As the highly anticipated matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI approaches, there are a plethora of storylines to watch. One, in particular, is the tight end position for each side. In both Championship games on January 30th, C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Higbee, the Bengals and Rams starting tight ends, respectively, each had to exit the field early due to MCL sprains.
On last week’s 33rd Team Huddle, Dr. Jessica Flynn, a Sports Medicine Physician, spoke about these players’ injuries. explaining that “it’s a similar injury for both tight ends.” Although these players may not get the spotlight that other position groups are receiving before the Super Bowl, both serve integral roles on their teams.
Beginning with the Bengals, Dr. Flynn viewed the starting tight end’s sprain with a bit more uncertainty.
“With [Uzomah’s] injury, that’s a little more thought-provoking, is there more going on?” She went on to add that Uzomah’s injury might have affected more than just his MCL despite the team only citing this ligament in their report.
The Bengals use multiple tight end personnel groupings more often than the Rams, accounting for about 21.4% of their offensive plays. 18.5% of their total plays are run in 12 personnel, yet 69% of these have resulted in rushes. While in 12 personnel, backup Drew Sample has been on the field for every snap this season. However, Sample has not been a vital piece in the passing game, only racking up 12 catches on 16 targets for 85 yards. He finished the AFC Championship game with just one catch on two targets for 4 yards.
Thankfully for the Bengals, Sample has starting experiencing having served in that role after Uzomah tore his Achilles last season. The former second-round draft selection recorded 349 receiving yards in relief of Uzomah, so it appears that his lack of receiving numbers this season may be a result of fewer opportunities as the backup. Cincinnati also has Mitchell Wilcox on their roster, but the USF product has only played more than two receiving snaps once in his career — this season’s Week 18 tilt, when the Bengals rested many of their starters.
This season, the Bengals have utilized 13 personnel with all three of their tight ends just 24 times, throwing the ball on 11 of these plays. However, the only tight end of the bunch to snag a pass in these scenarios has been Uzomah. Wilcox has appeared in 12 personnel for 33 snaps this season, but all of which have been with Sample as the other tight end. Additionally, nearly all of the 37 snaps that Wilcox has played in 11 personnel came in the Week 18 matchup or on rushing plays. In essence, he has only appeared when needed and has done so with a minuscule role in the passing game.
This underscores Uzomah’s importance in coach Zac Taylor’s offense, particularly when running 12 personnel. The starting tight end appears to be making progress, as he did a light workout with a trainer on Saturday. Uzomah also was officially listed as questionable on Friday. If he is unable to go, look for Cincinnati to play in 11 personnel at a higher clip than seen previously. Also, when utilizing 12 personnel, expect the Bengals to run the ball at a disproportionately inflated rate than their current 69%.
As for the Rams’ tight end room, their listed players behind Tyler Higbee are Kendall Blanton and Brycen Hopkins. Johnny Mundt was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL, and Jacob Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury just days after. Higbee’s injury may be worse than Uzomah’s as he is officially considered doubtful for the Super Bowl, but Los Angeles’ situation looks a bit more optimistic than this injury report entails.
The Rams have only played multiple tight end personnel groupings on 13.2% of their total offensive plays, and only six times has a tight end caught a pass out of this formation. Higbee has been the recipient of two of these throws while Blanton has caught the four remaining passes. The majority of these plays have been with double-digit leads and on first down, but nonetheless, the Rams have shown a lack of utilization of multiple tight ends in the passing game.
Starting with Kendall Blanton, the former Missouri Tiger has 11 receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown this year — his only season with receiving stats. However, Blanton has racked up most of these stats in his past two games, good for 7 catches for 75 and a first-quarter touchdown to extend LA’s lead to 10 against the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Despite his small sample size, the tight end looks to be trusted by Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay, as he had the third-most receiving yards for the Rams in the NFC Championship game. Another piece to note is that he has the second-highest PFF receiving grade in the past two weeks. It appears that Blanton will have his work cut out for him on Sunday if he is LA’s primary tight end, but he may be up for the challenge.
Brycen Hopkins, the other tight end healthy on the Rams’ roster, was inactive in the NFC Championship game, further showing the team’s lack of interest in using larger tight end personnel groupings. A former fourth-round pick in 2020, Hopkins has just one career reception.
Regardless of whether Higbee is healthy for the Super Bowl, expect Hopkins to be on the active roster alongside Blanton.
Higbee plays a large role in the Rams’ offense, seen as he has been the sole tight end on the field in over 70% of the total offensive plays for Los Angeles. But Blanton seems to be a capable option should the Rams turn to him as their starter. If Higbee is indeed out for the Super Bowl, expect a heavy dose of 11 personnel with Blanton, while 12 personnel should primarily be used for obvious rushing situations.
Another potential ripple in Sean McVay’s gameplay might be using more 10 personnel. This is the third-most utilized personnel grouping for the Rams behind 11 and 12, inserting Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Van Jefferson, and Ben Skowronek into the lineup together. Skowronek has earned more than half of their receiving yards out of this personnel grouping with high levels of attention being paid to Kupp and Beckham.
Referencing the injuries to Uzomah and Higbee, Dr. Flynn believes, “Whether or not they can play or whether or not they’re able to be effective on the field is really going to depend on how significant their injury was and what other injuries, if any, there are.” Although Uzomah is listed as questionable currently and Higbee has a doubtful designation, this might not be fully indicative of whether they’ll play come Sunday. Dr. Flynn added “It’s really too early… I think we’ll start to know a little bit more during the second Super Bowl practice week.”
When asked how these tight ends may play differently should either or both participate in Super Bowl LVI, Dr. Flynn said “It’s certainly something that can affect their level of play… quick cutting or any type of lateral movement could be a problem.”
Former NFL tight end Jake Butt also chimed in, explaining, “When you sprain your MCL, [the knee] feels loose… there are certain routes in the route tree where you have to really snap down and feel confident that you can decelerate, reaccelerate, put your knee in the right angles to hit the right direction coming out of your breaks.
“Even with the tape and the brace, it’s a mental thing where my knee feels loose; I don’t know if I trust myself to play at the level I know I’m capable of.”
Only time will tell whether Uzomah or Higbee will suit up in Sunday’s game with everything on the line, but it’s fair to assume each is working tirelessly to give themselves the best chance possible to do so.
All statistics provided by PFF via TruMedia