Offensive Rookie of the Year. Bengals franchise record for yards in a season. Most yards in a single game in franchise history. Most yards in a game by a rookie in NFL history. First rookie and fifth player ever with multiple 200-plus-yard games in a season. Most yards in a game by any receiver in 2021. Most receiving yards and receptions in the postseason by any rookie. First rookie ever with multiple 100-yard-receiving games in a postseason.
The legendary opening act of Ja’Marr Chase’s career might be the best in NFL history.
Here’s the plot twist. He’s not been totally unlocked yet.
“Nobody really knows what I’m capable of but me,” Chase said. “That’s what I’m all about as a player — surprising people.”
Surprise is the perfect word for projecting 2022 for a player who has publicly declared his goal of winning the triple crown for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns on the way back to the Super Bowl.
Now knowing the weapon at their disposal and with months of brainstorming on how to best utilize him, the Bengals staff spent the offseason plotting the evolution of Chase and, consequently, the evolution of the Bengals offense. The element of surprise will go far beyond just how talented the Biletnikoff Award winner out of LSU proved to be.
“He wants to be challenged,” receivers coach Troy Walters said. “He wants us to move him around. We have to.”
Every star has to and the Bengals unquestionably have one. Keeping Chase on the move is the next step for head coach Zac Taylor and the Bengals’ staff. Not moving your star around the formation in today’s NFL — particularly one as naturally versatile as Chase — is negligent.
As for what it could look like starting Sept. 11 against Pittsburgh, you’ve already seen it.
This began last year, just not at first. The breakout to Chase’s Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign started simply. He worked as the outside receiver and did a large chunk of his damage running straight with Joe Burrow dropping dimes into the yards of separation he was creating.
The drama of dropped preseason passes and stripes on the ball feels like decades ago, but in the early portions of the season the team took baby steps in Chase’s transition, still wondering what he would look like on an NFL field right away.
“Any time you line up a guy and he’s your ‘X’ and, for a guy like Ja’Marr even, he’s a rookie,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “Just try to let him get comfortable playing football. So, you don’t move him around a lot. There’s a lot of mental stress that goes along with that, learning multiple positions. Let him get comfortable at one. Well, he ended up starting off pretty damn good.”
Did he ever. He ranked second in the NFL through seven games with 754 yards, only trailing Cooper Kupp. Burrow would throw back shoulders and slants and their chemistry provided the primary weapon. The attention was starting to show up, however. Safeties were more often clouding his direction. Double coverages came consistently. And you can forget about man coverage, it was almost nonexistent.
The time came for the Bengals to start moving Chase around. That meant more work in the slot.
He’d been used there a small amount during the early portion of the season, but when you look at his alignment rates, you can see when the Bengals leaned into Chase in the slot: Week 13 against San Francisco.
This breakdown of his alignments illustrates how the Bengals flipped the switch not just in Chase’s usage, but Burrow’s added attention to him while being used inside.
Ja’Marr Chase ’21 slot usage, efficiency
|Statistic||First 12||Last 9||TOTAL|
9 of 10
14 of 17
23 of 27
Slot PFF grade
A few notes about this revealing chart. Chase was used eight percent more in the final nine games of the season. Importantly, you can see of all those snaps, Burrow paid far more attention to his routes in there (or Chase was more effective getting open), throwing to him twice as much per route run during the final nine games of the year.
That number was even higher in the postseason where Burrow targeted Chase on 26 percent of his slot routes versus just 11.5 percent in the first nine weeks.
Not only was Chase being targeted when running routes out of the slot late in the season, he was killing it. Pro Football Focus gave him a 91.5 grade in the slot over the final nine games, playing at an elite level as effectively as any inside player in football. Of those with at least 15 targets in the slot in that span, Chase graded fourth-best behind only Kupp, Davante Adams and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
“He could be an every-down slot receiver if you really wanted him to,” Taylor said. “Some teams maybe would have had two guys they wanted to leave outside and played him as a slot receiver. We’ve got (Tyler Boyd), so now you’ve got two guys that can do that role.”
He could be Kupp here. He just doesn’t need to be. This isn’t just about the slot, of course. The Bengals created a package for Chase out of the backfield. He ran sweeps, caught passes and served as a magnetic decoy. That package is going nowhere and growing in its own right.
What stood out for the Bengals last year was how easy it ended up being to put multiple positions on Chase’s plate and how quickly he was able to adapt to a bevy of new usages on the field in the stream of the season.
“He’s really smart,” Callahan said. “Moving him around wasn’t as much of a chore as it can be for some guys. Ja’Marr has a really unique skill set because he can run all the routes slot receivers run. He can run option routes, he’s got change of direction. He can sink. He’s not a big receiver, height-wise. He’s got a low center of gravity and can do all the things slot receivers do. Which helps us put him in those positions and allows us to find ways to get him matched up on lesser players. We can get him on linebackers and safeties. They are dead if they do that.”
To do as much as they did during the season, the excitement built internally about how to expand his role in his second year. Now that the offensive staff knows they have a legit superstar of the position, how many ways can they create to keep the defense guessing, free up his talented receiver teammates and keep Chase unpredictable?
Taylor eyed being able to pinpoint even more specifically the deficiencies of the opponent and deploy his primary weapon as the one able to take advantage.
“Defensively, to be able to move a guy around so they can’t hone in on where he’s at and call their coverages — maybe it’s just zone coverages,” Taylor said. “You can’t just always know where’s going to be — he’s always going to be the outside receiver so we’re always going to call this zone coverage. If it’s man, then they’ve got to travel guys around. Sometimes corners don’t like to play inside. Sometimes they do a really good job playing outside the numbers and don’t love getting mixed in there. That’s what the nickels are for. There’s a lot of different ways depending on the defense, depending on the defensive personnel you’re facing that you can try to stress the defense, try to stress the play-caller, try to stress their personnel. And Ja’Marr’s comfortable doing all of it.”
So, Walters set out to look at how others in Chase’s class have been used. He watched all the targets of Davante Adams in Green Bay and Justin Jefferson in Minnesota, among others, to bring ideas and examples to offseason brainstorming sessions.
“Just to see how they were utilized and see how we can feature our top guys,” Walters said. “It’s a lot of the same stuff (we do), but where did they put him? What could (Chase) do?”
He could do everything. That’s the whole point. The unpredictability is too important in continuing to free up a weapon constantly targeted by the defense. If opponents are asking themselves, “Where is Chase?” upon breaking the huddle, the Bengals have already won.
In terms of how much the stars of the league were used in the slot last year, you can see how underutilized Chase was in comparison to the best.
WRs with 80 recs/1,000 yards, slot usage
Some of these numbers can be thrown off due to usage in stack formations counting as the slot, which is part of how you end up with Tee Higgins qualifying at 23 percent. But when the Bengals talk about studying Adams (29.8 percent) and Jefferson (24.5), you can see where an uptick more consistent with what Chase was doing at the end of the season would fall in line. Then consider what the dynamic Tyreek Hill brought to the Chiefs as he lived inside nearly half the time.
Again, this goes back to Taylor pointing out with Boyd already a star in the slot, the total opportunities are limited when living in 11 personnel. But creativity and a focus on moving him inside and out should push Chase into the range of 30 percent or potentially even higher when considering the success he enjoyed playing inside last year.
But beyond last year, don’t forget, teams with the Bengals on the schedule aren’t interested in being victimized by an offense that completed an NFL record 12 passes of at least 50 yards in one season. The defensive reaction sets up Chase to work his catch-and-run underneath like a debilitating drumbeat.
“Teams are going to keep the top on to try to stop explosive plays,” Callahan said. “That’s what we will probably see the most, if I had to guess, an emphasis of not letting guys go over the top. That way, just find a way to get a guy in space, get him the ball, long handoffs essentially, and he is going to do the rest of the work. He had a couple where he should have been tackled and squirts through and ends up making 15-20 yards instead of three. That doesn’t bother me one bit.”
The other anticipated evolution of Bengals matchups in 2022 will be the increased likelihood of the top corner following Chase wherever he goes on the field. Moving him inside more often can shake that top corner and put Chase in spots against a lesser defensive back.
For Chase, who started to see a variety of looks that proved unsuccessful last year against him and this offense, he welcomes whatever defenses think they are going to do to slow the show.
“They might be surprised by things they think we can’t do,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to stop myself or Tee or TB or Joe or (Joe) Mixon. There is a whole bunch of stuff going on.”
As the Bengals passed through the installation phase of camp and into unscripted offense, the emphasis of a “whole bunch of stuff going on” with Chase has been as apparent as his dominant play. He makes two or three explosive plays every day and with a flashy sideline grab to boot.
The offense has struggled often as Burrow watches against a hellacious defense, but during a period of scuffling and incompletions, there still was Chase running a slot-fade from inside Boyd. He hauls in a Brandon Allen pass and tiptoes the sideline for a deep gain.
The next day he runs from the slot inside on a toss play and ends up face-to-face with linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, making a block for Mixon the same way he did planting a defender as lead blocker for a long touchdown in Detroit last year. All part of the deployment and all a part Chase is more than prepared to accept.
“He’s just a football player,” Walters said. “Whether you put him outside, inside, he knows how to get open. He knows how to create separation. The biggest thing is just learning in the slot, maybe coverages, where the open zones are. Tyler Boyd, he lives it every day so he understands what the nickel is trying to do. For Ja’Marr, it is really just understanding coverages, recognizing coverages, understanding the soft spot in the zone. He’s a playmaker, so wherever you put him he’s going to find a way get open and make plays.”
Taylor admits there’s a balance when it comes to moving receivers around the formation. Keeping the skill position players running fast and confidently due to mastery of the scheme is of the utmost importance. On the flip side, he wants to move his trio of receiving stars all around the formation.
“You can look at it a lot of different ways,” Taylor said. “We are somewhere in between.”
Keeping the defense always wondering what’s coming next — and from where — is clearly the next evolution of the offense.
More precisely, it’s the next evolution of Chase. And it’s coming.
“He, seemingly to me, is much more comfortable,” Taylor said. “I didn’t think he was uncomfortable last year, but I think he looks really confident lining up anywhere and asking him to do anything … He’s had really good recall on some of this stuff which has allowed us to move him around earlier this year than we would have last year. Last year, as the season progressed we moved him around a lot more. From this point, you can do that from Day 1.”
(Top photo: Aaron Doster / Associated Press)