We are finally knocking on the doorstep of Super Bowl LVI, a showdown that promises to be a matchup between two dynamic offenses, a pair of talented defenses, and the two youngest head coaches in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals are two teams I have covered a multitude of times in my NFL Matchup pieces (related pieces can be found at the conclusion of this piece). My film analysis of the Super Bowl will be based on the tape from these two teams this season.
When teams have two weeks to prepare for a game, there will certainly be tweaks made to previous tendencies and personnel, but these are purely speculative until kickoff. I don’t speculate adjustments that teams will make in preparation as there is no way to definitely know. Below is what I’ve seen throughout 2021 and how it applies to this game.
Los Angeles Rams Offense vs. Cincinnati Bengals Defense
The Rams ran a significant amount of 11 personnel this season along with frequent use of empty sets and selective use of no-huddle. Los Angeles used the highest percentage of 11 personnel in the league this year and led the NFL in empty sets by a wide margin. Cincinnati predominantly plays a single-high safety defense with a good mix of man and zone coverage (Cover One and Cover Three); the Bengals do implement meaningful snaps of split safety looks as well.
Sean McVay’s offense has been particularly effective against man defense in 2021 for two main reasons: his usage of formations and motions. The Rams are very adept at using bunch and stack formations, while their use of motion allows free access for the receiver in motion. Their foundational receiver locations predominantly have Odell Beckham Jr. as their boundary X receiver, Van Jefferson as their Z (movement) receiver, and Cooper Kupp as their slot receiver. However, as teams get into the playoffs, they tend to do different things. In the NFC Championship game, Kupp scored a 16-yard touchdown against the 49ers on a corner route where he was aligned as the boundary X receiver.
One of the pivotal matchups will be Bengals slot cornerback Mike Hilton covering Kupp. Among the best slot corners in the league, Hilton will have his hands full with a difficult assignment. The Rams run crossing routes very well and are good at working the middle of the field. They are exceptional at running high-low concepts against zone coverage – especially between the numbers. Los Angeles will have a tight end run a route 8-10 yards deep, forcing the underneath defender on that side to sit on the route. Kupp or Jefferson will then run an in-breaking route behind the tight end into the vacated area.
In the AFC Championship, Cincinnati deployed safety Vonn Bell as a robber in order to cut off Kansas City’s crossing routes. He sat in the middle of the field, 12-15 yards back from the line of scrimmage, and matched up on crossing routes that came his way. Bell came down against Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ran his routes either from the slot as the #2 receiver or the inside slot in trips formations. Kupp and the Rams run similar deep over routes, and it will be interesting to see if Bell is deployed as a robber to match up to tendency routes by the offense. The biggest questions for the Bengals defense will be how often they use single-high safety looks as opposed to split safety looks, what percentage of zone coverage will they play in contrast to man coverage, and how often will they show pressure looks with five or more rushers?
Cincinnati Bengals Offense vs. Los Angeles Rams Defense
Among the biggest decisions the Bengals will have to make on offense will be their balance between 11 and 12 personnel. In the AFC Championship, running back Joe Mixon had 21 rushes – 16 of which came on first down, and of those first down rushes, 11 came out of 12 personnel. The Rams match up to 12 personnel with their base front, which is a 5-2 alignment. Their 5-2 front features Von Miller and Leonard Floyd on the edge, Aaron Donald and A’Shawn Robinson as interior defensive lineman, Greg Gaines as the nose tackle, and Troy Reeder & Ernest Jones as the two stacked linebackers. This group has proven to be hard to run against this season, as Los Angeles gave up the fifth-fewest yards per carry and the second-fewest runs of over 20 yards this season.
When the Bengals run out of 11 personnel, the Rams will counter with one of their two main nickel fronts. Their 5-1 front is the same as their 5-2 front but has seen Reeder remain on the field as the only stacked linebacker. However, prior to missing a few weeks and returning for the NFC Championship game, Jones had been operating as the lone linebacker in 5-1 alignments. With Jones healthy for the Super Bowl and being more athletic than Reeder, will we see him return to his role as the lone stacked linebacker?
Los Angeles’ other nickel front is a 4-2 alignment, with Robinson exiting the field. In the games Jones has missed, Reeder has been joined by Travin Howard in the second level. Jones could certainly make his way into this alignment as well, replacing Howard. Gaines and Robinson have played very well the past few weeks, flashing the ability to dominate at times. On the first play of the NFC Championship, Robinson shed tight end George Kittle’s block and stuck Deebo Samuel at the point of attack to stop him for no gain. Cincinnati’s run game is built on mid zone and outside zone runs, which suits Mixon’s ability to be a great cutback runner. The burden will be on the Rams to stay disciplined in their gaps and avoid over-pursuing at the risk of opening up cutback lanes for him.
There has been plenty of buzz about a marquee matchup between Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Despite this, based on a season’s worth of film, we know Ramsey was rarely used as a man-to-man matchup cornerback. Los Angeles played among the lowest percentage of Cover One man-to-man with a single high safety and is not a high frequency Cover One defense; however, the Rams are a high percentage zone defense. It is certainly possible that changes for this game, and Ramsey is matched up consistently on Chase – especially when he is aligned to the short side of the field as the boundary X receiver. However, Los Angeles’ track record doesn’t lead to a constant man-to-man battle being a guarantee at all.
If the Rams want to line up Ramsey on Chase when he is the boundary X receiver, they will have to be in Cover One unless they want to play zero man to that side (meaning no safety help at all). Cover One would leave Ramsey’s cornerback teammate Darious Williams matched up on Bengals receiver Tee Higgins, who has a seven-inch height advantage. Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is an aggressive thrower of the football and will take a shot when he sees a one-on-one matchup for Chase as the boundary X receiver or Higgins as the #1 wideout to trips and aligned outside the numbers. This is why the Williams/Higgins matchup may be a concern for the Rams and one that the Bengals will look to exploit.
The Rams could try to mitigate this mismatch by committing to Cover Zero and having Ramsey matched up purely man-to-man with Chase. They could then rush four, have one defender responsible for the running back, push the rest of the defense to the trips side of the formation while playing a 5 over 3 box zone on the wide side of the field. Chase is much more of a matchup receiver than a scheme receiver. Because he is predominantly on the short side of the field as the boundary X receiver, he runs a lot of individual isolation routes and has to win against his cornerback, as opposed to running routes in conjunction with other receivers.
On the back end, the Rams played among the highest percentage of dime coverage in the league until safety Taylor Rapp went down with an injury; post-Rapp, they’ve played very little dime. With Rapp seemingly on track to play, the Rams may go back to playing more dime defense and have added depth at safety with their signing of Eric Weddle prior to the playoffs. Weddle played every snap but two in the past two weeks, including every snap in the NFC Championship, and led the Rams in tackles against the 49ers in that game. He is a phenomenal add-in defender in the run game, with a great feel for fronts, gaps, and where to fill in. With Rapp out, Weddle has operated as the box safety with Nick Scott as the post safety. Weddle could still get plenty of playing time, even with Rapp healthy.
The biggest mismatch on the field will be the Bengals’ offensive line trying to tame Los Angeles’ pass rush. Cincinnati will have to devise how to compensate and camouflage this weakness, as they can’t ask Burrow to drop back 45 times by choice and not every throw can be a quick game throw. This is where Mixon & the run game will be crucial from a volume and production standpoint.
In long-yardage situations, particularly on third downs, the Bengals will line up their tight end in the backfield along with a running back offset to the other side. However, if they are lined up in pass protection, they are not immediate receiving threats and Cincinnati has just three primary receivers on the play. This automatically gives the defense the numbers advantage, which makes offense even more challenging.
For an idea of how and when Cincinnati will look to push the ball – I expect them to be aggressive on first downs – we can look back at their first offensive play of the AFC Championship’s third quarter. In 12 personnel, the Bengals had called a seven-man max-protection with Chase running a vertical route and Higgins running an intermediate out route. With double teams on three of four pass rushers, including both defensive tackles, Burrow found Higgins off play-action for a 44-yard gain downfield. Even if the Rams rush from their 5-2 front, max protection looks will give the Bengals seven blockers for five pass rushers.
The crucial question in the game is when and how will the Bengals look for intermediate and vertical plays in the passing game? If they are able to protect Burrow and move the ball downfield via explosive plays, they have a good shot at winning this game.
Thank you so much for reading my NFL Matchup pieces this season, and please check out the pieces below for more on the Rams & Bengals.
For previous NFL Matchup pieces about this weekend’s teams, click below.
Read more about how Cincinnati’s Super Bowl X-Factors here, how Ja’Marr Chase has thrived in this scheme here, how their offense has dominated throughout the season here, and how Joe Mixon has been an elite running back this season here.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story