Game Overview ::
By hilow >>
- Although nine players were present on the Rams early injury report, all but one were described as “extra rest days” by head coach Sean McVay, the one being tight end Tyler Higbee and his MCL sprain.
- It’s a similar story for the Bengals, who currently list five players on the injury report but four of the five are likely to go, while tight end CJ Uzomah is legitimately questionable with an MCL sprain.
- It remains to be seen whether or not these two tight ends will go this weekend. If they do, it will likely be with a heavy brace and they will likely struggle with lateral movements, which could influence their route tree and blocking efficiency.
- The inefficient early-down play-calling tendencies exhibited by the Bengals are likely to have a large influence on the overall flow and environment of this game (explained more below).
- Both teams have largely leaned into the run on early downs throughout the postseason, with the Rams maintaining a surprising 57% first down rush rate over the past three weeks (third to only the Titans and Niners, of playoff teams) and the Bengals checking in fifth at 49%, of playoff teams.
- Two teams that rely heavily on their primary offensive pieces, with very little room for secondary production. That said, the field knows this, meaning secondary pieces are likely to go extremely under-owned for the Showdown slate.
How los angeles Will Try To Win ::
I was surprised to uncover that the Rams have been even more run-heavy on early downs than the Bengals (surprised based on my own biases having watched all playoff games, but also surprised because the industry has keyed in on the fact that the Bengals have forced themselves into egregiously long down and distance to go situations throughout the playoffs), ranking ahead of only the Titans and 49ers in first down pass rate during the playoffs. When you expand that exploration, they hold a 47% first and second down rush rate, but have played only 17 total offensive snaps from behind all postseason. It then becomes very clear that the Rams have chosen to rely on their otherworldly defense and simply manage the game on offense. And while they did have somewhat of a cakewalk game in the Wildcard Round against the Cardinals, the subsequent games came against the top run defenses of the Buccaneers and 49ers, indicating to me that Sean McVay is either coaching scared (less likely) or that the heavier early-down rush rates are by design after a grueling season. These findings are even more startling when you compare them to the 65% first and second down pass rate the Rams finished the regular season with, which ranked seventh in the league. So, is McVay coaching scared, or is this a concerted effort to wear the opposition down after 20+ weeks of football? Honestly, the answer to that question doesn’t really matter because we’ve now seen this trend continue for three consecutive weeks, meaning we have enough data points to be able to confidently say that it is likely to continue. The final piece to the puzzle of expected rush-pass rates is the injury to Tyler Higbee, who is highly unlikely to make it back in time for this one. While Los Angeles increased their situational pass rates from the second quarter on in the Conference Championship game against the Niners (after Higbee got hurt), they were playing from behind into the fourth quarter by that point. Basically, it’s safe to assume we see the same conservative early-down approach regardless of Higbee’s status here.
Lead back duties flipped last game from Cam Akers back to Sony Michel, the latter of whom out-snapped the former by 50% in the Conference Championship game after taking a back seat to the rookie the previous two weeks. The issue in projecting the expected workload of this backfield for the Super Bowl is neither have been overly efficient with their opportunities, not to mention the likely return of Darrell Henderson. All three have now been exposed to workhorse roles in this offense this year, and it has actually been Henderson who has been the most consistent runner (4.62 yards per carry this year, compared to 3.97 for Michel and a paltry 2.61 for Akers). Furthermore, the Rams have either fed one running back the majority of touches or gone with the “hot hand” for the entirety of the season, introducing an interesting dynamic to this backfield this week. We’ll dive further into that theoretical discussion down in the DFS+ Interpretation section. The matchup on the ground yields an average net-adjusted line yards value of 4.325, much higher than their opponent’s on the other side. The final piece of the equation is the low 13% running back target rate this season from the Rams, meaning any of the three are likely to have to do their damage through the ground game and by getting into the end zone. To that point, each of the times that Stafford snuck into the end zone on one-yard plunges this postseason came directly following multiple running back rush attempts inside the five, so it’s not really like we have to all of a sudden be worried about Stafford running in close.
Receiving expectations for the Rams during the postseason have become rather predictable, with the team looking to get Odell Beckham, Jr. going early in each of the last two games, which subsequently gives way to an onslaught of Cooper Kupp targets when the possessions begin to mean a little more. As in, OBJ has been targeted heavily on the first couple of possessions over the previous two games, while Kupp has seen the work when it matters more towards the end of games. I honestly haven’t worked out whether or not this is actionable intel in any way yet, but it stuck out to me when going through this game. I’ll have more to say on the situation when I release the DFS+ Interpretation in a couple of days (likely written on Thursday and released Friday to allow some more fidelity on both tight-end situations). Either way, Cooper Kupp is the main cog in this pass offense (clearly) and should be treated as such in a matchup that doesn’t clearly point to one pass-catcher standing out above the rest. Fighting through injury for the majority of the postseason, Van Jefferson, Jr. has taken a backseat to both OBJ and Kupp, seeing only nine total targets over the previous three games (compared to 32 for Kupp and 23 for OBJ). The 17 combined targets amongst Tyler Higbee and Kendall Blanton during the playoffs (just under six per game) are likely to fall on Blanton, should Higbee miss (likely). Blanton’s modest 5.9 aDOT, 14.9% target rate on routes run, and small 0.28 yards per route run likely means he would require a trip to the end zone in order to provide fantasy utility, but the tight ends in this offense maintain heavy red zone roles.
How CINCINNATI Will Try To Win ::
The Bengals finished the regular season ranked 30th in both situation-neutral and overall pace of play, which led to a 22nd-ranked 61.9 average plays per game during the regular season. They have seemingly continued that “ball control” mentality into the postseason, running only 59, 55, and 65 offensive plays against the Raiders, Titans, and Chiefs, respectively (the league average in offensive plays run per game during the regular season was just under 64 per game). Their offensive play-calling tendencies have also remained fairly consistent into the postseason, as their 60.9% playoff pass rate falls right in line with their season average of just under 60%. One of the most glaring inefficiencies exhibited by this squad during the postseason has been an extremely high first down rush rate, which continued through low efficiency during all three postseason games. Logically, that would be something to change against a Rams defense that allowed the fourth-fewest yards per rush attempt during the regular season, but it remains to be seen if head coach Zac Taylor will make those adjustments after exhibiting high first down rush rates over the first three playoff games. This early down inefficiency led to repeatedly being faced with second-and-third-and-long down and distance to go, which is likeliest to influence expected drive success rate and early-game scoring expectation this week. One could argue that this heavy, inefficient early-down rush rate is by design, in an effort to weaken coverages for later downs, but there is really no telling why the Bengals have seemingly accepted inefficient production on early downs throughout the postseason. If that trend continues into the Super Bowl, it could spell trouble on later downs against the likes of Von Miller and Aaron Donald along the Rams defensive line.
Lead back Joe Mixon has maintained a “larger than lead back but smaller than workhorse” role into the postseason, landing snap rates of 77%, 72%, and 75% in the three Bengals playoff games. Mixon’s pass game involvement has also been much more bankable towards the end of the regular season and into the postseason, having seen at least three targets in each of his last five games, finishing four of those five games with five targets or more. His postseason opportunity totals stand at 22, 21, and 24, bringing a rock-solid, volume-based range of outcomes to the table for the Super Bowl. Behind Mixon, expect Samaje Perine to continue to operate as the primary change of pace and two-minute offense back after seeing between 13 and 17 offensive snaps in each playoff game thus far. It bears mention that Perine has seen only seven total running back opportunities over the Bengals three playoff games, but the field is likely to key in on the late first half, 41-yard receiving touchdown in the Conference Championship game against the Chiefs. The matchup on the ground yields a well below average 4.1 net-adjusted line yards metric against a Rams defense that allowed only 21.7 fantasy points per game to opposing backfields. Of note, the 54.10% red zone touchdown rate allowed and 14 total touchdowns allowed to opposing running backs each landed in the middle of the pack during the regular season, as did the 103 total targets filtered to opposing backfields. More on this below.
Joe Burrow finished the regular season with above-average passing marks across the board, with an 8.1 intended air yards per pass attempt value (ninth), 6.4 completed air yards per completion value (eighth), and 4611 total pass yards (sixth). He also benefited from the fifth-most receiver yards after catch. The relative problem of late has been the predictable nature of the offense from a situational play-calling standpoint, meaning Burrow has been forced to beat heavier coverages and more defenders over the middle of the field when throwing, something he has handled well up to this point in his second season. Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (elite 36.9% share of available air yards, elite 8.3 average YAC per reception, above-average 12.5 aDOT and 23.6% team target market share) has been a revelation for this squad, immediately filling the alpha wide receiver role. He remains the primary pass-catcher for an offensive unit that places a heavy emphasis on 11-personnel groupings. It will be interesting to see how the Rams choose to deploy Jalen Ramsey in coverage this week, as Chase profiles as a wideout that Ramsey would typically shadow (quick, shifty, with a robust route tree). Playing opposite Chase on the perimeter is standout second-year wide receiver Tee Higgins (elite 30.6% share of available air yards, above-average 20.4% team target market share and 11.9 aDOT, below average 3.9 average YAC per reception), who could stand to benefit from any additional attention given to Chase this week. One of the more interesting pieces from this pass-catching corps, through the injury to CJ Uzomah, is slot man Tyler Boyd, who could stand to benefit from the absence or ineffectiveness from Uzomah over the middle of the field. His low 7.7 aDOT and modest 17.3% team target market share mean he needs additional volume to return GPP-worthy scores, but the state of this game environment and team point to that likely being the case this week. Uzomah had worked his way into a featured tight end role prior to his MCL sprain, meaning an absence would likely force primary blocker Drew Sample into a heavy role. Even if he somehow makes his way back into the lineup for this game, the nature of his injury could limit his lateral mobility, which could influence his effectiveness coming out of routes as well as any blocking he is asked to do (mostly an impact to run-blocking, as quickness off the line to meet his blocks could be more difficult). I would tentatively expect Drew Sample to be the primary tight end this week, and I would expect him to be primarily used as a blocker, opening up the opportunity for Tyler Boyd to be relied on more over the middle of the field.
Likeliest Game Flow ::
The likeliest game flow is most likely to be influenced by the early-down play-calling tendencies of the Bengals because while both teams have largely focused on the run on early downs during the postseason, the Rams are much more likely to sustain success in this approach when compared to the Bengals. As in, if they continue to force early-down rushing, we are likely to see the Rams control the pace, flow, and environment of the first half, likely jumping out to an early lead and forcing the Bengals into second-half catch-up mode. Since we’ve seen the Bengals stick to this conservative early-down game plan for three playoff weeks up to this point, it stands to reason that they will continue this approach this week. That said, we have no idea how the Bengals have been game-planning for the Rams, and this very simple chokepoint of early-down rushing inefficiency seems to be one of the easier “fixes” for their offense as a whole. All of that to say, the likeliest game flow stems from the Bengals and their play-calling tendencies, particularly those on early downs, but that same game flow is almost entirely rooted in tendencies that could change for this game, so take it with a grain of salt. We’ll further that exploration in the DFS+ Interpretation section below.
The other side of that exploration revolves around the Bengals coming out aggressive on early downs, which is likely to take the Rams by somewhat of a surprise considering McVay and his coaching staff are likely privy to this same information we have uncovered here. As in, it is likely we see the Rams expect the Bengals to continue their heavy rush rates on early downs. This could open up the opportunity for some downfield splash plays early in the game for the Bengals if they can catch the Rams “sleeping” on early downs. That would be most likely to come through Ja’Marr Chase, making him an interesting captain selection on rosters that paint this game opening up early (whereas Tee Higgins would become more optimal through the lens of the Bengals playing from behind, based on matchup and tendencies). Again, more on this below.