For football nerds, there’s no better time of the year than the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. The biggest game of the season is obviously exciting, but the real draw is the extra time we get to spend examining the teams vying for a title.
In the past two weeks, The Ringer’s resident film grinders, Benjamin Solak and Steven Ruiz, have studied the Rams and Bengals from every angle, and we figured we’d put those examinations to good use by setting up mock game plans for both teams and showing how Super Bowl LVI could play out.
Here’s how it will work: Solak is taking control of the Rams, while Ruiz has the Bengals. We’ll be covering two scenarios for both offenses: Early downs (think first-and-10) and late downs (third-and-medium/long). The offense will start with a personnel group and formation that it commonly uses in each situation. The defense will counter with its own pre-snap alignment and coverage call. The offense will then call a play, and Solak and Ruiz will wrap things up by deciding which team has the advantage. Each situation will cover a strategic theme that helps explain the Bengals-Rams matchup.
Got all that? OK, good, let’s get started. First up are Solak’s Rams.
Rams O vs. Bengals D: Early Downs
Solak: There’s been a lot of talk this year about how the Rams offense has changed since adding Matthew Stafford. I want to start with the area that’s stayed the same.
The Rams’ running game took the league by storm in 2018. It produced a success rate of 50 percent and an EPA per play of 0.066—a number that would be matched only by offenses with running quarterbacks (see: Jackson, Lamar) or Derrick Henry in the next few seasons. And during those seasons, Sean McVay’s running game crashed back down to earth: This postseason, the Rams are averaging negative-0.45 EPA per rush with a 27 percent success rate, the worst figures of any NFC playoff team by a country mile.
But McVay remains a coach who wants to run the ball, and he’s retained the core concepts that powered his strong rushing attack from a few seasons ago—namely, the outside zone concept. That system puts a lot of stress on linebackers immediately. But McVay adds to that stress by marrying the outside zone run with jet motion right at the snap.
That receiver screaming across the formation can receive a handoff, become a lead blocker, cut a defensive end, or enter the concept on a play-action fake. That’s a lot to deal with as a defense.
Teams will try to protect their linebackers by instead rotating their safeties to account for that motion—but that can force them into single-high coverages, as one safety must come down to the second level to respect the jet motion. That makes defenses predictable, which certainly isn’t a game you want to play against McVay.
Ruiz: Let me stop you there. It’s not a game most teams want to play. But thanks to defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo and his creative use of his two safeties, the Bengals can handle it. In Vonn Bell, Cincinnati has a bigger safety who can both set the edge in the run game and hold his own when asked to drop into a deeper zone. Jessie Bates III is a ball hawk who can play center field or lurk in the intermediate areas and cut off in-breaking routes, which—spoiler!—will come in handy on later downs. Bell’s and Bates’s abilities to play at both the second and third levels of the defense allow Anarumo to employ a bunch of creative rotations.
But against this particular formation—which has been a staple of McVay’s offense throughout his time in Los Angeles—the Bengals will mostly be worried about containing the run on the perimeter, while not asking the linebackers to totally vacate the interior run gaps. That would leave open the cutback lanes that Rams backs are drilled to exploit.
In Week 5, when the Packers used jet motion from a similar formation, the Bengals had Bell rotate down to match the receiver on the move, and that feels like a good strategy for Sunday’s game. They’ll have the linebackers bump over a bit to account for the extra gap created by the pre-snap motion, but Bell’s presence on the edge will allow them to stay inside the tackles and watch for those aforementioned cutbacks.
If the Rams do try to take a shot downfield off play-action, the combination of a soft Cover 3 zone and Cincinnati’s relentless pass rush should prevent explosive gains.
As Solak mentioned, this can tip the defense’s hand—the safeties might as well be holding a “We’re playing Cover 3” sign—but this has mostly been a run formation for the Rams this season, so that should be the main focus whenever the Bengals see it. Deciding which run concept to prioritize, though, can present a dilemma. I’ve picked a defensive front and coverage scheme that helps to protect the edges, but Cincinnati would need a little more beef inside if McVay decides to make duo the centerpiece of his game plan.
Please tell me you didn’t decide to do exactly that, Solak.
Solak: So, if the Bengals are rotating safeties, McVay can attack the other side of the formation by running duo. Duo can look like zone blocking at first, which pulls linebackers to the play side. But unlike outside zone blocking, which stresses the second level of the defense horizontally, duo asks the offensive line to push their double-teams vertically, creating an interior push that forces linebackers to step downhill to fill a gap. You can see the horizontal stretch of outside zone, compared to the vertical stretch of duo, in this clip below.
Duo schemes can be achieved only with extra blockers to the play side. For many teams, that’s two tight ends attached to the formation. But the Rams have a cheat code in Cooper Kupp. Kupp is their star receiver, the likely NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and the man who nearly broke Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving yards record … and a wildly impressive blocker. The Rams can run duo out of 11 personnel (that’s one tight end, one running back, and three receivers, which is the grouping the Rams run 84 percent of the time) because Kupp can fill that second tight end role.
Duo has become a major part of the Rams’ running scheme from this setup—and there are many wrinkles they can deploy off of it. They can run the jet handoff to the streaking receiver (usually Van Jefferson); or, if the defense dedicates too many resources to that side, Kupp can crack the defensive end, and they can pull tight end Tyler Higbee to lead on a toss play. Both of these plays are quick hitters to the boundary, outflanking a defense that has dedicated too many players to the front in an effort to discourage double-teams.
Again, the Rams haven’t been the most dangerous running team this year—especially recently. But McVay’s run game still features all of the deception and variation it did in 2018, even if his team doesn’t execute it as well as it used to. This used to be the Rams’ bread-and-butter formation with Jared Goff, because they could get to their play-action passing game out of this look. Now, though, they no longer need this action to create an easy passing look for their quarterback, as Stafford has opened a far more dangerous attack in the standard, dropback passing game.
But we’ll talk about that on later downs.
Who has the advantage?
Ruiz: If I’m the Bengals—and I guess I am, for the purposes of this exercise—I’m not terribly worried about the Rams employing a downhill run game against our stout defensive line. Have you seen D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill? They’re massive! If the Titans couldn’t move Cincinnati’s front, the Rams’ undersized line doesn’t stand a chance. And if the Bengals do have trouble against the duo runs, they can always go to the 6-1 front they employed in that game against Tennessee, though that would leave them susceptible to play-action shots downfield.
As Solak mentioned, McVay’s run game hasn’t been overly effective throughout the season, and it’s been even worse during this playoff run. Cincinnati should welcome a run-heavy script. This Rams offense is much scarier when Stafford is dropping back to pass.
Rams O v. Bengals D: Late Downs
Solak: The Bengals’ late-down game plan will be all about their star receiver: Ja’Marr Chase. So I want to talk about the Rams’ star receiver on obvious passing downs: Odell Beckham Jr.
Ruiz: The city of Cleveland wants me to pelt you with tomatoes right now, but I’ll let you finish.
Solak: OK, so the Rams’ best receiver is obviously Cooper Kupp. But, for as incredible as Kupp has been this year, Odell was a critical midseason addition, and he changed the way the Rams throw the football.
Let’s take a three-by-one formation: That’s three receivers on one side and one isolated receiver on the back side. The Bengals use this to isolate Chase; the Packers use it to isolate Davante Adams. Pretty obvious how this works, right?
The Rams don’t use Kupp as the isolated receiver, though: They use Beckham. In fact, before they acquired Beckham, the Rams didn’t really use three-by-one distributions as their passing down package. On third and fourth downs of 6 to 15 yards before the trade, the Rams lined up in three-by-one sets 22 times—that’s 2.44 snaps a game. After? Forty-six times in 11 games. That’s an increase of almost two snaps per game, which, when we’re looking at just clear passing situations on late downs, is a lot.
But why do the Rams isolate their second-best receiver rather than Kupp? First, let’s remember that Beckham is an excellent ball-winner in the air, and Stafford relied heavily on that type of receiver in Detroit: Calvin Johnson, surely, but also Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. By isolating Beckham as the backside receiver, the Rams have something they never did with Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, or even Brandin Cooks the last time they were in the Super Bowl: a guy who can win on routes with vertical stems, even when the catch point is challenged.
With Odell tucked onto the back side, we now look to the front side and find a nightmare in Kupp, who can reasonably line up at all three receiver positions and reasonably run [checks notes] every single route in the world. Per Next Gen Stats, Kupp is the only receiver this season to accumulate at least 200 yards and a touchdown on five different routes, which makes narrowing down the Rams’ tendencies almost impossible—both for us and for the Bengals.
Bring these two ideas together, and the Rams can really put your defense in a bind. By placing Kupp in the slot on the wide side of the field, and leaving Odell isolated to the back side, I have two players I am confident in winning whatever man-to-man matchups I get—and I can confirm that the defense is in man coverage by aligning my tight end, Tyler Higbee, as a wide receiver and seeing which defensive player follows him. It’s no mistake that Stafford led the league in EPA per dropback against man coverage this year.
Ruiz: If I’m Anarumo, this is the formation that’s keeping me up at night. Much to the chagrin of Cleveland and defensive coordinators everywhere, Beckham has emerged as a legitimate coverage-dictating threat when isolated for the Rams.
But the Bengals obviously can’t home in on Odell on third downs—not with Kupp on the other side. So Anarumo will have to concede something to better defend the Rams’ three-by-one looks. Kupp is, of course, the player Cincinnati will be most worried about, and there are two routes the defense will focus on in particular: a crossing route working the middle of the field, and a deep out route. Now, fortunately for Anarumo, Kupp’s alignment tends to give away which route he’s running. When he’s at the no. 2 position—the middle spot to the three-receiver side—he typically runs something breaking over the middle. When he’s the no. 3 spot, you can expect the route to break toward the sideline.
Because Solak has Kupp at the 3, the out-breaking route is the main concern. To defend that, Cincinnati can play a coverage known as “Cover 1 Cross.” It’s a man-to-man coverage with one safety deep and the other looking to the three-receiver side for any crossing routes coming from that direction.
Bates typically fills that role, and his presence in the middle allows the man coverage players to operate with outside leverage—because they have help inside.
Here’s the beauty of this coverage call: If Bates sees Kupp breaking outside away from his area of the field, then he is free to help on any in-breaking route by Beckham. Sure, with both safeties hanging out in the middle of the field, the Bengals would be incentivizing deep, vertical shots to Odell, but if it allows them to better defend Kupp’s routes in key situations, then it’s a smart trade-off.
Solak: This all looks really nice on paper, but it is asking a lot of Bates.
Bates is one of the Bengals’ defensive stars, and while he had rough spots during the regular season, he’s really peaked come playoff time. His best trait is his range, so it makes sense to ask him to cover a lot of ground on these downs. If Beckham runs the back-side dig—a route the Rams have hammered with Stafford during the season—Bates should be able to get downhill and play through the catch point, disrupting timing and potentially creating a turnover.
But the other guys leave a big question. Man coverage against the Rams has been a death knell this season, most of all against Kupp: His 4.6 yards per route run against man coverage this year is the top number in the league by a mile. If the Bengals have Mike Hilton playing with outside leverage against an out-breaking route, for example—Kupp led the league in yardage generated on out routes this year, by NGS’s charting—it seems like that should be to their advantage.
But that’s exactly how Sean Murphy-Bunting felt on the penultimate play of the Rams’ win against the Buccaneers. The Rams are running the sail concept with Kupp on the deep-breaking out route, just like you see above. Murphy-Bunting is playing with outside leverage, just as Hilton would be in Ruiz’s coverage. And then …
Who has the advantage?
Ruiz: As well as “Cover 1 Cross” matches up against the Rams’ sail concept on paper, actually winning these one-on-one battles is tough. Hilton is a good slot corner, but Kupp just put up one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a receiver. So I’m citing the “Jimmys and Joes > X’s and O’s” corollary and giving the advantage to the more talented Rams. Now, Bengals defensive ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard dominating their own matchups could swing things in Cincinnati’s favor, but the Rams have one of the league’s better group of tackles, so that could be a stalemate.
Bengals O v. Rams D: Early Downs
Ruiz: The Bengals offense shouldn’t work.
Solak: The end, Rams win, I’m the best.
Ruiz: It shouldn’t work, but it does somehow. The scheme is really two different schemes—the McVay-Shanahan system, and the 2019 LSU-inspired offense that Zac Taylor (wisely) adopted for Joe Burrow—awkwardly smashed together. The right side of the offensive line is completely useless in pass protection and not terribly effective in the run game, either. On top of that, the passing game is powered by extremely difficult throws to the perimeter.
And yet, here they are in the Super Bowl. Burrow’s accuracy and quick trigger is the glue binding this all together, but his talented receivers have allowed this scheme to thrive. Ja’Marr Chase is the headliner, and for good reason: His dominance against single coverage makes him a top priority for any opposing defensive coordinator. And those “extremely difficult throws to the perimeter” I mentioned in the last paragraph? Nobody did more damage on those plays this season, as Chase led the NFL with 453 receiving yards on vertical routes thrown outside the numbers, per Sports Info Solutions. No other receiver generated more than 313 yards on such routes.
During the second half of the season, the Bengals have been exploiting Chase’s dominance on vertical throws by isolating him more frequently—often on the backside of a trips formation, which puts the defense in a bind: Does it leave a safety over the top to protect a corner from having to cover Chase one-on-one? Or does it push that safety to the strong side to help prevent Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd from doing something like this:
On early downs, Taylor likes his offense to operate under center, and he’ll often send Boyd in motion across the formation, forcing the defense to adjust and providing Burrow with vital pre-snap intel. Those under-center formations also allow Taylor to get to his favorite run concept: outside zone with a tight end splitting across the formation.
When the Bengals get good gains out of these looks—both on the ground and in the play-action game—they’re awfully hard to stop. Defenses just have to worry about so much: Joe Mixon in the run game, containing Chase, and having enough numbers to stop Boyd and Higgins on the strong side. Things become a lot easier when the defense has an answer for Chase that doesn’t make them unsound elsewhere on the field.
Solak: Fortunately, the Rams do have that answer—and it’s one you already wrote about, Steven.
Ruiz: Did I intentionally set that up for a shameless plug? Who’s to say? Anyway …
Solak: When teams have a star cornerback who they feel can reasonably match up with Chase one-on-one, they can get the numbers working back in their favor. The Rams have that in Jalen Ramsey.
How exactly does Ramsey’s matchup with Chase affect the rest of the defense? The Chargers gave Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris a clear blueprint when they played the Bengals earlier this season. The Chargers defense is captained by Brandon Staley, Morris’s predecessor and author of Morris’s current defense. In that Week 13 game, Staley had his best corner, Michael Davis, shadow Chase on 65 percent of his routes, per Next Gen Stats, and Davis did his darndest. But Ramsey should fare a little better.
In that Staley-inspired quarters defense that Morris is running, Ramsey will lock onto Chase on the backside, and that will allow the other six coverage defenders to read the releases of the remaining four receivers. The Rams can get a bracket on Boyd in the slot, for example, to take away third-down option routes; they can also play with a safety over top of Higgins, in the event that he’s killing them on deep routes.
With Ramsey on an island against Chase and six players monitoring four to the other side, Morris will have a wide variety of coverages available to him. And the goal is to confuse Burrow, make the QB hold onto the football, and create time for the pass rush to arrive. Yeah, you’ll give up the occasional healthy Mixon target, and Chase will win a couple one-on-one battles, but I don’t think that’ll be enough to throw the Rams out of this look.
Ruiz: If the Rams lock Ramsey onto Chase whenever the Bengals isolate him, the rookie receiver must—MUST!—win enough of those matchups to force them out of it. Everything else just becomes so much easier for L.A. if Ramsey can erase Cincinnati’s no. 1 receiver.
Of course, it won’t matter whether Chase is getting open if Burrow doesn’t have time to throw the ball, and the Bengals offensive line is clearly overmatched against a Rams front that features Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd. Play-action will help to slow down the Los Angeles rush, and it might open up space over the middle for Burrow to hit Chase on in-breaking routes.
This clip below shows a play-action concept that the Bengals like to run on first down. Chase can usually box out his man on the in-breaker and make tough catches in traffic:
If the defense throws a double-team his way, that often leaves Higgins isolated on the comeback route to the other side.
The protection has to hold up long enough for Burrow to get to Higgins in his progression, but the fake run action by the line creates a natural double-team on Donald. Blocking him on later downs, when play-action isn’t viable, will be another matter.
Who has the advantage?
Solak: OK, cool, double-team on Donald, sick—I still have Von Miller against a tight end and Leonard Floyd against your right tackle. You also had to use Mixon in the play fake, which means my linebackers (who aren’t great in coverage, don’t tell anyone) won’t get targeted. Zone defenders suffocating the Higgins throwing windows, too? Excellent.
I agree that this all boils down to the Chase-Ramsey matchup. If Chase has the edge, he should be Super Bowl MVP and put the cherry on top of the greatest rookie wide receiver season ever. But for as good as he’s been this year, it’s one season of near-elite play (Chase) going up against four or five seasons of emphatically elite play (Ramsey). I’m a betting man, and I know where I’m putting my money: Ramsey.
Bengals O vs. Rams D: Late Downs
Ruiz: For the sake of Burrow’s well-being, the Bengals will want to avoid obvious passing downs as much as possible. The second-year QB was able to scramble his way to some key first downs against Kansas City, but escaping the wrath of Donald, Miller, and Floyd won’t be so easy. Because of that, pass protection feels like a good place to start when discussing the Bengals’ plan for third down.
Let’s open with a realistic goal: No free pass rushers! That’s doable, right?
Ruiz: OK, Hakeem Adeniji and Isaiah Prince aren’t making eye contact with me for some reason, but I assume they’re on board with the plan. But seriously, that has to be the goal for this team, because those three pass rushers will win plenty of one-on-one battles on their own. The Bengals offensive line has allowed 10 unblocked pressures during the postseason, which leads all teams, per Pro Football Focus.
One way to prevent those protection breakdowns is to keep more guys in to protect—or, at least, in a position to protect if Burrow feels like he needs an extra body or two based on what the Rams are showing pre-snap. A basic two-by-two formation with a running back next to Burrow and a tight end attached to the offensive line will provide those options. This is a common formation that the Bengals use in obvious passing situations, and one that should serve them well against the Rams.
Not only will it provide those extra blockers, but the distribution of the receivers can cause issues for L.A. Putting Ramsey on Chase is a no-brainer, but the Bengals have matchup advantages elsewhere. Los Angeles played Cover 3 at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL this regular season, per TruMedia, but leaving Darious Williams, who is built like a point guard, on an island against Higgins isn’t the soundest strategy.
Solak: I love the gravity that the Rams pass rush has in these situations. This defense uses a lot of dime personnel (six defensive backs on the field for 26 percent of the snaps this season, the third-highest rate in the NFL), but those extra DBs are exploitable. It took Eric Weddle two weeks to supplant Terrell Burgess in the starting lineup; David Long Jr. and Donte Deayon have been in a long fight for the esteemed title of “the lesser of two evils” at CB3. So instead, if the Bengals come out in 11 personnel but still in a condensed formation, I can use a nickel package, which feels better for me on a clear passing down—even with the coverage liabilities at linebacker.
I will protect those linebackers by running traditional quarters—a common defensive structure that works well against two-by-two formations like this one. In quarters, I can use the deep safeties to read the release and intentions of the inside receivers, like Boyd in the slot or C.J. Uzomah from the tight end spot. This leaves the cornerbacks on islands, yes, but I can play them in both off- and press-alignments, depending on the matchup. Ramsey on Chase? Press. Darious Williams on Tee Higgins? I’d rather leave a cushion there.
The quarters structure is also necessary because it protects the five-man fronts of the Rams, which they use at a ridiculous clip (52 percent of all downs, fourth in the league). In this scenario, I can present a five-man front, guarantee some one-on-one opportunities for one of my elite pass rushers, and still get seven bodies in coverage without having to drop one of Von Miller or Leonard Floyd. I can change who is lined up at which position, but putting Donald and Miller over the right side of the Bengals line—the really, really bad side, that is—almost guarantees I get slide protection that way. Now my blitz packages become easier to build, because I can predict the protection call you’re running.
Ruiz: Those five-man fronts are a nightmare for an offensive line in which the right guard and tackle have been responsible for more than 70 percent of the pressure Cincinnati has let up during the playoffs, per Pro Football Focus. And now Solak’s diabolic ass has Donald and Miller lined up together on that same side.
Fortunately for the Bengals, one of their favorite third-down concepts provides some natural protection. It’s a version of the ubiquitous “Y-Cross” concept with the tight end running a quick, 5-yard out, and the back checking to see if he’s needed in protection before running out to the flat to provide Burrow with a checkdown option.
Uzomah gives Burrow an immediate option if the Rams send more than one rusher from the left side. But if everything goes according to plan, Burrow should have more than enough time to read out the play—and the Y-Cross concept is really hard to cover with three viable threats at receiver: Boyd runs the over route; Chase does the deep dig right behind it; and if the defense uses its safeties to bracket those routes—which is something the Rams do a lot—Higgins gets his mismatch with Williams, who has been a target for all of L.A.’s postseason opponents.
Now, Higgins has to exploit that mismatch or things will get awfully difficult for the Bengals. I understand why Chase is getting a lot of the attention this week, but don’t be surprised if Higgins receives the most targets on Sunday. What he does with them will go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game.
Who has the advantage?
Solak: The Uzomah thing is so critical, man. Quarters coverage invites quick throws to the underneath areas of the field—something Burrow does a lot of and does really well—and the threat of the Rams’ pass rush should create a quick timer in Burrow’s head. If Burrow is laser sharp on every third down, and the Bengals underneath receivers like Uzomah, Boyd, and Chase (especially when he gets off coverage) can break a couple of tackles, then nickel-and-diming is possible.
The Rams clearly have the advantage because of the pass rush … but I think the Bengals can mitigate it (to a degree). So the edge belongs to the Rams, but I don’t think it’s as big as we think.
Who will win?
Ruiz: Seeing as how I was in charge of the Bengals for this exercise, picking the Rams would be awfully underwhelming of me … but that’s exactly what I will do. The mismatch between Cincinnati’s offensive line and L.A.’s pass rush, plus Ramsey’s ability to hang with Chase one-on-one, will be too much to overcome for this young Bengals squad. Throw in the large gap between McVay and Taylor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rams win this one comfortably.
Solak: I think the Rams will win comfortably as well, though I do think the game will follow a different script than what a lot of people expect. We talked a lot about that Rams defensive line–Bengals offensive line mismatch, but I’m confident that the Bengals can get the quick game working and negate some of that disparity. We talked about Ramsey shadowing Chase—but I think there are creative ways to get Chase the football.
But … with all of that said … with all of the possibilities and angles and adjustments considered … the Rams have the better players. A lot of better players. I think that wins out.
Especially if they read our piece.