Rams hoped to be crowned Super Bowl Champs on Sunday
February 10, 2022
The only question remaining is: Can the Los Angeles Rams deliver the Lombardi Trophy for the very first time to the City of Angels? Head coach Sean McVay and the Rams will get their second shot at the Super Bowl in four years with their focus clearly on the prize. Favored by 4.5 points heading into Super Bowl LVI, only the Cincinnati Bengals led by their rising star quarterback Joe Burrow stand in the Rams' way of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in their state-of-the-art house, SoFi Stadium.
The first Super Bowl played between two teams not seeded in the top three of their respective Conferences when the Playoffs started, will likely boil down to who can control the line of scrimmage. On face value the Rams appear to have the edge on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. There are also the obvious comparisons between the two quarterbacks, 13-year veteran Matthew Stafford playing in his first season with the Rams and Burrow, playing in only his second NFL season.
The most talked about match-up has been whether the Bengals offensive line can withstand the pressure they are going to encounter from the Rams defensive front, led by 4-time Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Perhaps no single player will have more of an impact on the outcome of the game than Donald, already in the conversation as the greatest interior defensive lineman in league history.
Despite being double and even triple-teamed, Donald became only the fourth player to record at least eight quarterback sacks for eight consecutive seasons. Whether analysts use official NFL stats, ESPN / NFL Next Gen Stats or Pro Football Focus position analytic grades, Donald is usually Donald off the charts compared to every defensive tackle in the league. This is emphasized by ESPN Sports analytic writer Seth Walder who tweeted: "I'll say the same thing I say every time: Aaron Donald is ridiculous."
Donald on facing the Bengals offensive line: "We're locked in to do what we need to do. I'm confident in the players we got, but at the same time, that might amp them up and get them ready. But we'll be ready, too. They're where they're at for a reason. Obviously, the guys up front helped do that. They're playing in the Super Bowl just like I am and like we are. So, my mindset is to just go out there, trying to dominate for four quarters and trying to find a way to affect the game.
The Bengals offensive line of Jonah Williams, Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins, Hakeem Adeniji, and Isaiah Prince is a clear improvement over last season. However, during the regular season they ranked 30th in blocking and have been very inconsistent in the playoffs. Burrow was sacked nine times in the remarkable Division playoff win over the Tennessee Titans. They turned it around in their comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, allowing only one quarterback sack.
The Rams also have defensive players Leonard Floyd, Greg Gaines and A'Shawn Robinson, not to mention future Hall of Fame edge rusher Von Miller, the MVP of Super Bowl 50 in 2016. Acquired in a trade from the Denver Broncos in November, Miller has upgraded his game back to prime status over the past two months with the Rams. Since then, he has registered seven quarterback sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 10 quarterback hits in the last seven games.
Despite the numbers, Cincinnati can try to improve their chances by increasing the frequency of running plays on first down, along with Burrow reducing the time to throw to his very talented wide receivers before the Rams defensive linemen penetrates the pocket. Running back Joe Mixon led the Bengals in rushing for the season with 1,205 yards while scoring 13 rushing and three receiving touchdowns. In postseason he rushed for 88 yards on 21 carries against the Chiefs after getting only 102 total yards on 31 carries in the previous two Playoff games.
Leading the Bengals' receiving corps is rookie sensation Ja'Marr Chase who finished fourth in the league with 1,455 total yards on 81 receptions and finished first in yards after catch. Complimenting Chase is Tee Higgins who finished with 1,091 total yards on 74 catches. Notable is that with Burrow, the three Bengal offensive stars are all under 25-years old. The most anticipated match-up will be when Rams corner-back Jalen Ramsey lines up against Chase.
"Even though he's (Chase) only been in the league one year he's done really well... I've never played him. He's never played me. It's going to be an exciting match-up for sure. I know I'm going to be ready for it," said Ramsey, who had the highest ranking for corner-backs this season. Whoever you think their best man is, put me on him... when the paths come along and we get under the lights on Sunday, it ain't no more talking. We're going to have to play. I feel like we have a good game plan. I know we're going to play confident."
Despite all the hype about Burrow, Stafford has been more efficient in his numbers during the playoffs. Burrow has completed 75 of 109 passes for 742 yards, thrown four touchdowns and two interceptions. Stafford has completed 72 of 100 passes for 905 yards, six touchdown passes and only one interception. He was sacked only five times in three Playoff games while Burrow was sacked 12 times. The Rams offensive line, one of the league's best when they have all five starters available, gives Stafford the pocket advantage. Burrow's running capability gives him the edge in that phase.
Along with Stafford, Rams wide receivers, Cooper Kupp, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and Odell Beckham, Jr. pose the greatest challenge to the Bengals defense. Kupp has redefined the role of the wide receiver by combining execution with his football I.Q. The same could be said of O.B.J., who raised the standard of the wide receiver position from his very first year in the league.
Since being signed as a free-agent from the Cleveland Browns in November, he has been a model teammate and his chemistry with Stafford was exemplified during the NFC Championship win over the San Francisco 49ers. He had his best game as a Ram with nine catches on 11 targets for 139 yards while extending drives during the crucial fourth quarter comeback. During the same game, Kupp doubled-down on his Triple Crown receiving season with 11 catches on 14 targets for 142 yards and two touchdown receptions.
The running back position is another weapon the Rams expect to exploit on Sunday with the news that Darrell Henderson could be back in the lineup after sustaining an MCL condition in Week 16. He will be joining Cam Akers, who returned recently from an Achilles injury suffered in August; and Sony Michel, the Rams unsung hero who carried much of the load in the backfield since he was acquired in August right after Akers injury.
McVay had this to say about Akers. "He's just one of those guys who brings a spark to this team. He's got great ability. I think his upside is phenomenal and he's going to be a core piece of our team for years to come. One of my favorite things about him was is that if there was anybody who was going to respond the right way after a couple of times putting the ball on the ground against the Bucs, it was Cam."
"He's going to be a big part of this game and hopefully we'll be able to establish the run game and when the ball is in his hands good things happen. I think Sony's been outstanding, Darrell's been healthy... Being able to get Sony ready in a short amount of time with the contributions he's made. He's a real credit to that room and Thomas Brown (Running backs / assistant head coach) leading the way.
The match-up between Sean McVay and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is one of familiarity. Taylor was on McVay's staff in 2017 as the Assistant Wide Receivers coach and in 2018 as the Quarterbacks coach, the season they both went to Super Bowl LIII while losing to the New England Patriots, 13-3. Taylor, in his third year leading the Bengals, has completely turned the franchise around. They improved from 2-14 in 2019 to 4-11-1 in 2020 to 10-7 this season. Cincinnati improved from being ranked 30th in points scored in 2019 to 8th this season. Defensively, they improved to 17th overall from 25th, but that's still a concern for team.
"Number one, I have tremendous respect for Zac. He's a good friend. He was a big part of a lot of things that were good about the Ram. He's just got a great way about himself, a high capacity for the game, an amazing ability to connect and communicate with the players, and you see that mental toughness," said McVay.
"They've done a great job of being able to acquire players... and they've got key players that have been great in those crunch moments. And that's why they're AFC Champs. That's why they're getting ready to play in the Super Bowl on Sunday."
One last advantage for the Rams could be the presence of wide receiver Robert Woods, whose season ended with a torn ACL during a Friday practice in November, and ironically coinciding with the Rams signing Beckham, Jr. the previous day. "He's a huge piece to this team. Leadership, but just not the leadership what he's able to do on the football field. So, losing him was big," said Aaron Donald.
"Obviously losing him, it hurt it, but we found a way to stay strong and find a way to get to this point where we're at right now. And all we got to do is finish it off. We'll all be holding a ring and be World Champions. We're not just doing it for me or Matt Stafford or just Big Whit, we do this for Robert Woods, as well."