Let’s get right to it – trying to answer the most pressing questions to help enhance the viewing experience for Super Bowl Sunday – with our VP of Football Matt Manocherian, our Lead Football Analyst, Alex Vigderman, and Off the Charts producer, Justin Stine (who tracked every play of every Rams game this season).
You can listen to our podcast at the link above or read their thoughts below.
What’s the most important thing to be watching going into this game?
Alex: How do the Rams defend Cincinnati’s weapons in the passing game?
We know that the Bengals want to get the ball out quickly, because the biggest mismatch is the Bengals’ O-line against the Rams’ front.
The Rams will have to account for the fact that the Bengals are much more evenly distributed talent-wise at receiver than they are in the defensive backfield (read Stephen Polacheck’s look at the Bengals’ receivers here).
If we look at Points Above Average, which is the part of the guts of Total Points that evaluates each player relative to average performance, Jalen Ramsey is +24 points and the rest of the secondary is –30.
The question is whether or not the non-Jalen-Ramsey players on the back end for the Rams can hold up in those first few seconds.
Matt: How both teams deploy their safeties. Both of these teams want to play light boxes. Each of these teams are going to try to get the other out of this alignment so that they can throw the ball over the top to their superstar receivers.
When you play two safeties deep, that allows you to almost double-team Ja’Marr Chase. Because you have the help over the top, the underneath defenders don’t have to account for as much space whether they’re playing man or zone.
What I’m trying to get at is that you can alter the shape of the defense with the run game and when you do that, that can create different opportunities for you.
What advantages can the Bengals exploit?
Matt: Both are heavy outside zone teams. If game script allows, Joe Mixon and the Bengals running game is a potential advantage over the Rams. If they really want to get Ja’Marr Chase going, I think Mixon is a potential avenue for success.
Alex: To that point, the Bengals ran stretch zone (outside the tackles) as much as anyone this year, and while they weren’t super-successful with it, they will be running away from the teeth of the Rams’ defense. The Rams are in the top 5 in EPA per attempt and top 10 in Positive% defending inside runs, and more middle-of-the-pack on runs outside the tackles.
How might the Rams defense all of this?
Justin: Don’t expect the gameplan to look the same as it did against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
The Rams have primarily played a two-high safety shell scheme throughout the season, but Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris made an adjustment against the 49ers and switched to a single-high look to try to contain the San Francisco running game.
The team primarily used Nick Scott as the deep man in this scheme, while Eric Weddle was utilized more in the slot and in the box. The Rams don’t often load the box in their normal scheme, but Weddle and even nickel cornerback David Long spent more time near the line of scrimmage against the 49ers than any other game this season.
Don’t expect the Rams to repeat that strategy against the Bengals, as they will likely move back to their two-high, softer-zone scheme and look to exploit of what appears to be an advantage with their defensive line vs. the Cincinnati offensive line.
If they aren’t able to get the Rams out of that look, it could be a long day for Burrow and his offensive line, given that they’re dealing with a pass-rush that features the likes of Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd.
How can the Rams overpower the Bengals?
Matt: Overpower them with star power.
Alex: The Rams have seven players who rank in the Top 5 at their respective positions in Total Points (Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Jalen Ramsey, Andrew Whitworth, David Edwards, Leonard Floyd, and Matt Gay). The Bengals have one.
Matt: And the Bengals interior offensive line is no match for Aaron Donald. They’ve even been rotating some players in there. He is better at his position than any player is at their position in the NFL, and he is a problem in both phases.
Is there anything about the Rams that would concern you going into this game?
Alex: We love questioning coaching decisions around fourth downs, and the Rams present an interesting opportunity for that. They’ve been more field-goal-heavy than we’d recommend when in close, and they’ve forgone punts for conversion attempts more than the typical team when they’re outside the 30. So they’re walking a fine line between making the nerds or jocks angry.
Matt: I like living in a place where I make both the nerds and jocks angry frequently.
For me, it’s the health question. Everybody from Whitworth to Ramsey seems dinged up for the Rams. Not to mention Robert Woods, who is really important to their pass and run games. Though on the other hand, Darrel Henderson could be an x-factor for them if he can play.
Let’s talk up one unsung star on each team who could be vital on Sunday. With the Bengals, how about cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who on a per-play basis ranks comparably in value to Jalen Ramsey?
Alex: Awuzie didn’t make a lot of noise this year but he was solid. He wasn’t exclusively an outside corner but he did much better out there. He allowed just under a quarter of his targets to go for positive EPA when lined up outside.
He was definitely getting beat a bit, but he was able to catch up and limit the damage. Put another way, he had the sixth-most intended air yards in his direction this season, but he yielded the 59th-most yards.
One way he could impact the game in a negative way is getting beat over the top when they’re in zone. He was targeted more than any other player on throws 20+ yards downfield in zone coverage in the regular season, and he’s allowed 137 yards and a touchdown on five such targets in the playoffs.
And from the Rams, that would be linebacker Leonard Floyd?
Alex: Floyd is a perfect example of the interactive nature of pass rush. If you look at what we might call “cleanup sacks,” where one player hurries the quarterback and the other gets the sack, Floyd trails only TJ Watt the last two years with 10 of them.
Having multiple threats up front makes a huge difference.
Another example of this is that he had four sacks this year when he went unblocked. Having pass rush threats both inside and outside makes things hard for the offense, and sometimes that’s what comes of it. Adding Von Miller makes it even more difficult because you can hit from both sides, and Floyd’s really taken advantage.
Matt, let’s end on this – You’ve said Joe Burrow is a QB you can win a Super Bowl with, but not yet one you can win a Super Bowl ‘because of.’ What’s the missing piece there?
His accuracy is awesome, and the numbers really illuminate that. And I don’t fault him for the sacks. I actually think he does a great job of avoiding them and playing with limited protection.
But look at the off-platform throws.
There were a couple of dropped interceptions in the AFC championship game that would really change the narrative on him right now, and I do think that every once in a while you see his inconsistent arm talent show up.
So, for me, to be ‘win because of’ without an elite arm would require Drew Brees-like precision, which he is trending towards but I’m not quite ready to crown him with quite yet.
Enjoy the game!