The grand finale of the biggest season in NFL history in just hours a way. After 21 (!) weeks of games and a week off after the conference championships, Super Bowl Sunday kicks off. It will be the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals who will compete for the right to qualify as champions for the 2021 season.
As always, we’re here to break down the game. But first, here’s how you can watch the Super Bowl on Sunday night.
How to watch
Dated: Sunday February 13 | Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Site: SoFi Stadium (Inglewood, CA)
TV: BNC | Flux: fuboTV (try for free)
Spread: Rams -4, O/U 48.5
When the Rams have the ball
Los Angeles’ attack goes through Cooper Kupp, who is nearly impossible to cover. He’s arguably in the midst of the greatest wide receiver season of all time, having trailed his regular season haul of 145 catches, 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns with 25 catches for 386 yards and four touchdowns in the three games of the Rams through NFC. .
Kupp lines up in the slot most often (63.2% of his runs, according to Tru Media), making Bengals cornerback Mike Hilton one of the most important players on the field. You don’t necessarily think of Kupp as a physically imposing presence, but the height advantage he (6-2, 208 lbs) has over Hilton (5-9, 184 lbs) could come into play here, especially on the games where Matthew Stafford is ready to throw into traffic. Of course, the Bengals play mostly zone coverage, so Hilton will get help from safeties and linebackers for that mission. But it’s not like other teams haven’t tried this all year. Kupp rips it anyway.
All the attention devoted to Kupp should leave plenty of one-on-one opportunities for Odell Beckham Jr. and Van Jefferson on the outside. As we covered in our X-factor breakdown earlier this week, how Jessie Bates III and Von Bell handle Beckham’s back dig could play a huge role in this game.
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has done a good job of tailoring coverage plans for opponents throughout this season, relying on his veteran-laden defense to be able to handle all types of looks. The Bengals over the past two offseasons have broken with tradition and actually spent the money on outside free agents, and coming away with the likes of Bell, Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple at fullback has helped diversify the defense.
Bengals weekly coverage splits
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The most money, however, was spent on the defensive front. This is where the Bengals landed Trey Hendrickson, along with DJ Reader and Larry Ogunjobi, among others. Cincinnati’s ability to get pressure without blitzing is what propelled its run through the playoffs, and the Bengals will have to do it again in the Super Bowl. During the regular season, the Bengals had the fourth-lowest blitz rate in the NFL (22%). In the playoffs, they cut it even further, only sending extra rushers 17% of the time.
That’s a good thing, because you really don’t want to blitz Stafford. Like always. He completed 93 of 130 passes for 1,294 yards, 16 touchdowns and just one interception against the blitz in the regular season. It was good for a league-best 139.6 passer rating, and he ranked second in expected points added per flashback, behind only Patrick Mahomes. (The Bengals notably didn’t blitz Mahomes very often in the AFC title game. It was a big part of their game plan.)
Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard rushing against Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein should be a fun game to watch. Cincinnati ends aren’t the nervous guys who yell around the corner and head for the quarterback. They are power and effort type rushers who maintain good discipline in the lane and keep working and working until they put the setter down.
It remains to be seen how the Rams will distribute their work on the field. For the first time this season, they should have each of Cam Akers, Sony Michel and Darrell Henderson active. Henderson was the bell cow at the start of the season. Michel took over at the end of the year. Akers absorbed almost all the work by the time the Rams got to the divisional round, but he wasn’t very effective and ended up splitting the work with Michel in the conference title game after a back injury. shoulder at the start of the game. Los Angeles’ offense is often at its best when it can marry the running with the passing game, and the Bengals have been a little weak on the field the latter part of the year. The Rams haven’t run well lately, but if they can change that here, that would be a big plus.
When the Bengals have the ball
The big goal on this side of the ball is the game in the trenches. As we wrote in our X-factor breakdown:
The three most important players in this game could be Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins and Hakeem Adeniji. It’s the trio that will be largely tasked with dealing with the destructive force of Aaron Donald’s game within. It’s also the weakest part of the Bengals’ offense, which we’ve seen come into play throughout this postseason. Spain and Adeniji ranked 62nd and 57th, respectively, in ESPN’s pass block completion rate among 63 qualified guards this season, while Hopkins ranked 26th out of 32 qualifying centers.
Joe Burrow was the NFL’s most sacked quarterback in the regular season. It’s not all about the offensive line, of course. Burrow was only pressured at the league’s 16th-highest rate, but his pressures turned into sacks at the NFL’s third-highest rate, behind only Baker Mayfield and Ben Roethlisberger. But his pressure rate went up a bit during the playoffs, and his pressure sack rate stayed pretty much the same.
We saw how an inside rush could beat inside Cincinnati’s offensive line in the Divisional Round, when Jeffery Simmons destroyed the Bengals’ pass protection. Burrow has been sacked nine times, with Simmons picking up three of those eliminations. Simmons is a great player, but he’s not as dangerous as Donald. Donald has a playoff-high 16 pressures, and had a sack, hit or rush on 14% of his pass-rush snaps during the playoffs. This is the highest rate among interior defenders by a significant margin.
All of that is a big deal for Cincinnati, and of course, Donald isn’t the only problem the Rams present up front. There is also the question of Von Miller and Leonard Floyd coming to the edges. Jonah Williams and Isaiah Prince will have their hands full with this duo. The Bengals generally don’t like to keep a tight end or come back to help block passes, largely because Burrow prefers to have as many receivers on the roads as possible. If that’s the tact they adopt at the Super Bowl, the Bengals’ fate could very well hinge on how well he calibrates his internal clock.
Another major question is how the Rams plan to deploy Jalen Ramsey. He hasn’t traditionally tracked opposing receivers this season, although the Rams have made some exceptions for bigger receivers as No. 2 corner Darious Williams is very light. Ramsey trailed Mike Evans for most of the Divisional Round game, for example. Tee Higgins is actually a little bigger (6-4, 215 pounds) than Ja’Marr Chase (6-1, 200 pounds), but the rookie is playing bigger than his size. The smart bet is for Ramsey to play his star position (slot) in early downs when the Bengals might be more likely to run the ball, and tangle with the wide which the Rams see as the biggest threat when Cincinnati enters second and long or third down situations.
Opponents have been willing to test Williams throughout the playoffs, and the size advantages held by Higgins and Chase, combined with Burrow’s eagerness to throw the ball downfield, could lead to some deep shots. The most vulnerable area of the Rams defense, however, is usually short and down the middle. This is where Tyler Boyd does most of his work and where Joe Mixon can be a threat during testing.
LA’s defensive shell structure often works to trick opponents into running the ball more often than they should. Zac Taylor has shown his willingness to do just that throughout the season, right up to and including during the AFC title game, when the Bengals kept kicking the ball down the line on first downs for little of footage, then asked Burrow to bail them out later in the playoffs. He was able to do this because the defense found a way to silence his opponent, but that’s not necessarily a winning strategy.
Cincinnati Bengals +4.5
Prediction: Rams 26, Bengals 23