According to a recent SB Nation Reacts survey, 66% of NFL fans are pulling for the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. The game will be aired on NBC with their Sunday Night Football crew calling the action, and it will be their first time covering a Bengals game since 2018.
That’s right. The last time America watched the Bengals play with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth calling the game was when Marvin Lewis was the head coach and Andy Dalton was the quarterback. Football fans outside of the Queen City began learning about this Bengals team within the last month, but there’s only so much you can actually discern about a team from a three-game sample size.
If the majority of America is going to put on orange and black colors for Sunday, they might as well get a true introduction to the team. It’s time to meet the Bengals!
The man who needs no introduction really is who you think he is. Behind the sunglasses and SpongeBob attire is a quarterback who is as poised as they come. “Joe Cool” has become one of Joe Burrow’s nicknames amidst his rise to stardom. He was recently asked if he’s always been this way. His response encapsulates what you see on the field.
“As a quarterback in this league, you can’t have these highs and lows,” Burrow said. “You aren’t going to be successful. The season is too long, you’re gonna have losses, and if you get down on yourself, you’re not going to be able to perform next week. And you’re going to have really big highs, and if you ride those highs, you’re going to come crashing down. You really have to stay level-headed, and games are just a microcosm of the entire year.”
How does a quarterback get up after nine sacks during a road playoff game and pull out a victory? Be like Burrow—the embodiment of calm, cool, and collected.
That’s the biggest question entering this Super Bowl: How can Burrow survive against the Los Angeles Rams’ fearsome pass rush? Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Leonard Floyd make up arguably the most talented unit to go up against No. 9 and his maligned offensive line this year. I say arguably because they’re following plenty of great front fours that have tried to beat Burrow and walked away defeated.
To be the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL and end up in the Super Bowl was an impossible task before Burrow did it in his second season. It had literally never been done before. Not only has he been sacked over five dozen times since September, he’s only fumbled three times. It may not be sustainable from a long-term perspective, but it just needs to work one more time for the Lombardi Trophy.
This is just another game for Burrow, because it really is. The ratio of big-game experience to overall experience he has is insanely high. Will he be mistake-free on Sunday? Probably not, but don’t think for a second that the moment will be too big for him. There’s never been a Heisman Trophy winner and National Championship winner who has also won the Super Bowl. If there was ever a player to do, his name his Joe Burrow.
The intangibles are fun to dive into, but the tangibles will also be on display in Los Angeles. Burrow has near-perfect pocket mechanics and impeccable timing with his receivers. It’s how he compensates for his inability to break the radar gun on some of his throws. Even without that kind of arm, he’s able to make throws off-platform and rarely gives up on a play.
Yes, the Rams’ pass rush is great. So is Burrow. Don’t discount that.
When Burrow looks down the field, he has three high-quality wide receivers to throw to, but it’s no revelation that he’s found the most production when targeting Ja’Marr Chase. The relationship between these two goes back all the way to 2018, a year before LSU had the best season in modern college football history. Burrow arrived to Baton Rouge as a graduate transfer, while Chase came in as a true freshman. Thousands upon thousands of reps later, the two have formed a truly lethal connection that rivals the very best QB-WR duos in the NFL.
The history with Burrow is special, but Chase is a phenomenal receiver in his own right. The Rookie of the Year possesses every elite trait of athleticism you could ask for. He started the season as a dominant deep threat, and as coverages evolved in hopes to take that away, he began showcasing his yards-after-catch prowess. He bounces off would-be tacklers as much as he blazes past them with a smooth and natural acceleration. He sports a running back’s mentality with deep-ball tracking ability; that’s a potent mix in 2022.
Chase garnering all this attention led to Tee Higgins almost quietly eclipsing 1,000 yards in his second year. Several explosive offenses have a receiver who physically resembles Chase. Not many have someone like Higgins, whose 6’4” reach and deep speed are somehow equal to his flexibility in his route-running. There are obvious hints of A.J. Green sprinkled within Higgins’ game, and the man just turned 23 years old. When Jalen Ramsey is being occupied by Chase on one side of the field, don’t be surprised to see Higgins pull in several targets, specifically near the middle of the field.
In between Chase and Higgins is the guy that completes the trio, Tyler Boyd. It’s a bit odd to label a 27-year-old player as the veteran of a position group, but Boyd is an AARP member in comparison to his counterparts on the outside. Cincinnati’s slot receiver is a master at creating separation and has some of the most reliable hands in the game. Per Pro Football Focus, he hasn’t dropped a pass since the end of the 2020 season.
Cincinnati’s rise to relevancy has been largely attributed to their willingness to max out their receiving corps, ensuring Burrow had the weaponry required to simply keep pace with the best offenses in the game. Little did we know they’d eventually outscore most of them when it mattered.
A maligned o-line
There’s no secret about it, the Bengals’ offensive line isn’t great. That’s actually putting it lightly. But if we were to deconstruct the unit, you’d be able to see that three of the five positions are occupied by solid players.
Left tackle Jonah Williams is the most consistent. A former first-round pick out of Alabama, he’s undoubtedly the best lineman the Bengals have drafted since Kevin Zeitler all the way back in 2012. He’s a stable pass blocker who has made notable improvements generating movement in the ground game. Williams may never truly live up to his top-15 pick status, but you could do far worse for a 23-year-old left tackle nowadays.
Next to Williams is veteran left guard Quinton Spain, who has managed to revitalize his career at his natural position this season. He began the season playing with a high level of consistency before regressing back towards the mean. His raw strength as a pass blocker gives aggressive defensive tackles fits, but he’s susceptible to quickness around the edge, much like center Trey Hopkins next to him. Hopkins has looked more like his usual self of late now that he’s fully recovered from a torn ACL that occurred 13 months ago.
You know that an unfinished pencil drawing of a horse meme? That resembles Cincinnati’s o-line a bit, because to the right of Hopkins is where the problems reside. Hakeem Adeniji has been the right guard for the past few months, and he’s simply not fit to last at that spot. He gets overpowered and misplaces his hands too often. There are even times when his footwork is out of sync with the rest of the unit at the snap. He’s a liability, and there’s no going around that.
The offense experimented with rotating Adeniji and rookie Jackson Carman at that spot during the AFC Championship game. Carman handles power better than Adeniji, but he struggles with quickness inside and has been penalized three times in his last four games. We don’t yet know which player will start on Sunday, but it may not matter against Donald and Co.
Finally, Isaiah Prince has held down the right tackle spot ever since Riley Reiff’s ankle injury sent him to injured reserve following Week 13. Prince, like Adeniji, is a backup having to start and is trying to make the most of it. He hasn’t been consistently bad, but a matchup with Von Miller is not pleasant to think about this week.
The Bengals don’t win their last three games without the defense coming up big in clutch moments. Opposing offenses have turned the ball over to Cincinnati in this postseason run a combined seven times. In all three playoff games, the Bengals defense ended their day with an interception.
It began with defensive end Trey Hendrickson strip-sacking Derek Carr, but it truly took off with linebacker Germaine Pratt wanting a pick over a pass break-up on Carr’s final pass in the Wild Card round. The next time we saw the defense, free safety Jessie Bates stepped in front of a Ryan Tannehill pass on the opening play of the Divisional Round. Tannehill would throw two more interceptions that day to slot corner Mike Hilton and linebacker Logan Wilson, respectively, which is the same number of picks Patrick Mahomes would throw eight days later. Defensive tackle B.J. Hill and strong safety Vonn Bell ended up with those passes.
One fumble, six interceptions. All caused by seven different players.
That’s the ethos of the Bengals’ defense, a group compiled of several recently signed free agents from winning franchises that have formed a cohesive unit. There’s no star power here like there is with the Rams’ defense. Hendrickson, Bates, and nose tackle D.J. Reader are objectively the Bengals’ best defensive players; not exactly household names. Hendrickson made the Pro Bowl this year, but no one outside of Cincinnati believed he was capable of that before the season began.
What they lack in stardom, well, they also lack in points of weaknesses. Cornerback Eli Apple still has a stigma attached to his name from his time in New York and New Orleans, but he’s been an adequate cover corner in Cincinnati, and that’s all that should matter when it comes to him. If the current version of Apple is the weakest link, then it’s no wonder they’ve been one of the best pass defenses in the league this entire season. The turnovers have just been a recent development.
Now they have Matthew Stafford as their last quarterback to face; the same Matthew Stafford who not only leads the NFL in interceptions, but who also possess a turnover-worthy throw percentage in the bottom 10 for starting quarterbacks. Stafford will undoubtedly give Cincinnati chances to turn the game in their favor, and if the last month is any indication, they’ll be ready for those opportunities.
Heart and soul leadership
The players I’ve yet to mention belong in a special group. Burrow might be the face of the franchise, but the heart of the roster is provided by a few voices.
Running back Joe Mixon earned team captain status this season from being an important voice in the locker room. His growth as a player and—more importantly—a person since being drafted in 2017 has been nothing short of inspiring to witness. After games, you can find him staying on the field and leading “Who Dey” chants with fans. He may be an afterthought some weeks with the passing game leading the way, but the Bengals faithful have nothing but love for the 25-year-old next to Burrow in the backfield.
Everyone loves a good hometown story, and defensive end Sam Hubbard provides exactly that. Hubbard grew up in Cincinnati before spending four successful years at Ohio State. The Bengals desperately needed defensive help when they drafted him, and the Cincinnati connection was just icing on the cake. Hubbard has since developed into one of the best run-stopping edge defenders in the league and a leader in the community. He’s the Bengals’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for his work off the field and presence in the locker room.
In that same vein, punter Kevin Huber is also a Cincinnati native. Instead of Ohio State, he played college ball at Cincinnati. He’s been with the Bengals since 2009! Terrell Owens was his teammate at one point! And the guy who snaps the ball to Huber, Clark Harris, looks like a rock star. Very important information here.
Last but certainly not least, tight end C.J. Uzomah is the Bengals. He’s not a freak athlete. He’s not a box-score icon. He’s not even a captain. And yet, none of that matters. Uzomah has ascended as the official spokesperson of the roster, a vibrant and genuine representative of a true Cinderella story.
Back in the summer, Uzomah was asked about expectations for the upcoming season. His response was: “Why not us?” Before the Divisional Round, Uzomah amended those words to: “It is us!” And the night before traveling to LA for the biggest game of his life, he told 30,000 Bengals fans in Paul Brown Stadium: “It’s always been us.”
Like Burrow, Uzomah has moved on from the underdog narrative. He alone has instilled belief for the fans as much as Burrow has done so for the players. He is the heartbeat for this team, but it’s not his heart that’s the issue. Uzomah is currently rehabbing an MCL sprain he suffered in the AFC Championship game. If his throwing his knee brace into the air on Monday is any indication, he’s going to play through it on Sunday. Nothing less is expected from the team’s quintessential leader.
Shooter McPherson, AKA Money Mac
Finally, we get to Evan McPherson, who is probably Burrow’s biggest rival on this team when it comes to fame. Cincinnati’s rookie placekicker is kicking without a care in the world, calling his shots and sending every football he sees through the uprights. He’s made two game-winners this postseason and is three made field goals away from breaking Adam Vinatieri’s playoff record of 15!
He’s 22 years old, and, as Uzomah put it this week, looks like the “chicken finger eating king of the world.”
McPherson’s confidence has been said to originate from just being around Burrow, but that doesn’t compute. A rookie at that position either has it or he doesn’t. McPherson’s simply always had it. It only gets validated when you clinch a Super Bowl berth. Would anyone be surprised if Sunday came down to his right leg yet again?
I don’t know if McPherson alone is the personification of this Bengals season, but he’s pretty damn close. Someone with clear and obvious potential just putting it all together sooner than anyone could’ve reasonably expected and doing it all with a sly smile on his face, knowing he is that dude.
The Bengals are now full of guys like this. Their mental makeup matches the way they fight through adversity. These aren’t the Bengals your dad told you about, or his dad told him about.
These Bengals demand your attention, if you haven’t given it to them already.