Everyone knows the NFL is a copy-cat league. Whichever team wins the Super Bowl serves as inspiration to 31 other teams in the league, who try to learn from them about how best to chase the next Lombardi Trophy. Winning the ring is the ultimate goal, so why not steal ideas from the team that actually does it?
This year, the Los Angeles Rams provided a bunch of important lessons in team building, but so did their opponents, the Cincinnati Bengals. Below, we'll walk through a few ideas teams around the league can take away from the two teams that squared off in the Super Bowl.
Be open to all manner of player-acquisition
In the age of the salary cap, teams are very careful about managing their books. In recent seasons, that has often meant an emphasis on building through the draft, re-signing homegrown players, not doing much spending in free agency, and hoarding picks instead of being aggressive to acquire veterans who might be more expensive but are also ready to contribute at a high level.
Both the Rams and Bengals showed that teams need to be a bit more open-minded.
No team has more defined the concept of going all-in than the Rams, who have been trading draft picks by the dozen for quite a while now. Since selecting Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick back in 2016, the Rams have not made a single selection in the first round. They even traded two first-round picks to move away from Goff when they decided he wasn't good enough to get them over the top, so they could go and get Matthew Stafford instead.
But it wasn't just Stafford. The Rams have been acquiring players for draft picks for a while now. Jalen Ramsey. Von Miller. Even Brandin Cooks back in the day, before they later traded him away for some picks in the middle rounds of the draft. (That's not to say the have a roster of mercenaries; they actually had the highest rate of homegrown players in the NFL this season.)
The Rams also started off the Sean McVay era by signing former Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth to solidify their offensive line. Five years later, the 40-year-old Whitworth was still their starting left tackle as they won the Super Bowl. They signed Odell Beckham after he was waived by the Browns in the middle of this season. They brought Eric Weddle out of retirement right before the playoffs, and by the time they got to the conference title game, he was playing every snap and calling their defensive plays.
The Bengals, meanwhile, had been one of the most spending-averse teams in the NFL before this most recent era of the team. They finally decided to splurge on outside free agents over the past couple offseasons, and it helped them build a strong, versatile defense that was able to shapeshift and handle all kinds of opponents. They would not have gotten here without Trey Hendrickson, D.J. Reader, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, and Vonn Bell.
Put your freaks in position to succeed
These are two star-studded teams with outrageously talented players on both sides of the ball, and their coaching staffs did a great job of taking advantage of their skill sets.
For the Rams, they routinely played five-man fronts to generate one-on-one opportunities for Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd. Especially in the second half of the game, that worked in their favor is their defensive front repeatedly pushed its way into the backfield and bothered Joe Burrow. Jalen Ramsey can play in the slot or outside, and moving him into the slot more often this season allowed him to be around the ball all the time.
Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and the Rams took full advantage by diversifying their passing game this season. Cooper Kupp is one of the league's most precise route runners, and he is able to read coverage on the fly. The Rams gave him the room to isolate corners so that he could read what's in front of him and break into open space for Stafford.
The Bengals built their offense to highlight Burrow's skill set. He likes to operate from the shotgun and in a lot of empty formations, so they went out and built him one of the best pass-catching corps in the league. Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase are physical outliers who excel at winning the ball on throws down the field and to the perimeter, so the Bengals built those throws into the foundation of their offense.
Not every team has players as good as those guys, obviously. But if you do have special players, everything about your scheme has to be about maximizing what they do well. Both of these teams lived that all year.
You have to be able to beat the blitz
One of the themes of this season was defenses getting wise about sending too many rushmen after the quarterback. Why did they feel the need to do that? Because every time they sent a blitz at any of the league's best quarterbacks, they simply got fried. Stafford and Burrow were no exception.
During the regular season, Stafford completed 93 of 130 passes for 1,294 yards, 16 touchdowns, and just one interception when opponents sent five or more pass rushers. He had the league's best passer rating (139.6) and ranked second behind only Patrick Mahomes in expected points added (EPA) per dropback when blitzed. Burrow was sacked fairly often when blitzed but on plays where he actually got rid of the ball before his offensive line allowed the rush to hit home, Burrow ranked eighth out of 31 qualifiers in EPA per play.
If defenses are going to send more than four pass rushers, you have to be able to make them pay for it. Otherwise, you can just get overwhelmed.
You have to be able to get home without blitzing
On the other side of the coin, it's important for a defense to be able to get pressure on the opposing quarterback without having to send more than the front four players after him. During the regular season, the Bengals had the NFL's seventh-lowest blitz rate. The Rams, because they're a 3-4 base defense team and want to be able to rush both Von Miller and Leonard Floyd, blitzed a bit more often, but their blitz rate was still just 1 percentage point above the league average. Despite that, both teams ranked inside the top 10 in pressure rate.
Because they tended to get pressure without the blitz, they also did not allow opposing quarterbacks to take off and scramble as often as other teams. They had defenders available to step up and prevent the QB run in the event he was looking to take off.
The Rams were one of the teams that spearheaded the two-high, encourage-the-run and take away deep passes revolution that violently swept through the league over the last two seasons. The Bengals advanced to the Super Bowl in large part because of their drop-eight-into-coverage strategy against the Chiefs in the AFC title game. Devoting more bodies to coverage than pass rush and counting on your guys up front to do the work has major benefits.
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