Key matchup: Can the Bengals’ O line counter the Rams’ dreaded rush?

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The most obvious potential mismatch in Super Bowl LVI is the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive line against the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive front — and it’s not close. The basic metrics look pretty bleak.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had a league-high 51 sacks during the regular season behind a line ranked 30th in ESPN pass block success rate. He was sacked nine times in a Divisional Round win over the Tennessee Titans, and the Kansas City Chiefs pressured him for a whopping 40.5% of his saves in the league title game. ‘AFC, according to PFF. Jonah Williams, Cincinnati’s O lineman with PFF’s highest pass bouldering scoreis ranked only 57th out of 136 qualified players based on their playing time.

The Rams, meanwhile, led the league in pass rush success rate. Aaron Donald is one of the best inside defensive linemen in NFL history, but he’s also one of four LA defensemen – Von Miller, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Leonard Floyd are the others – to have earned a score of 72 or more this season. from PFFplayoffs included.

If Burrow ends up running for his life like Patrick Mahomes did in last year’s Super Bowl, or if he constantly gets run over like Cam Newton did in Super Bowl 50, you’ll know why. .

But here’s the thing: Burrow and the Bengals are in the Super Bowl, and they’ve gotten this far bypassing their pass protection loopholes. The pocket constantly seems to be falling apart around Burrow, but he still managed to play with uncommon composure. And the entire Cincinnati offense effectively countered schematically when needed. The question is whether the Bengals can handle what the Rams can bring.

Donald is a lone troubleshooter. He not only directed all the interior linemen in beat his pass-rush blockers in less than 2.5 seconds, he did it five percentage points more frequently than anyone else (26%). Donald also saw more double teams than anyone – no matter where those pass rushers lined up – and it still didn’t matter. His game is literally almost off the charts. I mean, it almost looks wrong:

Donald isn’t just queuing inside either. He was positioned right or left of center 417 times, by PFF. But he also played 310 left snaps, 285 right snaps, plus 96 outside right snaps and 79 outside left snaps. Cincinnati protection will need to know where he is, but he could be anywhere. And reporting on Donald is part of what allows Miller, Floyd and Okoronkwo to thrive.

So what can the Bengals do? Their game plan against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship gives some clues. Despite the constant pressure—and despite the frequent double teams Ja’Marr Chase saw—Burrow was only sacked once and struck only four times. He neutralized Kansas City’s rush with quick passes, as well as a greater dose of throws and game screens.

During the regular season and in his first two playoff wins, Burrow threw screens just 8.6% of the time and averaged 5.4 yards per attempt on those passes, by PFF. Against Kansas City, Burrow increased this total to 14.3%. He was 4-for-6 for 63 yards, including that 41-yard touchdown off running back Samaje Perine that kicked off Cincinnati’s comeback from a 21-3 deficit:

NFL Game Pass

Fast passing is a strength for Burrow – and an effective foil for the Rams’ pass rush. Burrow is averaging 7.2 yards per attempt when releasing the ball in under 2.5 seconds, the league’s second-best total, by Next Generation Statistics. And LA is giving up 6.8 yards per attempt when QBs deliver quick passes, the third-worst number in the NFL. Donald and Co. can’t do damage if the QB is out of possession.

Burrow also didn’t use much play for most of the season – just 19.3% of his dropouts during the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, by PFF. But against the Chiefs, Burrow tied 28.6% of the time.

Just like he did in college at LSU, Burrow likes to throw empty sets: 23.7% of his dropbacks, according to Sharp Football’s Dan Pizzuta, with only the Rams’ Matthew Stafford (29.1%) working on empty more frequently. This offers the advantage of having up to five receiving targets, but it also potentially leaves Burrow more exposed with fewer pass-protectors. The increased use of play action and screens can mitigate the pass rush by keeping an extra body or two to block, or even chip away before heading into a route.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. The Rams have a world cornerback in Jalen Ramsey who can potentially be isolated against Chase, and they can also deploy five linemen at times to force the Bengals to pick poison with their protective calls. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Burrow found ways to keep winning despite numerous hits and relentless pressure. He only has to do it one more time to win a world championship, but this exact challenge is also more daunting than any he’s faced so far.

Dom Cosentino is a Senior Feature Editor at theScore.

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