The Cincinnati Bengals lost two Super Bowls in the 1980s to Joe Montana and the 49ers. This time the Bengals feel like they have “Joe Cool” on their side in Joe Burrow, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick who has Cincinnati back in the big game in just his second year.
The Bengals are a 4-point underdog against the Los Angeles Rams at most top-rated sportsbooks, but Burrow has been tough to bet against going back to his epic season at LSU. Can this team put together one more upset to bring a championship to Cincinnati for the first time?
Los Angeles Rams vs. Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday, February 13, 2022 – 06:30 PM EST at SoFi Stadium
Can the Bengals Protect Joe Burrow?
The wild card in this game is what Cincinnati’s opportunistic defense can do against Matthew Stafford and the talented Los Angeles offense. But the biggest mismatch on paper that could easily dictate the outcome is the inadequate Cincinnati offensive line against the Rams’ defensive front, led by future Hall of Famer Aaron Donald.
Defense wins championships. Football games are won in the trenches. Despite the push towards more “finesse” passing and scoring, these things are still true in the NFL. Both the Bengals and Rams are in this Super Bowl, the first-ever between No. 4 seeds, instead of other contenders largely due to the way their defenses have created chaos this postseason.
What better way to create chaos than to have Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd get after this offensive line and bring down a quarterback who took the most sacks in the league this year? Burrow was dropped 51 times in the regular season and 12 more in the playoffs, including nine sacks in Tennessee.
The Rams had 50 sacks in the regular season, five more in the playoffs, and they have forced multiple interceptions by hitting quarterbacks during their throwing motion in these playoffs.
We just saw in Super Bowl LV last year how an outmatched offensive line can ruin a game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers pressured Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes 29 times, the most in Super Bowl history, as the Buccaneers won 31-9 in a blowout in their home stadium.
If the Bengals block like they did in Tennessee, we could see a repeat of that, right down to the Rams being at home and winning with a quarterback in his first season with the team.
The numbers are hard to ignore. According to ESPN, the Rams rank. No. 1 in pass rush win rate and the Bengals are No. 30 in pass block win rate. It’s not like Burrow holds onto the ball too long that often.
According to Next Gen Stats, Burrow’s average time to throw was 2.69 seconds, the 10th-fastest time in the 2021 regular season. He was even quicker at 2.54 seconds in the nine-sack game in Tennessee as the Titans were often on him quickly.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Bengals were 1-4 in the five games where Burrow had his highest pressure rate this season (at least 28.6%). While he has been pressured at least 10 times in each playoff game, the pressure rate never hit 28%.
If the worst thing Burrow does in this game is take five sacks, then the Bengals may still be fine as long as he is not fumbling or throwing interceptions as a result of the pressure that is sure to come from Los Angeles’ talented front.
Von Miller won Super Bowl 50 MVP for Denver by destroying right tackle Mike Remmers to get to Cam Newton for two fumbles (one touchdown), which basically decided that game. Between Miller and Donald, the Rams have some incredible defenders who can wreck this game on a couple of snaps.
But if there’s a reason for hope that this won’t look like last year’s Super Bowl, it would be that the Chiefs were playing multiple linemen in new positions to make up for left tackle Eric Fisher tearing his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game. It wasn’t just a matter of one player being out.
The Bengals are coming into this game with the same group that got them here, and it has not prevented them from getting to the Super Bowl. Burrow is confident that his line will protect him, and confidence is one thing this young team has an abundance of.
If Given Time, Burrow Has the Weapons
Say what you will about the Cincinnati offensive line, but there is practically zero chance this team is in the Super Bowl right now if it drafted tackle Penei Sewell instead of wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick.
Burrow’s college receiver has been a godsend for this offense, helping Burrow lead the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9) with one of the best receiving seasons ever for a rookie.
If the pass protection is not a nightmare, the Bengals have arguably the most offensive talent the Rams have faced this season, and especially in the playoffs where the Rams have caught some breaks with opponent injuries.
Arizona was missing No. 1 receiver, DeAndre Hopkins. Tampa Bay was missing stud right tackle Tristan Wirfs and standout receiver Chris Godwin (ACL), and the wide receiver depth was further damaged by Antonio Brown’s issues.
San Francisco had three of its best players limp off the field in Green Bay, and while they all played, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was playing through an injury that will require off-season surgery.
The 2021 Bengals made some history in having the first offense the NFL has ever seen with a 4,500-yard passer (Burrow), 1,200-yard rusher (Joe Mixon), and two 1,000-yard receivers (Chase and Tee Higgins) with each player being no older than 25 years old.
Tyler Boyd is also a really good third wideout, and tight end C.J. Uzomah was having a great postseason before injuring his knee in Kansas City. Look for the tight end to give it a go on Sunday, the biggest game of his life.
For all the top-tier talent the Rams have on defense, including stud corner Jalen Ramsey, this defense only finished 17th in yards per drive and eighth in points per drive allowed, both behind the Bengals (fifth in yards and seventh in points).
This defense is hardly impenetrable, and both of these teams were 1-5 when allowing more than 24 points this season. While Ramsey is a great corner, he can only guard one of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd on any given play.
The Bengals need to take advantage of the lesser corners covering the receivers Ramsey is not covering. The Rams brought Eric Weddle out of retirement to play safety late in the season. The Bengals should test the veteran with some shot plays with these young receivers, but that is where this game becomes dicey with the pass protection.
Can the Running Game Show Up?
The Bengals need to limit how often Burrow is holding the ball for vertical routes to develop. Even if Chase is a decoy to draw Ramsey away, that is where the Bengals can attack with Uzomah, Boyd, and even use Mixon out of the backfield as a receiver.
But what about just running the ball and doing more play-action passes? The Bengals tried running 17 times on first-and-10 in Kansas City when tied or trailing, which is an absurd amount. It also didn’t work well as the Bengals were often left in second-and-long situations.
Mixon is only averaging 3.7 yards per carry this postseason. But the Bengals may want to stick to a conservative game plan early to get a feel for the pass rush and if the line can hold up.
Running well is going to be hard though. According to ESPN, the Bengals rank No. 10 in run block win rate, but the Rams are No. 1 in run stop rate. The Rams have not allowed more than 61 rushing yards in any of the three playoff games so far, including a brick-wall effort against Kyle Shanahan’s great run scheme in the NFC Championship Game.
Chase is great on screens, and one of the biggest pass plays for the Bengals this year was a screen pass for a touchdown to Samaje Perine in the AFC Championship Game. Asking Burrow to dink and dunk may be the smart move in this matchup.
In the last two playoff games in Tennessee and Kansas City, Burrow had his only two games of the season where his average air yards per attempt was under 6.0 yards, so we have already started to see this take shape as the underdog Bengals just hung around with the Titans and Chiefs before taking advantage of turnovers and winning the game on a late field goal.
Speaking of field goals, the Bengals have settled for way too many of them (12) in the postseason with a lot of ineffectiveness in the red zone. Rookie kicker Evan McPherson is great and has not missed in the playoffs, but this could be a game where settling for three too often hurts.
Situational football was not a strength for this offense in the regular season, ranking 16th in third-down conversion rate (39.6%) and 16th in red-zone touchdown rate (59.6%). Defensively, the Rams were 21st on third down (41.3%) and eighth in the red zone (51.8%).
Sixteen of the last 18 Super Bowls have been within one score in the fourth quarter. The Rams nearly blew a 27-3 lead in Tampa Bay in the divisional round. The Bengals came back from 21-3 in Kansas City to win in overtime, the largest road comeback in a title game in NFL history.
Terrible offensive lines, such as the 2008 Steelers and 2015 Broncos, have won Super Bowls before, but it came down to a late touchdown drive or getting the late stop with a one-score lead.
The Bengals just need to hang in there and don’t let the game get away quickly like the Cardinals did in the wild card round, because the Rams have not been blowing teams out. This should not be a game where Burrow throws for 450 yards.
The Bengals need to keep the score down and have a chance to win it late. Put Burrow and Chase in the Montana and Jerry Rice roles this time instead of a helpless Cincinnati defense.
Seeing if this young offense could execute against the pressure of this star-studded defense with the game on the line would be the best possible ending to this Super Bowl, but anything remotely close in the fourth quarter would be a huge upgrade over last year’s beatdown.