure, it was fun to watch. But a key takeaway is the long reception came with Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase on the field. The target’s depth also bears a closer look:
Tyler Boyd 56-yard touchdown dots!
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 25, 2022
With superior talent on the field, Boyd’s handled the slot role. And, for fantasy purposes, it hasn’t mattered much. The Bengals had the second-highest rate of 11 personnel last season at 77.0%. It’s even higher this year (90.6%). Plus, Cincinnati’s come out firing (relative to 2021) at 13th in PROE. So, Boyd's passing volume hasn’t been an issue. It’s how Zac Taylor uses him on the field.
Last season, Boyd had an aDOT of 8.0. It’s typical for slot receivers, but it was the “Chase and Higgins” show last season. Boyd accounted for 18.2% of receptions gaining 20 yards or more. He was essentially the third wheel. But that’s not the case in 2022.
His aDOT is up to 11.3 and he has one fewer deep target than Chase through Week 3. It’s allowed him to create more after the catch as he’s up over a full yard in YAC per reception than last year (5.9 to 7.0). More importantly, his share of the team’s air yards is up 10.8%. He’s absorbed C.J. Uzomah’s role while maintaining his own.
Miami’s perimeter corners gave Buffalo fits on Sunday. Josh Allen worked the interior for 41.8% of his yards to combat the coverage. It puts Boyd in a position to be a critical piece to his team — and your fantasy team.
Choosing to start either Miami running back will feel like a leap of faith. Edmonds is living off touchdowns. Raheem Mostert is yet to top 60 rushing in a game. Combining the phrase “leap of faith” and an underperforming stat probably isn’t the best way to prop up a player, so let me explain why Mostert is worth considering tonight.
Mostert’s usage is on the upswing. He opened the season with only a 29.4% rushing share. However, his snaps have steadily risen (up to 56% in Week 3) while Edmonds’s have declined (44% last week). He’s maintained a 63.3% share of the carries since Week 2. And his situational usage isn’t much different than his counterpart’s.
Both have an equal amount of red-zone carries and attempts during the two-minute drill. Mostert’s even run more routes over the last couple of weeks. Cincinnati’s 14th in rushing EPA allowed, leaving the door open for a positive performance. If Tua isn’t completely healthy, expect a healthy workload for Mostert.
Don’t Be Fooled
I doubt I’ll get much pushback on these guys. It’s not to say we know who they are after three weeks. Regardless, I need two things from a TNF player: A high floor or a high ceiling. If all I can envision is me staring at a dud in my lineup all Friday and Saturday, I’d rather keep them on my bench. I’ve got a couple of examples for tonight’s game.
I miss Uzomah. His energy could get a crowd going. And more importantly, he could keep the offense going.
There’s not much of an athletic difference between Uzomah and Hayden Hurst. It’s why the release of the former and acquisition of the latter made sense at the time. However, Uzomah could function like a wide receiver in space. Per PFF, he was sixth amongst all TEs in YAC per reception. Hurst currently sits at 28th. Plus, his target share has dwindled due to a lingering injury.
Hurst was at a 14.6% target share with a 14.4% TPRR through the first two weeks. He got two targets in Week 3 despite Higgins missing time and Chase getting frustrated with Sauce Gardner. Hurst hasn’t seen a red-zone target since Week 1, and his pass-game role appears diminished. Let’s give it a week and see if he gets healthier.
Literally Any Miami Pass Catcher Not Named Hill or Waddle
Don’t do this to yourself. I get it, though. Miami’s offense is pass-friendly (3rd in PROE), productive (3rd in yards per drive) and efficient (1st in EPA per play). You should want a piece of this offense. But there aren’t many worth rostering.
Hill and Waddle account for over half of the Dolphins’ passing attack. They lead the team at 29 targets through Week 3, while none of the remaining pass-catchers are in double digits. Waddle has the lead in receiving yards at 342 to Hill’s 317. The combined yardage total of the eight other options is 266. Your only hope is a touchdown.
Surprisingly, the duo’s usage drops in the red zone. Hill doesn’t have a target inside their opponent’s 20-yard line, but Waddle leads the team at 4. After him, it’s a mix of Mike Gesicki (2), River Cracraft (3) and Trent Sherfield (3). And two of the trio ran a route on less than a third of Tua’s dropbacks.
It’s a touchdown or bust for any Miami player outside their primary pair. With the Bengals tied for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (2), I’d look elsewhere before rolling the dice.