Next Gen Stats research & analytics maven Mike Band crunches the numbers on five crucial matchups for Super Bowl LVI. Who holds the advantage: Cincinnati Bengals or Los Angeles Rams? Check out the answers below.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Bengals' quick passing game vs. Rams' pass defense
The quick passing game presents a ripe opportunity for the Bengals to lean on an offensive scheme that negates the effect of the Rams' pass rush, plays to the strengths of Joe Burrow and his talented receivers, and targets a weakness of Los Angeles' defense as a whole. Burrow has excelled when getting rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds this season, finishing the regular season ranked second among 31 qualified quarterbacks in yards per attempt on such throws (7.4).
Rams opponents have routinely employed the quick passing game against Los Angeles this season, and rightfully so. The Rams' defense features three players who finished among the top 17 in total quarterback pressures during the regular season: Aaron Donald (64, sixth), Leonard Floyd (58, tied for ninth) and Von Miller (52, 17th). Quick passes not only limit Donald and Co.'s ability to change the game with pressure, but also serve as an attack against a weakness of L.A.'s defense. The Rams allowed the most yards after the catch (1,420) and third-most yards per attempt (6.8) against passes under 2.5 seconds during the regular season.
The main beneficiary when the Bengals go quick-game heavy? You guessed it: Ja'Marr Chase. The rookie phenom currently leads the team in receptions on quick passes entering Super Bowl LVI (61), and has amassed nearly twice as many receiving yards (839) as his next-closest teammate (Tee Higgins, 422).
Bengals' vertical passing game vs. Rams' pass defense
Led by Burrow, Chase and Higgins, the Bengals' vertical passing game has been essential to the success of the offense throughout their Super Bowl run. Burrow went from throwing a single touchdown pass when targeting a go route across 10 rookie starts to leading the league in Year 2 with 12 (Chase accounted for seven of them). The success of Cincy's downfield attack on Super Bowl Sunday, however, will only go as far (or long) as the offensive line can hold its blocks against one of the most talented D-line groups in the NFL.
Let's start on the perimeter. Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has a big decision to make. Will L.A. stick Jalen Ramsey on Chase? How about Higgins? Bengals slot receiver Tyler Boyd told reporters last week that the team does not expect Ramsey to exclusively shadow a specific receiver. The numbers support this notion, as Ramsey has not lined up against a specific receiver on more than 65 percent of a receiver's routes in a single game this season. In 2020, Ramsey frequently shadowed top receivers, including in six of his last nine games to end the season.
The Bengals' offensive strategy throughout the game is likely to correlate (and evolve) with the score in the following way: If it's close, look for Cincinnati to call a bevy of quick pass attempts to reduce pressure and the likelihood of turnovers, control the clock and attack the defense's weakness. If the Rams jump out to an early lead, though, a more aggressive strategy will be needed, Burrow will be more inclined to take risky shots downfield, and the L.A. defense will have opportunities to generate pressure and create turnovers. Keeping Burrow clean in the pocket in those situations will be critical for the Bengals to mount any sort of comeback, should it be warranted.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp & Co. vs. Bengals' secondary
The acquisition of Stafford in a trade with the Lions just over one year ago cost the Rams two future first-round picks, a 2021 third-rounder and Jared Goff. And yet, it would be safe to assume the Rams organization, fans and Kupp all believe the trade has already paid exorbitant dividends in their favor -- and they would be right. After finishing the regular season with the third-highest Next Gen Stats Passing Score among quarterbacks (91), Stafford has been lights out as a passer in the postseason, posting an NGS score of 99 across three playoff games, good enough to vault his full-season mark to a 93, highest among any qualified quarterbacks. Hard to imagine any team would turn down the same trade for the opportunity to play in a Super Bowl at home.
If Stafford is the chicken, Kupp is the egg. That is not to say either caused the other's success; rather, you can't have one without the other. Kupp was the only player across the league to account for more than 30% (31.8) of his team's total targets during the regular season. His impact was most felt on third down, as he picked up a first down on a staggering 17.8% of his third-down routes run this season (including the playoffs), leading the NFL by a comfortable margin. Kupp's success on third down unsurprisingly correlates with Stafford's success in such situations. Add a rejuvenated Odell Beckham Jr. and vertical threat in Van Jefferson into the mix, and the best hope for stopping the Rams through the air is to pray for self-inflicted wounds.
If the Bengals' defense hopes to slow down the Rams' hyper-efficient passing attack, the ball-hawking secondary will have to make plays. Most notably, watch out for safety Jessie Bates. Since the start of the 2020 season, no player in the NFL has forced a higher rate of pass breakups (or interceptions) per target as the nearest defender than Bates (26.1%). Stafford has -- at times -- been careless with the ball this season, tying Trevor Lawrence for the league lead in interceptions (17).
The key for Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his unit? Keep Kupp in front of the defense. Completely shutting down the receiving triple crown winner in the passing game is highly unlikely -- Kupp has amassed at least five receptions and 60 receiving yards in all 21 games this season -- which makes tackling in space a critical part of this game for the Bengals defense. No player gained more yards after the catch during the regular season than the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year.
Andrew Whitworth/Rob Havenstein vs. Trey Hendrickson/Sam Hubbard
Whitworth and Havenstein have manned the left and right tackle positions, respectively, during Sean McVay's five-year tenure as Rams head coach, a rare feat of continuity at one of the most important position groups when it comes to team-building strategy. Across those five seasons, Los Angeles never ranked lower than eighth in the NFL in pressure probability allowed. This season, the Rams' offensive line allowed pressure within three seconds of a dropback just 9.6% of the time, the second-lowest estimate across all groups.
The Rams' stellar pass protection will be tested by a Bengals defensive front that was able to constantly pressure the quarterback without blitzing this season. Cincinnati generated pressure on 31.3% of dropbacks when sending a four-man pass rush, good for fourth in the NFL. The Rams had their hands full in the NFC Championship Game against a similarly-built 49ers pass rush that ranked second in the split, allowing Stafford to be pressured at a season-high rate. The ability to get pressure without sacrificing coverage players will be key against a quarterback who has torched blitzes all season.
The Bengals' edge rushers typically play by side, with Hendrickson aligning on the defense's right and Hubbard the defense's left on over 90% of their snaps. It follows that we can expect Hendrickson to face off against Whitworth and Hubbard against Havenstein. While Havenstein had to deal with the more dangerous pass rusher (Nick Bosa) in the NFC title game, Whitworth will be responsible for Cincy's top pass rusher in the Super Bowl.
Hendrickson had a career year in his first season with the Bengals, generating the fourth-highest single-season pressure rate (19.4 percent) in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016, min. 250 pass rushes). Starting as a situational pass rusher in his first few seasons who made his money on third down, Hendrickson has earned a bigger role with each passing year of his career, developing into a full-on superstar. He has forced 10 turnovers from pressure since 2020 (including playoffs), trailing only Myles Garrett and Shaq Barrett (11). Hendrickson's impact on Cincinnati's defense is jarring -- the Bengals doubled their pressure and sack rates when he was on the field this season compared to plays without him.
THE STRATEGIC MATCHUP
Sean McVay vs. Zac Taylor
A member of the Rams staff when the team last appeared in the Super Bowl three seasons ago, Taylor's offense shares characteristics of McVay's attack, but with some notable differences. And the offenses greatly diverged in how they manufactured scoring drives this season. McVay's offense has had a high floor due to its ability to consistently generate positive pass plays. Meanwhile, Taylor's offense has an immense ceiling with a lower floor, as it has leaned into higher-variance shot plays.
Stafford has slid right into McVay's scheme, making it a well-oiled machine. Los Angeles ranked second in pass success rate (49.1%) and total passing EPA (+104.1) this season. McVay's play designs allowed his QB to consistently find open receivers, as Stafford had the fourth-highest expected completion percentage (67.8%) and targeted open receivers at the seventh-highest rate (48%). This combination of high-level QB play and scheme has given the Rams' offense one of the highest baselines in the NFL.
On the other hand, the Taylor-led Bengals offense -- which ranked 12th among 14 playoff teams in pass success rate (45.6%, 13th overall) -- cannot be characterized by its consistency. Instead, Cincinnati's offense has relied on the home run, generating explosive pass plays at the third-highest rate in the league (17.8%). Whereas Stafford has been more likely to find open receivers, Burrow regularly targets receivers in contested-catch situations, throwing into tight windows at the second-highest rate (19%) this season. As a result, Burrow has been expected to complete his passes at the sixth-lowest rate (64.4%). Fortunately, Burrow and his army of playmakers have demonstrated they can successfully pull off this strategy. Despite his near-bottom expected completion percentage, Burrow led the NFL in actual completion percentage, completing passes over expectation at the highest rate in the NFL (+6.0% CPOE). While the Bengals were less consistent compared to their playoff counterparts, Burrow's play in Taylor's scheme has given the Cincy offense an elite ceiling.
The juxtaposition of these two offenses resembles the dichotomy between some NBA offenses during the three-point revolution. McVay's offensive scheme has frequently opened easier "two-pointers" for Stafford to keep the team on schedule. The result? One of the most efficient and productive offenses in the league. Conversely, Taylor's passing offense has Burrow tossing up more difficult "three-pointers." When hitting these shot plays, the Bengals' offense can reach levels rarely matched by its counterpart on Sunday. In Weeks 16 and 17, Burrow generated the second-most passing EPA in a two-game stretch in the NGS era. However, those shot plays have become scarce in the playoffs, forcing Cincinnati's defense to carry a heavier load. If Taylor's offense is once again unable to hit the high-variance plays, then it will be hard to keep up with a McVay offense that is playing some of its best ball this postseason.