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The Schematic Storylines of the Super Bowl

The Schematic Storylines of the Super Bowl

There are several compelling storylines in this game: Joe Burrow might win a national championship and Super Bowl in a three-year span. Matthew Stafford might win a Super Bowl in his first year out of Detroit. It’s also interesting that just in 2018 Zac Taylor was Sean McVay’s QB coach. However, it’s important to discuss some storylines that you might not hear at media day. Specifically, let’s take a look at what the Bengals and Rams do from a schematic standpoint and how these tendencies and strengths/weaknesses affect the matchup. 

Under Center Rushing and Play Action Attacks

The Rams and Bengals offenses’ are very similar in many ways. Both offenses base their run game from under center and like to utilize under center runs and play action off these runs on early downs. However, the real strength of both teams is their ability to create explosive pass plays while throwing the ball deep. 

The Rams and Bengals were both middle of the road in rushing efficiency during the regular season, but the two teams have been dreadful running the ball in the playoffs. 

Under Center Rushing Stats (Playoffs)
EPA per Rush Success Rate
NFL Average (Regular Season and Playoffs) -0.107 39.5%
Bengals -0.224 30.8%
Rams -0.427 22.5%

It’s reasonable to assume that both teams want to threaten the run game under center to set up their play action attacks. In the conference championship game, Cincinnati had 25 early down snaps under center: 19 were run plays (for 3.3 yards per carry) and the other 6 were play action passes. However, note that there is no clear statistical evidence that running the ball more frequently has any impact on play action success. 

Even so, the play action efficiency for the Rams and Bengals have been quite different. Whereas the Rams are 1st in EPA per play with play action at +0.346, the Bengals are 27th with -0.144 EPA. Despite under center runs and play action being staples of the McVay tree, the shotgun passing attack could provide an edge for either team.

Elite But Different Deep Passing

As shown above, the Rams and Bengals have two of the most explosive passing offenses in the league. The two teams are tied for 2nd in explosive pass rate at 17%. In other words, 17% of pass plays result in a gain of 15+ yards. Yet, they have different ways of generating these plays.

The Bengals have thrived when throwing vertical routes on the sideline to great ball winners, Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. The Bengals have 1172 yards from vertical (go/seam/fades) routes, which ranks 1st. Cincinnati is also 2nd in EPA when targeting those routes at 0.674; the only team ahead of them is the Rams at 0.853 EPA. The difference, however, is that the Bengals generate most of their deep passes through go routes on the sideline, specifically against man coverage. 30% of their deep shots have come against cover 1. In contrast, the Rams have generated deep passes against any coverage and have more explosive pass plays in the middle of the field. These plays come off of posts and backside digs that Matt Stafford loves targeting.  

The key question will be can the Bengals still generate explosive pass plays against the Rams when the Rams only run man coverage on 16.4% of passes (30th in NFL)? 

One last feature these offenses share is their usage of empty formations (no players in backfield besides QB). The Rams and Bengals are 1st and 3rd in passing yards from empty with 1,389 and 1,022 respectively.

How Do the Secondaries Matchup with the Opposing Offense?

The Rams coverage scheme is centered around 2 high shells or middle of the field open (MOFO) looks, rather than 1 high safety looks also known as middle of the field closed (MOFC). The Rams then are able to run a high amount of disguises from 2 high shells. LA actually leads the league in both MOFO rate (80%) and disguised coverage rate (44.1%).

However, as Eric Eager pointed out, Joe Burrow is the highest graded QB against disguised coverages. The Rams coverage tendencies matchup well with the Bengals strengths and weaknesses. 

Bengals Offense Rams Defense
Coverage EPA per Play Rate (Rank)
MOFC 0.253 20% (32nd)
MOFO 0.021 80% (1st)
Cover 1 0.272 13% (31st)
Cover 4 -0.069 14.8% (10th)
Cover 6 -0.103 16.8% (4th)

The Bengals are best against man and MOFC looks, which the Rams rarely utilize. This can be especially important as the Bengals generate most of their deep shots down the sideline against man coverage of MOFC looks.

Now, from the perspective of the Rams offense and Bengals defense, one of the most interesting things to watch will be whether the Bengals continue to play shutdown defense in man. Likewise, will the Bengals blitz?

The Bengals are near the middle of the road in usage for MOFO vs. MOFC looks as well as their usage rates for different coverages. The Rams are also quite balanced–they rank 2nd in EPA per play against MOFC and 6th against MOFO. The interesting matchup here is that the Rams average 0.345 EPA against cover 1, and the Bengals have been outstanding in Cover 1 throughout the playoffs, averaging -0.415 EPA per play.

The Bengals’ ability to continue to get pressure with 4 will be key. The Rams have been the best team in the league when blitzed, averaging 0.522 EPA, and the Bengals have had a lot of success with a low blitz rate. The Bengals are 31st in blitz rate and rank 7th in pressure rate (32.8%) when rushing 4 players. However, the Rams are right behind them ranking 8th in pressure rate. This will be essential as the Bengals ranked 25th in pass block grade whereas the Rams rank 3rd.


Typically, forcing turnovers on defense is not stable year to year or even game to game, but the Bengals have forced 6 interceptions and 1 fumble in the playoffs. The Rams had 4 fumbles against the Bucs in the divisional round and although Stafford’s turnover worthy play rate has improved to 1.8% in the playoffs, his turnover worthy play rate of 3.9% in the regular season was 13th worst among 42 QBs with 100+ attempts. Turnovers are a facet of the game where the Bengals appear to have an advantage.

Final Thoughts and Super Bowl Prediction

Rams over Bengals. Although the Bengals defense has been outstanding in the playoffs, the Rams passing attack should prevail. Both teams have incredible passing offenses, but the Rams defense matches up well against what the Bengals like to do. The Rams' low usage of man and MOFC looks in favor of MOFO should give them an advantage. Despite Burrow being capable of performing well against the Rams disguise heavy scheme, any extra time spent holding on to the ball will be valuable with the extreme mismatch of the Rams defensive line vs. the Bengals offensive line. However, if the Rams opt to run the ball often on early downs with little success and the Bengals continue to lock up in man coverage, there are ways for the Bengals to win this game.