The Super Bowl on Sunday pits an established team that’s gone all-in against a hot up-and-comer. There are interesting matchups to be found all over the field, but the most dynamic may be between each team’s star receiver: Cooper Kupp for the Los Angeles Rams vs. Ja’Marr Chase for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Kupp has put together one of the best receiving seasons in NFL history, churning out steady, spectacular production for the Rams week after week. Many will point to Kupp’s 1,947 receiving yards — second most in the regular season in NFL history1 as proof of his greatness. Others might nod to his consistency: Kupp posted fewer than 90 yards receiving in just two games out of 20 this season. But perhaps most impressive was his efficiency. Kupp’s 3.28 receiving yards per route run from Week 1 through the playoffs ranks second among qualifying receivers since 2007,2 and his share of receptions on routes run (23.9 percent) is fourth among qualifying receivers3 over those 15 seasons.
In many ways, Kupp won where you would expect him to win. He racked up more of his catches on short-to-intermediate outside routes than any other area of the field. He led the league in receptions on short outs — routes that break sharply to the sideline — hauling in 47 of his 170 receptions4 there this season. Kupp made the catches count, too: He converted 22 into first downs, tops in the NFL.
Again, this really isn’t much of a surprise to anyone who has followed Kupp’s career. He’s well-known for his sharp route running, and he possesses an ability to patiently read the leverage of his defenders, then quickly change direction and break their ankles when they overcommit.
On the opposing sideline, Chase is known primarily as the opposite of Kupp: a deep threat that you can’t afford to leave singled up without help on the outside. The first-year sensation’s success running verts is a large part of the reason why he averaged the eighth-most yards per game ever for a rookie and compiled the second-most receiving yards for a first-year receiver in NFL history.5 It’s hard to think of Chase this season and not recall one of the many plays on which he just flat-out beat his opponent in a footrace to the end zone.
Chase was second in the league with 26 catches on vertical routes, racking up 758 yards while streaking upfield, often against defenders caught flat-footed trying to cover him deep one-on-one. His reputation is well-deserved. But if Chase was second in vertical success, which receiver was first? The (perhaps) surprising answer: Kupp.
Kupp bested Chase in every statistical category deep, catching 28 balls for 857 yards. And that’s to take nothing away from Chase — there really weren’t any areas of the field where either receiver was a liability for their teams this year. It’s just that Kupp was so very good, well, everywhere.
The sheer volume of short and intermediate routes the Rams ask Kupp to run is impressive enough, but head coach Sean McVay also lines Kupp up in so many locations that it’s hard to know what’s coming and when. Kupp attacked from the outside, from the slot, from bunch formations, after coming in motion, on choice routes where he lags behind and waits to make a decision on where to make his break, and even from the backfield. So perhaps it’s forgivable that when he puts his head down and sprints for the end zone, teams are taken by surprise.
With Odell Beckham Jr. and Van Jefferson threatening deep when Kupp goes short, the defense is put in a no-win situation. And perhaps because of the bind he puts coverages in, Kupp was incredibly efficient deep: On passes between 30 and 40 yards in the air, Kupp caught 7 of 8 targets for 317 yards and a touchdown.
Surely none of this is lost on the Bengals. Forced to choose whether to suffer a death by a thousand Kupps or risk getting beat over the top for a quick score, it’s likely Cincinnati will want to try to dictate the action at some point in Super Bowl LVI and bring pressure. But compounding the problem for the Bengals defense is that quarterback Matthew Stafford has built excellent chemistry with Kupp. Stafford has learned to anticipate his receiver’s reads, and he seems to trust him to make big plays, particularly when looking down the barrel of a blitz. Stafford scored an incredible 93.7 QBR — best in the league — against the blitz from Week 1 through the playoffs. Throws like this one to Kupp help explain his success.
Chase’s Bengals are a scrapy young team — young enough that they should be good for years to come — and many people will be rooting for them. But with Kupp in his prime and playing at a historic level with seemingly no weaknesses, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Cincinnati defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo will be able to come up with enough answers to effectively contain him. Thanks to Kupp, the Rams’ all-in gamble this season looks likely to pay off.
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