They’ll be back. It’s a sentence often uttered in the waning seconds of a Super Bowl about the team in the unfortunate position of coming out on the losing end, but it is regularly not based in reality.
With their victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, the Los Angeles Rams became the fifth team since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002 to lose a Super Bowl and eventually come back to win it all.
They followed in the footsteps of the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles. It took eight seasons for the Seahawks to achieve the feat after losing in Super Bowl XL while the Eagles franchise needed over a decade to banish their Super Bowl XXXIX demons and lift the Lombardi Trophy for the first time with an entirely different staff and group of players.
Though the Bengals appear excellently positioned to contend again in the near future having clearly found their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, returning to the grandest stage may be a more challenging task for Cincinnati than it sounds on the surface.
The Bengals reside in an extremely challenging AFC loaded with quarterback talent that, barring injury, is there to stay for the long term. Still, as they look to shake off the pain of letting a fourth-quarter lead slip, there are several changes Cincinnati can make to expedite the process of reaching the Super Bowl for the fourth time.
Almost all the offseason attention will be on an offensive line that collapsed in the second half after initially holding Aaron Donald and Co. in check and allowed Joe Burrow to be sacked a league-high 51 times in 2021.
But there are other personnel and schematic changes that need to be made for the Bengals to put themselves in the best position to join the select group of modern-era teams to have bounced back after falling at the final hurdle.
Quickening Things Up
For a team with a head coach from the Sean McVay tree, the Bengals’ passing attack has diverged significantly from that offense, operating with more reliance on aggressive downfield throws than the kind of quick passing game that has helped McVay and Kyle Shanahan succeed in the NFL.
Burrow ranked ninth in the NFL in Intended Air Yards per attempt, per the NFL’s NextGen Stats, with an average of 8.3, while only three quarterbacks, according to FantasyPros, had more attempts of 20 yards or more than the Bengals quarterback’s 60.
Cincinnati’s aggressive approach to the passing game allowed Burrow to average 8.9 yards per attempt, however, when the Bengals needed the easy completions in Super Bowl LVI, they found them extremely difficult to produce.
Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Stats, the Bengals averaged minus 0.32 Expected Points Added on plays where Burrow had fewer than 2.5 seconds to throw against the Rams. His average depth of target on such throws was just 3.8 yards and he averaged only 5.2 yards per attempt.
When the pressure is at its highest, a quarterback needs the ‘gimme’ throws that can keep the offense moving ahead of the chains. Too rarely has Burrow had such throws at his disposal during his brief NFL career and, beyond improving the offensive line, the Bengals must establish a more effective quick game if they are to ease the burden on the face of the franchise in 2022.
Faith in the Play-fake
Though the move away from the tenets of McVay offense may well have been a case of Taylor adapting his attack to the skill set of his offensive weapons, the numbers suggest the Bengals would be well served by relying more regularly on play-action, long since a key feature of the Shanahan-McVay offense that has rapidly proliferated around the NFL.
Burrow ranked 29th in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference, for pass attempts off play-action with just 75 in 2021. However, those pass attempts went for 807 yards, a gaudy average of 10.76 yards per play.
With the game on the line, the Rams succeeded in shutting down the Bengals’ rushing attack, stuffing Samaje Perine on third and one as Cincinnati drove late in the fourth quarter to try to at least force overtime.
Yet Joe Mixon has averaged over four yards per carry in three of his last four seasons and, though increasingly accepted convention is that you do not need a productive run game to successfully execute play-action, the Bengals have the bonus of a back who has typically moved the ball well on the ground.
That makes their reticence to turn to the play-action game even more bewildering. Between the weapons they have at receiver and the threat they possess in the backfield, the Bengals could consistently put opposing defenses in a significant bind by using that aspect of the offensive gameplan more regularly.
Taylor has moved away somewhat from the principles of the scheme he learned under McVay in 2018 but his quarterback’s life could well be made easier with a greater emphasis on a tried and trusted element of that offense.
Strengthening the Secondary
The Bengals may spend much of the offseason how they can better position themselves to exploit opposing secondaries, yet some focus should also be placed on the vulnerability of their own.
Since the merger, only two safeties have registered more pass breakups in a single postseason than the six Jessie Bates III racked up during these playoffs. While he and Vonn Bell impressed, the Bengals’ lack of cornerback depth was unquestionably exposed.
For as much as the Bengals’ defense impressed throughout the 2021 campaign, being in a situation where Cincinnati had to leave Eli Apple one on one with Cooper Kupp ultimately proved the Bengals’ undoing on defense when they needed a stop in the fourth quarter.
With Apple allowing 12.8 yards per completion, his most since 2019, and giving up three touchdowns in the regular season, it is tough not to conclude that the Bengals require help in the secondary.
Mike Hilton proved an astute addition in the slot, while – per PFR – Chidobe Awuzie was ninth among all cornerbacks with 5.4 yards per target allowed in 2021.
But the cold, hard truth is that the Bengals were on the wrong end of two mismatches in the Super Bowl, with Donald making the most of his advantage against a sub-par offensive line and Kupp victimizing Apple on a game-winning drive that will live in Super Bowl lore.
Once the Bengals settle on their approach to ensure Burrow progresses further, they should turn attention to addressing a cornerback group that could be a significant hurdle to their hopes of a swift Super Bowl return if it is not improved.