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Cosell: Who Are the Cincinnati Bengals' Super Bowl X-Factors?

Who Are the Cincinnati Bengals' Super Bowl X-Factors?

Though it may seem like the Buccaneers and Cowboys just kicked off to begin Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season, we are now through 271 of the 272 games on tap for this season. Below is a look at players that will have to play well for the Bengals to have a chance at beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI. Key players such as quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon, and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase have been covered in great detail in this space in previous weeks. 

Tee Higgins (Wide Receiver): Rookie sensation Chase has dominated the attention among Cincinnati’s receiver core, and rightfully so. However, second-year wideout Higgins recorded 1,091 yards and six touchdowns this season as he took a step forward from an already impressive rookie campaign.

At almost 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds (his Combine measurements when he came out of Clemson in the 2020 NFL Draft), Higgins has the requisite size to make contested catches and clearly demonstrates the ability to do so. He easily catches the ball with his hands and shows the body control to high point the ball, which meshes perfectly with Burrow’s willingness to turn it loose on aggressive vertical throws down the field. Perhaps there was no better example of this than Higgins' 52-yard catch late in the 2nd quarter versus the Ravens in Week 16. He was doubled/bracketed on his go route, yet Burrow confidently delivered the throw and Higgins went up and made the contested catch. In addition, Higgins has shown good transition and separation quickness getting in and out of his breaks; he is fluid and smooth for a big receiver. 

When defenses are committed to stopping Chase, as Kansas City was in the AFC Championship, Higgins has the ability to operate as Burrow’s go-to receiver. He uses his big body to work effectively in the middle of the field, complementing his efficient route running on slants and intermediate routes such as crossers and digs with reliable hands. He consistently plays fast and can run away from man coverage on crossing routes – he shows physicality through his route stems and is adept at using his size and long arms to create and maintain separation against cornerbacks. 

Higgins ended the regular season with over 100 receiving yards in four of his last six games and has been very productive in the playoffs. After putting up 96 receiving yards in the Divisional Round, he caught six passes for 103 yards against the Chiefs as he was the most targeted player on the Bengals.

Sam Hubbard (Defensive End): Signed to a four-year, $40 million contract extension prior to the 2021 season, Hubbard’s production dipped in 2020 as he recorded just two sacks after tallying 14.5 in his previous two seasons combined. He turned in 7.5 sacks this year and has paired with Trey Hendrickson to form a solid edge-rushing duo for Cincinnati. 

Hubbard has shown the ability to give tackles issues in one-on-one matchups and helped the Bengals find success at times with multiple stunt concepts. He is the wild card in their sub fronts, lining up on the ball as an edge rusher and off the ball as a standup Joker in 3 man fronts where he can add in as the fourth rusher or play in underneath coverage. Hubbard was also used as a spy on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship and had two sacks along with a forced fumble in the game.

Logan Wilson (Linebacker): Wilson is a productive and versatile linebacker for the Bengals and has occupied a variety of roles throughout the season. In just 13 regular season games, he registered 100 tackles and tied for the lead among all linebackers with four interceptions. 

Throughout the season, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has deployed Wilson in a traditional linebacker role, at the line of scrimmage, and as a spy. Cincinnati played five-man fronts out of their base defense throughout the season which featured Wilson and fellow linebacker Germaine Pratt as the stacked linebackers. In Cover Two looks, Wilson also operated as the middle hole defender. He also stayed on the field whenever the Bengals were in dime coverage as one of two linebackers in the 3-2-6 personnel grouping, at times lining up on the ball as the standup 3-technique. Out of this alignment, he was used as a fifth pass rusher and also dropped into zone coverage at times. Wilson has continued his productivity throughout the playoffs, registering 30 total tackles, two pass deflections and a critical interception versus the Titans, over three playoff games. 

Quick Hitters

C.J. Uzomah (Tight End): Uzomah suffered a sprained MCL in the AFC Championship and his status for the Super Bowl is in question. In games where protection has been the offense’s primary focus (such as in Week Seven against the Baltimore Ravens, which I broke down in detail here), the Bengals, especially on 3rd down, have employed a strategy of lining up Uzomah and running back Samaje Perine in the backfield. This allows Burrow to play with a refined sense of timing and rhythm as he feels more comfortable in the pocket. 

Uzomah produced nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season and took on a larger role in the playoffs with 14 combined catches for 135 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. After his injury late in the first quarter against Kansas City, backup tight end Drew Sample recorded just one catch for four yards. If he can’t play in the Super Bowl, the Bengals will miss him in both pass protection and as a reliable target for Burrow over the middle of the field.

Chidobe Awuzie (Cornerback): Awuzie has consistently shown up on tape throughout the season and has become a strong man-to-man corner who can match up to quality NFL receivers. He has played right cornerback for the Bengals this season and ranks among the league leaders with 14 pass deflections this season. Cincinnati has used him as a matchup corner at times throughout the season, including on receiver A.J. Brown in the Divisional Round against the Tennessee Titans. With the Rams having a dynamic pair of wideouts in Cooper Kupp and a rejuvenated Odell Beckham Jr., Awuzie will have some challenging matchups in the Super Bowl. 

Aadit Mehta contributed to this story