LA Rams @ Cincinnati
Power rankings: Rams 4, Bengals 12
Spread: We ran the model as soon as the Conference Championship games finished. At the time, the spread was Rams -3.5. The model preferred the Rams to cover, but the strength was only 1.575, which is below the threshold we require to place a wager. As is often the case, the line moved toward the model and is now 4.5. We see zero value on either side. Betting it is akin to lighting money on fire, a strategy we at First and Thirty vehemently reject.
The Rams offense:
The Rams are 8th in DVOA and 6th in EPA/play. Matt Stafford sits at 8th in PFF grades (83.3), completes 67.9% of his passes (0.6% below expectation), and gains 8.3 yards per attempt. As has been the case throughout Stafford's career, he's capable of top tier play, but will throw in the occasional stinker that keeps him out of the elite quarterback discussion. His issues this season has been his affinity to throw the ball at the wrong colored jersey's -- he has a 18 interceptions (combined regular and postseason) and ranks 24th in turnover worthy play ratio (3.6%). Stylistically, Stafford gets rid of the ball on the quicker end, averaging 2.65 seconds to throw, which is 12th in the league. He has the 8th highest average depth of target at 8.9, but ranks 19th in deep passing (20+ yards) rate at 11.65%. He throws the ball at the 10-20 yard range at a rate of 23.4%, 5th highest in the league. As Stafford plays behind one of the better offensive lines in football, he's under pressure at a rate of just 26.7%, 4th lowest in the league. He's also essentially unblitzable, teams blitz Stafford at a rate of just 22.4% (5th lowest) and he has a PFF passing grade against the blitz of 88.2, 4th best in the league. Per ESPN's analytics department, the line is the best in the league at pass blocking and 12th best at run blocking. They're particularly strong at the tackle positions -- LT Andrew Whitworth, at 40 years young in a revenge game against his former team, has the best pass blocking grade in PFF's system. He's given up just 20 pressures over 625 pass blocking snaps. Rob Havenstein, who plays right tackle, has surrendered just 30 pressures over 688 snaps. The center, Brian Allen, ranks 8th among all centers in overall PFF grades. At receiver, the Rams will feature Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr, Tyler Higbee, and Van Jefferson. Kupp 2,333 receiving yards (combined regular season and post) are the most in NFL history -- nobody else has ever hit 2,000. He runs about 2/3 of his routes from the slot and typically handles shorter throws compared to Jefferson and Beckham Jr. The tight end, Tyler Higbee, is expected to play despite his questionable tag. Higbee sprained his MCL in the Conference Championship game, which has held him out of practice. After Higbee was injured, Kendall Blanton stepped right into Higbee's role, running a route on 37 of 49 dropbacks. Blanton, a 2019 UDFA out of Missouri, is an impressive athlete, but doesn't have the route running or hands that Higbee has. The only other tight end on the Rams active roster is Brycen Hopkins, who has just 1 catch on 71 offensive snaps this season. On the ground, Cam Akers, Sony Michel, and Darrel Henderson should all be involved. Akers appeared to take over the lead job, a true big dick move after tearing his Achilles in July. However, he's been less than effective, averaging just 2.6 yards per rush and 2 fumbles. He also injured his shoulder in the Conference Championships, an injury that has held him out of practice. Henderson has been out since injuring his knee week 16, but apparently will return from IR. Unfortunately for props, figuring out how the Rams will split the load will be a major challenge. The Rams have been effective passing and running, ranking 6th and 5th in DVOA, respectively. They are a pass-first team, however, ranking 5th in early-down situation neutral pass frequency. They also run 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) 85% of the time, by far the most in the league. They run 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WRs) 12% of the time, making these the only two personnel groupings that you'll see Sunday.
The Bengals defense:
The Bengals on defense are 19th in DVOA and 10th in EPA/play. They've been better against the run (13th in DVOA) than the pass (24th). The defensive line ranks 25th in both ESPN's pass rush win rate and run stop win rate metrics. DE Trey Hendrickson is an outstanding pass rusher, racking up 86 pressures and 19 sacks in the regular and post season. Behind Hendrickson is DE Sam Hubbard (64 pressures, 12 sacks) and DT BJ Hill (37 pressures, 8 sacks). DT DJ Reader serves as a run stopping tackle. They're missing DT Larr Ogunjobi, who is out for the season after injuring his foot in the wildcard round. Ogunjobi was a competent pass rusher (41 pressures, 8 sacks), but was abysmal against the run. DT Josh Tupou (knee) and DE Cam Sample (groin) both missed the Conference Championships -- both are expected to play, but the depth of the Bengals line has certainly taken a hit. The linebackers -- Logan Wilson, Germaine Pratt, and Markus Bailey, are all straight up bad at everything they're asked to do. The strength of the defense is the secondary, where Chidobe Awuize (outside) and Mike Hilton (slot) are both solid corners. Eli Apple starts opposite Awuzie, who is definitely the worst of the 3 corners and seems to love dropping interceptions, but has played well in the postseason. At safety, Von Bell (strong) and Jessie Bates (free) are a solid combination. They are a safe, zone heavy team (mostly cover-3). They blitz just 20.5% of the time, 26th in the league. They also have been successful at locking down #1 receivers (6th in DVOA) but have struggled against #2 receivers (27th), which is most likely due to game planning than anything.
Rams offense vs Bengals defense matchup:
One thing that definitely hurts the Bengals from a matchup perspective is their best pass rusher (Trey Hendrickson) lines up almost exclusively on the right hand side, where he'll face off against Andrew Whitworth. Although the Bengals have been excellent at locking down top receivers, it's not often that #1 wide receiver lines up in the slot as much as Cooper Kupp does. Also, there's no stopping Cooper Kupp. The guy's a god damn machine. The Bengals do at least cover the slot well (i.e., Mike Hinton). Tyer Higbee's health is a potential game changer, as the Bengals rank 24th in DVOA against tight ends (hint: bad coverage linebackers).
The Bengals defense has interesting splits against 11 and 12 personnel. Against 11, they're 5th in EPA/play against the pass and 8th against the run. Against 12 personnel, they're 28th in EPA/play against the pass and 30th against the run. The Rams should favor two tight ends on the field, but that's not an idea scenario with Higbee's knee and their lack of depth at the position. Also, as noted above, they play far more 11 than any team in football.
The Bengals offense:
The Bengals on offense are 18th in DVOA and 14th in EPA/play. Joe Burrow has the best PFF passing grade in the league (91.6), completes 70.1% of his passes (a ridiculous 6% above expectation), and gains 8.7 yards per attempt. He has 16 interceptions between the regular and postseason, but has a turnover worthy play ratio of just 2.2%, 4th best in the league. The turnover worthy play ratio shows Burrow keeps the ball out of harms way, but he hit a rough patch on interception luck. File it under "shit happens," but please dunk on your friends at your Super Bowl party who suggest Burrow is turnover prone -- trust me, busting out turnover worthy stats while chugging beers and crushing wings will be welcome by all. Burrow gets rid of the ball on the quicker end -- his average time to throw of 2.65 seconds is 12th fastest. He's 13th in average depth of target (8.3), 14th in deep passing rate (12.2%), and 6th in short passing rate (51.5%). He's also an animal against the blitz, racking up the best PFF passing grade (92.0) in such situations. Burrow's one issue is sacks -- he has the 3rd worst pressure to sack ratio in the league at 26%, although he had just 1 sack on 17 pressures in the conference championship. The offensive line is a problem, they rank 30th in ESPN's pass block win rate metric and 10th in run block win rate. They're especially bad on the right side of the line, where C Trey Hopkins, RG Hakeem Adeniji, and RT Isaiah Prince (who is filling if for an injured Riley Reiff) have all struggled. Adeniji ranks 81st in PFF grade among 82 qualifiers at guard -- his struggles were so bad that the Bengals decided to rotate him in the Conference Championships with rookie Jackson Carman. Carman was somehow just as bad, giving up 6 pressures on just 20 pass blocking snaps, further cementing that the Bengals simply have no good option at the position. LT Jonah Williams and LG Quinton Spain are respectable, but both are better run blockers than pass blockers. Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and CJ Uzomah will take on the lions share of the targets. The Bengals typically run Boyd and Higgins on the outside and Boyd in the slot, with the latter handling the shorter routes. Uzomah, catching the memo that it's cool for tight ends to sprain their MCL, had the exact same injury as Higbee last week. Per Profootballdoc, Uzomah's MCL injury is worse than Higbee. The doc said that he normally wouldn't expect Uzomah to play at all if it were a regular season game, but will likely suit up for the Super Bowl and will be severely limited, "especially on cuts and blocks to the right." Drew Sample filled in for Uzomah when he went down in the Conference Championships, but the 2019 2nd rounder has been far from effective when he does see the playing field, though he is at least grading well as a pass blocker. In the backfield, Joe Mixon will handle the carries, with Samaje Perine chipping in as a receiving back (though Mixon still runs more routes than Perine). By DVOA, the Bengals are better passing (15th) than running (20th). They mix up their run/pass plays, ranking 13th in early-down situation neutral pass rate. They run 11 personnel 77% of the time, which is 2nd most in the league. They run 12 personnel 18% of the time.
The Rams defense:
The Rams on defense are 5th in DVOA and 8th in EPA/play. By now, their defensive line needs no introduction, but here is one anyway: they're the best defensive line in football. They're sitting at 1st in both ESPN's pass rush win rate AND run stop win rate metrics. Aaron Donald, maybe you've heard of him, is an interior pass rushing freak and hands down the best defensive player in football, accumulating 102 pressures and 17 sacks. Von Miller, who came over from Denver in week 10, may not quite be in his prime, but he's still a force to be reckon with and has been playing at prime Von Miller levels this postseason. The Rams also get production out of DE Leonard Floyd (70 pressures, 13 sacks) and DT Greg Gaines (43 pressures, 6 sacks). Their linebackers are the weak part of the defense, but it simply doesn't matter when your line is that strong. The secondary is led by Jalen Ramsey, PFF's top graded corner. The Rams were using Ramsey as a slot corner to start the year, but he's since shifted to the outside. Darius Williams (outside) and David Long Jr (slot) will start with Ramsey, and both are beatable. The safety room took a massive hit when Jordan Fuller injured his ankle in week 18, ending his season. They will get Taylor Rapp back for the first time since week 18 where he suffered a concussion. That leaves Nick Scott and 37 year old Eric Weddle, who was signed off the couch ahead of the playoffs to assist the Rams with their safety injuries. The result is a secondary that lacks production behind Ramsey. Regardless, the Rams have been effective both in the pass (6th in DVOA) and run game (5th). They rank 11th in blitz rate at 26.6% and are one of the more zone heavy teams in all of football, playing mostly Cover-3 (much like Cincinnati). The scheme leads to the Rams being stingy against deep passes (2nd in DVOA) and softer against underneath throws (22nd).
Bengals offense vs Rams defense matchup:
The big story is going to be the Rams defensive line vs Bengals offensive line, and rightfully so. There isn't a realistic world where the Rams aren't in or around Burrow's grill for the duration of the game. They should do it without much blitzing because A) as noted above, Burrow is extremely good against the blitz and B) it isn't necessary. Further, the Rams secondary will need additional help in covering the Bengals talented receiving trio. Burrow needs to build from his performance in the Conference Championship in terms of avoiding sacks, but it's more likely he's going to be eating turf.
Burrow should take advantage of the Rams zone with throws underneath, which will mostly benefit Tyler Boyd. As noted above, this isn't necessarily something that the Bengals aren't willing to do (Burrow is 6th in short passing rate). However, a team with Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins will understandably want to take their deep shots. They also need to avoid 1st down runs that go nowhere, which was a problem in the Conference Championships. The offensive line isn't good enough to make room for Mixon to run against the Rams defensive line, and failed runs can quickly lead to third and longs, which won't end well.
The good news for the Bengals is the Rams are just 17th in the league in EPA/play against passes from 11 personnel. There's a path where the Bengals can be successful, but it will be far from easy to implement and stick to, particularly if the Rams offense puts up points quickly.
If anyone actually read this entire thing, I love and appreciate you. Enjoy the game.