The Cincinnati Bengals were a great team this year, one that cashed in a good regular season and a legendary postseason. One of their few outstanding weaknesses was their offensive line, and a failure to take advantage of that weakness was one way to absolutely doom yourself. Just ask the Chiefs, who melted down on offense and largely couldn’t get after Joe Burrow to prevent the Bengals from galloping past them in the Divisional Round, or the Titans, who nearly pulled off a win against Cincy thanks to an absolutely brutal nine sacks.
The Rams’ Super Bowl win hinged on a lot of things—Matthew Stafford overcoming a couple of interceptions and making big throws when he needed to, Aaron Donald being Aaron Donald when he needed to most, Cooper Kupp’s excellence, the officiating crew maybe suddenly discovering their flags at the right moment—but the pass rush certainly played a major role.
A Leonard Floyd sack killed the Bengals’ final drive of the first half. An Aaron Donald sack took the Rams from 3rd and 3 on the Los Angeles 11 yard line to settling for a field goal that kept it a one-score game. Sacks helped kill each of the next three Cincinnati drives, and pressure helped keep Joe Burrow from doing what he consistently would’ve liked to do, which is hit Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and company downfield, as he was able to do in the early going.
The Bengals, of course, were at times listless and missed opportunities that had little to do with whether the Rams were generating any pressure, but settling for the field goal instead of the touchdown on that Donald sack ended up providing Los Angeles their margin of victory. The pressure and sacks that fearsome Rams front were able to generate helped them overcome a lackluster (and oddly leaned-upon) ground game and their fair share of unproductive drives and mistakes on offense, and the years of building up a fearsome front seven and handing the reins to terrific defensive coordinators like Raheem Morris paid off in a huge way.
That brings us to Atlanta, which is going to have to add a lot of talent up front to have anything that doesn’t resemble...well, the worst pass rush in the league, which Atlanta had. The league is full of terrific quarterbacks who can and will carve you to pieces with time in the pocket, and the Falcons saw that happen last year against the likes of Tim Boyle because they were so utterly incapable of pressuring even a so-so reserve. Too often, the Falcons have found themselves holding their breath and hoping that teams can’t mount furious comebacks or add to a narrow lead while allowing quarterbacks to work on their passion projects in the pocket.
Even if the Falcons did miraculously develop a quality pass rush overnight, it wouldn’t be enough to make them a great team, and you won’t catch me booing them in March and April if they decide to invest money and draft picks in bolstering a secondary that has real potential thanks to the presence of the great A.J. Terrell and young, interesting players like Jaylinn Hawkins, Darren Hall and Richie Grant. Hell, I won’t complain if they sink them into an offense that really needs the help, either.
It’s clear enough to me, though, that Atlanta isn’t going to find themselves pushing hard for a Super Bowl unless they can at least get back to having a good pass rush again. There were enough reminders in these playoffs and this Super Bowl of just how important that can be.