There is still plenty to learn about the Los Angeles Rams. We have heard plenty via the national media, but broad strokes we get from that rarely show how this team has performed over the course of the season. So we decided to give Cincinnati Bengals fans the perspective of this game from the Rams side with some questions with Evan Craig of Turf Show Times.
Patrick Judis: One of the most common things we have heard leading up to the game Sunday is how drastically different these teams have been built. The Bengals obviously went a little more traditional with the draft and a few mid-range free agents. However, the Rams basically have gone out and landed just about every big name that has become available the past few seasons. How has this team managed to keep a chemistry and get so much out of these players that historically doesn’t always work out this well?
Evan Craig: In theory, superteams aren’t supposed to work but there’s always a chance they could somewhere down the line. Tampa Bay last season was a perfect example of team-building similar to the Rams that seemed to work out in the end. Coaching and the front office really has a lot to do with it. Within the past year alone, LA has traded for a QB who couldn’t win playoff games and a star linebacker past his prime along with a superstar pass catcher who was a locker room cancer. What could go wrong with that trio asked fans across the league.
I always had a feeling Matthew Stafford would do well in McVay’s offense but Von Miller and Odell Beckham came with many question marks. At the time of the Miller trade, I was highly critical of the cost LA paid to get him. He’s changed my mind a little at a time each week because he’s taking advantage of single blocks and pressuring QBs as he should instead of only showing up in the final five minutes. OBJ was thrown to the wolves in his first game, and it showed. Beckham was put in a tougher situation since Robert Woods was lost for the season prior to his first start. Since then, Beckham has been great and has performed well as of late, as demonstrated by his 100-yard effort against the Niners.
The reason superteams often fail is due to the fact that teams trot out their stars early and expect their chemistry will magically form from there. That didn’t happen in Los Angeles with the slight exception of Beckham. Rams’ coaches broke these guys in a little at a time to build the chemistry and those baby steps if you will have helped this team flourish. It also helped that the Rams added ring-hungry veterans instead of a bunch of youngsters. Not that young players are bad by any means but LA signed stars who were already well-established at their position have been around the NFL long enough to “see it all”.
PJ: It is rare that the first player I want to talk about isn’t the quarterback, but Aaron Donald has to be one of the best players in the entire league. I’ve always been a huge fan. I even remember saying people would look back on the 2014 draft and question how he didn’t get picked sooner. Can you talk a little bit about what makes him so special and able to wreck running and pass plays seemingly at will?
EC: Where do I even start with his guy? He’s truly one of the most special defensive players I’ve ever seen in my life. Few players in league history have had the ability to wreck anyone’s game plan and flip a game upside down. I mean, earning a First-Team All-Pro nod seven years in a row is just unheard of. I’m fortunate enough to never have faced off against Donald because if I had learned he would be my matchup for the week, I think I’d be forced to retire. Who could blame me when that guy is at the forefront of recurring nightmares for every quarterback and offensive coordinator in the game. Even if he doesn’t get into the backfield or sack the quarterback, his presence is always felt as illustrated by this tweet I found:
Most Pressures in the NFL over the last 5 seasons— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) February 7, 2022
Aaron Donald 461*
Cameron Jordan 337
T.J. Watt 309
Fletcher Cox 297
Chris Jones 292
(inc. playoffs) pic.twitter.com/Na8IzeOV4l
He’s got 124 more pressures than the second-place finisher on this list. He’s about as lethal as John Wick with a pencil: Who can do that? Teams can try double-teaming or doing whatever possible to neutralize Donald all they want, but he’s always inevitable. Aaron is a true Hall of Fame talent and always a pleasure to watch, win or lose.
PJ: Matthew Stafford has always been a big name at quarterback. However, it seemed like there was always a “but” after talking about how good he was. Whether it be postseason or ball security struggles, things never seemed to end well for him. How has coming to the Rams helped him find postseason success? Also, how has his play been this season?
EC: Being a Stafford supporter all these years, I’m beyond overjoyed to see him finally have the success I believed he could have if he went to a winning team. Seeing him make the Super Bowl in his first year with the Rams is further proof of Detroit being an overly incompetent franchise. Maybe it’s just me but anytime you see two generational talents (Sanders and Johnson) walk away in their primes because they’re fed up with losing is probably a sign a team is broken beyond repair.
What helped him in coming to the Rams was the expectation that they were going to be a title contender. I know the move was polarizing to some, but it made sense. Jared Goff was regressing, and it was clear he was nothing but a liability going forward. Stafford was a risk given that he had never won a playoff game and was deemed by some as the Lions’ main problem. That is laughable now obviously but Matt has nothing but full faith in his right arm. He is unafraid to cork one downfield where Goff became timid when he threw. Stafford was able to find success with LA because he’s going to live and die with his cannon. Sure he had zero prior postseason success, but I tend to believe players like him will have the big moments locked away deep inside for huge moments. Stafford is a guy who’s always had a knack for comebacks. No one paid attention to them before, given that practically every game was a comeback for the Lions.
Stafford has performed about as I expected this season. I figured he would be a drastic upgrade for Los Angeles. Riding the Matthew Stafford express can be nauseating at times, illustrated by his four pick-sixes in the regular season and just some horrible mistakes that have me screaming “WTF?!” at the TV. However, after I saw his performances against the Bucs in both matchups and during the Cardinals game when LA was dealing with COVID, I had a firm belief that this could be the beginning if he got the chance. So far, so good. Let’s see if his Super Bowl performance will be similar.
PJ: It seems all Super Bowls are defined by a player that casual fans either never heard of or didn’t expect. If you had to choose a player you’d expect to leave their stamp on this game, who would it be?
EC: My choice would be tight end Kendall Blanton who came out of nowhere in the NFC Championship and had the game of his life with starter Tyler Higbee sidelined. Blanton caught all five of his targets for 57 yards after finishing the regular season with four receptions for 37 yards. Four of his catches against the 49ers were crucial 1st downs which helped LA pull off the comeback.
Kendall Blanton stepped up with FOUR 1st down catches on 5 receptions. The trend of this season has been “Next Man Up” & they have all delivered! Additionally, despite the narratives, the Rams are 6th in the NFL in homegrown players. We have developed our young guys so very well pic.twitter.com/H9aX6J3NQ5— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) February 2, 2022
Given the uncertainty of Higbee’s status for Sunday, I fully expect Blanton to step yet again and be targeted frequently. I can see him having an out-of-nowhere performance à la Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews (remember him?) in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Patriots.
PJ: Who do you think will win the Super Bowl, and what will be the deciding factor?
EC: As much as I don’t wanna bet against Joe Burrow and the red-hot Bengals, I’ll have to go with the Rams in a close one. The reason is that I believe LA has far too much talent on the defensive line not to overwhelm Cincy’s offensive line. Again, I know how much Bengals fans are tired of hearing this but the playoffs are where a team’s weaknesses get exposed. In the Divisional Round, Burrow got sacked nine times and the defense he’s facing in the Super Bowl will be far better. Los Angeles ranked third in sacks this season with 50. The Rams’ D haven’t necessarily lived up to their billing this season, but they’re going to do what they can to win Donald a ring. I envision this game coming down to LA’s defense making a key stop on a potential game-winning drive for the Bengals. Burrow will go blow-for-blow with the opposition all night much as he has during the playoffs, but his efforts will fall short here. It’s possible I just jinxed the Rams but that’s my prediction so far. I give full permission for the fans to roast me handily in the comments and on social media should I be way off. I personally can’t wait!
Thanks again to Evan Craig. You can catch more of his work as well as Rams coverage heading up to the Super Bowl over at Turf Show Times.