How the Bengals can shut down the Rams in Super Bowl LVI

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The most important participant in Super Bowl LVI isn’t either one of the former No. 1 overall picks playing quarterback, Matthew Stafford or Joe Burrow.

Nor is it one of the outstanding wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr., Cooper Kupp or Ja’Marr Chase. Not even one of the blue-chip defensive linemen, Aaron Donald or Trey Hendrickson.

Instead, the most important person at this year’s Super Bowl is Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. He has to put together a plan to shut down the Los Angeles Rams‘ multi-faceted, explosive offense.

It looks like a daunting task for a defense that ranked 17th in points and 18th in yards allowed during the regular season. Things have been different in the playoffs, though, where the Bengals have played like a 2020s version of the Steel Curtain.

They can thwart the Rams by borrowing a page from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Anarumo should also target Kupp with a variation on the theme that stymied Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.


Kupp and Beckham are obvious threats, but like any defensive coordinator, Anarumo should focus on the Rams’ running game first.

5 defensive linemen and Super Bowl LIII

Anarumo loves to use five defensive linemen on early downs. Specifically, he’ll put three defensive tackles at the heart of the trenches to take away the run.

It works because of players like Larry Ogunjobi, who joined the Bengals from AFC North rival the Cleveland Browns last offseason. Ogunjobi can win inside and get into the backfield to stuff runs at their source.

He showed those skills on the first play in this video breakdown from’s Dave Lapham:

This stuff of Minnesota Vikings‘ running back Dalvin Cook should give the Bengals confidence against the Rams. Like the Vikes, L.A. leans on a zone-stretch running game that initially attacks defenses on the edges before creating cutback lanes inside.

Ogunjobi can fill those lanes, but he’s not the only member of Cincy’s interior line the Rams should worry about. Nose tackle D.J. Reader, all 347 pounds of him, is a bigger problem.


Here, NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger showed Reader (98) wrecking a play run by Tennessee Titans‘ rushing king Derrick Henry:

Reader is a mismatch against 303-pound Rams center Brian Allen.

The Bengals have an overloaded defensive front with a mammoth nose tackle as its anchor. Rams’ head coach Sean McVay has seen this before.

He saw it four years ago in Super Bowl LIII. The Patriots beat the Rams 13-3 thanks to a smothering defensive effort.

Belichick also used a heavy front to destroy the Rams’ running game. The Ringer’s Robert Mays described how:

In traditional rushing situations, the Patriots countered with a six-man defensive line. They played with four down linemen (which consisted of a rotation featuring seven different players who saw at least 10 snaps), with safety-linebacker hybrid Patrick Chung playing on one end of the line of scrimmage and Kyle Van Noy on the other. By crowding the line and occupying each of the Rams’ offensive linemen, the Pats created plenty of traffic and opportunities for their guys to win one-on-one matchups.

Expect Anarumo to do something similar with his five down linemen and a linebacker or safety joining the group. McVay’s offense is still underpinned by the run and play-action passing. The Bengals can render that threat moot with their overloaded lines.

They can also trap Stafford if he tries to sneak in a first-down play-action pass or two. The Titans and Ryan Tannehill tried the same thing in the Divisional Round, but the Bengals had an answer.

Next Gen Stats detailed the play:

Notice how the Bengals aligned with the five-man front featuring tackles Reader, B.J. Hill (92) and Josh Tupou (68). Ends Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard were ready to hold the edges, but when Tannehill passed, Hendrickson (91) bailed underneath. He forced Tannehill to throw to the other side of the field where safety Jesse Bates made the interception.

Taking away the run is just the opening gambit. Anarumo also needs a plan to keep Kupp quiet.

Pummel Kupp

The Bengals can’t take a passive approach to putting the clamps on Kupp. Not when they already know about the damage he can cause.

The last time these two teams met the Rams ran out 27-10 winners at Wembley Stadium in 2019. Kupp was the star, making seven catches for 220 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown reception.

Avoiding a repeat won’t be easy because the Bengals don’t own a true shutdown cornerback. The closest they have is Mike Hilton, and he wants the job of shadowing Kupp.

Hilton had success with this assignment when he faced Kupp as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers three years ago, per Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Even though Kupp was targeted four times, he finished the game with zero catches and zero receiving yards.”

Now, Hilton says covering Kupp on the biggest stage is “going to be my mission.” Hilton’s previous success in the matchup came in man coverage, but Anarumo ought to play more zone against the Rams’ many bunch formations:

Defensive backs playing man coverage often get lost in traffic trying to track crossing routes run out of bunch sets. It’s safer to have defenders drop back into zone and keep those routes in front.

The Bengals also need to mix up the looks they show Kupp. For instance, it doesn’t always have to be Hilton aligned over No. 10.

A few bigger bodies would be able to maul the NFL’s leading receiver and disrupt his timing. Somebody like 205-pound Vonn Bell, a safety who can align at cornerback, would give Kupp a different challenge:

Cincinnati’s secondary needs to pummel Kupp at the line of scrimmage and not just in coverage. Hilton’s a good blitz man, so he could snatch-blitz Kupp and force Stafford’s primary target to stay in and block.

Anarumo’s focus should be to take away the in-breaking routes where Kupp is most effective. He can do it by flooding the middle of the field with covering defenders.

That’s how the Bengals slowed Mahomes and the Chiefs. Anarumo routinely filled the inside passing lanes with numbers during the second half:

A similar approach could bring out the worst in Stafford. He’s been exceptional most of the season, but the 34-year-old has also thrown 17 interceptions, including four pick-sixes.

Anarumo has the schemes to shut down the Rams, along with the players at key positions to make those schemes work. The Bengals will need those things, flawless execution and a little luck to produce another upset this postseason.

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