I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t the matchup we expected coming into the season. When sportsbooks initially released their Super Bowl lines, only two teams – the Lions and Texans – had longer odds of winning the Lombardi trophy than the Bengals and you would have yielded a 100-to-one payout or better, had you put money on them. And as of the middle of December, sitting there at 7-6, they were on the outside of the playoffs looking in, among a crowded field of contenders in the AFC. The Rams on the other hand were on the fringe of the top-five in terms of championship odds, but there were some serious doubts about them as well at points, entering December at 7-4 and having a few wins late in the year, which were far from convincing. Yet, these two groups are now set to meet in the big game, knocking off last year’s champs in either conference along the way.
There are a bunch of storylines to follow, such as former Rams assistant and now Bengals head coach Zac Taylor trying to beat his former boss in Sean McVay, Andrew Whitworth facing a Cincinnati team that he was a part of for 11 years and now has a chance to reach the ultimate goal against in his final time on the field possibly at 40 years old, a re-merging superstar in Odell Beckham Jr. meeting the team he suffered a torn ACL against that ended last season for him, two former number one overall picks at quarterbacks trying to outduel each other and even the battle of kickers, with a highly confident rookie and a first-time Pro Bowler, who’s had some issues lately.
Let’s break everything down from a schematic perspective on both sides of the ball, certain matchups to pay attention to and how they may affect the outcome, along with identifying one X-factor on offense and defense for each squad and then coming to a conclusion with a final score prediction.
Bengals offense vs. Rams defense:
The Bengals offense finished the regular season tied for fifth in the NFL with 5.9 yards per plays, which is heavily influenced by averaging the third-most net yards per dropback (7.2), despite allowing the third-most sacks (55) at the same time, since they only averaged 4.0 yards per carry (26th). They’ve been dead-average in third-down conversion percentage (39.6%) and in the red-zone (59.6%), but converted 13 of 20 fourth downs on the year (65%). Despite his 14 interceptions, Joe Burrow was second to only Aaron Rodgers in final passer rating and number one from an accuracy perspective (completion percentage and on-target percentage).
Burrow arguably has the most complete trio of receivers at his disposal, with a stud alpha in rookie Ja’Marr Chase, who can consistently beat man-coverage isolated on the backside, a big-bodied flanker in Tee Higgins, who has that gliding speed and large catch radius, where he can extend for the ball and hold onto it with those strong hands, and an excellent weapon in Tyler Boyd, who doesn’t shy away from contact and has great feel for finding open space against zone coverage. Plus, Joe Mixon gives them a checkdown option, who can win in those one-on-one tackling situations and drive forward for some key yards. Over their last five games, he has hauled in 26 of 29 targets for 216 yards.
Fundamentally, Cincinnati has made a transition from more of the Shanahan/McVay-oriented offense, where they would run the ball more out of 12 personnel and then run bootlegs off it early in the season, to putting their star quarterback more in the shotgun, spreading things out and attacking opponents through the air. When you look at the game splits, they’ve thrown the ball on 64 percent of offensive snaps over their last five games with Burrow at the helm (sat out week 18), compared to just 58 percent over the rest of the year. And while he has been sacked more than any other singular QB in the league this season – and some of it has been on him not getting rid of the ball, along with major issues in protection and play-designs not providing throwaway options – this guy is slippery like butter and tougher than a two dollar steak. Against Kansas City in particular, he was pressured on just over 40 percent of dropbacks, barely seeing extra rushers being brought, but he only took one sack. He was picking up crucial yards with his legs, at times having to get himself out of nearly impossible situations, just like slipping out of a couple of tackling attempts by Chris Jones.
From a schematic perspective more directly, they run a lot of wide zone out of two-tight end sets, along with the threat of jet sweeps with a receiver in a condensed split and the edge defender left unblocked, where that extra burst Ja’Marr Chase packs, when he’s put in that spot, a lot of times leads to positive plays despite that flat defender having it leveraged correctly. The other play we’ve seen them run a lot of – particularly against 3-4 base teams, such as Tennessee in the Divisional Round – is the crack toss, often times motioning the tight-end inside, even when he’s the number two on a trips side, or having Tyler Boyd in that near-wing alignment pinning the end-man inside and somebody coming underneath the formation to get a running block on whoever is designated to replace the “edge-setter”. Another tendency of theirs is calling draw plays against defensive lines, that bring out their NASCAR packages, where they really widen those alignments, but also present large gaps on the inside and can use the upfield approach against those guys. And finally, in terms of run schemes when they operate more from the gun and 11 personnel, having their tight-end at that H or wing spot, allows them to utilize him as an insert blocker, to give them a little bit of a different look on sort of power plays, which also opens up the opportunity to hit in-breakers off those run-fakes, when they can pull the linebackers upfield.
As I already mentioned, the Bengals still base their offense on a lot of West Coast patterns, but they do it a lot more out of spread formations, where they can create clearer pictures for Burrow and attack voids in zone coverage, while obviously having the weapons to punish you, if you try to send extra bodies and put their secondary in man-coverage. Joe Burrow was Pro Football Focus’ number-one graded quarterback versus the blitz last season, where Chase has become basically unguardable one-on-one, having registered a perfect passer-rating when targeted mid-way through the regular season, which hasn’t fallen off much, considering he broke the rookie single-game record with 266 yards against the Chiefs in the regular season, who dared the Bengals to beat press-man coverage all day long. In terms of easy yardage that they try to pick up through the air, double slants from a two-by-two set with the tight-end the other way into the boundary gives them an easy read on the slot defender, and out of empty sets, Burrow often hits his TE C.J. Uzomah on a little hook route as the number two on the short side. If Cincinnati out-leverages their opponents to one side, they will religiously hit their skill-guys on screens and force tough open-field tackles. They use a lot of receiver stacks and bunches, where one of their favorite ways to attack defenses is creating vertical releases and clearing out space over the middle, in front of the deep zones, for example by occupying the seams with Boyd and then having Tee Higgins release outside as the tip-man and breaking back inside about 15 yards downfield.
Transitioning over to the Rams defense, when you look at total and some of the categories, they haven’t been nearly impressive as they were in 2020, but only the Steelers and Vikings have recorded more than their 50 sacks this season, they’re fifth with 85 tackles for loss, they have the eighth-best red-zone percentage and with 17 passing touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions, they are one of only four teams (along with the Bills, Patriots and Cowboys) to have a “negative” TD-to-INT ratio as a defensive unit. While many people can remember the 49ers gashing them on the ground in their first meeting, they’ve really stiffened up in that department in this postseason, just not limiting San Francisco to their second-lowest rushing total of the season at a mere 50 yards, with 162 overall in those contest. And if you take the fourth quarter and 12 extra seconds of the Bucs game out of the equation, the Rams have surrendered just 34 points over the eleven remaining quarters throughout these playoffs.
When you Raheem Morris’ scheme, they run a lot of five-man fronts, not only to avoid easy opportunities for combo-blocks, but also to create those one-on-ones for their D-line in passing situations. While those gap-scheme oriented attacks have had some success earlier in the year against them, their quickness up front has also led to a lot of issues for their opponents, especially when trying to work laterally with a zone-oriented approach. And only the Titans gave up fewer runs of 20 or more yards (four) throughout the year. While they do have those three defensive linemen occupying that tackle-to-tackle area, they can get more flexible with their outside linebackers and pull them out really wide, at times in nine(-plus) alignments, where they create issues for offensive tackles wanting to set vertically and now they become vulnerable to speed-to-power maneuvers, because those guys on the outside have the runway to build up momentum. Along with that, they run a lot of T-E twists, where the three- or 4i-technique really attacks the inside shoulder of the tackle and because Von Miller and Leonard Floyd are such bendy athlete, they can tilt on a tight curve. They also like to completely overload one side, where they have four potential rushers from the A-gap outwards, with just one wide-nine on the opposite edge. And of course, having a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Aaron Donald on the interior messes with your protection rules altogether, because he can wreck games quickly if left single-blocked.
More importantly however, with those fronts it allows them to affect protection rules without having to surrender resources in coverage, as both those OLBs having the fluid movement skills to be dropped out in zone coverage and it doesn’t force them to give away how they might rotate before the snap. They do run a lot of two-high shells ultimately, but spacing becomes an issue for offenses, when they don’t really if there may be somebody in the throwing window, after initially having a wide gap between the nickel and next-closest linebacker for example. Their most important asset on the back-end of course is Jalen Ramsey, who they put in the slot a lot more often over the first half of the season, to get him closer to the action and utilize him in different ways, but he’s been almost exclusively on the boundary again, where he can be in true or quasi-man coverage as well as how he excels in cover-two, because of his physicality out in the flats along with the length and make-up speed to take away those “easy” pre-snap honeyhole shots that would present themselves otherwise out at the sideline. Because of the structure of their defense and the fact they’ve been without both their starting safeties for stretches, only the Chiefs surrendered more yards after the catch this season (2614), but bringing in recently retired Eric Weddle, who can add as an extra defender in the box, and the range of third-year man Nick Scott have helped them excel during this run.
How they match up:
So from the things I’ve discussed already, the biggest issue the Bengals will have to overcome is their disadvantage up front, because they can’t leave Donald in true one-on-one’s on too many occasions, especially against the right guards Cincy has played this season, ranking 67th and 81st respectively out of 82 qualified players at the position, according to PFF’s grading system. Yez at the same time they to help out their right tackle Isaiah Prince against Von and/or Floyd, since he’s been a liability for the most part (77th among OTs), while Von in particular has really beaten up on those fringe starters/backups at that spot (13 combined pressures vs. Seattle’s Jake Curhan, Baltimore’s Patrick Mekari, Tampa Bay’s Josh Wells and San Francisco’s Tom Compton).
While I don’t mind Cincinnati being committed to running the ball in general, their tendency of handing it off on first downs and do so on the majority of snaps in 12 personnel recently will be used against them by L.A.’s defensive coordinator. If not now, when else would be the perfect time to break those tendencies? We saw those Rams safeties trigger down in a hurry and fill the C-gap a lot of times against the 49ers in the NFC title game. You have to take advantage of that, if they follow a similar approach and attack that are behind them. Burrow was 29th in pass attempts off play-action this season.
One of the biggest matchup advantages for the Bengals will be Joe Mixon against Troy Reeder on option routes. Eli Mitchell caught all three of his targets for 50 yards in the NFC title game. It also showed up on regular season tape a lot, where Reeder’s lined up at WILL and has outside leverage, but then he has to trigger down on a simple hook route over the middle, the back spins that way and now Reeder has to redirect and try to chase the guy down. Imagining the difference between him and Fred Warner trying to down chase down Ja’Marr Chase on a jet sweep is also something I could see leading to a big play eventually. At this point I don’t even get why he’s out there, other than against 12 personnel and/or outside of base downs. A more balanced matchup with Chase should be going up against Jalen Ramsey, which I don’t think the Bengals will shy away from, but we could again see more looks for Tee Higgins, due to his size advantage against other cornerbacks – Darious Williams and Donte Deayon are both only 5’9”.
Another way the running back could be an asset in the passing is in three-by-one sets with a nasty (reduced) split from the single receiver, because the corner has heavy outside leverage, which presents that window inside for slants or slant-stop routes and now along with that, the outside backer often has to peel off with the back on any swing routes. As good as those guys for L.A. are in their roles, if you take them on a wheel, Burrow can still take a shot at some point, along with the fact that just opens up room underneath and you don’t allow that edge defender to rush against your right tackle a few times.
And finally, I already mentioned how good Burrow has been against the blitz. So while I think just throwing out six-man rushes and exposing yourself to big run-after-catch plays by those receivers wouldn’t be smart and I don’t think we’ll see that from the Rams, there’s a few spots, where you can get home that way, before Burrow can identify it. San Francisco for example got K’Waun Williams as a free rusher up the B-gap against an empty set once, because they knew Cincinnati would primarily run a half-line slide out of that set, meaning big-on-big on the field-side and slide away from it, where by stunting the three-technique inside, that left nobody to pick up the blitzer. The Rams want to get home with their front, but when you look at the numbers, they blitz at the league’s fifth-highest rate (33.8%) when the game is within one score. So they won’t completely be scared out of doing so.
Rams offense vs. Bengals defense:
Even better than Cincinnati, the Rams were tied for third league-wide with 6.0 yards per play during the regular season and only the 49ers – who they just beat in the NFL Championship – averaged more than their 7.3 net yards per dropback. Matt Stafford was tied for a league-high 17 interceptions and the later we got into the regular season, the worse they looked. Still, he finished behind only Tom Brady with 41 touchdowns, only Brady and Derek Carr had more than his 65 throws of 20+ yards and he was fourth in QBR, as well as EPA per play. The Rams O-line has kept Matt upright for the most part, as only Brady (once again) was pressured on a lower percentage of dropbacks (16.3%). They did have that near-meltdown at Tampa Bay, when they handed the Bucs four(!) fumbles from the last seconds of the first half on, but other than that they’ve been very efficient overall, only had one turnover and the combination of Stafford and triple-crown receiver Cooper Kupp has come through in the clutch, along with Odell Beckham Jr. stepping up in a major way.
Similar to their opponents in this game, L.A. primarily runs the ball from condensed sets and under center, often times with Kupp or Ben Skrowonek in a wing split almost & then use one of their other receivers on jet sweep fakes, both towards or away from the play direction. And you can’t completely discredit that as eye-candy, because they do hand it off a couple of times per games. Plus, while they don’t do it as much as typically under Sean McVay, they of course still have those misdirection bootlegs or waggles with levels off split-zone fakes, typically with a tight-end slipping into the flats, where Stafford’s big arm also enables them to take those shots down the post from the backside, if the opposing safeties become undisciplined. On those boots, a lot of times they’ll have the backside edge-sealer (Kupp & others) sit down after the QB gets outside and Stafford has the flexible arm to pop up it to them, where they usually have some green grass in front of them, as the front-side flows and the back-side guys try their hustle outside, against that misdirection stuff. When the Rams do hand it from shotgun it’s mostly inside zone, where Stafford doesn’t usually have the option to pull the ball (which might be a change-up in this contest) and they’re not much of an RPO team. It’s more so screen alerts to some degree, when they have leverage on the linebacker versus the number three in trips and he doesn’t flow that way off the snap. Those quick inside-hitting runs have been especially effective towards the weak-side against even front teams, when they were in a 3-1 alignment with their defensive tackles towards the field.
What we’ve seen from the Rams this season however has been a much larger reliance on the drop-back pass game with Stafford. He has delivered more EPA on seven-step drops this season than they did between 2018 and ’20. Their favorite formation is empty with the tight-end as single initially and then motioning the running back into the slot next to him. Often times they will use the back & another tight-end or Skrowonek to chipping the edges and help out their tackles, but you can’t forget about those checkdowns when falling off completely, especially with Stafford climbing up and no-looking those. At the same time, when you run two-high shells against them, your corner better not try to fall off late, because Stafford can find those creases to step up into and fire balls down the sideline, if the safety turns with an inside receiver. A subtle change-up to that set is running a mesh concept, now with OBJ or Kupp in the weak-side slot and they hit either one on the run for easy yardage. Another package they love working out of contains Kupp in a split backfield with two receivers on the opposite side. They can motion across and throw him swing/bubble screens, plus then they fake also that and run a post-and-wheel combination behind it, which I actually showed in one of weekly videos, how Stafford perfectly threw a touch ball to OBJ at the sideline against the Bucs on. However, you also see Kupp at times run option routes on the boundary side against a linebacker or safety. So I could see them maybe clear it out with a post by the X and let your best player win against Von Bell or one of those LBs.
As far Cincinnati’s defense goes, statistically speaking they’re league-average across the board pretty much, but what really stood out – they finished the regular season tied for sixth (with the Steelers) in total pressures (170) and tied for seventh in tackles for loss (81) – so they can create disruption and negative plays with their that defensive line. And now in the playoffs, even though it looked like the Chiefs would roll them in the first half of the AFC title game, they clamped down on those guys once they made that points-saving tackle just before halftime, holding them to just three points the rest of the way, with the Raiders scoring 19 and the Titans 16. They’ve also forced seven turnovers during this postseason, after being average in comparison to the rest of league in that regard through 17 games.
The thing that stands out when you watch this unit is their adaptability on a weekly basis under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, where if you go back to their matchup against the 49ers in week 14, they’re in five-man fronts and put both their defensive ends in two-point stances, to not allow combo-blocks to develop, not be forced to put safeties over tight-ends and have their D-ends ready to close against the quarterback on boots. Yet, then against the Chiefs in the Conference Championship, they only have one interior defensive lineman on the field for the majority of snaps in the second half and dare those guys to run the ball on them, with somebody peeling off and spying Mahomes. They rushed three on 12 of 24 dropbacks from the second half on. Nose-tackle D.J. Reader has been owning the point of attack in the run game in key matchups, like consistently beating Titans center Ben Jones across his face on the front-side of zone runs and forcing Derrick Henry to stop his feet or immediately look for the cutback, The Larry Ogunjobi injury hurts, but those guys up front usually do a good job of fighting over blocks and we haven’t really seen the Rams be able to win in the wide zone game much anyway. Something you see commonly from them is that they don’t usually follow tight-ends motioning across the formation, but rather pull that backside safety down and even slide him in stacked over the guard at times, while the WILL backer shuffles out further and now there’s kind of a plus one on the strong-side, where if you can seal the edge, there’s now room to run.
Coming off the run game, Cincy’s defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard show excellent backside discipline, staying home against bootleg action and then barreling down at the quarterback, to force them to quickly get the ball out, particularly out of those widened two-point stances. When it comes to the passing game, overall that D-line displays relentless effort, with the two guys I just mentioned, B.J. Hill and others. From a coverage-perspective, when you watch their tape against the Chiefs, they lived in sub-packages, often times with seven defensive backs on the field and did a lot of eight-man drops, by peeling off one of their outside rushers. And in general, they get to their coverages in a lot of different ways – start in single- and two-high, rotate guys down as robbers, but even more from the slot to the deep half or even middle. In that AFC title game they ran a variation of one-man that I had never seen quite that way, starting with Jessie Bates as a single-high safety, but then shooting down, to give them two robbers, while the nickel Mike Hilton bailed all the way out, to become that deep middle player. You see a lot of late safety rotations in general, where they often bring Jessie Bates down as a robber or rat and he becomes very dangerous at undercutting those deeper in-breakers. A guy who doesn’t get enough love is linebacker Logan Wilson, who has been instrumental at taking away a lot of easy completions, with the ability to go from lining up in a gap to getting underneath crossers, follow backs out wide and stuff like that. Because they want their secondary to play aggressive, trying to undercut routes and playing the sticks, only the Ravens and Jets have surrendered more explosive passes (20+ yards) than Cincinnati, but they are top-ten in lowest amount of time on the field per drive because of it and they’ve been playing a lot more man-coverage recently, while doing a great job of switching responsibilities based on releases and usage of “free” defenders.
How they match up:
Just like I talked about this being the time for Cincinnati’s offense to break tendency in terms of run-pass splits from certain personnel sets, I don’t think L.A. should try to come out in as many condensed formations and double-tight sets in order to run the ball. Going deeper into the numbers, the Bengals rank bottom-ten defending 11 personnel runs on first down and second-and-medium (five or less). So the Rams should get their best guys out there (which includes a healthy Van Jefferson) and see if they can get their opponents to stick with that formula of extra resources in coverage, to hit a few positive plays on the ground on early downs. And a big component to their success in that regard is if center Brian Allen can cut off D.J. Reader, to allow plays to hit front-side – because when he secures the down-lineman, that allows those guards to climb up and they can cut it up inside, instead of going laterally so much. Of course matchups play a big role in this, but L.A. was much more effective later in the regular season, when Sony Michel gave him that physical downhill element. Only the Falcons have less than their three runs of 20+ yards over the course of the regular season, but at least they were able to stay of the chains, compared to only rushing for 143 yards on 59 carries (2.42 YPC) in the playoff, even if their average may be decreased by Tampa Bay’s defense playing the run hard because of the score.
A key to the Rams offense finding success through the air will be if Sean McVay can find counters to Bengals “switching” rules, such as double-moves, fake cross-release, etc. – since they already use quite a few stacks inside, similar to what the Chiefs did a few times, by creating those high-low stretches for hook defenders. Mike Hilton should be heavily matched up with Cooper Kupp and we’ll have to see what happens when the Rams put their receiver tagged to the O-line in those condensed sets, trying to almost hide their biggest weapon and create favorable matchups that way. Hilton has however played his worst season as a pro statistically speaking and overall, Cincy has struggled quite a bit at defending slot receivers, allowing a 70.2% completion percentage and 8.6 yards per target (25th and 27th respectively), according to Sports Info Solutions. That spells trouble, considering Kupp is lined up in the slot on 73 percent of his targets. A more specific way to attack their coverage principles is if anybody not named Jessie Bates is the single-high safety, variations of dagger and scissors concept could yield some chunk plays, because we saw exactly that drawn up by Kyle Shanahan, where he got Trindon Holliday with a couple of steps on the outside corner trying to fall off his way, but Jimmy G underthrew him. I thought in general, they had some issues against those pass concepts with crossers on different levels out of formations that got them countering with two-high shells and now those hang defenders weren’t sure if they should sink or come up, as they saw multiple receivers come their way.
On the opposite side, the one check I’d have if I were the Bengals, would be if they face empty sets with numbers two and three in a stack, I would rotate strong for a single-high shell, to allow the field-safety to drive down on the outside-releasing receiver and not put your middle linebacker in conflict, where he has to mid-point a couple of routes over the middle, where L.A. tries to create that stretch. Stafford will not shy away from fitting balls into those tight windows. Cincinnati does a great job of bracketing or creating triangles against inside receivers. So those wideouts will have win outside when put in one-on-one situations, such as former Giants teammate OBJ looking to burn Eli Apple getting at some point. Stafford was far and away number one in EPA versus the blitz, as 14 of his 18 interceptions (including the postseason) have come against zone coverages with no blitzes, which Cincinnati runs on 60 percent of opposing dropbacks (ninth-highest rate in the league). And that should be their recipe for success in those one as well, as Hendrickson and Hubbard both rank top-ten in pressure percentage and rate of negative EPA on opposing QBs taking drops of five steps or more. However, like I already talked about, if the Bengals stick with a similar approach of throwing of light sub-packages, I hope McVay realizes that he has to show patience in the run game and attack those looks – Kansas City averaged 5.8 yards per rush in the AFC title game.
This was a fairly obvious pick for me, having pointed out tight-end C.J. Uzomah as Cincinnati’s X-factor heading into the playoffs. He quietly came just one catch short of hitting 50 for just under 500 yards and five touchdowns throughout the regular season and was a key figure for them through the first two playoff contests, against teams that showed some vulnerability against the position, hauling 13 of 14 targets for 135 yards a score. Well, Uzomah suffered injured a knee injury in the AFC Championship. Although he was carted off the field in tears and has been listed as DNP (did not practice) on their injury report, he said he “will no stone unturned” in order to get himself, but I would be kind of shocked if he actually played a substantial amount of snaps just two weeks after getting hurt. Stepping up for him should be 2019 second-round pick Drew Sample out of Washington. When the Bengals made the selection, a large part of it was trying to acquire an in-line tight-end, who could contribute in their zone rushing attack, trying to reproduce what Shanahan and McVay like to do. So his work as a blocker, especially allowing Joe Mixon to get to the edges a few times by landing those cracks blocks or where the back can at least press that way before putting his foot in the ground, will be important, which is why Sample played 42 percent of offensive snaps during the regular season, despite only being targeted 15 times. That, along with his usage in pass-pro, but of course also affecting a questionable second level of the Rams coverage will be asked of the third-year pro.
Defensively, I’m also looking at that area between the numbers and the hashes. I already mentioned the Bengals issues at defending slot receivers, ranking in the bottom-fourth of the league in terms of completion percentage and yards per target surrendered to the positioned. Mike Hilton lines up inside for them on 83 percent of his defensive snaps and while the raw coverage numbers would suggest he’s had a slight down season, a lot of that has to do with how Cincinnati structures some of their coverages and how defenders are charged with numbers altogether, since Hilton to me is still in that top-tier among nickelbacks. What I’m interested in is how exactly they will deploy him on the game’s biggest stage, because we obviously know who’s on the opposite side, capable of picking apart zone patterns, putting man-defenders on skates on option routes and also win vertically, if teams to try to in-and-out him. I would think Sean McVay shows enough of a commitment to the run game, so the Bengals can’t run those man-coverage with “free defenders” to bracket guys on too many occasions, so it will be about how much they trust Hilton in true one-on-one situations against the best receiver in football this season. And even though the formula for success seems to be more zone coverages, looking at the passing efficiency splits for Stafford, the slot DB’s ability to pick up crossers and some of the ways they even rotate him into a deep middle safety role at times – like I showed in a clip earlier – will be crucial, as well as just some open-field tackling situations.
Once again, I will talk about the tight-end position here for the Rams, because just like Cincinnati’s C.J. Uzomah, we saw Tyler Higbee limp off the field and not return in the AFC title game – unlike he did in the regular season finale against the 49ers. Higbee has yet to participate in Rams practice in any capacity since that day and at this point it’s looking more like he won’t be able to go on Sunday. His absence however opened the door for an unexpected performance from backup Kendall Blanton, who caught five passes for 57 yards, after having hauled in just four passes prior to that in his career (and two for 18, including a touchdown in the Divisional Round). He was actually only active for one game prior to this season and wasn’t even on an active roster in 2020. So for him to step up in a prominent role over a promising All-American and fourth-round pick in Brycen Hopkins from a year ago, that’s pretty telling. Blanton does not look or move like he’s 6’6”, 260 pounds, quickly getting vertical after the catch and eating up ground. Against those Niners, we saw pick up nice yardage off check-downs, chipping and then pealing off like I just described, along with really cool design on the flea-flicker screen pass (which I shared on my Twitter account). Securing those guys on the edges and then creative positive results even when the Bengals have good coverage downfield could help extend some drives or just help out in the field-position battle.
A rather surprising third-round pick out of South Carolina, going back to the regular season, I saw Jones more on tape than I even thought I would, considering I said he might turn into their best coverage linebacker by the end of his rookie season. Between weeks eight and 15, he was on the field for an average of 83.3 percent of defensive snaps per game. He got hurt the following week and was limited to just 22 snaps in the NFC title game. I’d expect Jones to be on the field a lot more on Sunday, especially if this becomes more of a drop-back game on Cincinnati’s side or in certain situations, when they go to more four-man rushes and leave Jones as the only guy between the tackles. Now, his issues appear when you run right at him, because there’s not enough aggressiveness all the time, trying to fill the gap and allowing combo-blocks to develop or attacking the outside shoulder of a pulling lineman, to force the run back inside. However, exactly what I described as opportunities to target fellow linebacker Troy Reeder in coverage, putting an extra safety on the field, with Jordan Fuller looking like he might be ready to return, and not giving the offense those favorable matchups could be key. He can cover plenty of ground and I even saw him be able to stick with running backs on wheel routes at times.
As I researched all the data and grinding through tape, I found so many little nuggets I wanted to share, that I feared I would never be able to put out an article, that people actually would read all the way through – So if you’ve made it this far, I greatly appreciate it.
I talked about a bunch of tendencies for both these squads and certain matchups to have your eyes on. One more tidbit I could share here is how much the Rams love to hit those blaze-outs as drive-starters – by the single-receiver in three-by-one sets mostly. We saw Titans safety Kevin Byard make a phenomenal play on one of those, where he undercut the route and took it back to the house for a game-changing pick-six (shown in the most recent clip). Those Cincy corners are pretty aggressive with the way they drive on those. So I’m interested to see if that happens at some point or maybe the Rams stay a step ahead and hit a big play on an out-and-up off that. These teams had two full weeks to prepare and self-scout. Those little mind-games will be huge.
Both head coaches and offensive play-callers coming from the Shanahan coaching tree more broadly and at this point you can identify a Sean McVay tree, but Sean still brings more creativity to the table and has that ability to stay one step ahead with little wrinkles and change-ups usually. While the defensive coordinators on either side may not be as well-regarded among more casual fans, they will have a few things up their sleeves and I’m sure will throw some change-ups out there as well. And these are the two least-penalized teams on a yards basis (37.6 and 37.0 yards per game), with quarterbacks that have led five and six game-winning drives respectively.
This is also kind of a war between football “purists” and fans of analytics, as the Rams were fifth overall in DVOA as a team throughout the regular season, while the Bengals have the third-lowest DVOA we’ve seen from a Super Bowl team in NFL history, finishing at a dead-even 0.0%. Obviously if you just look at the playoffs, that number improves, but there will be people on either side of this, ready to let their opinions be heard once that final whistle is blown.
Rams 24 – 20 Bengals
As I go through the rosters, look at how these two groups match up schematically and the experience they bring to the table, I have to give L.A. the edge in this matchup.
It sounds crazy at this point, because Joe Burrow took nine sacks at Tennessee and he literally had to shrug off Chiefs defenders in the backfield, to single-handedly convert some of those big third downs along the way, but I just have problems seeing the Bengals offensive line hold up against that ferocious defensive front across from them. I like a lot of the stuff they do offensively, but unless they completely break tendency, there’s too many ways the Rams can get those guys into third-and-long situations.
On the other hand, as good as Matt Stafford has been in the playoffs, there can be a lack of patience in terms of wanting to hit big plays and trying to punish a safety for staying flat-footed a beat too long. If that guy is Jessie Bates, I’m not sure who I’d put money on between the two. So if the Bengals do sit back in zone and Stafford has the ball in his hands a lot, it’ll be up to that offensive coaching staff to create some favorable one-on-one’s anyway, by getting their opponents to match early in the route patterns and not pass off receivers, once it turns into man.
Both teams can find ways to have success on the ground, but they can’t do it out of obvious personnel sets. And the quarterbacks on either side will be tested to not push the envelope too much, while delivering some big plays when needed in key situations.
MVP: Matthew Stafford
This is a huge legacy game for Stafford, who could go from many people (who only listen to mainstream media primarily) thinking he’s this stat-padder, who never was able to win in Detroit, to a star quarterback, who just needed to go to a winning environment. 45 of 55 Super Bowl MVPs have been offensive players and 31 of those have been quarterbacks. So this is a fairly easy call for me. It might not be the greatest statistical game, but he’ll avoid the costly mistakes and deliver a few big throws on key downs.
I also think this will be huge for one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history in Aaron Donald, being challenged with trying to bring down Burrow – who just refused to die against the Chiefs – and one of the great revenge stories by one of the seemingly forgotten superstars in Odell Beckham Jr., who was labelled a diva receiver and bad teammate in Cleveland, being a key contributor now for this group in Hollywood, as they both get to hoist that Lombardi trophy.
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