Much has been made – and rightfully so – of the Buckeye-to-Bengal phenomena that has become very prevalent in the Queen City. Five former Ohio State players are currently on the active roster for Cincinnati, and that does not include punter Drue Chrisman, who spent a considerable amount of time on the Bengals’ practice squad and recently signed a reserve/futures contract with the team. The group of five does include Joe Burrow, but spoiler: he will not be included in this piece.
Of the four players who finished their collegiate careers with Ohio State, which one needs to be the biggest difference maker on Sunday? Sorry, that was a trick question. They all need to be difference makers. Isaiah Prince, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Sam Hubbard all need to play lights out. It will likely take an incredible team effort for the underdog Bengals to defeat the NFL’s version of a superteam.... the best roster money can buy, paid in full (shoutout to Eric B. and Rakim) by business mogul Stan Kroenke, and coached by football prodigy - and Zac Taylor’s old boss - Sean McVay.
The chips have been stacked against Cincinnati since their divisional round matchup with the Tennessee Titans. Why would this weekend by any different? Regardless, the Bengals have found a will and a way, and one common theme in their postseason success has been the strong play of some of their “role” players. Sure, Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Trey Hendrickson, and others have been outstanding, but so have the likes of C.J. Uzomah (7/71 against Tennessee), Logan Wilson, and B.J. Hill. I could go on and on about every player on the roster, but this is about former Ohio State Buckeyes. Those former Buckeyes have also been very instrumental during what has become a very special run to the Super Bowl. Furthermore, they will be counted on, if Cincinnati is going to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
Isaiah Prince has been the least impactful former Buckeye for these Bengals, but let’s be real: he’s not even supposed to be here (starting in a Super Bowl). That doesn’t mean he should be out of the league, or that he’s undeserving. What I mean, is that Prince was thrust into his role unexpectedly and put in a very difficult position. He barely made the 2021 roster after playing zero snaps in an NFL game last year, and did not play meaningful snaps for Cincinnati until Week 12 of this season. Now, he’s going against some great pass rushers, and he’s not exactly flanked by an All-Pro unit.
Prince is a rotational piece... maybe. He’s still young, he needs further development under a real NFL offensive line coach (first season in Cincinnati), and he was a sixth-round draft pick for a reason. He was certainly not expected to be a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle after six career starts. Despite his occasional struggles, a lot will be asked of him on Sunday.
The Rams boast Von Miller and Leonard Floyd on the outside, and some guy named Aaron Donald is pretty decent in the interior. Prince will likely be introduced to all of them at some point. The Bengals know that Joe Burrow cannot afford to hold the ball for too long. Their offensive line is outclassed, end of story. But if Prince and others can keep Burrow upright like they did against Kansas City, then Cincinnati can put up some points. That’s all we’re asking, Isaiah: Give our guy a couple seconds.
On the defensive side of the ball, three former Buckeyes have been core starters, and a lot will be asked of them against a loaded Rams offense. Eli Apple took the most unconventional route to Cincinnati, but it seems like he can actually play now? After his first five seasons, I think there were legitimate questions as to whether he would earn a sixth. The Bengals took a chance, and thanks to the annual Trae Waynes injury, Apple has been a bit of a revelation.
Now, let’s be honest: Apple is not going to be confused with his counterpart on the other side, Jalen Ramsey, anytime soon. But he has resurrected his career, and he will be given big-time responsibility on Sunday. He should see a healthy dose of Odell Beckham Jr., and if OBJ is anything like Apple’s other teammates in New York, the two probably don’t like each other. The former OSU DB did not endear himself to many teammates as a Giant.
Apple will not shadow OBJ, as the Bengals’ defensive backs play sides and zones, but the two will cross paths. He may even see Cooper Kupp on occasion, although he runs almost exclusively out of the slot. Regardless, Apple is going to be matched up against a threat for the Rams. Cincinnati needs him to be “second half against the Chiefs Eli”, not “burnt toast and chirping Eli” — which he occasionally disguises himself as. We saw him do it against both Tennessee and Kansas City during these playoffs, and Sunday’s game could be the cherry on top of a potential career-saving season.
Playing behind Apple is a very familiar face. Vonn Bell joined the Bengals one year prior to his former Ohio State teammate, making them members of the same backfield once again. Unlike Apple, Bell has been a very consistent performer during his time in the NFL. He has also been a great leader, in both New Orleans and Cincinnati. His consistency and leadership will be of the utmost performance in SB LVI.
Bell is often described as a box safety, but he does have adequate coverage skills. More importantly, he rarely gets himself out of position. Going up against a Sean McVay offense, having guys in the right spots will be of the utmost importance. As a respected leader with a high football IQ, Bell can help ensure that players are not making mental mistakes and/or putting themselves in a poor position to defend.
Once the ball is snapped, I think the Bengals just need Vonn Bell to play a Vonn Bell game: well-rounded and versatile. The Rams haven’t been great on the ground, but they won’t shy away from trying to establish the line of scrimmage... Bell is great in run support. On the back end, he might be asked to play a lot of zone and/or provide some sort of bracket coverage on Kupp. It’s all on the table, because Sean McVay is a very creative football coach, and he will have a few tricks up his sleeve. Bell’s pliability as a football player makes him an interesting chess piece to use against the multiple looks of the Rams’ offense. Don’t get beat over the top! That is the only thing Bell cannot do against a Matt Stafford-led passing attack.
Last, but certainly not least, is Sam Hubbard. Did you know he played lacrosse!? Every national media member outside of Ohio is bringing it up this week... find a new slant. As Buckeye fans, we know the former lax stud has become a very solid football player. He has been a staple up front for the Bengals, and arguably their most consistent defensive player (it’s him or Jessie Bates III) during the last few seasons. Since the beginning of 2019, he has started 44 regular season games, totaling 200 total tackles and 18 sacks.
Hubbard has also added three sacks in three games during this 2021 postseason, including a strip of Patrick Mahomes that may have saved Cincinnati’s season. The Rams are roughly average up front, so I believe there is potential for the Bengals to replicate their second-half success from the AFC Championship Game. Hubbard, per usual, will be vital to that group’s success. He will spend most of the game matched up against a mountain of a man in Rob Havenstein (6’8”, 330).
If Hubbard and Co. can get pressure on Stafford, I think they can force a turnover or two. For as great as the Rams’ QB is, he has been prone to interceptions and/or fumbles in the past. When sped up, he will often play hero ball or simply throw in the vicinity of one of his talented receivers... which is exactly what Mahomes did in the AFC Championship Game. It cost the Chiefs in OT. Hubbard will not be alone out there. The Bengals are much-improved on defense, and he has a couple of studs next to him in D.J. Reader and Trey Hendrickson. If that combination of guys can create pressure, it may be the deciding factor in the game.
The Cincinnati Bengals have proven that they belong here. One or two games may have been considered a fluke, but this is real. This is legitimate. In order to finish what some consider a Cinderella run, they will need a few former Buckeyes to step up. The good news? Those guys have, time and time again. In just a few days, Prince, Apple, Bell, and Hubbard might go by a different moniker: Super Bowl Champions!