That preseason meeting last year didn’t have much weight to it since starters didn’t play; however, a brawl to end a joint practice two days before that was an indication of tension between the teams. A full season later, both teams still have several returning players that were a part of Super Bowl LVI, which the Rams won 23-20, but both have also seen changes in personnel.
The Rams especially look different on defense with notable departures that include Eric Weddle (retired), Von Miller (now with the Bills), Jalen Ramsey (Dolphins) and Leonard Floyd (Bears). Safety Nick Scott is now with the Bengals, though he went into concussion protocol Sunday and his status is unknown. Offensively, Cooper Kupp is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, Odell Beckham left last year and Andrew Whitworth retired.
However, there’s one name that probably matters most to that team and its ability to impact the Bengals, and he’s still there. Defensive tackle and nine-time Pro Bowler Aaron Donald once again poses a threat to the quarterback, whether that ends up being Joe Burrow, who tweaked his calf Sunday, or a backup.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Donald being on the other side of the field doesn’t impact whether Burrow will play because “every team is good at this point.”
Donald is a capable game wrecker but does seem to have lost a step at age 32. Last year in 11 games he had just 5.0 sacks, his first time falling short of or even being on pace for double digit sacks since 2016, though he still made the Pro Bowl for the ninth consecutive season to open his career. The San Francisco 49ers held him without a sack or tackle last week in a 30-23 loss for the Rams.
Still, the Bengals won’t forget Donald hunting down Burrow for two sacks and disrupting their last-ditch effort to come back when he pressured Burrow into a lob to Samaje Perine that fell incomplete.
Cincinnati overhauled its offensive line after that and now has just one starter still in the lineup with former left tackle Jonah Williams now at right tackle. The Bengals, otherwise, have three different players in their secondary than what the Rams saw in Super Bowl LVI, with safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates and cornerback Eli Apple gone.
Los Angeles’ offense without Kupp isn’t quite as daunting but Matthew Stafford is still running the show at quarterback and rookie Puka Nacua has stepped up to replace Kupp’s production. He has 25 catches for 266 yards and four touchdowns through two games, setting a record for most receptions in a rookie’s first two games (19 was the previous record), and he has an NFL-high 111 yards after the catch this season.
The fifth-rounder out of BYU has caught defenses by surprise the first two games, but Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is fortunate to now have a couple of games on film to study and see how Stafford is using Nacua.
“He’s a good route runner, has strong hands,” Anarumo said. “The quarterback obviously trusts him because he’s feeding him the ball. He gets open, plain and simple, so we’ll have to certainly pay attention to him.”
The Rams won their opener, 30-13, against Seattle but fell short against the 49ers last week. When the betting lines opened for Week 3 matchups, Cincinnati was a 6.5-point favorite. Concerns over Burrow’s calf have since dropped most of those odds to make the Bengals a 2-point favorite.
Cincinnati opened 0-2 last year but won its next two games and surged in the second half of the season. The Bengals will look for a similar rebound Monday. They lead the all-time series with the Rams, 8-6, in regular-season matchups, but L.A. won the most recent one, 24-10, at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2019.
Rams at Bengals, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7