NFL coaches and scouts share how they would game plan against Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals and Matthew Stafford’s Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI, plus a quarterback carousel ready to spin.
The Super Bowl matchup is set.
Sunday night inside palatial SoFi Stadium, both quarterbacks hope to dazzle a star-studded crowd in the shadow of the famed Hollywood sign, while trying not to be overmatched by their worthy understudies, two of the NFL’s stingiest postseason defenses.
It’s a showdown that would fit right into a movie script; the youthful Joe Burrow leading his upstart Cincinnati Bengals into a showdown with grizzled veteran Matthew Stafford and his Los Angeles Rams whose star power would light up virtually any marquee.
Will Burrow cap a magical postseason run to plant his flag among the NFL’s elites in just his second season? Or, will Stafford finally get the payoff that always seemed far out of reach during his time in Detroit?
“Matthew Stafford has always had the eye-popping talent, but had never done it in the postseason until now,” an AFC scout tells FanSided. “And honestly, I don’t think that had been brought up enough, especially for a former No. 1 overall pick.
This season, Stafford tossed 41 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions in his first season playing for Rams coach Sean McVay and aims to author a Hollywood ending to his latest postseason run.
Meanwhile, Burrow, the man on the opposite sideline, passed for 4,611 yards with 34 touchdowns to 14 interceptions and has already executed a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks during these playoffs including overcoming the largest deficit in AFC Championship Game history against the Chiefs last Sunday.
“Burrow doesn’t wow you physically, or really with his arm,” the scout says. “But he’s a really good athlete and he has all the stuff you can’t see. He’s tough. He’s unbelievably clutch. He doesn’t blink. He is very smart and he processes information really fast.”
As impactful as Stafford and Burrow are on their team’s fortunes, the way these two teams have been playing, it just might just come down to which defense makes the strongest stand.
Especially with the Rams and Bengals finishing the regular season allowing 21.9 and 22.1 points per game, respectively. Likewise, no team has produced more takeaways than the Bengals’ seven in the postseason and the rams’ duo of Von Miller and Aaron Donald have combined for five sacks during these playoffs.
“It’s going to be the defenses that decide this game,” an NFL scouting director tells FanSided. “And, honestly, it’s going to be really hard for the Bengals to block that Rams front.”
While defenses might rule the day, Stafford and Burrow enter as the top two quarterbacks in Air Yards per Attempt this season, with Stafford averaging five yards per attempt to Burrow’s 4.9.
So, what’s the blueprint to beating Burrow’s Bengals and Stafford’s Rams? FanSided spoke to multiple coaches and scouts inside the NFL to get their thoughts on how they would gameplan Sunday’s game.
‘Just keep sacking him’
Three weeks ago in the AFC Divisional playoffs in Nashville, the Titans sacked Burrow nine times. And lost to the Bengals, 19-16.
Cincinnati’s defense intercepted Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill three times as Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase on a 34-yard pass down the field to set up the game-winning field goal, punctuating his first of two game-winning drives this postseason to lead the Bengals to Super Sunday.
Few quarterbacks across the league have been more clutch in big moments than Burrow this season, as the second-year signal-caller boasts an 85.8 grade from Pro Football Focus when the game is within one score and his 82.4 mark in the fourth quarter and overtime is fourth in the league behind Stafford, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert.
Chase, meanwhile, has caught 20 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown across the Bengals’ three playoff wins.
So, how do the Rams, who dispatched the division rival Arizona Cardinals, defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers to make it into their home stadium for the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl appearance slow Burrow, Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and the prolific Bengals?
“You have to keep sacking Burrow,” an NFL head coach tells FanSided. “Mix coverages. Keep a spy on him, especially after that scramble he had in Kansas City last week, and above all else, you have to stop the run.”
Spying Burrow may prove prescient, especially after his five scrambles for 25 yards in last weekend’s AFC Championship Game were a difference-maker against the Chiefs.
Meanwhile, Bengals running back Joe Mixon rushed for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns this season but has been unremarkable through Cincinnati’s three postseason games. Mixon enters Super Bowl Sunday averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and only reaching the end zone once, against Tennessee in the Divisional round.
“The first thing you need to do against the Rams is establish a downhill running game,” an NFC offensive coach tells FanSided. “The Rams’ strength is their pass-rush ability. Have to try to take that way.”
But, as we’ve seen, the Bengals’ offense is at its best when Burrow, Chase and tight end C.J. Uzomah are the focal points.
As Burrow showed in Kansas City, even when Chase is neutralized, Higgins can be a difference-maker, as illustrated by his six catches for 103 yards in Arrowhead. But, might Chase reprise his leading role in the Bengals’ offense against the Rams’ dominant and opportunistic secondary?
“The Rams are going to have to mix up their coverage [in the secondary],” the head coach explains. “Because here’s the thing, Jalen Ramsey can’t cover Chase. He’s too good.”
‘Stop the run … at all costs!’
Rams general manager Les Snead should be the frontrunner for NFL Executive of The Year.
Especially after Snead’s hyper-aggressive moves built a juggernaut that is now 60 minutes away from lifting a Lombardi.
Dating back to last February’s blockbuster trade, prying Stafford from the Lions, Snead has gone all in this year; trading for Von Miller at the deadline, signing Odell Beckham Jr. days later and this year’s flurry of moves comes on the heels of trading two first-round picks and one fourth-round pick for Jalen Ramsey last spring.
The result is an offense that finished the regular season ranked ninth in total offense, averaging 27.1 points per game and a ferocious defense that produced 50 sacks, third-most in the NFL.
“You have to stop the run … at all costs,” an NFC coordinator tells FanSided is the biggest key to beating the Rams. “Everything they do comes off of the play-action pass.”
Stafford’s favorite target, wide receiver Cooper Kupp, won the NFL’s triple crown this season catching a career-high 145 passes for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The coordinator says if he were scheming against the Rams, Kupp would keep him up at night.
“They’re going to have to double-team and beat up Kupp,” he says.
But, for as dominant as Stafford and Kupp have been all season, the veteran quarterback is still prone to mind-numbing mistakes, including an interception against the 49ers and another that was dropped that just might have propelled San Francisco past the Rams and into Super Sunday.
“If I were calling the Bengals’ defense,” the coordinator says. “I’d rush four and play coverage. Matthew Stafford is going to make a mistake, sometimes you just have to wait and pounce.”
Free agent spotlight
When the confetti swirls around Inglewood, Calif. Sunday night, the Rams and Bengals will join the 30 other franchises eyeing free agency and the players who might push them closer to a Super Bowl berth of their own.
In this space over the coming weeks and months, we’ll take a look at some of the top free agents about to hit the open market, beginning with running back Leonard Fournette.
Despite a bit of a timeshare situation with Ronald Jones, Fournette led the Buccaneers with 812 rushing yards. And Fournette’s eight rushing touchdowns were ninth among running backs.
Through league conversations, it seems there’s a strong chance Fournette tests the open market, especially given the uncertainty at quarterback and potentially head coach Bruce Arians’ future.
Don’t be surprised if Fournette and Melvin Gordon, are among the more sought-after running backs when free agency begins next month. However, given the Buccaneers’ limited cap space and the Chargers sitting on upwards of $57 million to spend, this might be Fournette’s chance to cash in.
"“We’re going to have an extensive professional relationship, my man. One thing I know about you is you have the ambition to be great. My job is to coach you, to get all that greatness out of you.”"
– New Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, to quarterback Tua Tagoviloa
The Dolphins are betting big on Tua Tagovailoa.
By hiring McDaniel, who has worked alongside Kyle Shanahan his entire career, Miami is hoping that his innovative approach to offense and Shanahan’s ability to maximize the quarterback position, has rubbed off on their new head coach.
This had the potential of being a crossroads offseason for Tagovailoa, who spent much of last season looking over his shoulder as the Dolphins not so subtly kicked the tires on Deshaun Watson.
Despite a season of uncertainty, Tagovailoa still passed for 2,653 yards with 16 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in 13 games.
But, McDaniel’s arrival gives Tagovailoa a young and energetic mind with an eye for offense to lean on and learn from. This is the strongest infrastructure Tagovailoa has had around him since he departed Tuscaloosa as the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
McDaniel arrives in South Beach with a track record of developing strong ground games, which could take pressure off Tagovailoa and set him up to thrive on designed quarterback rollouts, after rushing for 12 yards on 42 rushing attempts last season.
With Jaylen Waddle, Devante Parker and Will Fuller around Tagovailoa and running backs like Duke Johnson and Myles Gaskin in the backfield, McDaniel may have the ideal canvas to replicate the kind of success he enjoyed alongside Shanahan and deliver the kind of results to Miami that San Francisco has enjoyed the past half-decade.
The AFC is almost unquestionably the stronger conference in terms of quarterback play and the chasm between it and the NFC might widen significantly this offseason.
Especially if new head coach Nathanial Hackett and the Denver Broncos trade for Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson gets dealt away by the Seattle Seahawks and as some league sources suggested in this space last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers make a play for Jimmy Garoppolo to replace Ben Roethlisberger this offseason.
Under that scenario, the AFC would feature Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Rodgers, potentially Wilson, not to mention this past spring’s No. 1 overall pick, Trevor Lawrence. Just to name a few.
The quarterbacks above have combined for 165 wins and seven appearances in the conference championship game since 2019, alone.
Remove Rodgers, Garoppolo and Wilson from the NFC, and the only quarterbacks currently in the conference to have made an appearance in the conference championship game dating back to 2017 are Matt Ryan, Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins.
Under this very possible scenario, what is left in the NFC? Who rises above the quarterback rubble?
“I’d think Dak Prescott rises to the top of the class,” an NFC quarterbacks coach tells FanSided. “Along with Matthew Stafford, who would obviously be head and shoulders above the rest in the NFC West, if Russ is out of the equation.”
Given the sudden uncertainty facing Kyler Murray’s future with the Arizona Cardinals, Garoppolo’s impending departure from San Francisco and Tom Brady’s retirement, there might not be much resistance in Stafford or Prescott’s path to a Super Bowl in coming years.
But, a changing landscape in the NFC and a new coaching staff might be the perfect storm for the rising of the next great quarterback’s career.
“Justin Fields and the Bears are going to win a lot of games next year,” the coach explains. “They’re going to split at worst with the Lions, if Aaron leaves Green Bay, the Bears are going to at least split with the Packers and they have a good chance to sweep the Lions.”
If Rodgers, Wilson and Garoppolo all wind up in the AFC, it might be a while before the NFC will be able to produce the caliber of quarterback play needed to win a Super Bowl. Conversely, the AFC champion over the past decade will have survived a gauntlet, possibly producing some of the more memorable postseason duels in recent history.
“Bottom line,” the coach says. “The AFC quarterback picture is about to be a lot better than the NFC. And maybe for years to come. I don’t think any of the draft prospects this year are that great and that may be the only way you can close that gap is through the draft.”