The main theme of the pre-Super Bowl chatter will be Joe Borrow and Matthew Stafford. And Ja’Marr Chase, Cooper Kupp, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Odell Beckham and Jaylen Ramsey. Basically, the passing game. But in the media sessions, both offensive and defensive players and coaches have stressed the importance of the running game. Germain Pratt, Bengals linebacker, addressed the strategic advantage of shutting down the run game.
“I mean, you got to limit the touches. First, you got to shut down the run game, you know, they go off their boots and stuff and then slow down Cooper, and ODell and then you got good running backs in the backfield you got to slow them down, basically try to make them turn one dimension. We get turnovers then we will win.”
But Thomas Brown sees it differently. Regardless of the Bengals strategy, the running game is part of the Rams identity and they aren’t going to ditch it without a fight. “We need to make sure we’re on the same page so we can stay efficient offensively and being able to be balanced, the opposite of what Jermaine (Pratt) wants us to do”
The Bengals defense sometimes gets a mixed reputation regarding their run defense. According to teamrankings.com, though they are 24th in yards per rush (4.5), they are 8th in rushing yards per game (106.2) and 10th in rushing touchdowns per game (.8). And it seems that Pratt’s strategy of shutting down the run worked in 2021 as they ranked 5th in opponent rushes per game. Essentially, not many teams ran on them and they are in a division with Najee Harris, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and Lamar Jackson.
Thomas Brown, Rams running back coach, is not dismissing the Bengals run defense, “They play downhill really well, do a really good job of tackling and making plays in the open field.”
Coach Brown’s running backs have been busy in the postseason. According to NFL.com, Rams running back Sony Michel has rushed 24 times for 78 yards (3.3 average) and no touchdowns as opposed to his regular season average of 4.1 yards per carry. Running back Cam Akers has experienced even tougher sledding with 54 attempts for 151 yards (2.8 average) and no touchdowns. But Pratt, who saw Michel when he was running with the Patriots and Akers when they were in college (Akers was Florida State and Pratt was at North Carolina State), still sees them as formidable weapons.
“I saw Sony Michel in the college playoffs and he was shifty. He has a winning culture and competes hard. I think Sony has improved (since his time with New England), he catches the ball in the backfield, he can run.”
Despite two fumbles in the playoffs, Akers has been receiving the majority of the touches. Akers reminds Pratt of Dalvin Cook who was at Florida State right before Akers. “He (Akers) was a good scat running back and seeing him go through what he went through with the Achilles and then bounce back and make an impact in the playoffs, he is doing a great job.”
On the other hand, the Bengals are fairly one dimensional when it comes to rushing the ball with Joe Mixon leading the way. In the playoffs, according to NFL.com, Mixon has rushed 52 times for 190 yards (3.7 average) and a touchdown. Though down from his regular season average of 4.1, he has steadily increased that average in every playoff game culminating in the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs with a 4.2 average. Greg Gaines, defensive lineman for the Rams, has quite a bit of respect for Joe Mixon:
“I’ll tell you Joe Mixon is a really good running back. He’s got really good balance through contact and he runs through blocks and I mean, he’s definitely got really good vision. He’s an elite running back for sure.”
According to teamrankings.com, the Rams are 8th in rushing attempts against them, 5th in yards per game (95.8), and 4th (3.9) in yards per carry. So the Bengals have an elite running back in Joe Mixon going against an elite rushing defense in the Rams. Gaines remarks that Mixon and run stoppage is a priority:
“So I think that’s also going to be a huge key in this game is taking care of the run. And yeah, we can’t let that dude get rolling.”
Justin Hill, running backs coach for the Bengals, reiterated the purpose of the run game and how important it will be for the Bengals to , “We want to keep our defense off the field and on the sidelines as much as possible so we need to be efficient, move the chains, and keep ourselves out of third and long situations.”
Of course, Brown and the Rams offensive coaching staff is game planning against the Bengals, but Brown iterates that they aren’t going to let the Bengals dictate their strategy.
“It always starts with us first. Us doing a really good job of being ourselves which means you know, not having turnovers, eliminate those kind of pre-snap penalty type deals. So we kind of dictate the game on our own terms offensively versus having to react to what the defense gives us.”