Mark Schlereth never had to face Aaron Donald, but he did face a challenge similar to the one the Bengals offensive line will face in Super Bowl LVI.
In Super Bowl XXXII, Schlereth and the rest of the Broncos offensive line faced a Packers defensive front that included formidable run-stuffer Gilbert Brown and Hall of Fame pass-rusher Reggie White. A double-digit underdog against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Broncos pulled off the upset behind Terrell Davis’ 157 yards and three touchdowns. Schlereth was asked if the Bengals offensive line — a group that has allowed 63 sacks of Joe Burrow this season — can have similar success against a Rams front that includes Donald, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
“They’re going to have to have a plan,” said Schlereth, who will lead a workout on the eve of the big game in Los Angeles as part of his partnership with Hydroxycut. “That comes down to coaching, how you call plays and putting your players in position to have success. … You as a player have to handle your business, but a lot protection and eliminating sacks really has to do with the way you call plays as an offensive play-caller. Taking pressure off guys and using defensive players’ strengths against them.”
Fortunately, the Bengals have one of the NFL’s top offensive line coaches in Frank Pollack, who also serves as the team’s run game coordinator. Pollack, who was the Cowboys offensive line coach during Ezekiel Elliott’s breakout rookie season, won a Super Bowl as a member of the 49ers offensive line at the end of the 1994 season. The Bengals offensive line allowed just one sack of Burrow last Sunday after giving up nine sacks the previous week in Tennessee.
The line also opened up holes for Joe Mixon, who had his best rushing performance since his 165-yard performance against the Steelers in Week 12. Cincinnati changed things up last week by splitting its right guard duties between Hakeem Adeniji and rookie Jackson Carman. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said that he expects that to continue leading up to Super Bowl LVI.
“You can’t put a player in a position to fail and then be surprised when said player fails,” Schlereth said. “Your job as a coach is to mitigate potential disasters. No. 99 Aaron Donald is a disaster waiting to happen, right? So what’s our plan?”
For the ’97 Broncos, former Denver coach Mike Shanahan was able to create a plan that allowed his undersized yet athletic offensive line to have success against Green Bay’s defense. Like the Bengals will try to do against the Rams’ defense, the Broncos found and took advantage of a tendency within the Packers’ defense.
“Mike Shanahan came to us late in the week and said, ‘Here’s what we’re running and let me show you what’s going to happen,'” Schlereth recalled. “We’re going to run 18 Handoff. Every time they’re in this formation, their weak side linebacker, Brian Williams, is going to slide out and be 2 yards deeper and 2 yards further outside. That’s going to allow their safety, LeRoy Butler, to fall down and they’re basically running an exchange. So LeRoy becomes the weak side linebacker and Brian Williams really becomes the safety.
“Mike showed us, ‘This is what they do, 100% of the time. This is how they play this formation. We are going to gut them on 18, 19 Handoff. We are going to absolutely destroy them.’ I kid you not, we line up first play of the game, we run 18 Handoff out of the strong right slot … and I hit LeRoy right in the teeth. Wham! TD cuts up behind it for a 15-yard gain. I just turned to Gary [Zimmerman] and go, ‘We are going to eat these guys’ lunch.'”
The Broncos would go on to defeat the Packers in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. And while the execution of Schlereth and his teammates was a major key in the upset, Shanahan’s game plan set in motion what played out on Jan. 25, 1998. Schlereth feels that the Bengals offensive line has a chance to do something similar if the Bengals coaching staff puts it in position to do so.
“That comes down to coaching. When it comes to Zac Taylor and his offensive staff, you have to have a plan,” Schlereth said. “I’m not saying it’s easy, because Aaron Donald is the best football player in the NFL, bar none. It’s not going to be easy; he’s going to make some plays. But you have to mitigate the number of big plays that guy makes.”
Schlereth, a three-time Super Bowl champion who won two rings with the Broncos and another with Washington, will kick off Super Bowl weekend by leading a ’90s themed workout in Los Angeles’ Grand Park, where he will be joined by Bengals Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz.
“It’s going to be awesome. I’m going to have leg warmers on, a head band. I’m going to look the part,” Schlereth said.
Along with the free workout, the Hydroxycut Big Game Sweepstakes includes a $100,000 prize if an offensive or defensive lineman scores a Super Bowl touchdown. Other prizes include one year of groceries (valued at $10,000) or a one-year gym membership.
“I’m always excited when a big guys scores,” Schlereth said. “One, we don’t know what to do with the ball, and it just looks cool when a big, giant man has the ball in his hands and he goes to spike it.”