The Los Angeles Rams will take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday. The Bengals defense has stepped up in the postseason. While they don’t have any stars per se to hang their hat on, they’ve played as a cohesive group over the second half of the year.
What’s made the Bengals defense so difficult to attack is the fact that they can play a multitude of coverages. This isn’t just a cover 3 or cover 2 defense. That was on display two weeks ago against the Kansas City Chiefs. After giving up three touchdown drives in the opening half, Lou Anarumo adjusted. The Bengals dropped seven into coverage and put a spy on Patrick Mahomes – therefore only rushing three.
The Chiefs threw the ball 15 times and only completed eight passes. Meanwhile, the Chiefs ran the ball nine times for 58 rushing yards. The Bengals used a three-man rush against Mahomes 15 times in the AFC Championship Game and 10 times in the second half. On those plays, the Chiefs offense produced a total of 38 net yards.
This wasn’t something that the Chiefs were expecting. Mahomes saw an average of just 2.4 three-man rushes all season. However, Cincinnati dropped eight players into coverage 70 times this season, more than any other defense in football. On these plays, the Bengals allowed a QBR of 27.3 and held quarterbacks to a 6.6 YPA.
Because of this success, there is a lot of talk that the Bengals may employ a similar strategy against the Rams. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if they did. This allows the Bengals secondary to take away the middle of the field and cover up their otherwise deficiencies.
Additionally, Stafford hasn’t faired well against defenses that have dropped eight in coverage this season. During the regular season, Stafford went 22-of-34 for 156 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. His 26.6 QBR in those situations ranked 19th in the NFL.
Stafford has been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks this season. If the Bengals stand any chance of complicating things and tightening otherwise large window, they need to do it. The biggest difference however, between the Chiefs and Rams is McVay’s commitment to the run game.
This is the question that everyone has asked since the AFC Championship. Why didn’t the Chiefs run the ball in the second half. Leading 21-10 after halftime, a run-heavy offense would have made a lot of sense. This is especially the case considering Kansas City averaged 6.4 yards per attempt on the ground.
There doesn’t seem to be a logical explanation.
The Bengals weren’t afraid to keep at least five defensive backs on the field, even when the Chiefs came out with two tight ends. If a defense is staying light even when you go to heavy sets, the best thing an offense can do is run the ball until they’re forced to change up their personnel and get bigger.
This is a trap that McVay won’t fall into. They won’t to pass when defenses are begging them to run. The Rams haven’t had success running the ball in the postseason. In fact, the Rams rank dead last in rush EPA throughout the postseason at -0.45 EPA/play.
Still, McVay has remained committed to the run game. The Rams have ran the ball 32, 25, and 23 times in each postseason game. This is despite the fact that Cam Akers and Sony Michel averaged less than three yards per carry against the Buccaneers and 49ers. The Rams defeated the Cardinals with a run-heavy scheme. Stafford threw the ball just times while Akers and Michel combined for 30 carries.
The Los Angeles Rams have run 26 plays out of 12 personnel during the postseason. 21 of those 26 plays came in the wild card round against the Arizona Cardinals. If Tyler Higbee is unable to go due to a sprained MCL, it’s unlikely that the Rams will be able to use much 12 personnel. Still, with how the Rams use players like Kupp and Skowronek in the run game, they should still be able to find success.
McVay needs to remain balanced on early downs and not be afraid to run the ball on third and short. This is a stage that Sony Michel is very familiar with. He ran for 94 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
They will make Cincinnati defend the run. With Akers, Michel, and Darrell Henderson, they’ll also be able to remain versatile in the run game. This postseason the Cincinnati Bengals have called 5.7 yards per carry. Their 382 rushing yards allowed in the postseason is the most in the NFL. In fact, they’ve had the second-worst run defense in EPA/play throughout the playoffs at -0.001 EPA/play with a success rate of just 49.2%.
So yes, while the Bengals may drop seven or eight guys into coverage, this is something that the Rams will take advantage of in the run game. This is where the Rams adjusted in the middle of the season.
After losing to the San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, and Green Bay Packers, McVay became much more run-oriented. Yes, the offense still relied on Stafford and the pass game. Through the first eight weeks, they were making things look easy. There wasn’t a reason to go totally away from that. However, they needed teams to respect them more at the line of scrimmage to open things up in the pass game.
With that said, Sony Michel led the NFL in rushing yards in the month of December. Henderson had 20 more carries one time this season and Michel had 20 or more carries four times in the final six weeks. Without Henderson as the bell cow, the Rams have been much more willing to run the ball.
At its core, McVay’s system revolves around running the football. This is where the jet-motion sweeps come in and the play-action pass. The Rams have gone away from that more this season, but it’s mostly just because Stafford has allowed them to not have to spam the “x-button” every play.
These motions put a lot of stress on the linebackers and the Bengals linebackers particularly struggle in space. The Bengals will be able to handle more with their safety pairing of Vonn Bell and Jesse Bates, however, it could still cause problems. Cincinnati rotates their safeties and they play a lot of Cover 3. Matthew Stafford ranks fifth in EPA (0.18) against Cover-3 this season.
As detailed in this piece from Benjamin Solak and Steven Ruiz at the Ringer, the Rams may need to change up their scheme and ride more Sony Michel and duo inwhich linemen are double teaming directly to the linebacker in front of them. This puts stress on the linebackers which is exactly what the Rams want to do. The Rams did this against Minnesota later in the season.
This helps because the Rams are able to run duo out of 11 personnel as Solak details.
As seen against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, the Rams got more creative in the run game. Despite only finishing with 48 yards, Akers was averaging five yards per carry in the first half. The Rams may need to continue to mix things up and remain creative in the run game this week.
The Bengals are going to ask a lot of their safeties. Bell and Bates are going to be keys in this game as far as how well the Bengals defense performs. If they can force Stafford into a mistake or two, it might just be enough. With that said, if the Rams can open things up in the run game, much like they did against Arizona, they’ll be in good shape.
The Cincinnati defense as a group has played well during the second half of the season and they’ve certainly made plays when they’ve needed to. However, simply dropping seven or eight guys into coverage will be difficult to maintain against the Rams for the main reason that McVay has the running backs and is more willing to run the ball than Andy Reid.
The Bengals will also need to get home with four and get to Stafford as he won’t sit back for 5+ seconds. With the Rams offensive line, doing so on a consistent basis won’t be easy.
This is going to be an interesting matchup for a multitude of reasons. The Bengals had the third-highest defensive spending in the offseason. They have a bunch of guys that are able to adjust and play a multitude of different converges. That’s what makes them difficult. How each side adjusts will decide this game.