Greg Gaines lives up to his secret superstar billing in Super Bowl LVI

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Greg Gaines had a pivotal impact on Super Bowl LVI, from the opening drive to perhaps one of the most critical plays of the game.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl LVI, much of the attention focused on how Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals were going to handle the imposing defensive front from the Los Angeles Rams. With Von Miller, Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd at their disposal, there were concerns that an offensive line that had to pick Burrow up after nine sacks in the Divisional Round might be overmatched in the Super Bowl.

Flying under the radar a bit, however, was defensive tackle Greg Gaines. Our own Doug Farrar highlighted Gaines as one of the secret superstars of Super Bowl LVI prior to the game, and that premonition paid off in a large way for the Rams on Sunday night.

Gaines was in on 55 of the Rams’ defensive snaps Sunday night, or 90% of their defensive plays. He notched three assisted tackles over those snaps, but showed up in a big way early and often, and also had a hand in one of the biggest plays of the game from the Rams’ perspective.

Gaines got involved early in Super Bowl LVI. On the Bengals’ first rushing attempt of the game, it was the defensive tackle who got to Joe Mixon, holding him to a minimal gain:

Gaines aligns on the left shoulder of the center, as as the Bengals try and run Mixon inside on a zone design, Gaines mirrors the movement of the center as Trey Hopkins slides to his right. Gaines is able to peek into the backfield and read Mixon’s path, disengaging from Hopkins and getting to the running back for the stop.

Cincinnati would eventually go for it on fourth down, and the Rams would get the first big defensive play of the game as Burrow’s pass fell to the SoFi stadium turf incomplete.

Just prior to halftime Leonard Floyd managed to get to Burrow for one of the Rams’ seven sacks of the Super Bowl, but it was a loop from Gaines that created the opportunity:

This play was one of the many creative defensive fronts that Raheem Morris rolled out for Super Bowl LVI. On this play, Miller is the only defender aligned on the right side of the offensive line, in a wide-9 alignment well outside right tackle Isaiah Prince. Gaines is on the left shoulder of Hopkins, while both Donald and Floyd align on the outside of left tackle Jonah Williams.

At the snap, both Floyd and Donald crash to the inside while Gaines loops behind them to the edge. Initially, Burrow feels comfortable in the pocket. but then he sees a flash of white coming off the left edge in the form of Gaines. That causes the quarterback to try and slide up towards the line of scrimmage, taking him right into the path of Floyd crashing down to the inside for an eight-yard loss.

Another stunt involving Gaines opened up an opportunity for Miller to get home late in the third quarter. With the Bengals facing a 2nd and 12 on their own 14-yard line, Gaines and Miller combined on a tackle/end stunt off the right side of the offensive line. Gaines took an upfield path while Miller, aligned outside of the defensive tackle, looped behind him. Watch as Gaines occupies both the guard and the tackle, clearing a path for Miller as the pass rusher slices inside:

But perhaps Gaines’ biggest contribution came in the closing seconds. After the Rams scored to take the lead, Burrow and the Bengals looked to have a little drive going. After Burrow connected with Ja’Marr Chase for 17 yards to give Cincinnati a 1st and 10 at their own 42-yard line, Burrow found Tyler Boyd for nine yards, getting Cincinnati into Rams’ territory.

A second down passing attempt in the general direction of Chase drifted out of bounds, setting up a 3rd and 1 for the Bengals at the Rams’ 49-yard line. Realistically, the Bengals needed just a few more yards to get into field goal range for rookie kicker Evan McPherson, based on his performance pre-game. McPherson missed from 60- and 62-yards out, but converted a 56-yard attempt according to Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post:

On that 3rd and 1 play, Zac Taylor again turned to the run game, sending Samaje Perine on an inside run. Gaines, however, would change his path in the backfield, and perhaps change the course of Super Bowl LVI:

Gaines aligns across from left guard Quinton Spain, and as the guard steps to the inside off the snap, Gaines matches his movement with a quick lateral step of his own. Perine is aiming for the inside, but as Gaines matches the lateral movement of Spain, he manages to dip his head and shoulder back to the inside, across Spain’s left shoulder:

As Gaines is doing this, linebacker Ernest Jones has crossed the face of the left tackle. This combination, of Gaines and Jones both dipping into the same gap, forces Perine to try and bounce the run to the right side where waiting for him is Donald.

As Perine bounces, he cannot get to the outside of Donald, and is forced to stay inside of the imposing defensive tackle. That is when Gaines scrapes back across Spain and gets to the running back, stopping him for no gain and setting up the climatic fourth-down attempt:

As the saying goes, football is a team game. It takes all 11 players on the field for a giving play for one team to be successful. On Sunday night, Gaines lived up to his secret superstar billing, creating opportunities for his teammates and perhaps even changing the course of Super Bowl LVI.

From a failed fourth down to Aaron Donald’s last stand: Every important play in Super Bowl LVI

Super Bowl LVI was a back-and-forth thriller, and here’s every important play in the game in chronological order.

The 2021 NFL season was the longest ever, and perhaps improbably, it also gave us perhaps the greatest postseason we’ve ever season. Game after game was decided in nail-biting fashion, and Super Bowl LVI was no exception.

The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, but it was never a sure thing until the end. The Rams shot out to a 13-3 lead, watched Joe Burrow and the Bengals mount comeback after comeback, got their defense together at the best possible time, and in  the end, Cincinnati’s Achilles heel — an offensive line that could probably get blasted by a good SEC defensive front — turned things in L.A.’s favor.

It’s always good to look back at close games like this to see when and how things turned, especially when there were so many twists and turns. With that in mind, here are, in chronological order, all the truly important plays in Super Bowl LVI.

Bengals drop eight into coverage and create the interception

A big question heading into Super Bowl LVI was how Matthew Stafford would handle eight men in coverage. He failed a big test early in Super Bowl LVI.

Heading into Super Bowl LVI, one of the questions facing the Los Angeles Rams when they had the football was if the Cincinnati Bengals would rely on eight men in coverage and if they did, how Matthew Stafford would handle those looks.

If you recall the AFC Championship game, the Bengals used eight men in coverage on 45% of their snaps in the second half and overtime against the Kansas City Chiefs. That helped Cincinnati hold the Chiefs to just three points after halftime, enabling the Bengals to pull off the comeback.

Would Stafford do what Patrick Mahomes did in that game, becoming impatient and trying to force throws into covearge? How Stafford would handle those moments was a huge question facing the Rams this week.

With Los Angeles driving late in the first half, the Bengals dialed up a drop-eight coverage. Stafford had a big test against the three-man rush:

Instead of points, the Bengals offense was coming onto the field.

The play from safety Jesse Bates III was acknowledged on Twitter by Carolina Panthers cornerback Stephon Gilmore:

But this interception might foretell what the second half of Super Bowl LVI is going to look like. The Rams have struggled to run the football so far in this game, as the Los Angeles offense has just 26 rushing yards on 12 attempts. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo might feel comfortable using more of these drop-eight looks in the second half.

If he does, Stafford is goign to need to learn from this lesson if the Rams are going to win Super Bowl LVI.


McVay moving Stafford in the pocket leads to two huge plays for Los Angeles

No one had more passing attempts this season on designed rollouts than Matthew Stafford. That led to two big plays in Super Bowl LVI for the Rams.

In the early going of Super Bowl LVI, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has called two impressive scoring drives to help the Rams build a 13-3 lead.

On the Rams’ second scoring drive of the game, McVay called two different plays that moved Stafford around in the backfield, both of which resulted in huge gains for the Los Angeles offense.

The first came on a fake toss, with Stafford faking the pitch to running back Darrell Henderson before rolling out to his right. However, instead of looking for a target to that side of the field, Stafford checks up on his drop and throws back to Henderson along the left sideline. Henderson pulled in the throw for a gain of 25 yards, giving the Rams a 1st and 10 inside the Cincinnati 20-yard line.

Then a few plays later, McVay moved Stafford out of the pocket again, rolling him out to the right. This time Stafford did throw in that direction, looking for Cooper Kupp:

What helps sell this play is the path that Kupp takes off the line. The Rams task their wide receivers with blocking on the edges of a lot of their base running designs, and Kupp flashes inside initially as if he is going to block, before releasing to the back corner of the end zone where Stafford finds him for six.

This replay angle gives another look at Kupp’s release, as well as the read and throw from Stafford:

During the regular season, no quarterback attempted more passes on designed rollouts than Stafford, according to Sports Info Solutions. Stafford used a designed rollout on 69 passing attempts, completing 43 of them for 524 yards and seven touchdowns, with just a pair of interceptions.

Given the success of those designs in the regular season, and so far in Super Bowl LVI, expect to see Stafford rolling out a few more times before Super Bowl LVI is over.



How Sean McVay put Odell Beckham in position for the first touchdown of Super Bowl LVI

How Sean McVay put Odell Beckham Jr. in position to score the first points of Super Bowl LVI.

In the build-up to Super Bowl LVI, one of the biggest questions facing the Cincinnati Bengals when they were on defense was how they wouuld defend the slot, particularly talented slot receiver Cooper Kupp.

The Los Angeles Rams scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl LVI and it indeed came from a receiver aligned inside, but instead of Kupp it was Odell Beckham Jr., who worked himself open on a vertical route thanks to formation, alignment and execution.

After the Rams defense forced a fourth-down stop of the Bengals on Cincinnati’s first possession, the Los Angeles offense got moving. Facing a 3rd and 3 in the red zone, head coach Sean McVay emptied the formation, putting Matthew Stafford in the shotgun and aligning three receivers on the right.

Beckham aligned as the inside receiver, and he ran a wheel route towards the outside while the two receivers on the outside of him broke towards the middle of the field:

The alignment created traffic on two different levels for the defense to deal with, first off the line and then second a bit deeper downfield. First, slot defender Mike Hilton has to navigate the traffic created off the release by the two outside receivers. But deeper downfield, the free safety has to deal wth a pair of routes working towards him, preventing him from rotating over the top of Beckham’s route.

Combine that with a great throw and catch, and you have the first touchdown of Super Bowl LVI:

Stafford puts the  throw in a perfect spot, and Beckham goes up to high point the football, crashing to the blue turf with the game’s first points.

Rams get a fourth-down stop of the Bengals early in Super Bowl LVI

The Cincinnati Bengals faced the first fourth down decision of Super Bowl LVI. The Rams defense, however, made the big play.

Two possesssions, two punts to open Super Bowl LVI.

After the Los Angeles Rams were forced to punt on the opening drive of the Super Bowl, the Cincinnati Bengals took over possession and quickly Zac Taylor faced the first real fourth-down decision of the game. With the Bengals facing a 4th and 1 at midfield, Taylor kept his offense on the field.

Yet the pass fell incomplete, and the Rams offense returned to the field.

After a running play by Samaje Perine on the previous play, a 3rd and short, was stopped shy of the yard to gain, Taylor put the football in the hands of quarterback Joe Burrow. The quarterback targeted his favorite receiver, Ja’Marr Chase:

In a sense, the design of the play worked against Cincinnati. Chase sits down on the stick/option route from the inside, while Tee Higgins runs an out route after crossing the formation in motion. As Burrow looks for Chase sitting down on the route, linebacker Ernest Jones starts breaking to the flat, to pick up Perine who is releasing to the outside on a swing route. That puts Jones in the throwing lane, and he is able to tip the football to force the incompletion.

Analytically, this was the correct decision for the Bengals, as supported by the “Fourth Down Bot” created by Ben Baldwin of The Athletic:

However, a bit of bad luck thanks to the play design, and a heads-up play by Jones, spoiled the effort.


How the Rams can beat the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI

If the Los Angeles Rams are to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, they’ll have to do these three things.

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The Rams hired Sean McVay to be their head coach in 2017, and that’s worked out pretty well so far. McVay has a regular-season record of 55-26, and anytime you’re riding with a .679 winning percentage, that’s more than acceptable.

Now, McVay has the opportunity to do the one thing that separates good coaches from great — win a Super Bowl. This is McVay’s second chance in four seasons; his Rams fell short to Bill Belichick’s Patriots in Super Boal LIII, and McVay has admitted since that he was overwhelmed by the moment and the opponent.

“I think it was a blessing to be in that game,” he said this week, reflecting on what has changed. “Certainly, you don’t forget about it. You want to be able to do better. But I don’t think you press when you do get another opportunity to be in this moment and this stage again. I think you look at it as a blessing, you take some of those learning lessons, you apply them, and let’s go cut it loose and play to the best of our ability, and I’ll coach to the best of my ability with our coaches, as well.”

Now, McVay is the veteran head coach in this game. He’s got Matthew Stafford instead of Jared Goff. He’s got Super Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. He’s got Aaron Donald, Destroyer of Worlds, and he’s got Jalen Ramsey. He’s also got the fact that Bengals head coach Zac Taylor was on McVay’s staff in 2017 and 2018 as the Rams’ assistant receivers coach and quarterbacks coach.

The moment is primed for Sean McVay to get that Lombardi Trophy. Here are three things the Rams will have to do for that to happen.

Touchdown Wire’s Super Bowl LVI matchup video with Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield

Super Bowl LVI is right around the corner, and Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield break it all down with tape notes and advanced metrics.

With Super Bowl LVI just around the corner, it’s time for Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield to do what it is that they do — go through the tape and advanced metrics as a forensic level, and come out with the key matchups, players who can swing the game in their team’s direction, and those Secret Superstars who could rise out of anonymity to excel in the biggest games of their lives.

You can watch the video, in which Doug and Mark do just that, right here.

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4-Down Territory: NFL in courts and Congress, Super Bowl difference-makers, draft crushes

In this week’s “4-Down Territory,” Doug Farrar and Luke Easterling discuss the NFL’s misdeeds, Super Bowl hot-shots, and 2022 draft crushes.

Each week in “4-Down Territory, Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar, and Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire and Draft Wire, take on the NFL’s (and occasionally the NCAA’s) most pressing topics. In this week’s episode, our fearless experts tackle the NFL’s current issues in both the courts and in Congress, which player (or group of players) will make the biggest difference in Super Bowl LVI, and which 2022 prospects have officially reached “draft crush” status for both Doug and Luke.

You can watch the video right here:

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How the Rams stymied the 49ers’ rushing attack in the NFC Championship game

The San Francisco 49ers’ running game posed problems for the Rams in the regular season. Los Angeles was not going to let that happen again in the NFC Championship game.

Heading into the NFC Championship game, there were a number of things on the to-do list for Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. He needed to confuse Jimmy Garoppolo, and perhaps force the one big mistake. He had to come up with a plan for the talented Deebo Samuel. He also needed to have an answer for the diverse San Francisco rushing attack.

As the Rams begin thinking about Super Bowl preparations, you could say he accomplished the bulk of those goals.

Los Angeles held the 49ers running game largely in check during their 20-17 win, holding San Francisco to just 50 rushing yards on 20 carries. Samuel was the 49ers’ leading rusher, carrying the ball seven times for 26 yards, while Elijah Mitchell got the most carries for the 49ers, being held to 20 yards on 11 attempts.

How did they manage to slow down the San Francisco run game? After the loss, tight end George Kittle had an idea:

That was part of the plan, a plan that focused on downhill aggression from second- and third-level defenders, penetration into the backfield, and denying the runners a shot at getting to the edge.

Take this play from late in the first quarter:

The 49ers try and run Mitchell to the left side using zone blocking up front. Kittle comes across the formation in motion just prior to the snap, moving left-to-right. As Mitchell takes the handoff, Von Miller sets a hard edge over left tackle Trent Williams, preventing Mitchell from bouncing this run to the outside, and as he is doing so cornerback David Long, who is down in the box, angles behind him to the outside, putting himself in place should Mitchell still try to bounce the run around the edge.

The backside of the plan is just as important. First there is linebacker Troy Reeder, who is charging downhill right at the snap. As right tackle Tom Compton slides to his left, Reeder knifes into the backfield off his backside, crashing into fullback Kyle Juszczyk. That gives linebacker Justin Hollins a clear path to Mitchell as well.

Oh, and right in the middle of all of this there is the world-destroying defensive tackle, Aaron Donald, driving left guard Laken Tomlinson a yard into the backfield, forcing Mitchell to try and cut behind the line of scrimmage.

In the third quarter, the 49ers tried to run Mitchell again to the left side, using zone blocking up front. Once again, penetration from the defensive line coupled with downhill aggression from second- and third-level defenders stopped the play before it could get going:

This time it is Brandon Aiyuk in motion at the snap, as the 49ers try and run Mitchell to the left using zone blocking. Jusczcyk, who aligns in a wing to the left, executes the sift block across the formation.

The first component to this run stop, the interior penetration, is delivered by defensive tackle Marquise Copeland, who staggers Tomlinson as the left guard is sliding to the outside, pushing Tomlinson two yards into the backfield. This drives the guard into Mitchell’s path, cutting off a potential bounce to the edge and forcing the running back to consider a cutback to the right.

One small problem. Well, three big ones to be exact. First is Leonard Floyd, who has avoided the fullback’s sift block and is in position to crash down on Mitchell. Second is Long, who again begins the play in the backfield and, after avoiding a stumbling block attempt from center Alex Mack who was tripped up trying to get to the second level, is in position to stop Mitchell. Third is Reeder. Who has sifted through the traffic up front and found a path towards Mitchell. The three defenders crash into the running back simultaneously, holding him to a gain of one yard to force third and long.

Later in the third quarter, San Francisco again tried to run Mitchell to the left side on a zone blocking design. Again, the Rams were ready:

This run stop starts with linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, on the edge across from Williams, the talented left tackle. As Williams opens to his left and starts to fan outside, Okoronkwo rolls the dice and dips inside of him, evading Williams and getting into the backfield quickly. Okoronkwo feels comfortable taking that chance, because Long — again aligned in the box — is in position as a secondary force player.

Okoronkwo’s cut to the inside pays off, as Mitchell is forced to make a cut behind the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately for him, there is no clean path downfield. Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson is working down the line of scrimmage, and with Reeder crashing downhill once more, Mitchell has nowhere to go.

The final play we will look at is one of the wrinkles the 49ers used this season, a toss play aiming inside with zone blocking concepts up front. While this is an example of the Rams blitzing through the A-Gap as Kittle pointed out after the game, as Reeder comes crashing inside, this play stands more for the idea that Los Angeles has some talented players up front.

Because on this play, Miller’s ability to avoid a block on the edge stops this before it gets going:

As the play unfolds, Compton fans to his right to take on Miller. The defender initially looks like he is going to square up and take the tackle on head up, but at the last second Miller jumps to the outside, and Compton is left waving at air. The defender’s cat-like reflexes pay off, as he is in position to force Mitchell to make a decision again behind the line of scrimmage. The running back tries to evade Miller by bouncing around to the outside, but the defender is having none of it, and the play goes for a one-yard loss.

The Rams defenders were tasked this week with slowing down a running game that had posed some problems for them in the regular season. When these two teams met in the regular season — both of which were 49ers wins — – San Francisco rushed for 156 yards and 135 yards in those two games.

Los Angeles was not going to let that happen again, and in the NFC Championship game they took the fight to the 49ers and played it on their terms, behind the line of scrimmage. The result? A trip to Super Bowl LVI.