I’ll be leveraging my experience as a high school football coach and fantasy analyst with a statistics background to identify aspects of one matchup every week that you can take advantage of while setting your fantasy football lineups and/or placing bets on the upcoming slate.
This week we’re focusing on Sunday’s matchup featuring the Cincinnati Bengals at Los Angeles Chargers — specifically why Keenan Allen is in a smash spot.
Keenan Allen’s Second-Half Renaissance
It was a rough start to the season for Allen. Through the first seven games of 2018, he had a 26% target share for the Chargers but only compiled 508 receiving yard and one touchdown.
It was clear that things had to change.
In the five games since the bye, the Chargers have been going to Allen at a much higher rate and with far better results. His target share over that span is 35% and he has 480 receiving yards with three touchdowns.
Second-half surges have actually been a trend for Allen throughout his career.
There isn’t a clear reason for this trend, but the growing sample and Allen’s current streak gives fantasy players a reason to expect that to continue.
Slot Coverage Woes
What differentiates Allen from a lot of other star wideouts is his slot usage. He’s 10th in slot targets on the season, but also 10th in yards per route run out of the slot (minimum 75 slot snaps) according to Pro Football Focus.
No wide receiver in the NFL averages more yards per route run than Allen while running more routes.
Slot usage is significant at wide receiver because it invites winnable matchups for the offense. When a receiver lines up on the outside, it’s very unlikely that he’ll be covered by anyone other than a cornerback. Obviously on some inward-breaking route against a zone defense, he could be passed off to someone else at a different position. But at the snap, he should be faced up by an opposing cornerback.
When a wideout lines up in the slot, things are not so cut and dry.
Opposing defenses could decide to have a cornerback follow the receiver inside, or play with more than two corners and leave one in the slot. But especially against teams playing zone defenses, receivers can see a lot of linebackers in coverage. Many defensive coordinators feel that guarding an area instead of a man makes those players less vulnerable in coverage than they would otherwise be, and doesn’t force them to sacrifice a run-supporter.
The Steelers tried this out against Allen on Sunday Night Football. Needless to say, it did not work.
Keenan Allen was targeted 9 times when a Steelers linebacker was the nearest defender. No wide receiver has been targeted more against a linebacker in a game since #NextGenStats began tracking nearest defender metrics in 2016.#LACvsPIT #FightForEachOther pic.twitter.com/J4jOev3nER
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 3, 2018
We could see much of the same against the Bengals, who run a a zone-heavy defense that often leaves their linebackers in coverage. Cincinnati’s linebackers are seventh in slot coverage snaps, and all of them are ranked 40th or worse in PFF coverage grades. In fact, outside of Vincent Rey, all of their linebackers are 55th or worse.
The Bengals have also struggled to get a pass rush, ranking bottom five in pressure percentage according to NFL Matchup. That’s not from lack of trying. Cincy is sixth in percent of passing snaps played as a rusher, which indicates that they’re blitzing a lot and not getting there.
This is a perfect storm for players like Allen.
Zone defenses are easier to beat for passing games overall and usually result in lower average depths of targets for quarterbacks. Blitzing out of zone makes it even easier since Allen can replace the blitzer, coming open in his vacated zone — especially since Bengals linebackers are poor in coverage, he should be able to pick them apart.
Play Allen in All Fantasy Formats
Allen is in great position to succeed and should be a priority play in all fantasy formats.
It’s unlikely that you would ever consider benching him in season-long leagues, but his price in daily fantasy has yet to catch up with his expected production.
Allen is only $7,400 on DraftKings this week and $7,900 on FanDuel. At under $8,000 on both sites — and priced as the 10th- and seventh-most expensive receiver, respectively — Allen is a core play worth starting your lineups with on the main slate.
Pictured: Keenan Allen
Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports