The Bengals and Rams were playing in the Super Bowl just eight months ago. Now they both find themselves with 2-3 records. It's the third time ever both the previous season's Super Bowl teams have a losing record through five games. In 1999, Denver and Atlanta both started 1-4. In 1988, Washington and Denver both started 2-3. None of those teams bounced back to make the playoffs.
There's plenty of time for the Bengals and Rams though, who are both just one game back in their respective divisions. Plus, there were five 2-3 teams who made the playoffs last year after the postseason expanded to 14 teams.
If these squads are going to turn it around, it begins on offense. Believe it or not, they are the bottom two teams in the NFL in yards per play this season. Matthew Stafford has been under heavy pressure and clearly missing a number two option opposite Cooper Kupp. The Bengals are missing the big-play magic that fueled their Cinderella season a year ago. Let's break it down:
The Rams struggles come down to three key areas where they lost star players this offseason and their replacements have fallen short.
- Lost: Andrew Whitworth - 16 pressures allowed in 15 starts last season
- Replacement: Joe Noteboom - NFL-high 22 pressures allowed in five starts
Andrew Whitworth, the four-time Pro Bowl tackle, retired after protecting Stafford's blindside last season. Stafford has been sacked a staggering 19 times in the Rams' three losses this season, and 21 times overall this year, tied with Matt Ryan for most in the NFL. Consider he was sacked just four times at this point last season. Whitworth's replacement, Joe Noteboom, has allowed an NFL-high 22 pressures this season, already more than Whitworth allowed all of last year (16).
You can also chalk up the O-line struggles to injury. The Rams have had nine different offensive line starters this season, tied with the Commanders for the most in the NFL. The impact on the entire offensive line has been drastic. Los Angeles went from one of the best units to one of the worst. They rank 29th in pressure rate allowed when the defense doesn't blitz this season, down from seventh in 2021. Stafford hardly stands a chance if opponents can afford to drop seven in coverage and still get pressure.
No. 2 Wide Receiver
- Lost: Odell Beckham Jr. - 48 Rec, 593 Yds, 7 TD in 12 games with Rams
- Replacement: Allen Robinson II - 12 Rec, 107 Yds, TD this season
Sean McVay said it best after Sunday's loss to the Cowboys. "He (Stafford) is competing and doing everything in his power for this team. He needs some help. We've got to be able to help him." That help could come in the form of better offensive line play or the emergence of a number two option at wide receiver. Odell Beckham Jr. sparked the Rams with 288 receiving yards in the postseason, before tearing his ACL in the Super Bowl. His replacement, Allen Robinson II, has disappeared for long stretches this season. He has just 12 catches, 107 receiving yards and one touchdown in five games. Another option to help Stafford, Van Jefferson, is on IR after minor knee surgery in August.
The results. A one-man band named Cooper Kupp. Stafford has a 74.6 passer rating when targeting anyone but Kupp this year. That's a tick higher than Mitchell Trubisky's passer rating before getting benched this season. It's also 20 points lower than Stafford averaged last year targeting his other options.
|Matthew Stafford Targeting Anyone But Cooper Kupp|
The Rams have options to upgrade. They could be favorites to win the OBJ sweepstakes, who is targeting a mid-November return. They could benefit from the return of Jefferson in a few weeks, or go back to the well one more time. They've made big splashes near the trade deadline in recent years with Dante Fowler Jr., Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller. You can't put it past Les Snead to do it again. Trade options could include Jarvis Landry or Kendrick Bourne, veteran receivers on struggling teams whose contracts would both keep the Rams under the salary cap.
- Lost: Von Miller - 22 pressures on 111 pass rushes last postseason (2nd in NFL)
- Replacements: Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis - 5 pressures on 141 pass rushes this season
The Rams' pass rush has gone from ninth in pressure rate to 31st this season. They need a second pass-rushing option almost as badly as they need a number-two receiver. It's Aaron Donald and everyone else following Von Miller's move to Buffalo. Miller's replacements, Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis, rank in the bottom three in pressure rate among 45 linebackers this season with at least 50 pass rushes. They've combined for just five pressures on 141 pass rushes while splitting time this season. Miller had more pressures in the Super Bowl last year (six) and totaled 22 pressures on 111 pass rushes last postseason.
So what used to be a major strength has turned into a major weakness in three key areas for the Rams as the "next man up" mantra has not worked so far in Los Angeles. We'll see if players returning to health, a shuffling of the lineup or an aggressive trade will get them back on track.
Unlike the Rams, the Bengals are not suffering from a loss of talent. If anything, this offense was supposed to be better after bringing in four new starters on the offensive line to fix their Achilles' heel. So far the line has not improved, but it's outside forces slowing Cincinnati down.
Joe Burrow is 16th in completion rate and 19th in yards per attempt this season after leading the league in both last season. Even after recovering from a five-turnover performance in Week 1, he hasn't hit big plays on a consistent basis like last season.
Burrow explained the issue after another frustrating loss in Week 5 to the Ravens. "They were taking away all of our deep shots. Even when they were playing man, they were playing pretty soft, high hip, I thought for the most part," Burrow said. "They did a good job of making us check it down and making us have these long 12 – 15 play drives."
He's been bottled up by a similar strategy that was all the rage last year when Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs were struggling midseason. Defenses are dropping a lot of defenders in coverage and leaving two safeties deep to take away big plays.
Burrow is being blitzed at the lowest rate (17.7%) and facing two high safeties (50.0%) at the highest rate in the NFL this season. Last year Mahomes was blitzed at the lowest rate and saw two deep safeties at the second-highest rate.
The numbers on the impact don't lie. Burrow's passer rating drops nearly 34 points against two-high coverage. He's had to check the ball down more as his average pass length has dropped nearly three yards in those situations.
|Joe Burrow by No. of High Safeties This Season|
As you would guess, it's harder to hit the deep bomb into double coverage. Burrow was historically good last season, too. He had 17 touchdown passes gaining 30-plus yards, including playoffs, tied for the third-most in a season in NFL history. He has two this season in five games.
His completion rate on balls traveling 20-plus yards downfield has dropped from fourth to 22nd this year. It seemed like every time I saw a Bengals highlight last year Ja'Marr Chase was running wild after a deep dime from Burrow. He caught 15 of 34 targets 20+ yards downfield in 2021. He's caught 1-of-4 this season.
If all of that doesn't paint a clear picture, please look at this clear picture! Here's a heat map showing the location of Burrow's touchdown passes in the last two seasons.
While the Chiefs finished on a tear last season, they ranked 21st in with 21.1 points per game from Weeks 5-13. The slump was real. They still had the luxury of a solid offensive line and a Hall of Fame coach and all-world play caller, Andy Reid, to help them bounce back. Zac Taylor doesn't plan on handing over the play-calling duties anytime soon, so we can rule that out.
The common response is "take what the defense gives you." Force them to play more aggressively. That's not as easy for Cincinnati. They could take advantage of soft boxes by hammering the run game, but that doesn't look like a realistic option behind this O-line. The Bengals have the worst run-blocking grade in the league according to Pro Football Focus. An NFL-low 18 percent of their carries have gone for a first down and Joe Mixon is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, second-worst in the NFL.
Burrow is already efficient on short, quick passes and has relied on that more than ever this year, but Cincinnati's offense can still adapt to help him. They are running screens at the 10th-lowest rate and crossing routes at the fourth-lowest rate in the league this season. Mahomes led the NFL in passer rating on screens last year while Burrow is 29th this year, clear room for improvement. Until Taylor's offense responds to what defenses are giving them, Cincinnati's Super Bowl hangover will continue.