Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming championship game and the teams involved, and what each squad might do to emerge victorious.
The 56th edition of the NFL’s biggest game will take place at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California as the Los Angeles Rams will face the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s what you should know:
RAMS’ DEFENSE IS GIFTED
Former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, one of the greatest defensive minds the game has ever known, favored a 3-4 scheme that asked his front seven to control one gap and play matchup-zone coverage behind it. Yet his unit between 2017-19 was merely so-so, leading to him being replaced by former Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who kept the system in place. That led to him getting the Los Angeles Chargers’ coaching job and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers skipper Raheem Morris now runs this side of the ball.
Despite employing the league’s best defensive tackle in Aaron Donald, run-stuffer A’Shawn Robinson, former Bear Leonard Floyd and seven-time All-Pro linebacker Von Miller, the Rams don’t have much depth along their front seven beyond their starters. Nevertheless the team finished the 2021 regular season third in interceptions and sacks and sixth against the run (it helps when you can align Donald and Miller on the same side of the formation, preventing any sort of double team), however they were just 15th in points surrendered and 22nd against the pass.
Los Angeles has also undergone an overhaul in their secondary. Over the last three years out went the gambling nature of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and safety Lamarcus Joyner, who loved to take risks and go for interceptions. In came former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, who excels in man and zone coverage (especially out of the slot) and former backup Darious Williams. Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller are normally the team’s primary safeties, but with both nursing injuries head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead coaxed five-time All-Pro safety Eric Weddle out of a two-year retirement to rejoin the team he suited up for in 2019.
This scheme – characterized by a four-man rush, Cover Four zone coverage and twists and stunts on the defensive line to help get Donald and Miller into opposing team’s backfields – can be excellent but it has a crucial weakness. Los Angeles’ coverages can be sometimes predictable against two-receiver formations and the Rams mainly use what is known as a “Tite/Mint” front, which is a 3-3-5 defense based out of nickel personnel. Will Morris mix it up more against Cincinnati?
GREATEST SHOW ON TURF, PART TWO
After Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace, Torry Holt and Issac Bruce roamed the Rams’ sidelines 20 years ago the team didn’t field a good offense again for a long time. That changed when McVay took over in 2017 and he has created an offensive juggernaut in the City of Angels.
Prior to being hired by the Rams McVay spent 2010-13 working with Mike and Kyle Shanahan in Washington and was also on the staffs of both Jon and Jay Gruden. The Shanahans were the most influential when it comes to McVay’s preference in the running game.
The McVay-Shanahan system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders towards the sideline on outside-zone running plays while leaving backside lanes for running backs. It has long been a staple of those coaches and countless tailbacks have had success in it – from Todd Gurley years ago to a combination currently made up of Darrell Henderson, Sony Michel and Cam Akers. In front of them are offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth, David Edwards, Brian Allen, Austin Corbett and Rob Havenstein, and they have helped the Rams execute most of their runs out “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers) and “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers).
One tactic that McVay and company love to use in the running game is to pull their tight ends (also known as split-flow action) along with sending their wide receivers behind them on fake end-arounds before giving the ball to their tailbacks. This is used to create hesitation for opposing linebackers and safeties, and the Rams’ love for sending wideouts in motion has expanded greatly to give their receivers the ball on handoffs and screens, to become crack-back blockers on running plays and to identify coverages.
Passing-wise the Rams are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams horizontally rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages and will align wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays.
Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. These are mostly executed out of “empty” shotgun formations with “bunch” and “stack” alignments by their receivers, with many of their run-action plays performed under center.
Due to inconsistencies in his game former first overall draft pick Jared Goff was shipped to the Detroit Lions last winter in exchange for ex-Pro Bowler Matthew Stafford, who remains one of the NFL’s most dangerous passers. Possessing one of pro football’s strongest arms, he has also developed a mind and accuracy to match. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Stafford continues to make the big-time, tight-window passes that he has always made – he’s especially deft throwing deep outside against Cover Two…. His bold throws are now also good decisions.”
The weapons that Stafford has at his disposal are wideouts Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Van Jefferson, Robert Woods (out for the season with a knee injury) and tight end Tyler Higbee. Woods is a solid possession receiver and a great blocker, and Jefferson brings speed to the table. Beckham isn’t as explosive as he once was but is still an effective route runner, gets yards after the catch and remains a red zone threat. Higbee has been relied upon more since 2019, especially in the screen game and on wheel routes along the sideline opposite play-action bootlegs (also known as “leak” concepts) but won’t play on Sunday because of a knee injury – thus paving the way for Brycen Hopkins to start.
Kupp is particularly great out of the slot, especially on corner routes out of their previously mentioned flood concepts. His quick feet and elite separation skills at the top of his pass patterns help him defeat man coverage, and Los Angeles also likes to use Kupp and company in what are known as “high/low” concepts – with one receiver being the low man on short routes to influence defensive backs to cheat down low and take him away while creating open space for Kupp on deep dig routes in the vacated “high” area.
McVay will occasionally use a no-huddle approach to both wear down opponents and to create confusion and communication problems for defenses. Will he go towards this approach on Sunday?
BENGALS’ OFFENSE A BREAKOUT UNIT IN 2021
The Cincinnati Bengals’ head honcho is former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor. Naturally, Taylor employs a version of his former colleague McVay’s offensive playbook which emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of play-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on handoffs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
At the helm of this attack is former first overall draft choice Joe Burrow. Burrow not only possesses a strong arm and high football I.Q., but also has a strong sense of rhythm and timing for a young quarterback and is consistently accurate. He’s aggressive when attacking one on one matchups outside the numbers and has excellent movement within the pocket – allowing him to become the first quarterback ever to be selected first overall in the NFL Draft and start in a Super Bowl within two years.
Those movement skills have come in handy in his first two pro seasons as Burrow has operated behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Despite the left side of their line being serviceable (and held down by Jonah Williams and Quinton Spain), Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Andeniji and Isaiah Prince are not – thus putting Burrow under duress, taking a lot of sacks and sometimes anticipating pressure when there isn’t – leading to hurried throws and interceptions.
While pass protection isn’t the Bengals’ strong suit their run blocking isn’t all that bad, and Joe Mixon – one of pro football’s better running backs when healthy – took advantage by having the best season of his five-year career with over 1,200 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns. His solid vision and good cutback ability have meshed well with Taylor’s scheme, especially on first down where the Bengals like to give him the rock.
Burrow has plenty of weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase, his former college teammate at LSU, finished the season with the second-most receiving yards and touchdowns ever by a first-year player and has done most of his damage as the boundary ‘X’ receiver on three-by-one trips formations and slant patterns on slant-flat combinations. Tee Higgins is a red zone target and excels on vertical routes and shifty slot receiver Tyler Boyd is a nifty option on short patterns. C.J. Uzomah is their tight end.
Given Cincinnati’s pass-protection issues and the quality of the Rams’ pass rush, will Taylor and company keep their running backs and tight ends in to block more in max protection on Sunday? This bears watching.
CINCINNATI’S DEFENSE IS OVERLOOKED
Cincinnati’s defense is mainly zone-based (especially with two high safeties, such as Cover Two, Four and Six) and coordinator Lou Anarumo is their play-caller. Although they do have some chess pieces to work with – as evidenced by being the fifth-best run defense in the NFL and tied for 11th in sacks – they don’t quite have enough talent on this side of the ball, resulting in finishing in the middle of the pack or near the bottom in many other categories.
Free agent pickup Trey Hendrickson, formerly of the New Orleans Saints, has lived up to his big contract with a career-high 14 sacks and his cohorts on the Bengals’ defensive line include Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and Larry Ogunjobi. These four execute a lot of creative pass rush concepts along the line of scrimmage, including stunts, twists and shifting from four to three man-rush looks before the snap and they’ve had success with it. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt are their starters at linebacker.
The Bengals have plenty of cornerbacks with experience in zone defenses like Eli Apple, Chidobe Awuzie, Trae Waynes, Tre Flowers (who they love to match up against tight ends) and Vernon Hagreaves III. Slot corner Mike Hilton isn’t just one of the game’s best nickelbacks – he’s also an elite blitzer off the edge, and their safeties are the undersized and underrated Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell.