LOS ANGELES -- The Cincinnati Bengals defense has stepped up its game in the cauldron of the playoffs, smothering opponents in the second half of games in the team's march toward Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Bengals allowed just six second-half points in their wild-card win over the Las Vegas Raiders, including a game-sealing interception in the final seconds. In the Divisional Round, the unit gave up 10 second-half points and intercepted Ryan Tannehill twice in those two quarters, including a pick that set up the game-winning field goal.
The AFC Championship Game was a magnum opus, with the Bengals shutting down Patrick Mahomes and the high-powered Chiefs offense, holding them to just three points and six first downs while forcing two INTs on seven drives in the second half and overtime.
"It's just football. You're just going to keep chopping wood, we always say that," Sam Hubbard said Friday at the team's final availability ahead of the Super Bowl. "First- and second-quarter sacks are cool, but the ones in the third and fourth quarter are legendary and change the outcomes of games. A lot of times, you don't have success early in games as far as getting to quarterbacks, but you keep going for four quarters. Guys are going to wear down, opportunities are going to come. And those plays you make at the end of the game really matter."
The Bengals marry their pressure with a smothering secondary that has given offenses fits, particularly in the second half of games. Credit goes to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who has made adjustments in games to help flummox quarterbacks. In the AFC Championship Game, Anarumo dropped additional players into coverage in the second half, which helped grind the Chiefs' offense to a halt.
"I think we all rise to the occasion on defense as far as making plays when we need to. We have a really good understanding of the defense," Hubbard said. "There are defenses that might be not in the game plan that might benefit us depending on how the game is going, and we'll call those, and we have very smart players on defense and go out and execute them."
One big key to the Bengals' defense has been the front four, which allows Cincy to cause pressure without sending extra men on the blitz. The Bengals' 21.1% blitz rate is fifth-lowest in the NFL this season, and their 27.6% QB pressure rate when sending four or fewer rushers is seventh-highest (including playoffs), per Next Gen Stats.
Trey Hendrickson has been a beast, earning 16.5 sacks in 2021, including the playoffs (14 in the regular season). On his way to being the Bengals' greatest free-agent acquisition ever, Hendrickson led the NFL with an 18.6% QB pressure rate (minimum 300 pass rushes) and 88 QB pressures (including playoffs), per Next Gen Stats.
"He's been incredibly important, just what he brings to the table, his intensity, his pass-rush ability," Hubbard said of Hendrickson. "I love playing across from him. He gets his side. I get my side, and we hold it down, and that's how we play ball."
The Bengals' front four will play a crucial role on Super Bowl Sunday against Matthew Stafford and the Rams.
Like all quarterbacks, Stafford struggles versus pressure. When pressured nine or more times in a game this season (including playoffs), the Rams QB has a 48.5 passer rating and has thrown six INTs. Stafford has been pressured nine-plus times in nine of the last 12 games (including playoffs) after having no such games in the first eight contests of the 2021 season.
But the key to beating Stafford is generating pressure with only four. The Rams QB has eaten the blitz alive this season. His 138.4 passer rating versus the blitz this season (minimum 75 attempts) is the highest by any QB in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).
Led by Hendrickson, Hubbard, D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill, the Bengals have shown they have the horses to get pressure without additional rushers. Hubbard (11 pressures), Hendrickson (nine), and Hill (nine) all rank top-seven in the NFL in QB pressures this postseason.
"Make sure we're pushing the pocket and make them make tough throws into tough windows," Reader said. "And we trust those guys on the back end they're going to do their jobs. No one is trying to do too much, everybody is trying to do their job."
The Bengals run defense has been a stalwart this season, ranking fifth in the NFL. Against a Sean McVay offense that wants to establish the run early, that unit will be fundamental to how the game unfolds on Sunday.
"Just as important as every week," Hubbard said. "Stopping the run, getting them to drop back, pass the ball -- that's our game plan."
If the Bengals can make the Rams one-dimensional, it would allow Hendrickson and Hubbard to pin their ears back and get after Stafford, just as they did to Mahomes, Tannehill and Derek Carr.