In the end, the stars took over in Super Bowl LVI. Reeling after losing Odell Beckham Jr. to a knee injury and a disastrous start to the second half, the Los Angeles Rams were seemingly becoming the latest team to fall victim to the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff formula.
The Bengals were flummoxing the high-profile Rams offense, creating takeaways on defense, picking up big plays from their star receivers and mixing in field goals in the red zone. The fingerprints of those postseason wins over the Titans and Chiefs were easily identifiable as the Bengals went ahead in Inglewood, California.
Then, with the all-in team on its way out, the Rams’ two best players took over. First, Aaron Donald helped shut down the Cincinnati offense, which followed a 75-yard touchdown to start the third quarter by producing a total of five first downs on its final six possessions. With the Rams stalled on offense as well, Cooper Kupp was unstoppable on the final drive. Imports Von Miller and Matthew Stafford each played key roles alongside their star teammates, but the Rams pulled themselves out of a Super Bowl ditch and won their first championship of the Sean McVay era by riding their superstars to glory:
Jump to a section:
• How the Rams’ defense took over
• The Stafford-to-Kupp connection
• Why the Bengals almost won, anyway
• L.A.’s running game was downright awful
• Did the officiating really matter?
• What’s next for the Rams
The defensive adjustment that won the Super Bowl
It was clear that the threat of Donald & Co. wrecking the game informed Zac Taylor’s game plan from the start. Quarterback Joe Burrow was operating in hyperspeed from the very first snap. He took an average of just 2.41 seconds before throwing his passes, which was his quickest average release of the season. In the first half, he was at 2.35 seconds; for comparison, the quickest average release in first halves this season belonged to Ben Roethlisberger, who was at 2.39 seconds. The Bengals were mostly willing to live in the quick game, work out of empty and trust Burrow to get the ball out quickly.
The much-maligned Cincinnati offensive line also did a relatively good job of slowing down Donald and his peers for most of the first half. Center Trey Hopkins seemed to have clear instructions: Unless he was actively blocking someone or the Rams had a clear overload to one side, he was going to turn to Donald’s side and help against him. The Rams moved Donald around and ran a couple of their 5-on-5 rushes, but they generally stuck with a flat four-man rush, and the Bengals did a decent job of keeping them from pestering Burrow.
At the end of the first half, though, the Rams got onto something they would repeatedly hit in the third and fourth quarter, and it changed the game for their pass rush. On the play in which Donald (99) knocked Burrow out of bounds and was credited with a sack, they brought Ernest Jones (50) toward the line of scrimmage and sent him after Burrow as a part of a sim pressure. Miller (40) dropped into coverage on the other side, allowing the Rams to rush four while still dropping seven into pass coverage and creating a mismatch. Hopkins actually turns toward Donald’s side, so with three men focused on Donald, they got a three vs. two mismatch on the other side of their line. The Bengals couldn’t muck that up, and while Burrow was able to scramble, Donald came from behind to chase him out of bounds:
Rams bring a sim pressure and drop Miller into coverage. C actually turns right and there’s three people focused on Donald, so Rams get three rushers vs. two blockers on the left side, play gets blown up, Donald comes across the formation to clean up. pic.twitter.com/3IyuVGfN68
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) February 14, 2022
While it might have been easy to chalk up Donald’s subsequent dominance to him getting mad about the sideline brouhaha that followed, the reality was that the Rams found a schematic tactic the Bengals couldn’t match. Over the next three possessions, they went to a version of this same concept over and over again. They repeatedly brought five men to the line of scrimmage — something they often do — but they usually bring those five men to create one-on-one matchups. Instead, they showed five and then dropped one into coverage, which allowed them to keep the benefit of those one-on-one matchups while also staying “safe” in coverage behind.
Across nine dropbacks on those drives, the Rams sacked Burrow five times and allowed one first down, which came when Burrow scrambled for a fourth-and-1. They eliminated the help that guards Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji were getting from Hopkins by either lining someone up over Hopkins or twisting a tackle around the center, forcing those guards to communicate in real time and hold up in protection. Donald began to beat Adeniji badly, repeatedly bull-rushing him for pressures. Miller worked magic on the right side against Isaiah Prince, creating pressures and cleaning up on the interior rushes.
The final play of that series was the one in which Burrow was sacked by Miller and seemed to suffer a knee injury. From that point forward, the second-year star didn’t look like the same. Burrow didn’t have the same zip on his passes and wasn’t a threat to scramble any further. He didn’t get much help when Tyler Boyd dropped a third-down conversion with 6:23 to go, but Burrow was 4-of-7 for 26 yards, most of which came when Jalen Ramsey tried to jump a softly thrown pass and Ja’Marr Chase ran away from him on a quick hitch for 17 yards.
When Burrow didn’t get the ball out quickly, the Bengals were toast. ESPN’s pass block win rate (PBWR) statistic tracks how often an offensive lineman “wins” his block versus a defensive lineman across the first 2.5 seconds of a pass play. The Bengals had a PBWR of 18%, which was the worst single-game performance by any team in any game during the 2021 season. Likewise, as you can probably guess, the Rams winning on 82% of their pass-rush attempts made theirs the most successful pass rush in any game this season.
The threat of Donald, Miller & Co. getting home also mostly took the play-action pass out of the playbook for Cincinnati. Burrow wasn’t a great play-action passer in 2021, but he averaged about six play-action attempts per game during the regular season. He had only two Sunday. One of them was the 75-yard touchdown pass to Tee Higgins that started the third quarter, which should tell you how dangerous of a weapon play-action might have been if the Bengals had been able to hold up in pass protection.
For most of the second half, it didn’t look like the pass rush would even be enough to win the game. The Rams went cold for most of the game after Beckham was injured, as they failed to pick up a first down on five of their seven subsequent meaningful possessions. McVay’s offense ran off three consecutive three-and-outs before taking the ball back on its own 21-yard line with 6:13 left. From there, Kupp (and Stafford) saved their season.
The inevitable Cooper Kupp
Before that final drive, Kupp was having a quiet game by his own lofty standards. While the Offensive Player of the Year caught a touchdown pass in the first half, he had just four catches for 53 yards. The Bengals were clearly focused on squeezing the middle of the field and taking away his access to choice route. Despite losing Beckham and tight end Kendall Blanton during the game, he wasn’t targeted once across those three consecutive three-and-outs. It seemed like his most conspicuous role might be throwing an incomplete pass on a trick play to Stafford, a role that would have likely belonged to Beckham before the injury.
Then Kupp took over. He probably saved the Rams’ season by doing what they were unable to do on their previous 18 rushing attempts: pick up a first down. The Rams tightened their stances and sold a quarterback sneak before he came across the formation and outflanked them for a first down. Bengals safety Vonn Bell was the unblocked defender on the line and had the best chance at bringing him down, but with a full head of steam, he was too quick.
From there, Kupp caught four passes for 39 yards, including the game-winning touchdown. He also drew three penalties, including a questionable holding call on Logan Wilson, a personal foul on a late hit by Bell that offset a Rams holding penalty, and a pass interference call on Eli Apple. (More on the officiating in a bit.) The Rams were able to get him matched up one-on-one against defenders on each of those completions, including a pair of linebackers on two of his completions and Apple on the touchdown.
Picking on Apple was probably Los Angeles’ most meaningful offensive tactic. It scored two touchdowns by beating Cincinnati’s oft-discussed cornerback. One came early in the game, when the Bengals appeared to be in quarters coverage and the Rams used play-action and worked a flood concept. Apple had nobody occupying him in the flat and stared into the backfield, but even though he started running once Kupp passed him, there was no way Apple was going to catch up. Stafford hit Kupp in the back of the end zone for an easy score.
On the game winner, the Rams moved Kupp out of the slot and lined him up outside, where he was guaranteed a one-on-one matchup with Apple, who was hung out to dry like he was 50 Cent during the halftime show. Stafford threw more of a back-shoulder throw to Kupp than a fade, trusting that he would be able to shield Apple from defending a vulnerable pass. That trust was rewarded.
The almost telepathic relationship and trust between Stafford and Kupp was most clear, though, on what will go down as the biggest pass of Stafford’s life. The 22-yard completion Stafford threw to Kupp on the final drive was an absolute dime, with Stafford looking down an open Brycen Hopkins underneath, moving Bell out of his throwing lane and then uncorking a Patrick Mahomes-esque no-look pass into the vacated zone as Kupp got out of his break. You trade two first-round picks for a quarterback in the hopes he’ll make throws like this:
The 22-yard slant to Kupp. pic.twitter.com/63sLffIjJc
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) February 14, 2022
Sunday reminded us both why the Rams traded for Stafford and why he had struggled so much to get to this point before 2021. He started the game on fire, hitting Beckham with a beautiful pass on a wheel route for the game’s opening touchdown. The offense mostly ran cold afterward, and Stafford mixed in a few mistakes. The second interception wasn’t really his fault, but the first absolutely was, with Stafford passing up a checkdown and a possible field goal to take a shot into an end zone window which simply wasn’t there. The Rams were willing to deal with their new quarterback’s flaws to have access to a higher ceiling, and while it didn’t always feel comfortable, that trade-off just helped win them a Super Bowl.
How the Bengals nearly pulled it off
We need to give more credit to the Bengals, who battled throughout and were arguably better for most of the contest. They didn’t end up possessing the firepower to stop the L.A. pass-rushers, but they took the lead and nearly won by attacking the weaknesses on the Rams’ roster. Just as it’s important to point out how the Rams were able to win the game on the backs of the stars they acquired with draft capital, it’s also worth noting that a lack of depth and less impressive players in other starting roles nearly cost them dearly.
First, the Bengals were able to take advantage of a lack of depth at receiver after Beckham went down. Most teams would be happy to start with Kupp as their No. 1 wideout, but there wasn’t much left in the cupboard afterward. Van Jefferson, who hasn’t topped 65 receiving yards in a game since midseason, gained 23 yards on eight targets and wasn’t able to challenge for the Jessie Bates interception at the end of the first half. Ben Skowronek, pushed into an every-down role by Beckham’s absence, was targeted five times for 12 yards. The 24-year-old dropped one pass that resulted in an interception and got tangled up running out of a bunch set on what became a third-down incompletion.
With Tyler Higbee and Jacob Harris out and Blanton limited to 30 snaps by an injury, the Rams were also forced to turn to fourth-string tight end Hopkins as an every-down player. The 2020 fourth-round pick actually had the best game of the bunch, catching four passes for 47 yards and chipping in as a blocker. Hopkins successfully sealed Sam Hubbard at the line of scrimmage to create a running lane for Kupp on his jet sweep, which helped keep Los Angeles” season afloat.
Then the Bengals were able to target the Rams’ lesser-known defensive backs and linebackers in coverage. Nick Scott was lured in on the trick play touchdown pass from Joe Mixon to Higgins. Taylor Rapp, returning from a concussion, gave up three completions as the nearest defender in coverage on three targets for 32 yards. The Bengals went after David Long in the slot with Chase and Boyd. Troy Reeder, a frequent target for the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, was back under the microscope as the Bengals tried to work the middle of the field.
Of course, the Bengals also completed five passes for 160 yards and a touchdown against Ramsey, a much-better-known corner and a player who doesn’t qualify as a weak spot most weeks. Ramsey didn’t play quite as badly as those numbers indicated, but this certainly wasn’t his best game. The 75-yard Higgins touchdown required a spectacular face mask that went uncalled by the referees by the second-year wideout. (Again, I’ll talk more about the officials later.)
Chase had a step on Ramsey for his 46-yard reception, but it also required a remarkable catch from the rookie, who might be inheriting Beckham’s crown for the best hands in football. I thought Ramsey’s worst play of the game was actually when he tried to jump a hitch route by Chase in the fourth quarter, only to end up nowhere near and give up an 17-yard gain on a two-minute drill. If Burrow had time to throw on that final snap, Chase also appeared to have a step on the star corner:
Oh man, Chase had a step on Ramsey on the final offensive snap of the game for the Bengals pic.twitter.com/tKAS6QPo4n
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) February 14, 2022
The other big weaknesses for the Rams on paper came on offense, where they don’t have great linemen on the interior and have a coach who believes that his offense is built on physicality in the running game. That combination nearly combined to sink the Rams.
How the running game nearly cost the Rams the Super Bowl
It’s rare to see the entire football universe agree, so it was even more shocking to see pretty much everyone watching Sunday concur on two key topics. One was that the halftime show was spectacular. The other was that the Rams absolutely needed to stop running the ball. One of the most futile rushing performances in recent memory dramatically set back the Rams’ chances of winning.
One of the Bengals’ best weapons was convincing the Rams to hand off the football to their running backs. The Rams ran the ball 23 times for just 43 yards. By the NFL Next Gen Stats model, they added 9.2 expected points (EPA) for the Bengals on those runs. According to Next Gen’s Keegan Abdoo, zero of the first 19 carries from the Rams were “successes” in terms of keeping the offense on schedule. No team has managed to go an entire game without a successful run on more than 10 attempts.
The Rams came close, although they eventually managed to get over the mark with Kupp’s first down and a lone first down from Cam Akers later on that final drive. By the end of the game, they had produced successful runs on 8.7% of their attempts. This was the second-worst mark of the season, behind an eight-carry, 8-yard game from the Jaguars in the regular season.
Los Angeles’ runners did not have a great game, with Akers the most obvious culprit. He finished with 21 yards on 13 carries and that first down on the final drive. Next Gen’s Rush Yards over Expectation (RYOE) model suggests that an average back would have turned down those attempts into 44 yards and three first downs. Forty-four yards on 13 carries wouldn’t have been a gangbusters game, but the Rams spent the vast majority of the day in second-and-9 because they were doing nothing on first down on the ground.
The good news is that Akers was on pace to have the worst single game of the season for a running back before that final first down. The bad news is that the player he would have beaten out for that nod is … Cam Akers, who produced minus-16.5 EPA when he ran 24 times for 48 yards and fumbled against the Buccaneers in the divisional round. (Akers added a second fumble as a receiver.) His return from a torn Achilles has been remarkable, but he was a major detriment to the Rams this postseason.
The Rams as a whole generated minus-37 RYOE on their 23 rush attempts, so it’s not as if Sony Michel or Darrell Henderson did great work on the ground, either. And after watching the running plays in this game more closely, I was more sympathetic toward the running backs. The Rams had an absolutely dreadful day blocking the run, aided by an excellent effort from Cincinnati’s front four.
When the Rams were shut down by the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the Pats surprised them with heavy doses of a 6-1 front Los Angeles had seen from the Lions and Bears earlier that season. We’ve seen teams run a lot in situations where opposing defenses play two deep safeties, offer up light boxes and dare the offense to run. I would love to tell you that there was something unique and special and unexpected about what the Bengals did on defense to shut down the Rams or convince them to run the ball as often as they did.
Unfortunately, it’s not there. The Bengals did run a single snap of that 6-1 front for old times’ sake, but they were able to bottle up the Rams on third-and-long draws with four-man fronts. They ran into light boxes and heavy boxes with no success. They faced two-deep looks on nine of their 19 running back carries. They ran because they thought they could run. They could not.
Sean McVay breaks down the Rams Super Bowl LVI win and how the leadership of Matthew Stafford has helped propel his coaching and the team.
You could probably count on one hand the number of times a Rams offensive lineman successfully completed a double-team and made it to the second level to block a linebacker in this game. Cincinnati’s linebackers had free rein to shoot into gaps and tackle Akers in the hole, a product of both great work by D.J. Reader & Co. and the occasional uncalled defensive hold. Zach Kerr got away with a particularly obvious one on a Michel carry.
The Rams were also sloppy. There were multiple times in which a lineman or a receiver simply didn’t end up blocking anybody and their man shot into the backfield for an easy tackle for loss. The tight ends struggled, as Blanton injured himself trying to make a block and then couldn’t stop Trey Hendrickson from blowing up a play after getting back into the game. On the third-and-1 before the Kupp jet sweep, Hopkins whiffed on an attempt to block Bell, and a less-than-impressive block by Kupp on the backside of the play allowed Germaine Pratt to run down the line and tackle a slowed Akers for no gain. Even on the best plays of the day for Akers and Henderson, they had to duck a totally free rusher in the backfield before getting more yards.
Coaches have to balance that fine line between the game plan going in, what they’ve seen throughout the contest and what they can do to change things. McVay was clearly unhappy with the first-half performance, as he told the broadcast heading into halftime that the Rams needed to improve on early downs. McVay then called for a pass on first down, but after Skowronek dropped it for an interception, the Rams went right back to the run. I’m sure McVay expected them to block better as the game went along, but it didn’t happen. Every time they handed the ball off was a gift that increased Cincinnati’s chances of winning.
OK, let’s get to it. Bengals fans are furious about a ticky-tack defensive holding call against Wilson on the final drive against Kupp. After swallowing their whistles all game outside of a false start and a comically stupid penalty on inactive Bengals cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for coming onto the field in slides to celebrate in the end zone, the refs suddenly got into the act and started whistling penalty after penalty on the Rams’ final drive.
Should the Bengals feel aggrieved? There were meaningful missed calls on both sides. Higgins’ 75-yard touchdown, which looked like the biggest play of the game for most of the evening, should not have stood given how he nearly wrenched Ramsey’s face mask off the corner’s helmet. Ramsey also had a handful of Higgins’ undershirt on a slant in the red zone. The Bengals arguably had a more egregious holding call on Kupp on the play in which they were flagged for unnecessary roughness, although I’m also not sure Bell’s hit should have qualified for a personal foul on that play anyway.
Logan Wilson is called for defensive holding on Cooper Kupp deep in Bengals territory to give the Rams a new set of downs.
This is why it’s an empty sound bite when people talk about how they want to see referees stay out of the way and let players decide the game. It’s great in theory, but it’s naive to imagine that players aren’t going to commit penalties and just play clean football. Referees swallowing their whistles doesn’t mean that penalties won’t happen; it just means that they’ll go uncalled. As with anything in football, striking a balance is key, but it’s far easier to get angry about missed calls or too many flags.
We know the NFL has a long track record of trying to avoid flags in big games. Teams use that information to their advantage. As former Patriots executive Scott Pioli noted, the Patriots deliberately played more physically in the conference title games and Super Bowls, knowing referees were unlikely to call penalties. If you watch any game as closely as we watch the Super Bowl, you’re going to see missed calls on both sides.
The bigger issue for me is the timing of the calls. Like a strike zone in baseball, players generally seem to be comfortable with games being called loosely or tightly by the refs, as long as they can get a sense of what that is early in the game and adjust accordingly. In this case, in a game in which the refs seemed comfortable with players grabbing and tugging in coverage, Wilson was flagged for something that I’m sure other defenders on both sidelines did earlier in the game without a penalty. (Of course, the Bengals have also benefited from some questionable missed calls throughout their run, most notably against the Chiefs in the regular season.)
This is the second time in two seasons that we’ve seen officials let things go to a dramatic degree before cracking down with the game on the line. Last time around, it was in the 2020 NFC Championship Game, where the Buccaneers and Packers basically played out a Mutant League Football game for 58 minutes. In the final two minutes, though, Kevin King was called for a defensive pass interference penalty on third down, extending Tampa Bay’s final drive and eventually allowing it to run out the clock.
We now have two data points from two different referees suggesting that the league might allow teams to go all-out for the first 58 minutes before encouraging referees to crack down in the final two minutes of games. When coaches are instructing their players in next year’s conference title games and Super Bowl to play more aggressively than they would in a typical contest, they might also need to tell their defensive backs and linemen to get back to normal after the two-minute warning in the second half.
Are the Rams one-and-done?
Amid the joy of winning a Super Bowl, the Rams seem set to enter an uncertain future as early as this offseason. Eric Weddle, who left retirement and became an every-down safety in a matter of weeks, has already confirmed that he’ll return to the pickup basketball court on a full-time basis. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth has strongly hinted at retirement, and it would be a surprise if the 40-year-old is back in 2022. Miller and Beckham, whose injury status remained unclear early Monday morning, are both unrestricted free agents.
Reports over the weekend raised even more uncertainty. McVay hinted that he might consider leaving the Rams after getting married to start raising a family, building on long-standing rumors that he harbors an interest in becoming a television announcer. Just before the game, the NBC broadcast also suggested that Donald might retire if the Rams won the Super Bowl, and the superstar tackle neither confirmed nor denied those reports after the victory.
Losing Weddle is disappointing — and the Rams got a serious boost out of Beckham and Miller — but they’ll survive if those guys leave. Losing Donald or McVay would be catastrophic. Donald is arguably the best defender in football and has a clear pattern of making the players around him produce at a much higher level. McVay was my pick as the best coaching hire of the past five years even before winning a Super Bowl, and his staff has been drained by years of hires and departures. For whatever faults he has as a game manager or occasionally as a playcaller, he does far more good than bad.
I don’t know what will happen, but in this moment I’m not sure it should matter. The Rams weren’t quite as “all-in” as it might have seemed when they made the Miller trade, given that they’ll get a compensatory pick back if the edge rusher does leave in free agency, but this isn’t a team designed to peak and win five years from now. They were assembled to win in this window, when they can call on multiple Hall of Famers in their peak with Donald and Ramsey (and, for half a season, Miller).
Kupp and Stafford, who were major outsiders to be on a Hall of Fame track, are suddenly starting to build up steam in that direction with what they’ve done over the past year. Whitworth, the anchor of a line otherwise assembled on the cheap, probably deserves to be on his way to Canton. The Rams were the fifth-oldest team in the league this year by snap-weighted age.
This would be a much bigger concern if the Rams had lost, given that we could have realistically seen a universe in which they lose McVay and Donald over the next couple of years while feeling the loss of those missing first-round picks. Their window could have plausibly closed without ever winning a Super Bowl. Coming up short for the entirety of the McVay era would have been a rebuke of Los Angeles’ philosophy, even if it helped lead to multiple division titles.
Now, though? The Rams are playing with house money. Every move a team makes is with the hopes of winning a Super Bowl, and while they will undoubtedly give Stafford a massive extension this offseason and hope to build a great team in the wake of whoever retires, they don’t need to win anything else to justify what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. As a sports culture, we’re constantly looking ahead to what happens next and what the future holds. The Rams, more than any team in football, were a team built to win in the present.