First of a four-part series looking at strategy for Super Bowl LVI. Part 1: How will the Cincinnati Bengals deal with Aaron Donald and the Rams’ pass rush?
Isaiah Prince will appear in his 23rd career NFL game — including the playoffs — on Sunday in Super Bowl LVI.
None of the first 22 included Aaron Donald.
“He plays with that aggression, that passion,” Cincinnati’s 24-year-old right tackle said. “His talent. His technique. His hands. He’s always playing hard. It’s what everybody speaks about.”
At this stage, it is pretty safe to assume that imagining what it’s like to play against Donald, the Rams’ all-universe defensive tackle, is nothing like actually playing against him.
That inexperience alone could be concerning enough for the Bengals. Now add in the fact that their offensive line was the leakiest in the NFL during the season, surrendering a league-high 51 sacks.
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Donald led the Rams with 12½ sacks, followed by edge rusher Leonard Floyd, who had 9½. As a team, the Rams ranked third this season with 50 sacks.
Asked to assess Donald, Cincinnati offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, “There really are no words to describe how good he is.”
With the forecast calling for temperatures in the 80s at SoFi Stadium, Cincinnati’s offense could be feeling two versions of heat.
So, what’s the Bengals’ best answer in attempting to chill things out just a bit? Well, what’s the Bengals’ best answer to almost everything these days? Joe Burrow. Indeed, Joe Cool himself.
The team’s second-year quarterback has thrived in hostile conditions. This season he ranked first in the NFL with an 89.6 passer rating when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.
Burrow was sacked nine times in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs at Tennessee. But he still passed for 348 yards and led Cincinnati to points on five of 12 possessions in a 19-16 victory.
And, when things do turn uncomfortable, Burrow is most comfortable if he’s the one holding the football.
“Quarterback is the one position on the field that can really affect the game on every single play,” he said. “I like having the ball in my hands every play and being able to win or lose with me.”
Burrow famously has excelled against the blitz going all the way back to his high school days in Ohio. So that might not be the Rams’ best strategy. They were 11th in blitz percentage (26.6) during the season.
So far in the playoffs, the Rams sacked Kyler Murray once and Tom Brady three times before failing to get Jimmy Garoppolo on the ground in the NFC championship game.
Of course, that victory was sealed when Garoppolo — while in the twisting grip of Donald — threw an interception with an ugly, backhanded toss that was the opposite of Joe Montana’s exquisite toss to Dwight Clark for “The Catch.”
After that mighty struggle against the Titans, Prince and the Bengals’ offensive line rebounded against Kansas City in the AFC championship game. Burrow was sacked only once and hit just three other times by the Chiefs.
He also exploited the pass rush twice in the fourth quarter by eluding pressure and scrambling to convert third downs on a key field-goal drive that gave Cincinnati the lead.
By employing his legs, Burrow basically “Patrick Mahome’d” Kansas City. Could he do the same to the Rams?
Said Bengals coach Zac Taylor, “That’s really the beauty of Joe Burrow.”
So, Cincinnati’s best player is likely the team’s best option in beating Donald, Floyd and the rest, at least based on recent results.
But here’s something else to consider: In five regular-season games, Burrow was sacked five or more times. On those occasions, the Bengals were 1-4.