Bengals vs. Rams: Super Bowl LVI Preview
NFL Super Bowl - All year long, we said that 2021 was an NFL season without any great teams, a year where a lot of teams had a shot at making the Super Bowl. And what do you know, we got a Super Bowl that lives up to that standard. Based on expectations at the start of the playoffs, this is one of the most surprising Super Bowl matchups in history. Based on a number of metrics, it's also one of the weakest. This is the first Super Bowl ever where both teams were seeded fourth or lower. The Rams and Bengals combined to go 22-12, which is the worst combined win-loss record in Super Bowl history. The combined regular-season DVOA of these two teams was 21.6%, which is the second lowest of any Super Bowl since 1983. (Super Bowl XXXVIII between New England and Carolina was lower.)
As I've written a few times, the surprise isn't evenly split between these two teams. The Rams were still a strong team during the regular season, even if they only finished fifth in DVOA. The Bengals were not a strong team during the regular season, ranking only 17th in DVOA. The Bengals are the first team to ever win three one-possession games on the way to the Super Bowl. If they win the Super Bowl, they will have the lowest regular-season DVOA of any Super Bowl champion since 1983, although our estimated historical DVOA numbers put them even with the 1980 Oakland Raiders and higher than the 1970 Baltimore Colts.
Both teams have played better in the playoffs, of course. Weighted DVOA that includes the postseason and gives more strength to recent games now puts the Rams second in the league with the Bengals 11th. Still, those numbers make obvious that we have a mismatch here. The Rams are favored in Vegas by 4.5 and rightly so. But a mismatch is not a guarantee. We estimate that the Bengals should win this game one-third of the time. Those are the top-line numbers. What happens when we dive down into the specific matchups and splits?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||0.0% (17)||21.6% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||10.9% (11)||32.2% (2)|
|Bengals on Offense|
|CIN OFF||LAR DEF|
|DVOA||1.2% (18)||-8.3% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||5.5% (10)||-18.4% (3)|
|PASS||16.4% (15)||-1.0% (6)|
|RUSH||-10.8% (20)||-18.0% (5)|
|Rams on Offense|
|CIN DEF||LAR OFF|
|DVOA||2.9% (19)||10.6% (8)|
|WEI DVOA||1.5% (23)||5.3% (11)|
|PASS||11.6% (24)||26.6% (7)|
|RUSH||-9.8% (13)||-3.8% (12)|
|DVOA||1.7% (8)||2.7% (4)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread.
If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Let's start by looking at the trends for both teams. First the Bengals offense, then the Rams defense. Instead of splitting things at Week 10, I used the more natural split of each team's bye week. I also removed Week 18 from the Bengals, as they sat many of their starters for that game.
|Bengals Offense DVOA by Week, 2021|
|Rams Defense DVOA by Week, 2021|
|*Playoff ranks out of 14 teams|
The Bengals' passing game improved dramatically in the second half of the season and has continued its strong play in the postseason. But the Rams' defense also improved significantly in the second half of the season and has been fantastic in the postseason.
The Rams defense is particularly strong on first down: second in DVOA on first downs, but 13th on second downs and 12th on third and fourth downs. The Bengals didn't rank in the top 10 in any down/play combination during the regular season. Their best ranks were 12th rushing on first down and 12th passing on third and fourth down. However, they didn't rank any lower than 18th in any of the down/play combinations except for ranking 30th when running on third and fourth down. The Bengals were really bad at converting short-yardage runs with just a 51% conversion rate (31st in the NFL). Note that the Rams defense was not particularly strong here either, ranking 19th with 70% conversions allowed.
A discussion of short-yardage runs means we need to have a discussion of the Bengals' biggest weakness: their offensive line. If you're expecting a counterintuitive take about how the Bengals' offensive line is not really the problem we think it is, you will not find that here.
The Bengals ranked 30th in ESPN's pass block win rate and 31st in adjusted sack rate, although they were surprisingly only 14th in pressure rate according to Sports Info Solutions charting. The Rams rank first in ESPN's pass rush win rate, led by Aaron Donald who is on a different planet than other defensive tackles in ESPN's pass-rushing stats. The Rams are also third in pressure rate and eighth in adjusted sack rate.
The Bengals' individual ranks in PBWR are as bad as you imagine. Again, this data is courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info:
- Left tackle Jonah Williams ranked 50th out of 68 tackles.
- Left guard Quinton Spain ranked 62nd out of 63 guards.
- Center Trey Hopkins 26th out of 32 centers.
- Right guard Hakeem Adeniji ranked 57th out of 63 guards.
- Right tackle Isaiah Prince did not have enough snaps to qualify but would have ranked 59th among tackles if he had.
- Jackson Carman, who replaced Adeniji when the Bengals pulled him in the AFC Championship Game, did not have enough snaps to qualify either. However, his pass block win rate including the playoffs would be the lowest among any of the qualified guards on ESPN's leaderboard.
ESPN Stats & Info says that the Rams blitzed 26.7% of the time this year, a little more than league average, but they'll want to stay away from the blitzes against Joe Burrow. Burrow ranked third in the NFL in ESPN QBR when blitzed, just behind the other quarterback in this game, Matthew Stafford, and the quarterback the Rams faced last week, Jimmy Garoppolo. Ja'Marr Chase had 459 receiving yards against blitzes, fourth in the league, and averaged 18.4 yards per reception with a 68% catch rate.
The Rams defense did allow fewer net yards per play when blitzing, with a better DVOA:
|Rams Defense Blitzing vs. Not, 2021|
However, the Rams also had a habit of allowing big long plays when they didn't get to the quarterback. If the quarterback got off a pass against a Rams blitz, he averaged 7.9 yards per attempt, which ranked 27th in the league. The Rams can't allow Joe Burrow to connect on those deep passes when they bring the house, so staying away from the blitz is probably the better move. Against this offensive line, they certainly should be able to generate pressure with just four pass-rushers.
One thing that's unlikely is Burrow showing the kind of escapability that he demonstrated against the Chiefs two weeks ago, breaking tackles and scrambling for three first downs on third-and-5 or longer. During the regular season, only 60% of Burrow's scrambles qualified as successful plays by our baselines. That's close to the NFL average of 58%. Also, Burrow had just 20 scrambles in the regular season, less than half the total of quarterbacks such as Josh Allen (46, 74%), Patrick Mahomes (47, 64%), and Jalen Hurts (49, 63%). Burrow had nine broken tackles in the regular season, which tied for 12th among quarterbacks.
So, what can the Bengals do to maximize the chances that Burrow will make a play instead of succumbing to the Rams' pass rush? You may remember a table from the NFC Championship Game preview two weeks ago that showed how the Rams are much better on defense when they have more linebackers and fewer defensive backs on the field. It's a surprise because the Rams are not known for the strength of their off-ball linebackers. Well, that table is back for this game, because the Bengals offense (like the 49ers offense) shows a matching trend. The more defensive backs come onto the field, the better the Bengals were on offense this season. Both trends point towards the Bengals trying to spread things out to get the Rams into nickel and dime as much as possible.
Overall, NFL offenses average 5.2 yards per play against base defense (four defensive backs), 5.7 yards against nickel, and 6.2 yards against dime. You'll notice that the differences are much stronger for both the Bengals offense and the Rams defense:
|Performance by Defensive Personnel, 2021|
|Bengals Offense||Rams Defense|
The Bengals primarily use three personnel groupings: 11, 12, and 612 (12 personnel with six offensive linemen). Just like the numbers based on defensive personnel, the numbers based on offensive personnel suggest the Bengals want to keep those three wide receivers on the field as much as possible. I've added in a handful of plays here from early in the season where the Bengals used three tight ends instead of two tight ends and a sixth lineman, since that makes a better comparison to what the Rams faced this year:
|Performance by Offensive Personnel, 2021|
|Bengals Offense||Rams Defense|
|612 or 13 personnel||9%||4.1||-25.9%||4%||3.1||-46.0%|
Further telling this story, the Bengals had the league's biggest gap between their offense from shotgun and their offense with the quarterback under center, both by DVOA (28.4% difference) and yardage (2.0 yards per play).
A big way the Bengals will try to spread out the Rams is to go with empty-backfield sets. These two offenses used empty backfield more than any others in the NFL this season: 18% for the Rams and 14% for the Bengals. But what's interesting here is that the Rams were very good against empty backfields, despite the fact that their defense was not as strong from nickel or dime. The Bengals were fairly average with empty backfields. And notice how much pressure the Rams brought from empty backfields:
|Bengals Offense vs. Rams Defense from Empty, 2021|
I included average depth of target here to point out something Dan Pizzuta wrote about earlier this week, which is that the Bengals and Rams use empty backfields differently. The Bengals are often looking just to keep moving the sticks, while the Rams (with a much higher aDOT, shown on a table later in this article) are looking for big plays. The Bengals will look to have Joe Burrow diagnose the defense before the snap and throw the ball to the right receiver quickly, before the Rams pressure can get to him.
When the Bengals want to move the sticks, the first place they want to look is in the short middle of the field, where the Rams ranked 29th in defensive DVOA. Including the postseason, the Bengals rank seventh in offensive DVOA on passes in the short middle of the field, so this is a good weakness for them to attack. The injury to tight end C.J. Uzomah might lead you to believe that the Bengals won't be as strong on short middle passes, but Uzomah was only fourth in short middle targets on the Bengals. Tyler Boyd is the most frequent target in the short middle and Tee Higgins is the most effective. Including a DPI, Higgins gained a first down or touchdown on 22 of his 27 targets in the short middle of the field.
Inside linebacker Troy Reeder is a big reason for L.A.'s weakness in the short middle of the field. He played 59% of snaps for the Rams during the regular season and 86% or more of the snaps in each of the last six games. so he's usually sitting in the middle no matter which defensive personnel the Rams are using. Reeder had a 42% success rate in coverage, which ranked 45th out of 59 linebackers with at least 20 charted targets in the regular season.
Another interesting battle here is whether the Bengals should be passing more to their receivers on the outside or the receivers coming out of the slot. Cincinnati's strengths here match the Rams' strengths. Cincinnati was the best offense in the league when throwing to receivers lined up wide, but the Rams were also much better against receivers lined up wide rather than those in the slot. Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams each allowed less than 6.0 yards per pass to receivers in the slot. The problem was everyone else in coverage: the safeties, Reeder, and in particular fourth cornerback Donte Deayon. However, Deayon has barely played in the last two games and we probably won't see him unless there is an injury.
|Bengals Offense vs. Rams Defense by Slot/Wide, 2021|
|Bengals Offense||Rams Defense|
The dichotomy here between Cincinnati's yards per play on slot targets (third) and DVOA on slot targets (17th) is interesting. It seems to be connected to a couple of things: more boom-and-bust plays on slot targets, more interceptions on slot targets, and the opponent adjustments from Cincinnati playing the league's easiest schedule of opposing pass defenses this season.
Overall, Ramsey has been fantastic this season. He ranked fourth among qualifying cornerbacks in SIS charting with just 4.9 yards allowed per pass and third with just 1.6 average yards after the catch. His success rate wasn't quite as good, 57% which ranked 26th. If Ramsey is covering Chase one-on-one for most of this game, that should be a great matchup to watch. Williams allowed 6.3 yards per pass (25th) and had a 52% success rate (48th). The third cornerback is going to be a weakness for the Rams, though. He didn't qualify to be ranked, but David Long allowed 8.5 yards per pass during the regular season with a 47% success rate.
What about the non-wide receivers? The Rams ranked fourth in DVOA against tight ends and 24th against running backs as receivers, but they were about average in yardage allowed to each position. They just happened to be more efficient against tight ends and less efficient against running backs when considering down-and-distance. We'll have to see if C.J. Uzomah can play only two weeks after spraining his MCL; I have my doubts. It's a very small sample size, but the Rams were terrible against running back screens this year: 9.0 yards per pass on 24 screens with 66.3% DVOA.
We've gotten this far without talking much about the Bengals' running game. It's not really a huge part of what they do; for example, Cincinnati ran the ball on only 33% of plays in the first half of games this season, which ranked 28th in the league. Even more than most teams, the Bengals get more efficiency out of the passing game than the running game. There's no reason for the Bengals to run more than usual in this game, but when they do run, they want to run inside. The Rams excel against outside runs, ranking first in adjusted line yards against left end runs and second against right end runs.
Like most offenses, the Bengals will run the ball better if they spread things out and the Rams have fewer men in the box, but the difference in DVOA isn't very large. The Bengals gained 4.8 yards per carry with -0.3% DVOA when there were less than seven men in the box, compared to 3.9 yards per carry and -7.9% DVOA with seven or eight men in the box. (Their numbers didn't show much difference between seven and eight.) The Rams, by the way, had the same -19.7% defensive DVOA against the run whether they had six or seven men in the box, and an excellent -38.4% DVOA on those rare plays where they had eight in the box.
Cincinnati was strong breaking tackles, ranking sixth in the league with 132. Mixon wasn't particularly high with 39 broken tackles. His 11.7% broken tackle rate was 21st out of 25 running backs with at least 200 touches. But the Bengals got a lot of broken tackles from various wide receivers, backup running backs, and C.J. Ozumah. It's a big reason the Bengals ranked second behind the 49ers with an average of 6.3 yards after the catch. The Rams were slightly worse tacklers than the average NFL defense. Reeder, Leonard Floyd, and Nick Scott had high broken tackle rates, but the other starters were lower than average.
Cincinnati has a reputation as poor starters and DVOA does match that. The Bengals ranked 29th in offensive DVOA in the first quarter this year and they also have below-average offensive DVOA in the first quarter in the postseason. The Rams, meanwhile, ranked third in defensive DVOA in the first quarter and second in the first half. The Rams' defensive DVOA gets worse in the second half, in particular the fourth quarter, when they ranked 29th this season. However, this seemed to be very dependent on score. Essentially, the Rams let down on defense if they were way ahead or way behind, but when the game was close the defense still played well. In fact, the Rams finished the season third on defense in late and close situations (second half or overtime, score within eight points).
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Once again, let's start by looking at the trends for both teams. The first table is the Rams offense, then the Bengals defense.
|Rams Offense DVOA by Week, 2021|
|Bengals Defense DVOA by Week, 2021|
|*Playoff ranks out of 14 teams|
The Rams passing game let down a bit in the second half of the season but has rebounded with a strong performance in the playoffs. Their running game was average for the entire regular season but has been horrific for the last three games. As for the Bengals, their defense is playing better in the postseason than it did in the regular season, but it wasn't very good during the regular season. This is the biggest disconnect between the Bengals' actual performance this season and how the media is talking about the team going into the Super Bowl. This was a very mediocre defense until the last three games. Which is more likely: that the Bengals will continue their performance of the last three games, or play more like they did during the entire regular season? It's not even three games, by the way; Cincinnati's defense had a 6.3% DVOA against the Raiders, so we're really just talking about two games of strong defense here.
The Bengals had -14.9% defensive DVOA in the divisional round and the AFC Championship Game. Twenty-seven of the 32 NFL teams had a two-game streak with a similar defensive DVOA during the regular season. Even during this good streak, even after adjusting for the quality of the Chiefs offense, the Bengals are not exactly in rarified air here.
Unlike the Bengals offense, which improved in the second half of the year, the Rams offense was strong all season. The Rams rank in the top 10 for every down/play combination except for running on third and fourth downs, where they were even worse than Cincinnati: dead last in the league. Like the Bengals, the Rams were bad at short-yardage runs, converting just 54% of them (29th). The Bengals allowed conversions on 71% of these runs, which ranked 23rd.
The Rams want to start passing the ball right away. There's no need to establish the run on first downs. The Bengals defense was the worst in the league against the pass on first down during the regular season. Even if we look only at Cincinnati's last six wins, a much smaller sample size, the Bengals have allowed 23.8% defensive DVOA against first-down passes. That would have ranked 27th during the regular season.
The Rams, as you probably know, use primarily 11 personnel. They use two tight ends (12 personnel) more than they did a couple years ago when they played the Patriots in the Super Bowl, but they are much better in 11 personnel. However, the Bengals are also better on defense against 11 personnel.
|Performance by Offensive Personnel, 2021|
|Rams Offense||Bengals Defense|
As we discussed above, the Rams and Bengals used empty backfields more than any other offenses in the league. The Rams were fantastic on these plays and the Bengals defense had a hard time with empty backfields, struggling to get enough pass pressure.
|Rams Offense vs. Bengals Defense from Empty, 2021|
That average depth of target shows how the Rams often used empty backfields to set up their deep shot plays, and you can definitely attack the Bengals deep. Cincinnati ranked 25th in DVOA on deep passes, those over 15 yards through the air. The Rams ranked lower than you might expect but were still good, 12th in offensive DVOA on deep passes. Interceptions were a big reason the Rams did not rank higher. Although we have this mental image of Matthew Stafford throwing pick-sixes close to his own line of scrimmage, he actually led the NFL with 11 interceptions on deep throws.
Like Joe Burrow on the other side, Stafford can distribute the ball to a talented wide receiver corps that is strong three-deep. But you may be surprised just how much the Rams depended on Cooper Kupp. Kupp was of course All-Pro and won the receiving triple crown. He ranked third among wideouts with at least 50 passes at 27.4% receiving DVOA. The injured Robert Woods also had a good receiving DVOA this year. But surprisingly, both Odell Beckham Jr. (just in his time with the Rams) and Van Jefferson had negative receiving DVOA during the regular season! Adding in the playoffs tips them both over average, but you would still expect them to be better given how explosive the Rams offense can be. Here's a look at the three men who will spend the most time covering those receivers:
|Bengals CB Coverage Stats, 2021|
Cincinnati's strategy for coverage should be interesting. The Bengals do like to move Awuzie around a lot and have him cover the opponent's top receiver, but Mike Hilton is strictly a slot cornerback and did end up on the opponent's top receiver sometimes if that receiver went into the slot. It's still likely that Awuzie will mostly be covering Cooper Kupp, which leaves Eli Apple covering Odell Beckham Jr. Overall this year, the Bengals ranked sixth covering the opposing No. 1 wide receiver but just 27th covering the opposing No. 2 wide receiver. No. 2's who had big games against the Bengals included Mike Williams, Adam Thielen, Rashod Bateman, Chase Claypool and, no kidding, Laviska Shenault.
The Bengals did not get strong pass coverage from their linebackers this year either. Germaine Pratt had a 43% success rate, ranking 44th out of 59 linebackers with at least 20 charted targets. Logan Wilson had a dismal 24% success rate, ranking 58th. Both allowed over 7.5 yards per target in coverage. The Bengals ranked 24th covering tight ends and 19th covering running backs.
If the Rams can dictate coverage by moving Kupp around, the Bengals are in trouble. Yes, I know Hilton held Kupp to no catches when he was on the Steelers and faced Kupp and the Rams back in 2019. I put more trust in the full-season numbers from 2021 than I do a single matchup from two years ago. If the Bengals end up with Hilton on Kupp instead of Awuzie, that's a chance for Stafford to take advantage. (I should note that other companies charted Hilton with a better year in coverage than SIS did; I would still rather have him on Kupp if I'm a Rams fan.) God forbid the Rams go trips on one side and the Bengals are in some sort of coverage that leaves Pratt or Wilson on Kupp as the third man in, they will get absolutely destroyed.
Will the Bengals be able to get Stafford off his game with a strong pass rush? The Rams offense ranked first in ESPN's pass block win rate, seventh in adjusted sack rate, and third in pressure rate. This is a very good offensive line, though it is stronger at the tackles than on the interior. As for Cincinnati, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard are good players, but the success of the Bengals pass rush has been a bit overstated in the run-up to this game. The Bengals defense ranked just 25th in pass rush win rate, 19th in adjusted sack rate, and 25th in pressure rate. But surely, the Bengals have rushed the passer better in the playoffs, right? Not quite. The Bengals have eight sacks in the postseason, but Cincinnati's 36% pass rush win rate from the regular season has turned into a 26% pass rush win rate in the postseason. Some of those sacks, especially against the Chiefs, were very clearly coverage sacks, not pass-rush wins. The Bengals will take them any way they can get them, of course, but the point is that the Bengals pass rush is unlikely to be getting to Matthew Stafford quickly.
So if they want to pressure Stafford, the Bengals need to bring extra pass-rushers, right? That's probably not a good idea. Matthew Stafford led the NFL with an ESPN QBR of 92.3 when blitzed this season. In particular, Cooper Kupp was amazing as a blitz-beater this year, catching 42 of 51 targets for 563 yards (second in the league to Justin Jefferson) and a league-leading eight touchdowns. The Bengals are one of the least blitz-happy defenses in the league this year, only blitzing on 20% of dropbacks (29th in the NFL), so they are unlikely to fall into the trap of blitzing Stafford.
In fact, the best thing for the Bengals to do might be to use the same strategy they used against Patrick Mahomes heavily in the AFC Championship Game: rush just three and drop eight into coverage. The sample size isn't huge, but Stafford had poor numbers against just three pass-rushers this season. On 46 regular-season plays, Stafford gained just 4.6 yards per play with -31.4% DVOA. (The league averages with three pass-rushers, for comparison, were 6.6 yards and 17.1% DVOA.) This trend has been going on for more than a year, too. In 2020, Stafford had 6.0 yards per play with three pass-rushers, which ranked Detroit 27th out of 32 teams. (Overall, leaguewide numbers against three pass-rushers were much higher in 2020 for some unknown reason.) In 2019, Stafford averaged just 5.1 yards per play with three pass-rushers. Then again, if you want to make the argument that this is all small sample size theater, you can point to the fact that Stafford averaged 8.8 yards per play with three pass-rushers in 2018.
Rushing just three means the Rams only have to leave five men into block, but that might actually be a bad thing. Los Angeles was much better when it used six blockers compared to just five. For the entire league, DVOA was about the same no matter how many blockers stayed in. Longer successful passes with more blockers were balanced by the fact that more blockers usually were a reaction to more pass-rushers and thus more pass pressure. For the Rams, DVOA was definitely not the same. With five blockers, the Rams averaged 6.7 net yards per play with 13.1% DVOA. With six blockers, they averaged 9.7 net yards per play with a league-leading 84.5% DVOA.
Once again, I've devoted a lot more room to the passing game compared to the running game. Though the Rams have a reputation for building their offense around the run, that's not really true. Their offense is built around play-action, but they don't run the ball that much when they're still building a lead early in games. The Rams ran the ball on only 35% of first-half plays this season, which ranked 25th in the NFL.
The Rams have been terrible running the ball in the playoffs, and a lot of it is Cam Akers struggling. Maybe he came back from the hamstring injury too soon, although it's not all his fault. He's getting hit right after he gets the ball, as the interior linemen have been getting beat on running plays. According to Sportradar, Akers has averaged 1.1 yards before contact per attempt this season (Week 18 and the playoffs). No other running back with 50-plus carries this year was below 1.4. Akers has been stuffed (a loss or no gain) on 26.7% of carries. No other running back with 50-plus carries in 2021 was above 25.5%.
The Rams' favorite running play by far is outside zone. The Bengals were slightly below average against outside zone this year compared to other defenses, allowing 4.7 yards per carry with -1.9% DVOA. The Rams' second-favorite running play is Duo, but the Bengals only faced Duo eight times during the regular season. The running backs should look to take those outside zone plays wide around the right side of the line. The Rams ranked first in adjusted line yards on runs listed as "right end" and the Bengals defense was 23rd.
The Rams were very poor this year running against heavy boxes of eight or more (3.2 yards per carry, -20.7% DVOA) but I doubt they'll see many of those heavy boxes unless they're running out the clock with a late lead. Based on Sports Info Solutions numbers, at least, there wasn't much difference for the Rams running game whether there were six or seven men in the box. The same goes for the Bengals defense.
Like the Rams offense, the Bengals defense has not been as good on running plays in the postseason, although the difference is a lot smaller than it is for the Rams. Overall with both teams, I think it makes more sense to trust the season-long numbers than to over-analyze just the three games of the postseason. During the regular season, the Rams' running game was pretty average and the Bengals' run defense was pretty average. That's probably how you should think of both units going into this game. I think the important thing about the Rams' running game is that they don't depend on it but they won't be afraid to go to it if the Bengals are throwing everybody into pass coverage and daring the Rams to run the ball. The Chiefs didn't move to the ground game when the Bengals did this two weeks ago, but the Rams won't be surprised by the strategy. Sean McVay has the film of the AFC Championship Game and he's not going to be surprised if Cincinnati pulls this strategy.
The Rams may not be the right team to take advantage of one of the Bengals' clear defensive weaknesses: tackling. Cincinnati ranked 31st in the NFL with 143 broken tackles during the regular season. Nobody stood out as one of the absolute worst tacklers in the NFL, but a league-leading seven different Bengals defenders were tracked with at least 10 broken tackles. Pratt led the team with 15. This would be more exciting for Los Angeles if the Rams had finished higher in broken tackles on offense. They were tied for 25th with 95 broken tackles. Sony Michel was ninth in the league with 43 broken tackles and Kupp was third among wide receivers with 23, but nobody else on the team had many. (Darrell Henderson's rate of broken tackles per touch was half of Michel's.) Akers was roughly average at broken tackles when he was healthy in 2020.
One last note that doesn't fit anywhere else here: The Cincinnati defense struggled the closer the opposition got to the goal line. They ranked 28th in DVOA for both the "front" zone (from the 39 to the 21) and the red zone (from the 20-yard line and in).
Both of these teams are strong in the kicking game and it has been an important part of their postseason runs. The Bengals have put up special teams DVOA over 10% in all three playoff games. That's a remarkable achievement because no team in the NFL put up special teams DVOA over 10% in three straight games during the regular season. The team that came closest? Probably the Los Angeles Rams, if you combine the regular season and the playoffs. They had DVOA over 10% in both Week 18 and the wild-card round, then were at 9.2% for the divisional round against Tampa Bay.
The kickers will get the most attention because both Evan McPherson of the Bengals and Matt Gay of the Rams had strong years. Gay had slightly more value during the regular season but McPherson has of course been money in the postseason, kicking four field goals in each playoff game without a single miss so far. Three of those kicks came from over 50 yards and that's really the difference between these two kickers: McPherson has a great leg for distance. Including the playoffs, McPherson has attempted 14 kicks of 50 or more yards and has hit 12 of them. Gay has only attempted six kicks of 50 or more yards, hitting four of them. McPherson also had a stronger year on kickoffs, where the Bengals ranked second during the regular season while the Rams ranked 18th.
The other major difference between these two special teams units is on punt returns, but it's not as big a difference as it appears at first glance. During the regular season, the Rams ranked third and the Bengals 29th. However, both teams installed new punt returners in Week 15 and saw a big improvement in return value. The Rams' new returner, Brandon Powell, has a fantastic average of 19.3 yards per punt return including the playoffs. The Bengals' new returner, Trent Taylor, has a solid (but not as impressive) average of 9.1 yards per punt return including the playoffs. Taylor's longest return has been 14 yards; Powell has five returns longer than that. Darius Phillips, who had significant negative value with four fumbles for the Bengals, is now on injured reserve.
Mike Tanier put it pretty simply in Walkthrough on Wednesday. Everybody is tripping over themselves to try to come up with reasons why the plucky upstart Cincinnati Bengals are going to win Super Bowl LVI, but the Rams are just better. This is a mismatch. Not a gigantic mismatch, but a clear mismatch. The Bengals passing game has been really good since their bye week. Over the course of the entire season, the Rams passing game has been better. The Bengals running game is meh. The Bengals defense is meh. The Bengals' rookie kicker is great! But you have to keep the game tied for the rookie kicker to be the difference at the end, and that's just not likely here. My expectation is that the Rams are going to take an early lead, and the Bengals offense will spend the rest of the game trying to catch up as the Rams stay ahead of them with steady offensive gains. The numbers are calling for a close game, but the numbers almost always call for a close game. Subjectively, I think the Rams winning by two scores instead of one is a pretty good possibility.
There are certainly ways the Rams can lose this game. Random variation, first of all. Maybe Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase just wake up on the right side of the bed on Sunday morning and Chase has miracle plays, juking out tacklers for tons of yards after the catch like he did in the Week 17 Chiefs game. Or maybe Eli Apple and Mike Hilton wake up on the right side of the bed and they drape themselves all over the Rams receivers. That's possible too. The Rams do like to blitz more than the Bengals do, which means they are more susceptible to the strategy of trying to blitz a quarterback who destroys the blitz. The Bengals aren't going to do that with Stafford, but the Rams could try to over-blitz Burrow. That would be bad. They could eschew the running game if the Bengals play light boxes and invite them to run the ball. I don't think they will, but they could. I don't think they'll become overdependent on the run either. Of course, Matthew Stafford could throw a couple of big interceptions. He led the league in interceptions this year, although a lot of the interceptions you didn't see were deep and not as damaging as the memorable interceptions he had in nationally televised games.
The better team doesn't always win, but the better team wins more often. The Rams are the better team. As I stated at the beginning of this preview, we expect the Rams would win this game two out of every three times. They only play it once, so Cincinnati could definitely walk away on Sunday night as 2021 NFL champions. But it's more likely that the Rams get the result they wanted when they went "all in" by trading for Matthew Stafford and Von Miller. Aaron Donald is probably going to get a ring. Jalen Ramsey is probably going to get a ring. Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham, and the unfortunately injured Robert Woods are probably going to get a ring. Don't worry, Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase have plenty of years ahead of them to try to get back here and get a ring for themselves if they don't get it on Sunday.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).
69 comments, Last at 16 Feb 2022, 8:02am
#1 by goathead // Feb 10, 2022 - 1:13pm
Don't worry, Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase have plenty of years ahead of them to try to get back here and get a ring for themselves
This reminds me of what they said about Marino after his Superbowl loss. I won't be surprised if the same thing happens to Burrow, but that's part of the reason to leave it all out there; this might be your only shot.
#2 by AFCNFCBowl // Feb 10, 2022 - 1:21pm
Even for winners, winning multiple rings is hard. Brees never won another ring after SB44. Rodgers probably will never win another ring after SB45. Wilson hasn't won a ring ever since SB48. Mahomes has now failed to win a ring in back to back seasons.
This is probably Stafford's only shot to get a ring and is definitely Burrow's best.
#3 by theslothook // Feb 10, 2022 - 1:47pm
This was my sentiment as well. After Aaron Rodgers won his ring and laid waste to the nfl in the 2011 regular season, multiple rings felt like foregone conclusions. A certain Packers fan all but declared the Packers had stumbled upon the ultimate cheat code. Instead, Rodgers to this point has not even gotten back to the SB.
As cute and overachieving as this season has been for the Bengals, they absolutely cannot take such opportunities for granted. Silly as it sounds, this is probably the best opportunity to win a title Burrow will likely every have in his career simply because nothing guarantees you will ever get back.
#7 by matu_72 // Feb 10, 2022 - 2:12pm
I remember after the Packers won that SB, everyone at the time was talking about the beginning of a new dynasty. Never would have thought that Rodgers would never make it back. Same thing for Brees as someone else mentioned.
With how unpredictable injuries tend to be year to year, with how roster turnover works, and with young QBs coming into the league more ready to compete, making it back is definitely not guaranteed.
#9 by theslothook // Feb 10, 2022 - 2:19pm
One reason Rogers hasn't gone back to the super bowl is he kept losing to teams that were frankly better than his. The Seahawks and the 49ers at various points were stronger overall teams than the Packers.
There were also years where the Packers were incredibly slanted to all pass, usually carrying a weak defense and bad special teams that inevitably got exposed once the offense had an off day.
To me the only loss that looks completely inexplicable is this year's loss to the 49ers where are the Packers had a clear dvoa advantage and on paper mismatches as well.
#29 by dmstorm22 // Feb 11, 2022 - 2:18pm
Don't know if decent is overstating it.
The two GB TD drives came courtesy of a really terrible overturn of a fumble and then a really weak Roughing the Passer on a drive wher they were already down 30-13 in the 4th.
Even in the first half where they moved the ball reasonably well, a lot of it was Rodgers scrambling for 1st downs against the Giants who went all out 2-high man.
Granted the Packers had a lot of drops.
#64 by herewegobrowni… // Feb 12, 2022 - 1:26pm
"Frankly better than his" should be a lot less of a hurdle in the NFL than, say, the NBA due to single-elimination.
Although there have been some unusual upsets the past 2 years in the NBA that can be attributed to more injury randomness, which can in turn be attributed to COVID wrecking the structure of the offseason and in-season...which I doubt will continue (gut feeling, on a WI note, is that Giannis will remain stuck at 1 ring also; the Warriors at their peak had 3-4 guys who were better than Kris Middleton, and there will be more such superteams.)
The Giants upset over the Pack can also be attributed to the Philbin family tragedy.
#68 by mehllageman56 // Feb 13, 2022 - 4:14pm
It's possible that Giannis will remain stuck at 1 ring, but you can't discount the possibility that one of those superteams will be his. Lebron's career is starting to end, the Nets' attempt at a superteam with Durant seems to be fizzling out. Not sure who else you build a super team around; Luka?
#69 by herewegobrowni… // Feb 16, 2022 - 7:58am
" can't discount the possibility that one of those superteams will be his."
Eh, a lot easier to get UFA's to come, at least at economic values, to Phoenix, Miami, the Bay, etc than Milwaukee.
The whole "8 teams have won in 30 years" thing that people used to say is still almost true, largely because UFA's usually don't want to live in cold cities during the peak of winter, which they generally don't have to do in the NFL.
I was pretty surprised that Giannis signed a long-term extension rather than pull a Kareem Abdul-Jabar. Greek Freak and LeBron are damn near the only true first-ballot HOF/GOAT convo/#1-option-on-a-champ's in the past ~20 years who have either stayed in or moved to a less glamorous city from a more glamorous one in their primes as UFAs (I don't consider Westbrook to be good enough to fit that criteria on the OKC extension. You would have to go back to Stockton and Malone, unless you want to count Chauncey Billups.) And LeBron, well, you know, on the whole moving thing (2010 and 2018 are forgiven now, though.)
#4 by theslothook // Feb 10, 2022 - 1:49pm
I am trying to think which SBs had a bigger gap in quality between the two teams. As Aaron said, there is a clear favorite even if its not by some insurmountable figure.
I thought the Pats were clear favorites over the Eagles in 17. I thought the Pats were clear favorites over the 16 Falcons, but that team had the leagues top passing game which counts for a lot.
Maybe going back to 2012 when the 49ers faced the Ravens? That's the one this matchup most directly reminds me of. I suspect former FO writer Danny Tuccito still finds that loss inexplicable.
#8 by theslothook // Feb 10, 2022 - 2:16pm
Interestingly the Rams outranked the Patriots both on offense and defense that year.
And remember, Goffs reputation wasn't in tatters like it is now. He was a legitimate MVP candidate that year and viewed as one of the bright young star QBs in the league.
#12 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 10, 2022 - 2:26pm
While the SB made it obvious, the NFCCG strongly suggested Goff wasn't ready if the running game was shut down. He looked like a baby deer for most of that game. I still don't know how NO blew that lead.
#13 by goathead // Feb 10, 2022 - 3:00pm
If you watched him play that year there was plenty of evidence that he was not a good QB. The games when he (& his team) looked good were when Gurley was playing at an exceptionally high level. When Gurley fell off the team went with him.
#15 by matu_72 // Feb 10, 2022 - 3:42pm
I think it was after that game that Goff started to significantly look worse, and Gurley was noticeably much less effective and used less. I think Gurley's ability to win just about any matchup when running routes out of the backfield was a big cheat code that helped Goff a lot. Without Gurley, it significantly impacted both the run and passing games for the Rams.
#55 by beargoggles // Feb 12, 2022 - 12:24am
Also Cooper Kupp got hurt that year and so they were playing Reynolds as their third wide receiver and he just isn’t/wasn’t very good. He wasn’t COOPER KUPP! yet but he was still damn good. Goff Definitely had some games where he looked good that year.
#30 by dmstorm22 // Feb 11, 2022 - 2:31pm
Surprised 2012 stands out that much.
I think it was clear by the Super Bowl that the 2012 Ravens were closer to the really good 2010-2011 teams (with a better Flacco) than the one that went through a relatively low-stretch in the season - something like the 2006 Colts (granted, the 2006 Colts still had a great offense by DVOA).
In the playoffs they finally had a fully healthy defense with Suggs back from injury, Lewis back from his own injury (with the aid of deer antler spray or whatever).
I don't think the Ravens should've been favorites or anything, but Pats over Eagles 2017 (given Foles) stands out more.
#32 by Will Allen // Feb 11, 2022 - 3:49pm
The key to the Ravens that year was suddenly getting better at 3 ol positions, late in the season, when Bryant Mckinnie put down the bag of chips, got off the couch, and played motivated football for the last time, over 7 weeks. That allowed two other guys to shuffle to where they were better suited, and put a revolving door on the bench. Blocking went from bad to above average, in the last weeks of the season. That's a pretty rare event.
#33 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:00pm
Similar to the 2006 Colts getting Bullet Bob back and suddenly being league-average at run defense again, after being a sieve for 12 weeks.
They went from +7/+11 without him to -34(!)/-20 with him.
#37 by Will Allen // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:07pm
Giants pass rushers in '07, of course, famously got healthy late in the season, and then proceeded to dominate in the playoffs. Still, if Stephen Neal doesn't get hurt in the Super Bowl, I think the Pats win. Their luck returned in the SB against the Seahawks, with the Seahawks getting a pass rusher and corner hurt and suddenly the Pats were better on offense.
#36 by theslothook // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:02pm
See I have an easier explanation for both of you.
Joe Flacco ate his only can of spinach and was insane for a month. After that he cashed in on the richest quarterback contract imaginable and then regressed past old Joe Flacco into Kyle Boller.
#10 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 10, 2022 - 2:21pm
For all we talk about Stafford's INT count, including the playoffs, his INT rate is almost identical to Burrow's -- 2.57% to 2.54%.
But his TD rate is higher -- 6.70% vs 6.04% and his ratio better -- 2.61 vs 2.38.
#16 by matu_72 // Feb 10, 2022 - 3:46pm
"a lot of it is Cam Akers struggling. Maybe he came back from the hamstring injury too soon"
IIRC, I believe Akers came back from a torn achilles not a hamstring injury. The point about coming back too soon may be valid though.
#53 by LionInAZ // Feb 11, 2022 - 11:45pm
The true intangible here is the Southern Cal Disney distraction factor, which has confounded dozens of visiting teams in Rose Bowls back to the 1960's. If the visiting team is not clearly superior, they are DOOMED.
#22 by theTDC // Feb 11, 2022 - 12:41am
Great scouting with the LB Troy Reeder bit. Any rams fan could tell you that the guy is basically the prototypical downhill thumping linebacker. He's great at one aspect of coverage, which is if he can run straight forward and hit the receiver as they catch the ball. He's pretty terrible at coverage in space, and he's not a good open field tackler.
I don't have the numbers to back this up, but I think he's the main reason why the Rams blitz more than average. If they send Troy Reeder he eats up at least one block, giving Donald or someone else a single team. Since he's not great in coverage, you might as well.
#35 by Will Allen // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:01pm
A number 17 DVOA team beating a number 5 DVOA team would not be a huge surprise. I do think adding Miller and OBJ late in the season tilts it more towards the Rams. That said, if Burrow manages to keep clean, the Bengals will have a great chance to win. One thing that would shock me is the Bengals winning again while allowing 9 sacks.
#38 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:14pm
It would be amusing for the Bengals to stay in a 3-0-8 the entire game and for Akers to have a Timmy Smith Game.
The 80s/90s Redskins don't get enough historical credit for winning SBs in just outrageous manners. They got 544 yards and 6 TDs from their 3rd best QB and 3rd best RB in SB 22, starting because the better guys were hurt.
#39 by Will Allen // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:22pm
If McVay has enough control of himself to win a game that way, if the opponent invites him to try it, he'll be a lot better than the previous Rams SB coach, The Remarkable Mike Martz.
That's setting the bar pretty low, of course.
#40 by Will Allen // Feb 11, 2022 - 4:26pm
Oh, the days when an owner who was willing to write checks, for a great coach, could stockpile talent, especially on the line of scrimmage.
The checks weren't that huge, however, since there was no free agency. It's just that 90% of the owners were ridiculous tightwads.
#43 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 11, 2022 - 5:05pm
This was the secret of the mid-50s and 60s Celtics. Their owner was trying to win, which was unusual in the league.
We give Wilt shit for not being able to get past the Celtics. Some of those Russell teams had 8 HOFers on the roster at the same time. Their bench had as much talent as Wilt's starters! (As much as 4 is rare today -- the Heat teams with Ray Allen were maybe 4, or the Durant Warriors, or the 2003-2004 Lakers)
The best team he ever had was 4, including him. That team was the 68-13 76ers, who won a title. His next best team was the 71-72 Lakers, who had 3.5 (Baylor retired mid-season). They went 69-13 and won a title. Wilt's best teams had half the talent around him that Russell's teams did. Russell basically never played with fewer than 3 HOFers around him.
Some of that is winner's sauce. A few of those guys aren't in if they weren't on the 60s Celtics -- which worked much like the 60s Packers do. But they still had a depth of talent that was unmatched in the NBA at any time.
#44 by Will Allen // Feb 11, 2022 - 5:35pm
Don't really disagree, but the '69 Finals had the Lakers with 3 HOFers, and the Celtics with 4 as players ( Don Nelson is in as coach), and one of the Celtic HOFers is Satch Sanders, who absolutely would not have been so on any other team. I think that's the loss to the Celtics that gutted Chamberlain and West the most. Russell was making a last stand, as was Sam Jones. Baylor, having won in Minneapolis, wasn't dealing with "Can't win the Big One" bullshit.
#46 by Aaron Brooks G… // Feb 11, 2022 - 6:29pm
Russell had one of those. The 1957-1958 Celtics were maybe the most talent NBA team ever compiled. They had 9 HOFers. They went two-deep with HOFers at ever position except PF, where they had to make due with Jack Nichols.
They lost the finals to a 4 HOFer Hawks team that represents the biggest HOFer deficit (-5) ever overcome in the finals. The 1957-1958 Celtics were the most talented team to not win a title.
#50 by Spanosian Magn… // Feb 11, 2022 - 9:38pm
Complete aside, but you just made me realize the 2005-06 Heat also had 4 HOFers: Wade, Shaq, Mourning, and Payton.
It is a materially different thing when it's 3+ in-their-prime superduperstars functioning at once (i.e., James, Wade, Bosh, Allen-ish), versus when it's some former greats filling bench/support roles. But the latter is still neat.
I like the HOFer deficit idea, too. While I'd guess the 2018-19 Raptors end up with 2 (Leonard and Lowry) and posssssibly up to 4 HOFers (Gasol and Siakam, if he keeps improving), I think there's a nonzero chance they actually end up with 0 when all it said and done (I don't think Lowry is a lock, and if Leonard is greatly diminished by this injury, he might not be either), so that could be a -4. If somehow Iguodala gets in but Leonard doesn't, that would be -5 - probably the "best" chance to achieve that among seasons already completed.
It's weirder in the NFL because of offense/defense specialization. One that comes to mind is Pats over Rams back in '01 - the Pats "only" had two HOFers on that defense (Seymour and Law) and likely won't have any more (Milloy and McGinest probably have the best cases but little traction with voters at the moment. Actually the best chance for another might be Vrabel as a coach, but that doesn't count.). But they shut down an offense that has 3 (Warner, Faulk, Pace) and probably will have 5 when all is said and done (Holt and Bruce), for a -3 deficit that way. On the other side, the Pats probably only have the one (although that's a pretty significant one), unless Matt Light gets in someday - and the Rams equalize with Aeneas Williams (and there's some chance London Fletcher goes in eventually). So I think the HOFer score likely ends up 6-3 Rams over Pats - quite the upset indeed.
I have to say, the two Pats teams that lost to the Giants weren't as loaded as I thought. In 2007 they had Brady and Moss, obviously, and Light and Mankins probably have strong cases on merits but neither strikes me as likely to get many votes (Light overshadowed by Ogden, Jones, Pace, Thomas, and Peters, among contemporaries, Mankins simply being a guard). Welker's case is stronger than I thought (2x All-Pro? Really?) so he might, but that still seems 50/50 to me given his contemporaries. The Giants' D had Strahan and... not much else, at least in terms of HOF cases. The other way, the Pats had no slam-dunks on defense: Wilfork will probably get in I'd guess, Harrison might too (his record isn't as strong as I'd thought - basically 3 elite seasons and a lot of "pretty good" ones), and then there are Warren, Asante Samuel, and the aforementioned Vrabel, who all look close-but-no-cigar to these eyes. And the Giants only really had Manning - whose entire case is beating these guys. So that's probably 2-1 Pats' offense, 1-1 Pats' D v Giants' O for just 3-2 overall. Pending a lot of cases for the Pats, to be fair. And assuming Manning gets in, which I'm less sure of than I used to be.
It's funny, I bet if New England had won that game, most or all of those borderline guys would be getting in. The voters have to recognize the best team ever, don't'cha know. Whoops.
The 2011 Pats were actually bigger "favorites" by HOFers-on-roster: Brady and Gronk, plus whatever happens with Light, Mankins, and Welker, and then on D it's Wilfork, and Shaun Ellis has a case at least. But the Giants have no one even remotely meriting consideration (the next-best case might honestly be Justin Tuck's) - except Manning. 3-1 Pats.
Obviously getting ahead of ourselves for Rams-Bengals, but it's notable to me that the Rams have two guys who've basically punched their tickets already (Donald and Miller), and I'd guess Ramsey is in at this point too. And Andrew Whitworth has a much stronger case than one might think (142 AV?!). So that's certainly 2, probably 3, and quite possibly 4, before even considering The Whole Stafford Thing (or OBJ or Kupp, though both are on the outside looking in unless they really go wild over the next 5 or so years). The Bengals on the other hand have... well, two guys without even 3 full seasons between them. So there's a chance this one ends up really lopsided - regardless of whatever the actual score ends up being.
#65 by herewegobrowni… // Feb 12, 2022 - 1:36pm
Technically, the 2015-16 Cavs only had 1 All-Star and they beat 73-9. :) Will likely be just one HOF lock with Kyrie's erratic post-Cavs resume and KLove's continued regression/perpetual injuries (or "injuries" in the case of the tank/rebuild.) (Of course KLove had been a 28ppg/13rpg all-star before he was relegated to 3rd wheel, and the only reason Kyrie wasn't an All-Star was an injury across much of the season.)
But again, the best-of-up-to-7 makes these NBA upsets even more remarkable than most all NFL upsets.
#45 by Gladiator of t… // Feb 11, 2022 - 6:00pm
I'm old enough to remember McVay choking in a previous Super Bowl. Faced with a game plan that clearly wasn't working, he seemed to make absolutely no adjustments and the second half played out in much the same way the first half did. If the Bengals come up with a game plan that confuses the Rams at first, it will be interesting to see if McVay and his assistants are able to respond and adapt.
#59 by Pat // Feb 12, 2022 - 10:07am
McVay was facing Belichick, not the Bengals.
I also wouldn't call it a choke. The Patriots were basically ranked identically or higher, and Goff was still a young QB. Quite a few people *expected* that outcome.
Obviously McVay could've adapted better, but he's got a much, much stronger hand this year. If they flop here, *that's* a choke.