Welcome to the first installment of this season-long series that will leverage my experience as not only a fantasy analyst with a statistics background but also a high school football coach.
Each week I will use my knowledge of the game to identify an aspect of an upcoming matchup that can help you set your lineups or place bets.
And hopefully you’ll learn a little more about this great game along the way.
We’ll kick the series off with some thoughts on the Week 1 matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts.
Colts Tight Ends vs. Bengals Defense
When the Colts open their season at home against the Bengals on Sunday, all eyes will be on quarterback Andrew Luck, who will be making his first start since the 2016 season.
But eyes should instead be on Luck’s tight ends, who are in a position to dominate this matchup.
First-year Colts head coach Frank Reich had his tight ends involved early and often as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Last year, the Eagles were fifth in the league in 12 personnel usage (one running back and two tight ends) and third in 13 personnel usage (one running back and three tight ends).
At the position, the Colts not only return Jack Doyle but also add Eric Ebron. And both should be on the field plenty this week.
Multiple-TE Sets & Cover 3
Playing multiple tight ends does not necessarily mean using big sets. These players are often used as chess pieces who can line up as traditional in-line tight ends as well as in the slot, displaced from the offensive line. Doyle and Ebron have both demonstrated an ability to play from the slot, ranking inside of the top 10 in tight end slot rate last season (per PlayerProfiler.com).
The Bengals’ 4-3 defense is coordinated by Teryl Austin, who spent the last four seasons as the coordinator in Detroit. Austin has said he’ll play to the strengths of his players, which likely means a lot of Cover 3.
Cover 3 traditionally splits the deep part of the fields into thirds with the middle-third covered by the free safety and the outside thirds covered by corners. This is a “one-high” safety look, which positions the strong safety in the box to help with run support. The underneath portions of the field are covered by the linebacking unit.
When playing against Cover 3, opposing tight ends will likely square off with linebackers, as they routinely operate in the middle of the field. Any kind of vertical route should wind up squarely in the lap of the free safety.
Bengals’ Coverage Problems
Although the Bengals were the best Cover-3 team in 2017 (per Pro Football Focus), their linebackers were terrible in coverage.
Top coverage linebacker Vontaze Burfict is suspended for the first four games of the season, which leaves Nick Vigil, Preston Brown and Jordan Evans. All three had PFF coverage grades under 60 and rank outside the top 40 in coverage among qualified players at the position.
At free safety, rookie Jessie Bates will be making his first career start. He was 48th in yards per coverage snap in his final season at Wake Forest and earned an overall PFF grade under 80. He was PFF’s 11th-ranked safety in the 2018 class, making it unlikely that he’ll be an immediate impact player capable of replacing veteran George Iloka.
Leverage the Colts Tight Ends
This is clearly an exploitable matchup for the Colts, and they should look to attack the Bengals aggressively with their tight ends.
That Doyle and Ebron are likely the team’s best offensive threats after wide receiver T.Y. Hilton makes it even more likely that they will be featured heavily in the game plan.
Doyle is a top fantasy tight end in The Action Network’s Week 1 PPR rankings and is $3,600 on DraftKings and $5,600 on FanDuel. Meanwhile, Ebron is $3,300 on DraftKings and $5,000 on FanDuel. Either tight end could be stacked with Luck ($6,100 on DraftKings; $7,300 on FanDuel).