The story of last year’s Super Bowl, to a large degree at least, was Kansas City’s porous offensive line and the treachery of trying to win the biggest game of the year when you can’t protect your most prized asset. And the narrative surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals headed into Sunday’s Super Bowl, at least as far as their potential weaknesses go, is the offensive line’s inability to protect Joe Burrow.
Like the Bucs, the Rams made the most notable acquisition of the offseason and he was a veteran quarterback. Both teams were hosting the Super Bowl the years that they made it. Both teams acquired star receivers in the middle of the season. Both brought back borderline Hall of Fame talents thought to be well past thoughts of playing football again. The Rams and Bucs also both lost five regular season games and entered the playoffs as a wild card.
The Bengals are decidedly different than the 2020 Buccaneers and the 2021 Rams however.
For the final time this season, here is everything you need to know about the LA Rams’ next opponent.
2021 record: 10-7 (3-0 playoffs)
Head coach: Zac Taylor
OC: Zac Taylor/Brian Callahan
Through the entire head coaching interview process, it appears that only the Denver Broncos were interested in Callahan as a candidate in 2022. That’s odd, and Callahan had a six-year relationship with the Broncos so that interview was practically a requisite check-in or a favor to get his name out there a bit more.
Callahan has served as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator since 2019, worked in Denver during all four of Peyton Manning’s seasons as the helm, served as Matthew Stafford’s quarterbacks coach in Detroit for two years, then moved onto Derek Carr for one season and has since helped develop Joe Burrow into an early-career NFL star.
There are two extremely obvious reasons that nobody is crying foul over Brian Callahan though: Presumed nepotism and a belief that Zac Taylor does everything for the offense.
The 37-year-old Callahan’s father Bill coached Jon Gruden’s Raiders to the Super Bowl in 2002 against Jon Gruden and he’s been around forever. Bill Callahan has also been the offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns over the last two seasons.
The narrative that Zac Taylor does all the play-calling by himself is false, however and Taylor says that game day play-calling is overrated anyway:
“If people could hear the headset (with me saying) ‘Hey Brian, here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think? (He’ll say) I think that’s a great call Zac,’ ” Taylor said. “‘Or no, I think we might get quarters (coverage) here, so you might think about calling this.’ It’s semantics on who calls plays. I feel like he calls a lot of plays because I know that if he’s saying something he’s certainly put in the work and is an expert on what we’re about to see. If we run 60 plays, he’s a part of all of them.”
If the opportunity were to present itself, Callahan believes he’s more than ready to call plays. That’s not to say he thinks he should be calling them over Taylor. Taylor and Callahan both reiterated at times the play-calling piece of the game plan is at times overblown because of the collaboration that takes place in the days leading up to the game.
Much of what the Bengals choose to do offensively on Sunday will be decided days in advance and it’s a collaborative process between Taylor, Callahan, Burrow, and the rest of the offensive staff and players.
“I’ve felt like I’ve been ready to call plays for a long time,” Callahan said. “But I do think it’s important that the guy in charge is calling the plays he wants them called. I also think the process of play-calling gets overblown. There’s a ton of preparation that goes into setting a game plan for Sunday.”
RamsWire succinctly breaks down Cincy’s offensive tendencies here:
Despite Taylor translating some of McVay’s schemes and tendencies during his tenure with the Bengals, he doesn’t use bunch or trips formations nearly as much. Another area that Taylor has varied from the McVay system is the informational width, which has notably increased since the arrival of Joe Burrow last season.
Formations have become more condensed in certain offenses as pre-snap motions and pick-plays have become popular across the NFL. Meanwhile, the Bengals have elected to go against the grain by spreading out their offense.
That’s just a minor preview of what you might see in the Bengals offensive gameplan but the narrative will continue to surround Burrow, the offensive line, and how much time he has to throw to Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and C.J. Uzomah. Yes, it is true that Burrow was sacked nine times in the AFC divisional round against the Titans and yes he was sacked an NFL-high 51 times in the regular season.
But Burrow had 38 dropbacks against the Raiders in the wild card and was sacked twice, while he had 44 against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship and was sacked once.
Even if Aaron Donald is built different, and even if he’s surrounded by a lot of talent right now, this is one game and it’s the Super Bowl and it’s hard to predict protection. There’s a good probability that Burrow will be sacked at least two times. If the Rams can get to him five or more, that’s a great sign.
Still hard to believe Joe Burrow got away from this @StoneColdJones near-sack.@Mathieu_Era: "That dude is smart. He's 1-2, waiting everybody to go and then he tries to find a lane."pic.twitter.com/Lkievx1ciN— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) February 2, 2022
If the Bengals put Burrow in a position to win the Super Bowl in year two, it’s going to be hard to imagine Brian Callahan only getting one interview next year.
2021 offensive ranks
Pass attempts: 20st
Rushing attempts: 19th
Net yards per pass attempt: 3rd
Passing touchdowns: 7th
Rushing yards: 23rd
Yards per carry: 26th
Rushing touchdowns: 14th
Points per drive: 11th
Red Zone O: 16th
3rd down: 16th
Time of Possession: 16th
DVOA: 17th (18th passing, 19th rushing)
Offensive “strength of schedule”: 17th
*Essentially, FootballOutsiders is saying that the Bengals offense has faced an average schedule of defenses by DVOA.
Offensive Depth Chart
DC: Lou Anarumo
The only team to interview Anarumo for a head coaching vacancy this year was the New York Giants. Given how the Bengals have performed in the playoffs, that also seems unlikely to stick when the 55-year-old Anarumo is available again in a year.
After a 23-year career in college, mostly at stops with Harvard, Marshall, and Purdue, Anarumo didn’t really become a defensive coordinator until 2019 under Taylor. Callahan and Anarumo both endured those losing seasons in 2019 and 2020 alongside Zac Taylor, so that’s probably another reason that neither was heavily sought after this past January. They also didn’t enter the playoffs as anyone’s favorite to get this far.
But Cincinnati’s defense has gotten better as the games have gotten more important.
The Bengals allowed 21 points or less in five of their last eight games (only two teams in the NFL had six such games in the final eight) and they have allowed 19, 16, and 24 points in three postseason contests. The Chiefs had scored 84 points in their two playoff games prior to facing Cincinnati. The Raiders scored 35 on Brandon Staley’s Chargers defense a week before getting shutdown by the Bengals.
Trey Hendrickson was the only Pro Bowl player on Cincinnati’s defense this season, rightfully so with 14 sacks in 16 games, but as expected the Pro Bowl rosters may not have been entirely fair and accurate. Safety Jessie Bates III could be an All-Pro at the position; Sam Hubbard has been one of the more underrated edge rushers in the NFL; cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple have been able to rebuilt their reputations this season, as has safety Vonn Bell and defensive tackle D.J. Reader; linebacker Logan Wilson’s across the board stat line with 100 tackles and four interceptions also fits the bill for increased visibility in 2022.
Not a single starter on the Bengals defense is over 27.
To be clear, the Chiefs didn't collapse in the second half. Lou Anarumo made a tremendous adjustment to mainly rush three and the Chiefs had no answers and were held to 3 points.— Andre Perrotta (@andreperrotta13) January 31, 2022
The Bengals won this game. Don't let anyone else claim it was anything less than that.
2021 Defensive Ranks
Points Allowed: 17th
Yards Allowed: 18th
Turnovers Forced: 17th
Net Yards per Pass Attempt Allowed: 21st
Passing Touchdowns Allowed: 13th
Rushing Yards Allowed: 5th
Yards Per Carry Allowed: 13th
Rushing Touchdowns Allowed: 14th
Points Per Drive Allowed: 8th
TOP allowed: 10th
Red Zone D: 19th
3rd down rate: 22nd
DVOA: 19th (24th vs pass, 13th vs run)
Defensive “strength of schedule” rank: 14th
K - Evan McPherson
The rookie has been so impressive that I’m almost concerned for him. It seems like any rookie kicker who experiences immediate success is doomed to get in his head one day, but I do think Evan McPherson’s built more like Justin Tucker than Blair Walsh. He has made all 12 field goal attempts in the postseason and he has more 50+ yard made kicks in a single season+postseason than any kicker in history.
His younger brother Alex McPherson might be even better.
P - Kevin Huber
This is Huber’s 13th season with the Bengals, which means that he also had an 0-5 playoff record prior to 2021. I know that punters aren’t quarterbacks, but it’s interesting to consider that from a human perspective, Huber surely had some common experience to Matthew Stafford going into this season. I’m not saying a lot, but more than you and me.
Despite playing in a career-high 17 games, Huber had a career-tying low of 66 punts; the other time he had 66 punts, he played in 14 games. What I’m saying is, the Bengals offense is good now.