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We’re all single-game DFS fans now.
Super Bowl DFS contests are our last chance to prove to ourselves -- and our estranged partners -- that we know a little something about NFL teams, players, schemes, and, most importantly, game theory. One can’t simply play the best plays in single-game DFS -- especially in large-field tournaments, where one must embrace the uncomfortable if one is going to get different with lineup construction.
Two weeks of nonstop analysis of Super Bowl LVI -- pitting the home-field superteam Rams against the upstart Bengals -- offers plenty of time to dissect every nook and every cranny of this championship matchup. When Kendall Blanton is looking like the game’s most important fantasy player, things are weird.
I’ve broken down each team’s offense against the other’s defense, and what their strengths and weaknesses might mean for players’ usage and opportunity. Remember: Trust the process, even if the process isn’t exactly clear in single-game DFS.
Rams offense vs. Bengals defense
Cincinnati’s defense does something Matthew Stafford hates: They (very) often rush three or four guys and drop seven or eight in coverage. The Bengals did this to great effect in their stunning comeback win against Kansas City in the AFC Championship game, somehow applying pressure to Patrick Mahomes on three-man rushes.
This is hardly new for the Bengals. In fact, they led the NFL this season with three-man rushes on 20 percent of their third downs -- about 14 percent higher than the league average. Dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage has been a decidedly good strategy against Matthew Stafford in his first season with LA. Stafford ripped opposing defenses with an 8.2 yards per attempt (YPA) and a 74 percent completion rate when facing the blitz in 2021. No quarterback had a higher expected points added (EPA) per drop back than Stafford did against the blitz. It’s not an exaggeration to say he was the NFL’s best QB under pressure this season.
It’s when Stafford doesn’t face pressure that he struggles mightily -- a weakness the 49ers exploited to great success through most of their three matchups against the Rams this year. Against three rushers, Stafford has been nothing short of horrid, completing 53 percent of his passes and posting a YPA of 3.9. Daring Stafford to throw it into eight defenders in the secondary has proven quite the successful formula; there’s no reason to think the Bengals will stray from this formula in the Super Bowl.
That should firmly cap Stafford’s ceiling against Cincy. This won’t be like Stafford’s gem of a game against the Bucs, when Tampa blitzed Stafford throughout and left Odell Beckham and Cooper Kupp in single coverage. There is, of course, a universe in which the Rams fall behind, Sean McVay is forced to stomp on the gas, and Stafford compiles decent numbers in a high-volume outing. That’s not likely though (which might invalidate everything I’ve written for such a highly volatile fantasy format since we want lineups that don’t abide by likely game script. Nevertheless).
You can’t stop Cooper Kupp. You can’t even hope to contain him (shoutout to the millennials). The guy thrives in all game scripts, functioning both as an extension of the Rams’ run game with intermediate targets and as the team’s most effective downfield pass catcher. Bengals slot corner Mike Hilton has been perfectly solid in coverage this year, but nothing in his profile says he can present any hint of difficulty for Kupp. Hilton is 24th among 44 qualifying slot cornerbacks in coverage snaps per reception. Kupp is nearly unavoidable in building Super Bowl DFS lineups, though the bravest among us will dabble with lineups that don’t include the heart and soul of the LA offense. A run-heavy, blowout game script for the Rams -- like we saw in their Wild Card dismantling of Arizona -- would give Kupp faders a fighting chance.
LA’s target distribution has become exceedingly narrow over the past month. Van Jefferson is little more than a low-volume deep threat while Odell Beckham is the clear-cut No. 2 option for Stafford. OBJ has been targeted on 22.2 percent of his pass routes in the team’s three postseason games, trailing only Kupp. His target share over the Rams’ past two games has been 21.8 percent -- worlds higher than Jefferson’s 9.5 percent target share. Beckham’s 10.77 yards per target probably means he’ll need decent volume to come through for DFS gamers against the Bengals.
At his price point, Jefferson makes for a more interesting (and volatile) captain option. Call them air yards, call them prayer yards: The speedy Jefferson should again see his share against the Bengals -- a secondary that allowed the third-fewest receptions of more than 20 yards and the 14th most catches of over 40 yards. Three of Jefferson's five NFC Championship Game targets were over 20 yards.
Sean McVay desperately wants Cam Akers to be a thing. That much is clear by the Rams’ disturbingly high first-down rush rate and Akers seeing 60 touches over the team’s past three contests. Force feeding Akers has been a suboptimal approach; the back’s 2.79 yards per attempt has been a two-ton anchor around the neck of an otherwise efficient LA offense. But volume is volume, and if game script is in the Rams’ favor into the second half, Akers will again see as many totes as he can handle.
In the Bengals, Akers will face a defense that allowed the seventh-highest adjusted EPA per rush in 2021, per NBC Sports Edge’s Pat Kerrane. They can be had on the ground. McVay’s revised offensive approach -- designed to limit the damage of Stafford’s penchant for back-breaking mistakes -- has led to a 53 percent pass rate since Week 15, the league’s ninth-lowest rate over that span. The Rams’ pass rate has dropped to just 49 percent while leading since Week 15. Akers could have volume and sneaky touchdown equity as LA’s primary goal line back. Perhaps his recent nightmarish box scores will keep Akers at surprisingly low rostership. I wouldn’t complain.
The Bengals have quietly been generous to running backs in the passing game. They allowed the third-highest running back target share and the fifth-most running back catches during the regular season. Though Akers’ postseason route participation rate (44.5 percent) leaves something to be desired, the Rams could take advantage of a clear weakness in the Bengals pass defense with Akers (and Sony Michel, to a far lesser extent).
Kendall Blanton’s DraftKings price point is a mere $200 lower than Tyler Higbee’s after Blanton’s involvement and production in the NFC Championship game (five catches on five targets for 57 yards after Higbee left with a knee injury). That officially removes the luster from Blanton if Higbee -- who hasn’t yet practiced -- sits out and Blanton gets the starting tight end gig. Blanton’s target per route run rate (18.6 percent) is slightly higher than Higbee’s (17.5 percent) this postseason. If Higbee sits, Blanton is an intriguing DFS option in lineups predicated on a high-scoring back-and-forth affair or a second half comeback game script. Tight ends facing Cincinnati this season have averaged 6.82 targets per game. You could do worse.
Bengals offense vs. Rams defense
I have an increasingly sinking feeling that Zac Taylor and the Bengals will move heaven and earth to establish the run against LA’s intimidating pass rush, which should have no issue mowing down Cincy’s Swiss cheese offensive line. The Super Bowl could boil down to a mismatch in the trenches: An LA defensive line graded by Pro Football Focus as the league’s best pass-rushing unit against PFF’s eighth-worst pass-blocking unit. It’s a mismatch that will dictate how Cincinnati's offense operates.
Two weeks of preparation should lead to plenty of quick hitters from Joe Burrow, as we saw in the AFC title game against Kansas City. In the second half of that Bengals comeback win, Burrow averaged just 4.3 yards per attempt on 15 non-play action, non-screen, non-RPO dropbacks, according to PFF’s Seth Galina. Taylor made a key adjustment against KC’s blitz-happy defense -- one that helped Burrow get the ball out quickly time and again, leading to a load of targets for the team’s primary short-area pass catcher.
Tyler Boyd saw six targets, Samaje Perine had four, Joe Mixon had three, and Drew Sample saw two targets. C.J. Uzomah, meanwhile, had two targets before he was knocked out with a serious knee injury that could keep him sidelined this week. Probably Uzomah would have seen a half dozen looks if he hadn’t left early. Those attempts accounted for 47.4 percent of Burrow’s passes against the Chiefs.
This quick-hitting approach kept Burrow off his posterior -- KC sacked him once -- and generated an unusual number of intermediate looks for Ja’Marr Chase. The electric wideout posted the fifth-lowest yards per target (6) of his rookie campaign, usage that led to a 54-yard performance, the seventh-lowest yardage total of his season. There remains, of course, the chance that Chase -- third in the NFL in yards after the catch (YAC) and fourth in YAC per reception this season -- could take a short catch directly to the house, leaving Jalen Ramsey to point fingers and berate fellow LA defenders while Chase cruises into the end zone. Still, I think there’s a valid argument for being light on Chase in DFS lineups predicated on a fairly low-scoring game featuring balanced offenses.
Tee Higgins is tough to figure out. His targets per route run (TPRR) has bounced here, there, and everywhere over the past couple of months. He’s alternately been the Bengals’ target-hogging WR1 and the distant WR2 behind a dominant Chase. In Cincy’s three postseason games, Higgins has been targeted on 18.64 percent of his pass routes, which is way down from his 24 percent TPRR in the regular season but far better than his late-season TPRR. Chase, meanwhile, has been targeted on 21.7 percent of his postseason routes. At his price point, I’m very much into Higgins in lineups that don’t include Chase. His yards per target (10.6) have remained stable despite Burrow’s quick-passing approach, giving him a chance at a splash play or two against CB Darious Williams, Pro Football Focus’ lowest graded Rams cornerback. Higgins’ massive size advantage is tantalizing in one-on-one matchups with Williams. He’s an ideal captain option.
Joe Mixon could see a lot of usage if the Bengals are intent on neutralizing LA’s five-man pass rush. Running into five-man fronts -- and possibly six or seven, since Cincinnati’s personnel usage has made them very predictable on running plays -- is far from ideal. Mixon has vanishingly little chance of rushing success against a lockdown LA rush defense that put the clamps on Kyle Shanahan’s famed rushing attack two weeks ago. Even in positive game script, Mixon could have little chance to see significant rushing volume in a Bengals offense that has led the league with a 61 percent pass rate while leading since Week 15. If that trend continues, Mixon has little shot of seeing 20 totes against LA, as arbitrary as that number seems.
If Mixon is going to get there for fantasy purposes, it’s going to have to happen through the air against a Rams defense allowing 5.9 running back targets per game. Mixon, as mentioned above, could be a short-area beneficiary of a quick-pass attack for the Bengals. With 13 grabs on 15 targets in three playoff games, Mixon’s pass-catching role gives him an avenue -- however narrow -- to a ceiling game against LA. Samaje Perine, who has sometimes emerged as the team’s pass-catching back, could ruin things if Zac Taylor goes full galaxy brain. Perine, who's run a route on 24 percent of the team's drop backs over three playoff games and has a higher TPRR than Mixon, is a reasonable DFS play in lineups that assume negative game script for the Bengals.