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Rams offense has toughest test of the year in Bengals defense

The Rams have stars in the Super Bowl, but the Super Bowl will create stars for the Bengals—if Stafford can’t help it

Syndication: The Enquirer Albert Cesare / The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

The L.A. Rams are the team that went out and got stars before they reached the Super Bowl. The Cincinnati Bengals are the team that got to the Super Bowl before most of their players have become stars.

But 2022 is going to change the lives of many players on the Bengals from here on out.

Though Cincinnati’s defense is average-at-best on paper, I can’t help but consider one super important fact about them: they’re in the goddamn Super Bowl. And they’re coming off an absolute deconstruction of Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship, brushing off a poor start to the game and making him pay “the Patrick price” for underestimating the defense at the end of the first half.

So in spite of the Bengals’ ranking 17th in points allowed, 26th in passing yards allowed, and 19th in DVOA, what I’m interested in is how a defense without a single starter over the age of 27 has twice defeated Mahomes in the past month, gave up 19 points to the Raiders in the wild card round, 16 points to the Titans in the divisional round, and has forced seven turnovers in the playoffs.

That’s what matters to me. Not purely statistics and preconceived notions about player value based on whether or not they were voted into the Pro Bowl this year.

These players have plenty of awards and honors in their futures, and the Rams have to worry about a whole lot more during Super Bowl LVI than just “Joe Burrow-to-Ja’Marr Chase” or whether Zac Taylor is actually the master and not the grasshopper.

Since their 10th game of the season, the Bengals have held opponents to 21-or-fewer points in five contests and only the Bills, Eagles did that six times. The Rams only did that three times over the final seven weeks. When you add in the playoffs and give Cincinnati credit for their efforts against the Raiders, Titans, then the number goes to seven games; and when you consider that the Bengals held the Chiefs to 21 points in the AFC Championship until the final play of regulation, it could be eight times.

And when you add in a Week 14 OT loss to the 49ers, the Bengals held San Francisco to just 20 points in regulation before allowing a touchdown in overtime. Nine times.

So in Cincinnati’s last 11 total games, the only defensive lapses would be a 41-22 loss to the L.A. Chargers in Week 13—when Cincinnati’s first four drives were fumble, interception, punt, punt, followed in the second half with another fumble and another interception—and a 34-31 win over Kansas City in which, like the most recent game, the Bengals shut down the Chiefs in the second half.

In that same period of time, Week 11 and onward, the Rams and 49ers have the most games with at least one takeaway (10), but the Bengals are right behind them (9) and in fact they have more total takeaways (19) than L.A. does (16).

We know that the L.A. Rams have Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey, and Leonard Floyd, all of whom were top-15 picks in the NFL Draft, but we’ll soon know a lot more about Cincinnati’s rising stars on that side of the ball—many of whom were left for dead by their former teams, making the Bengals look even more savvy for their acquisitions, eye for talent, and depth of knowledge for understanding how these players can be most successful in the NFL.

Nobody stands out more than defensive end Trey Hendrickson, Cincinnati’s lone 2021 Pro Bowler on defense. A third round pick in 2017, Hendrickson had 6.5 sacks total for the New Orleans Saints in his first three seasons. Hendrickson then posted 13.5 sacks in his contract year but seemed to face some skepticism as a free agent in 2021 because of his lack of production prior to when it counted most. The Bengals got him on a four-year, $60 million contract, paying him a little less per year than what L.A. signed Floyd to last offseason.

In his first year with Cincinnati, a team that was led in sacks in 2020 by Carl Lawson with 5.5, the only Bengals player with more than two sacks that season, Hendrickson posted 14 sacks, 27 QB hits, 12 tackles for a loss, and he forced three fumbles. In the playoffs, Hendrickson has 2.5 sacks and another forced fumble in three games.

He just turned 27 in December.

Opposite Hendrickson is Sam Hubbard, a third round pick one year after Hendrickson was a third round pick. An overshadowed bookend to complement Nick Bosa at Ohio State, Hubbard has carved out his own NFL story in the last four years with a lot less attention: after signing a four-year, $40 million extension in 2021, Hubbard posted 7.5 sacks nd 17 QB hits this season.

In the 2021 playoffs, Hubbard has 14 tackles, three sacks, forced fumble, and a batted pass.

If defending these edge rushers isn’t enough for Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein, then surely we can point to a potential mismatch for L.A. in the center of the line as Bengals’ defensive tackle B.J. Hill had 5.5 sacks and 12 QB hits in the regular season and has added 1.5 sacks, three QB hits, and an interception in the playoffs. Hill, a third round pick in 2018 by the Giants, was traded for a seventh round pick and disappointing center Billy Price. Teammate Larry Ogunjobi had seven sacks in the regular season but went on IR in January.

If only the team signed D.J. Reader—oh wait they did, in 2020, and after missing 11 games last year, Reader is back to stuffing the middle like he did for the Houston Texans from 2016-2019.

Reader is 27, Hill is 26, Ogunjobi is 27.

Behind them are 25-year-old linebackers Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt.

Wilson, a third round pick out of Wyoming in 2020, made two starts as a rookie but missed time with injury. He was a Week 1 starter and posted 92 tackles, four interceptions, and five tackles for a loss in the first 12 games before missing most of the final five games—Wilson returned in time for the wild card and he had 30 tackles, an interception, and a tackle for a loss in three playoff games.

Pratt, a third round pick in 2019 out of N.C. State, is already in his third year as a starter for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s defense. He posted a career-high 91 tackles and his first career interception and forced fumbles in 2021, adding five tackles for a loss.

Both Wilson and Pratt seem to be sure-tacklers and are potentially underestimated for his matchup against Cam Akers, Sony Michel and whoever ends up streaking across the middle for Matthew Stafford.

Then comes the Bengals secondary, a group of names that you may have heard of but didn’t realize they were now starting in Cincinnati...and doing quite well this time around.

Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, and Eli Apple were all playing somewhere else in 2020. The Dallas Cowboys let Awuzie walk in free agency after the former second round pick missed half of the 2020 season and posted four interceptions in four years with the team. Awuzie was a standout in Cincinnati camp though and finished this season with 14 passes defensed and two interceptions in 14 games.

Awuzie allowed a passer rating of 75.1, which is roughly the same as Jalen Ramsey, for whatever that can possibly be worth.

Hilton drew less interest than other corners because of his place in the slot, but the Bengals landed him on a four-year, $24 million contract in free agency after spending his career with the Steelers. He had two interceptions and forced six QB pressures with the Bengals, making nine starts.

The most famed is obviously Apple, the former number 10 overall pick by the Giants in 2016. Labeled a ‘bust’ and traded to the Saints in 2018, Apple had just 28 snaps with the Carolina Panthers a year ago. Cincinnati signed him to a one-year deal a day before adding Hilton and he’s become the Bengals starter opposite of Awuzie.

Apple allowed a passer rating of 86.6 and had two interceptions, nearly doubling his career total.

Hilton is the elder statesman of the group, as he will turn 28 in March.

Familiar with being discarded by the Saints, safety Vonn Bell signed with the Bengals in 2020. The former second round pick has been a dependable starter and posted a career-best eight passes defensed, three forced fumbles, and one interception in 2021. The 27-year-old is perhaps in peak form at this very moment.

But eventually everything comes back and around to Jessie Bates III, arguably the most-likely player on the Bengals defense to win Super Bowl MVP, should someone on the Bengals defense win Super Bowl MVP.

A second round pick out of Wake Forest in 2018, when he was barely 21, Bates has started all but two games in his four-year NFL career. He posted over 100 tackles and exactly three interceptions in each of his first three seasons, and was name a second-team All-Pro in 2020. Bates numbers were down slightly in 2021, but he posted the best tackle rate of his career (after missing 14.5% of his tackles in 2019 and 12.8% in 2020, he’s down to 7.4% this season) and is undoubtedly the engine of this unit.

A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Bates played high school ball in the same town and at the same time as Rams receiver Ben Skowronek. If Stafford still has confidence in Skowronek, perhaps he’ll even get his opportunity to atone in the Super Bowl against Bates.

And I’m sure that he’s warning teammates not to underestimate him or the rest of his Bengals defense.

Burrow and Chase are really cool football players who I’m sure will be fun to watch in the coming years, and the same goes for Tee Higgins and the rest of Cincinnati’s young offense. But it is not the offense that is necessarily winning these games and propelling the Bengals to the Super Bowl well before anyone expected it to happen; the Bengals haven’t scored more than 27 points in any of their playoff games, and they needed overtime to get that mark against the Chiefs. This is a team that is looking to win games in which both teams are under 24 points, if they can help it, and that should be even more of the focus for Super Bowl LVI.

The football world may just get acquainted with many of these names right now, but this is not a defense that is coming out of nowhere. They’re in the Super Bowl. They’ve already arrived.

And Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Odell Beckham Jr., (who knows them as well as anybody on the Rams) should be ready.