We're now just a few days away from Super Bowl LVI, which means it's about time to start really digging into what's going to happen when the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals take the field on Sunday evening. We'll have a full-on game preview later in the week, but for now, we want to focus on a few key areas they could help decide the game. These are your Super Bowl X-factors.
Bengals interior offensive line
The three most important players in this game might be Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins, and Hakeem Adeniji. That's the trio that will largely be tasked with dealing with the game-wrecking force of Aaron Donald on the inside. It's also the single-weakest part of the Bengals offense, which we have seen come into play throughout this postseason. Spain and Adeniji ranked 62nd and 57th, respectively, in ESPN's pass-block win rate among 63 qualifying guards this season, while Hopkins ranked 26th out of 32 qualifying centers.
Joe Burrow was the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL during the regular season. Not all of that is on the offensive line, of course. Burrow was only pressured at the league's 16th-highest rate, but his pressures turned into sacks at the third-highest rate in the NFL, behind only Baker Mayfield and Ben Roethlisberger. But his pressure rate has spiked a bit during the playoffs, and his rate of sacks to pressure has stayed mostly the same.
We saw how an interior rush could batter the interior of Cincinnati's offensive line in the divisional round, when Jeffery Simmons laid waste to the Bengals' pass-protection. Burrow was sacked nine times, with Simmons collecting three of those takedowns. Simmons is a terrific player, but he's not as dangerous as Donald. Donald has a playoffs-high 16 pressures, and has collected a sack, hit, or hurry on 14 percent of his pass-rush snaps during the postseason. That's the highest rate among interior defenders by a not-insignificant margin.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell
Get ready to hear the phrase "back-side dig" a whole bunch of times during the Super Bowl, folks. That's the route where Beckham does a bunch of his damage, and it's the one that Stafford can throw but Jared Goff wouldn't, which opened up the Los Angeles offense this season.
The players responsible for dealing with that route when the Bengals are in zone (which they are more often than not) will be their safeties. Bates and Bell are underrated players, and they each play very physically at the point of the catch. The battle between them and Beckham on those throws over the middle will be key -- as will their ability to limit his gains after the catch.
They'll also be responsible for condensing the window when the Rams try to hit Beckham (or Van Jefferson) on hole shots (the area between the corner and the safety) against Cover-2, and when the Rams get in a stacked formation to try to hit him for a big gain up the sideline. That's a lot of responsibility, and the Bengals need their deep players to be up to it.
Darious Williams, David Long, and Donte Deayon
The biggest mismatch the Cincinnati offense has is on the perimeter. Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins form one of the best outside receiver duos in the NFL, and the way Burrow trusts them to win on shots down the field plays a big role in that. If the Bengals can find a way hold up in pass protection, then the burden shifts from their offensive line to the Rams' cornerbacks.
Under new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Jalen Ramsey has played in the slot far more often than ever before. This season, he aligned there on nearly 30 percent of his snaps. He didn't do so quite as often later in the season as he did earlier in the year, but it's still a big shift from when he was exclusively a perimeter corner.
It's possible they shift him outside all game and have him follow Chase or Higgins, but even if they do, it still puts pressure on Williams to cover the other one and on Long (if Ramsey is in the slot and Long is outside) or Deayon (if Ramsey's outside and Deayon's in the slot) to stick with one of the big threats or Tyler Boyd. Williams did not have as strong a season this year as he did a year ago, and has been beaten down the field a few times through this playoff run. Long and Deayon have been solid when called upon, but remain the weaker links among the cornerbacks and the most likely targets if the Bengals are to zero in on a specific matchup.