Sports

Can Joe Burrow Overcome the Biggest Mismatch of the Super Bowl?

Maybe!

Burrow in his uniform scrambling with the ball out to his side and pointing to his face
Bengals QB Joe Burrow during the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 30, in Kansas City. David Eulitt/Getty Images

Every football game has mismatches within. No two opposing players have the exact same skill levels and pre-snap information, and coaches spend weeks at a time scheming up ways to put one guy against another guy at the exact right second. The Super Bowl has fewer of these mismatches than most, because teams that have a lot of crippling vulnerabilities don’t tend to make it to the Super Bowl. Coaches will find them anyway, but it’s hard for one player to crush another so thoroughly that it tips the entire game. That usually requires a shifting circumstance, like Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane hurting his arm early in Super Bowl 49 against the New England Patriots. Lane’s replacement, Tharold Simon, couldn’t do much of anything to stop Patriots slot receiver Julian Edelman. But even that wasn’t the decisive factor in the game, as the Patriots won on a goal-line interception by undrafted cornerback Malcolm Butler.

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What happens, though, if an entire unit in a Super Bowl is so much better than its counterpart that it feels like they don’t belong on the same field at all, let alone in this game? On paper and according to just about anyone’s eyeballs, that’s the situation presented in Super Bowl 56 on Sunday in Los Angeles between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. The Rams’ defensive front seven is probably the best in the NFL, and is certainly anchored by the best defensive player in the world, do-everything lineman Aaron Donald. The Bengals’ offensive line, tasked with blocking Donald and his colleagues, is decidedly less good. On its own terms, the line is not even close to playoff-caliber, let alone Super Bowl–worthy, but has gotten here because the Bengals’ quarterback and receivers are good enough to win games anyway. So, Sunday night is a football science experiment one way or another. It will either tell us how much an offensive coaching staff can scheme around a talent disadvantage in two weeks while the opposing staff is preparing just the same, or it will reveal exactly how much of a line play disparity a quarterback and a couple of wide receivers can overcome on their own.

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This is not the first time a Super Bowl offensive line has tried to block defensive players it has no business trying to block. It happened a year ago, albeit a bit surprisingly, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers overwhelmed the Kansas City Chiefs’ line and forced Patrick Mahomes to run for his life all night in a Tampa Bay win. Mahomes only took three sacks, but he faced pressure on a whopping 38 percent of his dropbacks and never had a chance to get comfortable.

If everything goes as it should—that’s a distinct if—the Bengals’ Joe Burrow is in for a similar experience on Sunday. Let’s unroll the tale of the tape.

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In one corner: the Rams’ excellent defensive line and linebackers. Donald is not just a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, but the best player of the past decade, and he would be more broadly recognized as such in a world that appreciated defensive stars. He remains at the peak of his powers as a statistical anomaly who can barely be slowed down with double teams. Donald would wreak hell if you or I were next to him on the line, so it’s unfair that the Rams have given him quality teammates to prevent offenses from focusing exclusively on Donald. His two fellow down linemen, Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson, are both tackle-sized like Donald and make the Rams extremely difficult to run against. Outside linebacker Von Miller, an All-Pro and Super Bowl MVP with the Denver Broncos, has bounced back from an injury-erased 2020 and given L.A. elite edge defense. The other outside backer, Leonard Floyd, is a good pass-rusher in his own right. Floyd had a team-leading 18 QB hurries to go with his 9.5 sacks this season. Among Rams defenders, only Donald (12.5) had more sacks.

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In the other corner: the Bengals’ offensive line. This is a grim situation. While the Rams defense finished the season first in both Pass Rush and Run Stop Win Rate, ESPN’s measurement of head-to-head combat results between front players, the Bengals’ offense was much worse. Cincinnati was 30th of 32 teams in Pass Block Win Rate and 10th in the same stat for run-blocking. The latter didn’t lead to the run game being much good: Cincinnati finished near the bottom of the league in expected points added per rush. Burrow got sacked 51 times in the regular season, four more than anyone else in the league. Pro Football Focus graded the Bengals as the 20th best line overall, which is just about the high end of the assessments anyone could possibly make of this unit. The Tennessee Titans sacked Burrow nine times, even as he managed to throw for 348 yards in the divisional round. In the AFC Championship against Kansas City, the Bengals swapped out guard Hakeem Adeniji for Jackson Carman, replacing bad results with more bad results. There is never a good time to not know for sure who your best interior linemen are, but “right before you play Aaron Donald” is the worst time. The Bengals’ main problems are likely to be on the right side of the line, where Adeniji plays guard next to tackle Isaiah Prince. The Rams could either have Donald blow them up or, maybe more diabolically, put him elsewhere to attract attention and leave those two isolated.

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The Bengals’ head coach is Zac Taylor, who is mostly fine. Their offensive coordinator is Brian Callahan, son of former Nebraska and NFL coach Bill. Their offensive line coach is Frank Pollack, who looks a lot like an offensive line coach. These men do what they can to help Burrow, who gets rid of the ball faster than all but a few quarterbacks. One route to a Cincy victory is for these three men to put together the game plan of a goddamn lifetime and keep Burrow insulated against a premier defensive front. It would be a football magic trick.

The other route is for Burrow to do what he’s done all year: Accept that his life and limb are in constant danger, and make a bunch of great throws anyway en route to victory. This could happen! Burrow has blossomed into an excellent NFL quarterback. He leads the NFL in completion percentage over expectation, a measurement of his accuracy that takes into account the difficulty of his attempts. Rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who teamed with Burrow on the best college offense ever at LSU in 2019, is a unicorn of a player who can do anything. Tee Higgins, a second-year man from Clemson, gets less attention than Chase (from both defenses and media) and turned in a 1,000-yard season in his own right, filled with lots of above-average catches. Slot receiver Tyler Boyd is as good a No. 3 target as a team could ever demand. Tight end C.J. Uzomah, amid all of those weapons, is adept at getting open himself. Burrow’s quick throws have helped him avoid pressure, and the offense has hummed along.

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That is going to be hard to keep up against L.A., not just because of Donald v. Bad Offensive Line but because the Rams’ secondary is not a pushover itself. Jalen Ramsey is among the best cornerbacks in the NFL, one of a precious few who won’t be automatically overmatched against Chase. The rest of the defensive backfield lacks a standout, so one would think someone from Cincinnati can get open more often than not—as long as Burrow isn’t on his back, which he might be given the talent disparity on the line.

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It’s a lot for Burrow, Chase, Higgins, and Boyd to bite off, which is why the Bengals are 4-point underdogs. They’ve been doing a lot with not a lot of help all season, though, and have uplifted one of the most woebegone franchises in sports. That the Bengals hadn’t won a playoff game in any of their lifetimes before this season was partly bad luck—they’d had a handful of close losses in opening-round games—but in totality the product of mismanagement by an owner, Mike Brown, who remains in charge of the team. The Bengals have some good players beyond their passing attack. Their defense is average-ish overall but has stood up repeatedly in the playoffs, and rookie Evan McPherson is the spearhead of the most impressive postseason ever for NFL kickers. Burrow and the wideouts did not deliver the Bengals here all by themselves, because that is not possible, but they did as convincing an impression as a small handful of players could ever do in getting this franchise to this point.

The Rams’ front players on defense present the mismatch of all Super Bowl mismatches. There is no reason the Bengals’ linemen should be able to keep Burrow comfortable and upright throughout the game. His well-being should be in danger. But that has been the case many times this season, and Burrow is not just standing, but delivering. Most quarterbacks couldn’t win a Lombardi Trophy in the face of all of that, but Burrow might well be the dude who can.

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