The defense of the Los Angeles Rams is filled with stars. One area where it noticeably does not is in the middle of the field in coverage. That area could play a significant part in how the Cincinnati Bengals are able to attack and have success on offense.
Few teams were worse coving the short middle of the field than the Rams in 2021. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Rams ranked 29th in EPA per play allowed on throws between 1-10 air yards in the middle of the field. Few quarterbacks have been better on short passes, as Joe Burrow was third in EPA per attempt on throws to that area.
With many of the obvious mismatches favoring the Rams in the Super Bowl, this is one that can lean to the Bengals’ side. The question is how Cincinnati will go about it and how often the offense will try to take advantage of that area.
Part of the key could be the alignment and production of Ja’Marr Chase. Chase doesn’t line up in the slot often — just 16.2% of his routes, though that is up to 21.5% in the playoffs — but how the Rams go about defending Chase when he’s on the outside will tip how the rest of the offense can open up around him.
As Steven Ruiz of The Ringer noted, the Bengals have isolated Chase more often over the second half of the season, especially against Fangio-inspired defenses. That’s led to some production from Chase when the corner across from him has been overmatched. Chase’s best routes when isolated have been verticals. He’s run a ton of go routes and has done the most damage when those have set up back shoulder fades (nine receptions for 177 yards).
With that explosive ability, the Rams are likely to have Jalen Ramsey across from Chase when he’s isolated in the formation. Ramsey spent the regular season bouncing between playing outside and in the slot in the Rams’ Star position but in the playoffs, he’s mostly stayed outside.
Ramsey’s presence matters because the rest of the Rams’ cornerback group has been up and down throughout the season. Rasmey has been incredible wherever he line up — he was among the best corners in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap, which includes touchdowns and interceptions — but the rest of the group hovered around average at best. Below are the Rams corners that played at least 100 coverage snaps during the regular season. The average in AYA/CS among 150 corners that qualified was 0.90.
Rams cornerbacks, 2021
Charting data per Sports Info Solutions
The Bengals can test some Chase-Ramsey matchups but having those two off on their own could allow Cincinnati to work on the other side of the field.
Chase had the most isolated routes run in a game against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13. On 25 routes, Chase managed only three catches and 32 yards on five targets (with a drop-turned-interception on what should have been a long touchdown). When the Bengals played the Fangio defense against the Broncos in Week 15, Chase had only had 10 isolated routes, which resulted in one target and no receptions. In that game, Chase saw Patrick Surtain in primary coverage on 10 total routes, which led to no targets on the day.
Against those defenses, Chase had the third-highest target share on the team. His production on a yards per route run basis was also well below that of Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
Bengals WR vs Chargers & Broncos, 2021
data per TruMedia/PFF
|Player||Routes||Yds/Route||Target Share||aDOT||YAC/Rec||Snaps Wide||Snaps Slot|
While the overall offensive output was not great in either of those matchups, there were some flashes the Bengals could cling onto and take into the Super Bowl game plan against the Rams.
On a third-and-4 in the second quarter against the Chargers, the Bengals came out in a 3×1 bunch look with Chase as the isolated receiver. A switch release from tight end C.J. Uzomah breaking inside and Higgins going out left Boyd in a one-on-one matchup against Derwin James. Boyd faked a cut to the outside and broke in for a gain of 32 yards.
As well as some of the Rams’ safeties have been playing in this playoff run, James presents a much better player than any safety or linebacker Boyd would potentially be lined up against in this situation against the Rams.
Perhaps a 15-yard gain to Higgins later in the game might look more like something that would play out in the Super Bowl. Chase again was an isolated receiver with Uzomah in-line on the opposite side. Uzomah, Boyd, and Chase all went vertical with a shallow crosser from Higgins. As Burrow had to bail from the pocket against pressure, Higgins kept running across the field and he was able to run past linebacker Kyzir White, who was responsible for picking the receiver up in coverage.
Another way the Bengals have taken advantage of zone coverages has been to get Higgins on in-breaking routes from the outside in trips. Cincinnati got him on a 17-yard gain in the first quarter against Denver from an empty look:
Against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, the Bengals went to a 3×1 set and had all three wide receivers on the trips side while Drew Sample was isolated. Vertical routes from Boyd and Chase left a void in the middle of the field for a 16-yard Higgins gain.
This says nothing about Higgins’s ability to win on his own on the outside, especially if he’s matched up against smaller cornerbacks such as Williams, who is listed at 5’9″.
The Rams could combat some of these middle of the field gaps by relying more on their defensive backs, specifically the safeties. The Rams spent 20% of their defensive snaps in dime during the regular season, but that has gone down to just 3% in the playoffs due to injuries at safety. Taylor Rapp is expected to be available for the Super Bowl after being out for the playoffs and that could lead to some Rapp-Nick Scott–Eric Weddle three-safety looks.
There are already hints the Rams could be moving in that direction. Weddle is going to be the defensive playcaller in the Super Bowl, a responsibility that had been given to linebacker Troy Reeder after the injury to Jordan Fuller. Making Weddle the defensive playcaller means he’s not coming off the field (he already played 100% of the snaps in the NFC Championship Game) and could open up a rotation that sees Reeder come off the field for another defensive back.
With rookie linebacker Ernest Jones back against the 49ers (he played 43% of the snaps in his first game since Week 16), the Rams could use him as the lone linebacker on the field for more passing situations. Jones has a lower yards per coverage snap figure (0.4 to 0.6), yards per target (4.8 to 6.9), and completion percentage allowed (61.9% to 80.6%) than Reeder this season, according to SIS charting.
There are a ton of moving pieces here that will decide one of the game’s most intriguing matchups. Chase vs Ramsey has the flair and name value, but how the Rams can hold up against the other Bengals receivers, especially across the middle of the field, could be the deciding factor in how close Cincinnati can keep the game when the Bengals have the ball.