Rams Key Matchups: Super Bowl Edition
Cooper Kupp vs Ja’Marr Chase
Even though he was the number five overall draft pick a year ago, many questioned Chase’s selection. Why not an offensive lineman? Can he even catch a professional football? Well, all those questions have been answered. Chase has already made his mark in the history books. While his rise has been meteoric, Kupp’s path to the top has been volcanic. He spent four years simmering and bubbling, until boom, liquid hot magma.
Defenses have caught on to the fact that Chase is a force to be reckoned with, but have they been able to do anything about it? Sort of, but not really. Defenses in the first half of the league were caught off guard. Chase’s average depth of target was nearly 16 yards. Had he maintained that rate he would have shattered records, but defenses have adjusted. Since week 10 his average depth of target has been limited to 9.6 yards. While this limits those eye-popping bomb plays, it unleashed another part of Chase’s game, picking up yards after the catch.
This has a lot to do with who he is as a ballplayer, but Chase also benefits from Cincinnati’s other receivers and play calling. If a defense is able to neutralize Chase, they still have the ability to stretch the field vertically with Tee Higgins and stretch the field horizontally with their three other targets; Chase, Tyler Boyd, and tight end CJ Uzomah. This pass-catching corps creates space, space that Chase uses to get open and use his speed to add yards after the catch.
Kupp benefits from a similar effect, especially now that Odell Beckham Jr has found chemistry with Matthew Stafford. What separates Kupp from Chase at this point is Kupp’s ability to improvise on the fly. Kupp reads the defense, then makes his decision on which route to run. This is what allowed Kupp to compile stats at such a high volume. He caught 170 passes this season and postseason. Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee, and Beckham have a combined 178 catches. Normally, when an offense is so reliant on one player it is easy for the threat to be mitigated. But with Kupp’s ‘offense meets bop jazz’ style, defenses are left guessing. Kupp helps the Rams offense from becoming predictable while still being the most targeted receiver in the league. It’s almost like magic. He still gets open, he still makes plays even though everyone knows Stafford is throwing his way. He is McVay’s ‘illusion of complexity’ distilled into a single player. A player that just so happens to be one of the best pass-catchers in the league.
All the attention that Chase has garnered has forced Cincinnati to get the ball out faster. This has come to a head in the playoffs. Burrow’s lowest average depth of target came against Tennessee with 4.2 and his third-lowest came against Kansas City at 7. Obviously, it hasn’t stopped the team from winning, but teams that are able to limit the Bengals’ ability to score dramatically increase their chance of winning. The Bengals have only won twice when held to under 20 points and all losses have come when held under 23 points.Kupp will face coverage in the slot from Mike Hilton. Hilton has lined up in the slot more than any other corner in the league this year and has been targeted the second most. Despite all the heat Hilton has held up well. That said, Kupp will be his hardest challenge to date. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s job will be to figure out how to get help for Hilton against Kupp. Generally, they have relied on, safety, Von Bell to aid in slot coverage
An advantage that the Rams have is the amount of post-snap movement they manage to incorporate into their coverages. This in conjunction with Jalen Ramsey playing the STAR role has worked to muddle the middle of the field. What this means for Chase is less space for Chase to operate. This works best when the Rams have Ramsey free to move around and a strong communicator as the defensive play-caller. Jordan Fuller had been that player and without him, on the field, the Rams struggled in the secondary.
Enter Eric Weddle. Weddle’s presence offers three things that the Rams have been missing since Fuller and Taylor Rapp have been sidelined. A capable green dot, which allows Ramsey to be Ramsey, a middle mucker, which can help contain the short passing game. The third is a composite of those two; when Chase lines up in the slot (Which he did 19 times against the Chiefs) the Rams can cover him with a David Long Jr. or Dont’e Deayon and feel comfortable, allowing Ramsey to cover Higgins on the outside. Which is very important. The more Ramsey can be used outside the better. Everything written above is predicated on limiting the effectiveness of explosive plays down the field.
Both offenses are going to be trying to do the same thing; they will both attempt to get the safeties to come down into the box to open up the deep passing game. The primary way to do that is with a smart and efficient rushing game. The Bengals have proven that they have this in Joe Mixon. The Rams haven’t proved this. They found a stride with Sony Michel in the latter part of the season, but have not been nearly as consistent in the playoffs. The addition of Cam Akers hasn’t tipped the needle so far. Although against the Cardinals using the pair did prove to be effective in that game.
Defensively the Rams have been good against the run. They are tied for fifth in the league with 4.0 yards per carry and they are the top-graded run defense by PFF. They had a tremendous game against the 49ers, but that was aided, in part, by Weddle dropping into the box. That isn’t terribly risky against Jimmy Garappolo. That is a different story against Joe Burrow. The key to stopping Mixon is twofold. Firstly, not allowing him to get outside. The Bengals run stretch zone (running outside the tackles) often. Secondly, good tackling. Mixon forced 50 missed tackles this season and is second in the league in yards after contact behind only Jonathan Taylor.
That was another reason the Rams were able to stop the 49ers formidable running attack, they cleaned up their tackling. The Rams still missed 6 tackles but it was much improved over their 32 missed tackles in the teams first two meetings. Four of those tackles were missed by Troy Reeder. Ernest Jones’ return may be the single most important factor to stopping the run. He is a sound tackler and he has better lateral movement. So he can help stop Mixon when he gets outside the tackles.
The Bengals have not been good against the run this postseason. On a whole, teams have a 62 percent success rate running the ball against them according to SharpFootballStats and that goes up to 65 percent on first down. There is validity to the argument that the Chiefs would have won the game had they leaned into running the ball even more. They were 79 percent successful on running plays and 64 percent successful while passing against the Bengals.
But this will require the Rams running backs to execute at a high level. Sean McVay will have to have plays designed to open up the run game. But at the end of the day, the Bengals are softest up the middle. It could just be a good old-fashioned punch in the defensive diaphragm that will force Bell to join the run defense.