Super Bowl LVI Preview: Storylines to Watch as the Rams Take On the Bengals

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There’s a fun novelty to Super Bowl LVI: It will feature two teams that aren’t postseason regulars in the NFL. The Los Angeles Rams, the NFC’s representative, haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1999, when the franchise was based in St. Louis. The Cincinnati Bengals, the AFC’s rep, hadn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season—until they rattled off three dramatic wins in a row to claim their spot in this year’s matchup. In a Tom Brady-dominated event that’s recently become a Patrick Mahomes-dominated event, the Rams and Bengals are new blood (even though L.A. played in this game, and lost to Brady, three years ago).

 

 

It’ll be exciting to watch some “new” teams battle it out in the NFL’s biggest event. The game, played at the Rams’ SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. (EST) on Sunday on NBC. The Rams are 4.5-point favorites, and a bunch of prop bets look interesting, too.

As kickoff approaches, three significant questions stand out. The team that can find good answers for them will be the one lifting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.

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Aaron Donald threw James Robinson like a rag doll 😳pic.twitter.com/im7VE8LPPr

— PFF (@PFF) December 5, 2021

1. Can the Bengals block the Rams—or find a workaround?

Football, smart people often say, is about blocking and tackling. The team that pushes its opponent around and brings ball-carriers to the ground is the team that wins. In this Super Bowl, there’s not much question that the Rams are the superior physical force.

That will be especially true when the Bengals have the ball. The Rams have the best defensive front in football, anchored by lineman Aaron Donald, who’s been the best player in football over the last five years or so. The four-time Defensive Player of the Year is equally dominant against the run and the pass, and the Rams have surrounded him with other talented players like tackle Greg Gaines and edge defenders Von Miller and Leonard Floyd. Thanks to that group, the Rams are No. 1 in the NFL in both Pass Rush and Run Block Win Rate, the ESPN stat that measures how often linemen beat their opponents at the snap.

The Bengals’ offensive line is, well, not as good. Cincinnati is 30th in Pass Block Win Rate and 10th in run-blocking. This season, the team’s main offensive asset has been quarterback Joe Burrow making downfield magic with receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Burrow and company have done that despite a shoddy offensive line, and that line now has to contend with the scariest opponent in the league.

Burrow got sacked nine times in the divisional round against the Tennessee Titans, tying a playoff record, and the Bengals won anyway. There’s a good chance he’ll be running for his life against the Rams. The Bengals’ chances on offense will come down to whether he can make plays under heavy duress, or if Cincinnati can find ways to get receivers open in time for Burrow to get the ball out of his hands fast.

Just a reminder that Matthew Stafford threw a 50 yard bomb with Ndamukong Suh charging at him to end Tom Brady’s career pic.twitter.com/jvgPZ7YuyL

— Nico (@elitetakes_) February 4, 2022

2. Will the Rams’ worry about “balance” on offense or just let it rip?

Rams coach Sean McVay loves his running game. The entire foundation of McVay’s offense is an outside zone run scheme in which offensive linemen move in unison in one direction and try to create cutback lanes for the running back. The Rams have become a more pass-oriented offense this year, and with good reason: They made an offseason trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford, they watched receiver Cooper Kupp morph into a superstar, and they picked up Odell Beckham Jr. for the season’s home stretch. They also have an excellent pass-blocking offensive line led by an ageless wonder, 40-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

The Rams’ run game has not been effective this year. The offense’s 4-yard average per carry was 25th in the league in the regular season, and it has been much worse in the team’s three playoff wins. After a 2.4-yard average against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round, McVay moved away from the run (somewhat) in the NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers. Running back Cam Akers is a great story: He returned from a torn ACL less than six months after the injury. But he hasn’t returned to full effectiveness in the playoffs. His combined per-carry average since his injury has hovered at just 3.7 yards.

The time seems right for McVay and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell (who’ll be named the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach after the game) to stick with what works and let Stafford do the heavy lifting.

It’s up… IT’S GOOD

EVAN MCPHERSON WINS IT FOR THE BENGALS 🐅🔥

(via @NFL)pic.twitter.com/K6Xt4d6cer

— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 23, 2022

3. How important will the kickers be?

If the answer is “very,” that’s good news for Cincinnati.

Bengals rookie kicker Evan McPherson has been a crucial piece of the franchise’s playoff puzzle. He’s 12-for-12 on field goals overall, 3-for-3 from beyond 50 yards, and has made pressure-packed game-winners in each of the last two playoff games. Coach Zac Taylor relies on him often and from long distances, and McPherson’s reliability has been essential to the team’s success.

Rams kicker Matt Gay is solid, but he’s hiccuped a few times in the playoffs, a period in which he’s 7-for-9 overall and missed his lone try from beyond 50 yards. Gay has less reliable range than McPherson and came up short on a 47-yarder in the divisional round against Tampa Bay.

McPherson and Gay have both received a ton of work this postseason. (No other kicker made more than six attempts in the playoffs.) The Bengals probably feel a bit better about McPherson than the Rams do about Gay. Given the strong possibility that the score will be close, either one of them could have a major influence in determining the outcome of this Super Bowl.

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