Welcome to the Walkthrough, outlining critical fantasy football context for the Super Bowl.
At the end of the article, I've included an extensive list of the stats used as well as what they are, why they're useful, and where they came from.
Bengals vs Rams, 6:30 PM Eastern, Sunday
Bengals Implied Team Total (from PointsBet): 22.5
The Bengals delivered an upset in the AFC Championship game, and the way they pulled it off was just as surprising. After appearing to embrace a pass-first approach over Burrow's last four games, the Bengals played conservatively against the Chiefs. In their Week 17 matchup, they had a 14% pass rate over expected; they dropped to just 2% in the rematch, deploying a stunningly balanced game plan. The Bengals were particularly run-focused on 1st-and-10. In Week 17, Cincinnati set a season-high 22% PROE on 1st-and-10; they dropped to -14% in the AFC Championship game, their third-lowest mark of the season.
If the Bengals were willing to play conservatively against the Chiefs, they're likely planning to limit Burrow's passing attempts against a formidable Rams pass rush. Through Week 17, the Bengals allowed pressure on 29.4% of their pass blocking snaps, the ninth-highest rate in the league. They've been worse in the playoffs, allowing pressure at a rate of 30.5%. They're now facing a Rams pass rush that ranks eighth in pressure rate and sixth in quick pressure rate (2.5 seconds or less). Through the lens of PFF's grades, the mismatch looks even worse. The Bengals rank 25th in pass blocking grade and face the top graded pass rush.
If the Bengals take a run-heavy approach on early downs, they risk setting up Burrow for a high percentage of obvious dropbacks, particularly if they play from behind. But teams don't plan to play from behind, so the Bengals are likely to keep Burrow's passing attempts constrained unless things get away from them.
Although, if the Bengals decide to unleash Burrow, he should be just fine, regardless of the pressure. Burrow ranks seventh in EPA* per play this season (which measures efficiency) and second in completion percentage over expected (which measures accuracy). Burrow is also excellent against pressure. He ranks second in yards per attempt and first in passer rating while under pressure. The Bengals, understandably, will want to deploy a game plan that keeps Burrow upright. However, their best chance of winning is trusting Burrow to defy the Rams' ferocious pass rush.
Once Burrow avoids the rush, he should be able to connect downfield against a solid but sub-elite Rams secondary. Los Angeles ranks 12th in coverage grade, 19th in 1st down pass rate, and 11th in 15+ yard pass rate. Overall, the Rams are a strong pass defense, ranking fourth in EPA allowed per dropback. But while their secondary isn't a liability, that ranking is driven primarily by their pass rush.
And the Rams secondary will be trying to keep up with some of the best weapons in football. Ja'Marr Chase didn't have his best game against the Chiefs, turning in five receptions for 54 yards and a TD on nine targets. But Chase ran a route on 100% of dropbacks and saw a healthy 27% target share and 36% air yard share. This season, Chase has an ultra-elite 2.47 yards per route run, which is a strong signal that he can take over this game if he gets going.
Tee Higgins isn't far behind Chase in YPRR, with an elite 2.17. There was a time when Higgins wasn't running as many routes as Chase, but he's had route rates of 98% and 95% over the Bengals last two games. So he can be expected to be out there for nearly every snap. And Higgins has been just as involved in the offense as Chase. He matches Chase's 24% target share and is just behind Chase's 38% air yard share with a very strong 35% mark. Chase has been more efficient, with an 11.6 yards per target to Higgins' 10.0. But YPT is not sticky. Higgins is seeing as much target o opportunity as Chase, putting him in contention to be the engine of the Bengals offense in the Super Bowl.
Tyler Boyd has route rates of 96% and 90% over the last two weeks and is a lock to run a full slate of routes against the Rams. However, Boyd hasn't had a 20%+ target rate since Week 15, and he's hit 20%+ just six times all season. Chase has hit a 20%+ target rate in 10 of 19 games with Burrow, and four times since Week 15. Higgins has hit 20%+ in 10 games, and three times since Week 15. Boyd has a good chance of operating as the Bengals' secondary option but little chance of propelling the passing game.
C.J. Uzomah looks truly questionable to play, but the man is talking about swimming in chili if the Bengals win the Super Bowl, so I'll go out on a limb and say he'll tough it out. Uzomah saw two targets on just six routes against the Chiefs, so it seems obvious he was a big part of the game plan. Given his health, it's hard to assume that will be the case again this week. Uzomah also has just a 14% target rate this season. With a 4.9 aDOT, Uzomah likely needs a TD or a big yards-after-catch play to make his day. His injury makes him a TD-or-bust bet.
Even with their plethora of receiving weapons, it will be understandable if the Bengals decide to deploy a run-heavy game plan. It will also be extremely frustrating.
The Rams rank eighth in EPA allowed per rush and first in run defense grade. Putting the ball in Joe Mixon's hands against a strong rushing defense simply does not give the Bengals the same path to victory as betting on Burrow to best a difficult passing matchup.
This season, Mixon hasn't been particularly good, ranking 33rd in breakaway percentage, 40th in elusive rating, and 28th in YPRR. He also ranked 27th in NFL Next Gen's rushing yards over expected per attempt, and he's had 20 yards under expected in the playoffs. Mixon is a capable running back, but he's not a game-changing runner.
Nonetheless, Mixon has upside for a big workload here. He's averaged 18.9 expected points per game in the playoffs after averaging 16.6 in the regular season. His efficiency could be uninspiring, but at least his workload isn't in doubt.
*(Expected Points Added, EPA, is an efficiency metric that calculates the expected points of a game situation compared to the previous play. This measures how much each play added or subtracted from a team's point expectation. I exclude garbage time for all EPA data in this article and used adjusted EPA per play, which caps the penalty for negative plays. Data courtesy of rbsdm.com)
Rams Implied Team Total (from PointsBet): 26.25
In my preview of the NFC Championship, I noted that the Rams have made two significant adjustments to their offense throughout the season. They've shifted dramatically to the run, and they've gotten slower. But against the 49ers, they played more aggressively than expected.
The Rams played with a bit more pace, snapping the ball with an average of 9.5 seconds remaining on the play clock, which is just a tick slower than their pre-bye week pace. And before Week 11, they ranked 10th in play clock remaining. The Rams played much slower for the remainder of the regular season and slowed down further in their first two playoff games. But after playing faster last week, they could resemble the early season version of the Rams in terms of plays run this week.
It's also possible they resemble the early season Rams in their play selection. The Rams didn't go nuts with an aerial attack against the 49ers, but their 5% pass rate over expected was solidly pass-heavy. It was also just the fourth time they didn't deploy a run-heavy approach in their 10 games since their bye week. Before their bye, the Rams didn't have a single run-first outing.
The Rams' pass-heavy approach against San Francisco is exciting because while the 49ers are beatable through the air, they are not a pass funnel... but the Bengals are. Bengals opponents are averaging a 2% PROE and shifting 3% to the pass against them. The Rams kept things relatively reigned-in while facing the much more impactful Buccaneers pass funnel in the divisional round. So I don't expect them to go pass-happy here. But there's a good chance they deploy a pass-first game plan.
Then again, the Bengals' pass defense isn't an ideal matchup for the Rams. Matthew Stafford has played very well for most of this season, with notable lapses. Including the playoffs, he ranks first in EPA per play. But one of Stafford's biggest strengths is that he's been deadly against the blitz, ranking second in yards per attempt and first in passer rating against it. This isn't just statistical noise; Stafford is affecting opposing game plans. The 49ers had a 22% blitz rate in non-Rams games this season. They blitzed at just a 14% rate in their first two meetings with the Rams and were at 16% in the NFC Championship. But unfortunately for Stafford, it probably doesn't matter if the Bengals adjust their defensive game plan for the Rams because the Bengals rarely blitz.
The Bengals blitzed at just an 18% rate this season. Only the Raiders (10%) blitzed less often. Their lack of blitzes is interesting because they don't have a strong pass rush either. They rank 21st in pass rush grade and 22nd in pressure rate. But the Bengals appear to be prioritizing their coverage, where they are fairly sound. They rank 10th in coverage grade, 18th in 1st down rate, and 19th in 15+ yard pass rate. They are far from a shutdown secondary, but their coverage is their defensive strength, and they haven't been willing to sacrifice it to increase their pressure rates with high blitz rates. It would be genuinely shocking if they abandoned that approach against a quarterback as adept against the blitz as Stafford.
So Stafford should have plenty of time to throw, but he'll need to be playing at his best to carve up the Bengals secondary. Because despite Stafford's highly efficient play this season, he has not been very accurate. Stafford ranks just 17th in completion percentage over expected, between Matt Ryan and Jared Goff. So even without a pass rush bearing down on him, Stafford's inconsistency is a concern.
At least he doesn't have to worry about inconsistency from his No. 1 wide receiver. Cooper Kupp's trip to the Super Bowl is capping off an all-time receiving season. Kupp has a league-best 3.17 YPRR. No other wide receiver topped 3.0 this season, and Kupp is the only wide receiver to do so since Julio Jones (3.23) put up 1,743 yards in 17 games in the Falcons' 2016 Super Bowl run. Kupp has a 32% target share and a 32% air yard share and has run routes on 100% of dropbacks in back-to-back games. He's a lock to be heavily involved in this game.
I highlighted a few weeks ago that Odell Beckham's role in the offense has shifted. He's now operating as less of a deep threat and more of an intermediate option.
This move has been great for his production. Beckham has an elite 2.38 YPRR in the playoffs after posting a very poor 1.27 YPRR in his regular season games with the Rams. Of course, Beckham could also be developing more chemistry with Stafford, regardless of where the quarterback is targeting him. Either way, Beckham now looks like a much more reliable option than he was before the playoffs began.
Van Jefferson (knee) is practicing in full, but he may not be 100% for the game. With a total of nine targets in his three playoffs games, he hasn't been at his best in the postseason. But while Jefferson is hard to trust, he is still a deep threat, unlike Beckham. Jefferson had a 14.0 aDOT in the regular season, which has jumped to 19.9 in the playoffs. Jefferson is a significantly worse bet for target volume than Beckham, but he can make his day quickly if he can connect on a few targets.
With Tyler Higbee (sprained MCL) likely to be heavily limited or inactive, we will be seeing quite a bit of Kendall Blanton at tight end. Blanton had a 75% route rate against the 49ers, with Higbee at 21%. In other words, he was a true full-time tight end. Blanton also saw six targets against the 49ers and is a shockingly enticing fantasy option.
While the Bengals are a pass funnel, they can certainly be run on. They rank 24th in EPA allowed per rush and 23rd in run defense grade. The Rams should have success on the ground. The critical question is who they will be utilizing in their backfield?
With Cam Akers coming off a two-fumble outing against the Buccaneers and injuring his shoulder in the first half against the 49ers, Sony Michel once again had a major role in the offense. Akers out-carried Michel 13-10, but Michel led 57% to 39% in snap share. Michel also ran 28 routes to Akers' 15 and saw two targets to Akers' one. Akers had appeared to be establishing himself as the clear lead back, but with his shoulder injury likely to be at least somewhat bothersome, this looks likely to be a split backfield.
Akers has not been very good in the playoffs, producing a total of -40 rush yards over expected in his last two games per NFL NextGen. But let's cut the guy some slack. Not only is he coming off an Achilles tear, but he was also facing a Buccaneers defense that ranks seventh in EPA allowed per rush and a 49ers defense that ranks second. Akers' ball security and shoulder issues may have changed things, but it certainly appeared that the Rams were preparing to put more and more on Akers plate as the playoffs went on. He's a risky bet for a full workload, but Akers could fully recapture his 2020 form in the Super Bowl.
To write this article, I relied on the following stats, metrics, and grades.
- Implied Team Totals are calculated using the lines at PointsBet.
- Expected Points Added per Play (EPA/Play).
- Efficiency metric based on how much a play improved a team's likelihood of scoring.
- I use this metric primarily for QB efficiency but also for defensive efficiency.
- Data from Ben Baldwin's rbsdm.com
- All EPA/play referenced in this article has garbage time filtered out.
- I do this by setting win probability filter to between 10-90%.
- Completion Percentage Over Expected
- QB accuracy metric
- Data from rbsdm.com
- All CPOE referenced in this article has garbage time filtered out.
- I do this by setting win probability filter to between 10-90%.
- Pass Rate over Expected
- Measures passing decisions against what would be expected given the game situation.
- Situation Neutral Pass Rate
- Measures pass rate on downs and in situations when a team truly has the choice to pass or run.
- Situation Neutral Seconds per Play
- Seconds between plays in neutral game script.
- Faster play generally means more plays, which provides more opportunity for fantasy scoring.
- Adjusted Line Yards
- Run blocking stat that has been correlated with elite fantasy running back seasons.
- Snaps and Snap Share
- Probably the single most important stat for running back opportunity.
- Teams check in and out of runs with only one back on the field. Being on the field is critical.
- Data from Pro Football Focus, AddMoreFunds and RotoViz
- Target Share and Air Yard share
- The combination of these is called WOPR. Created by Josh Hermsmeyer, this metric scales from 0-1.
- Data from Pro Football Focus and RotoViz
- Routes run per dropback
- Snap share for receivers... since I'm not concerned with who is playing run-blocking snaps.
- Data from Pro Football Focus
- Yards Per Route Run
- A YPRR of 1.8+ is good and anything 2+ is very good.
- This metric is particularly useful for young wide receivers whose role could grow as a result of strong play.
- It can also help identify truly elite wide receivers.
- It filters out in-game injuries and blowouts much better than target share does.
- Data from PFF
- Target per Route Run
- TPRR and Yards per Target combine to make up YPRR.
- TPRR is especially useful for tight ends.
- Some offenses and quarterbacks prioritize throwing to the tight end much more than others.
- Some tight ends are far better at getting open than others.
- TPRR is much more stable than YPT, so in small samples especially, I'd rather know who is drawing targets than what happened afterward.
- Expected Fantasy Points.
- Both RotoViz and PFF have similar Expected Points metrics that adjust opportunity based on the context of each play.
- I am referencing PFF's metric unless otherwise stated.
- A number of other PFF stats including Time to Throw, Play Action Rate, Pressure Rate, Screen Passes and Defensive Grades.