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Two Super Bowl LVI Matchups and Injury News

Joe Mixon

Joe Mixon

Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports

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Super Bowl week is finally here. We’re just a handful of days away from the conclusion of the 2021 season, and the excitement just keeps building. I dug into the game a bit, and there are some minor updates from Wednesday’s practice. But first, I wanted to talk about the Bengals and how important this season has been as a fan.

A Note from a Bengals Fan
Don’t worry. I’ll keep it short.

I’ve been a fan for over 20 years. I had relatives in Bond Hill, and I went to UC for my undergraduate studies. But I never understood fandom as a kid as my parents are retired military. The closest I ever got was in fourth grade while stationed at Tinker AFB when I got a Cowboys’ Starter jacket. Even I recognized the logo but only wore it for street cred.

Because it was popular. Because it was cool.

That’s never been the case for Cincinnati in my time. Sure, we’ve had players in the spotlight and emotionally-crippling close calls with joy. But the tragedies added another layer. It was just another reason to just look ahead to next season. Then 2021 happened.

If you’ve caught my reactions to each game, the emotion has been the same: disbelief. And, I didn’t know which was more unbelievable. Cincinnati making it to the Super Bowl is quite the turnaround from a year ago. Burrow only played ten games last year! But the part that leaves me happily speechless is the shift in the national discourse surrounding them.

I haven’t heard the term “Bungles” in a while (maybe since Week 8). Personnel decisions once criticized are now lauded. Plus, I’ve started to see more black and orange around my neighborhood when I go out. Fans are excited about this team. They’re proud of this team. The swag might be off-putting to some, but, to me, the new identity is what we need, and it provides more rooting interest.

Because it’s popular. Because it’s cool.

Points of Interest
The two weeks off have given us enough time to analyze every possible matchup for Sunday’s game. And we’ll still likely miss something. However, while I’ll be (nervously) eyeing each snap, here are two guys that have my interest.

Odell Beckham
Football analysis aside, I’m happy for Odell Beckham’s resurgence. While I’ll be silently pleased to see him on the field, I’m somewhat terrified of what he’ll do.

Make no mistake, Cooper Kupp is still “The Engine™ " of the offense. Matthew Stafford checks left at the end of his dropback as Sean Murphy-Bunting trails with Beckham and using Kupp as eye candy allows space to develop over top. But that’s the horrifying beauty of the Rams’ passing game. Stafford can move off his first read, who was this season’s triple crown winner, to…Odell freaking Beckham.

Mike perfectly encapsulates my point in a single tweet. Seattle double-teams Kupp by dropping Bobby Wagner directly into Kupp’s drag route at the sticks. It doesn’t matter. Stafford threads it to Beckham working behind the traffic jam for the easy conversion. While they’ve only connected on three deep shots, Beckham’s ability to move the chains has been much more valuable to the Rams.

Since joining the team, Beckham has accounted for 27.2% of the team’s third and fourth-down targets. Nearly half of them (12 of 29) have resulted in first downs. But the route-running prowess is still there in any situation. He can still pull away from defenders. A duo like Kupp and Beckham, flanked by role players like Van Jefferson or the tight-ends, creates a seemingly no-win scenario for the opposition. Or, at the very least, a larger margin of error for Stafford as he surveys the field.

Beckham’s presence negates any “just take away Kupp” defensive strategy. Stafford can simply rotate to the backside of a play to find another (former) All-Pro receiver. Cincinnati should focus on the Rams’ best weapon, but Beckham isn’t too far behind.

Joe Mixon
I’m mixing a healthy dose of optimism with my analysis here, so bear with me. Regardless, Zac Taylor and the offensive coaching staff have to plan something better for Joe Mixon.

Bengals' early-down efficiency during the playoffs.

Bengals’ early-down efficiency during the playoffs.

Cincinnati’s early-down rushing rate during the playoffs has been 43.4%, 35.4%, and 44.2%. Mixon has 50 carries on first or second down and gained two or fewer yards on exactly half of his attempts. The stat matches Tony Romo’s call for Taylor to adjust to Kansas City’s offense as they fell behind. And the results add another layer to the Bengals’ wild ride to Super Bowl LVI.

Outside of the “Burrow-takes-nine-sacks” game, the passing game has been (and should always be) the team’s strength. Mixon attempting to weave through a weak offensive line to start a series has left the offense in unmanageable situations. First-down runs have left Cincinnati with an average of 7.9 yards needed for another first. Some of it may be by necessity. It could be Taylor’s vain attempt to “keep defenses honest.” But, some of it is by design.

It’s no surprise when you look at the numbers. The first 15 offensive plays are an anchor for the Bengals. And the results show up in the boxscore. First-quarter scoring went from 10 points against the Raiders to just a field goal against Kansas City. Burrow barely cracked 100 yards against the Chiefs in the first half. And, no, my answer isn’t to use Mixon less. It should be to use him differently.

Burrow’s empty-backfield preference and Mixon’s efficiency as a receiver (fourth-most EPA generated amongst all playoff RBs) would be a fair compromise. Like the Rams, incorporating all of their pass-catchers is the stress needed to bend a defense. Cincinnati’s line may be their Achilles heel, but they can’t come into the game with the same plan from week’s past.

Injury Slants
We’re still monitoring the same guys from last week, but there are a couple of updates as the weekend gets closer.

Cincinnati Bengals

Well, there you have it.

C.J. Uzomah started the week with a DNP yesterday, but was with the team for the media portion of practice before working with a trainer. His announcement looks like it aligns with his participation, but Thursday and Friday will give us more information.

Los Angeles Rams

Without a knee-brace throwing video, Tyler Higbee’s status remains a mystery. Sean McVay provided a “taking it a day at a time” comment, so any sign of him at practice would be good news. Meanwhile, Cam Akers’ shoulder appears to be on the mend, putting all of the Rams’ running backs in play for the big game.