CINCINNATI – While standing by his locker last week, days away from his team’s 24-17 wild card victory against the Ravens, Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase praised coach Zac Taylor for a game plan that moved him into several formations and led to nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
“Zac did a good job that last game moving me around and keeping me near the RPOs,” said Chase. “That was pretty cool. That was one of the best plans he has had.”
It only took four days for it to drop a notch in Chase’s rankings.
What Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher and offensive line coach Frank Pollack cooked up for Chase in Sunday’s 27-10 division round to destroy the Bills was nothing new, but its frequency was.
And the results certainly were.
There were nine plays—including four of the first 12—in which Chase spent time in the offensive backfield before the snap. He would sometimes start there and go out. He stopped a few times. He usually started in the slot and shot in a lane move behind quarterback Joe Burrow and the running back player in play at the time, forcing the defense to make difficult adjustments, which were usually flawed and sometimes fatal.
“Sometimes you change the hitting with him in the backfield, so then they have to make decisions about how they want to handle that,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it can prevent matchups. Sometimes it can confuse you.”
On Sunday at Highmark Stadium, the Bills were mostly a mess.
The Bengals gained 107 yards for an incredible 11.9 per game on those nine snaps where Chase took up space in the backfield.
Four of those were passes, and Burrow completed all four for 66 yards, including the 28-yard touchdown to Chase to close out the opening drive.
On the five run plays, Joe Mixon had three carries for 31 yards, Samaje Perine one for seven, and Chase one for three.
“These are people with middle fingers,” said former Bengals quarterback and QB School founder JT O’Sullivan during his analysis of the game movie on QB School’s YouTube channel.
“That’s beautiful. That’s art. World-class offensive construction,” O’Sullivan continued as he deconstructed the formation that created a 16-yard run by Mixon, his longest of the day.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the nine plays.
Play 1: First-and-10, Cincinnati 32, 1:45 p.m. remaining first quarter (third play of the game).
Chase goes from right to left in orbit, leaving no receivers on the right side of the formation. He sits down on the 28 as a swing option in the flat and draws cover from Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. But Burrow hits Tyler Boyd, who performs a switch release with Tee Higgins, for a 23-yard gain on a corner route, putting the Bengals in Buffalo territory.
Play 2: Second-and-3, Buffalo 28, 11:48 remaining first quarter (sixth play of the game).
Chase starts in the backfield and moves to the left slot.
The Bills play zone, and Chase and tight end Hayden Hurst sit in the zone, with Hurst in the flat and Chase in the middle, about 5 yards away. Burrow gets into the pocket when he feels pressure from the left edge, and two Buffalo defenders anticipate a checkdown to Hurst. Chase turns and sprints to the middle of the court and is wide open as he catches the ball on the 9 before splitting the safeties to find the end zone for the first points of the game.
“It was a good package,” said Pitcher.
Game 3: Second-and-5, Cincinnati 33, 9:24 remaining first quarter (eighth play of the game).
Chase lines up in the left slot before running after Burrow, dragging nickel corner Taron Johnson into the box as the two linebackers slide left, leaving the center of the defense open.
Right tackle Hakeem Adeniji pulls and destroys Johnson, giving Mixon a huge gap to run through for a 16-yard gain.
“I’m not a defensive buff, but I can tell you I don’t want a tackle on my nickel DB trying to fill the B hole,” said O’Sullivan. “All this action says swing screen, swing screen, swing screen, so you get the linebackers running there and you run. You’ve got this nickel with an NFL tackle pack in front of you.”
“If the defense is holding up two safeties, that nickel has a big responsibility,” Pitcher said. “And Buffalo doesn’t really play base defense, so it doesn’t really matter who you put on the field, that penny is there and they ask him to do a lot. That allowed us to get to a number of advantageous places.”
It was one of five designed runs (there was also a 21-yard scramble by Burrow) that went 10 or more yards on Sunday, and two of those came out of the pack with Chase in the backfield.
Game 4: First-and-10, Buffalo 30, 6:48 remaining first quarter (12th play of the game).
The least productive play of the pack, Chase runs after Burrow and takes a deep throw 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He tries to wait for his blocks before going onto the field, but the game stretches too long and only lasts 10 feet.
It’s a reminder of why Taylor and the rest of the staff waited so long to lean more heavily on Chase’s use in the backfield after they started tinkering with it last season.
“The first time we played Baltimore, it didn’t put us in a great position,” Taylor said, referring to a second-and-twelfth game in Week 5 of this year in which Chase and Mixon flanked Burrow in shotgun formation, with Chase taking the handoff and being stretched wide by penetration from within, resulting in no gain.
The Bengals offensive line would be a liability. So how did it dominate the Bills?
The Bengals had a pair of similar failures in the same series two weeks earlier at the Jets. On the first play of the drive, Chase lined up and took a jet sweep for a 1-yard loss. On the 11th play, a fourth-and-1 by the Jets ’19, Chase lined up in the left slot, made a lane move behind Burrow, took the field 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and couldn’t get to the marker. , losing a yard for a turnover on downs.
But Taylor kept faith in the plan and kept adding to it.
“There’s a first part of the package that there’s a reason to do it, and then there’s things you have to bring to complement that,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you join, sometimes you don’t. Whether we wear that every week or not, it’s more dictated by the schedule they’re going to present at the defense, whether that gives us an advantage or not. But the initial intent is always that we think we can emphasize them in this way, and then you have to build on that and be ready for some adjustments that they can make. There’s a lot involved.”
Play 5: First-and-10, Cincinnati 25, 7:25 remaining second quarter.
It was the first play on the drive after a Buffalo touchdown that cut Cincinnati’s lead to 14-7. Chase and Perine flanked Burrow in the shotgun.
Burrow changes the game and Chase goes to the right slot, Higgins slides further to the right and Perine spins to Burrow’s left.
Burrow looks for Chase across the middle, but he’s covered by Johnson, so he checks 4 yards to Perine.
Play 6: Second-and-1, Buffalo 26, 4:02 remaining second quarter.
Chase and Perine again flank Burrow, who sends Chase moving left behind him as the ball is broken down.
Raise your hands to Perine in the middle for another big chunk. Perine gets 5 or 6 yards before even being touched and finished with a gain of 7.
“It’s hard because if you’re trying to do some kind of doubling or something like that, now you have to add the element of, ‘Well, what happens when he lines up in the backfield? What do you do?'” said the defense coordinator of Bengals, Lou Anarumo, explaining the dilemma for his take on the plan.”And usually that’s going to really change the messaging, because you don’t want to double up on a guy in the backfield, because generally those guys don’t go deep routes. So now it’s all under things like whether they pass the ball and things like that It just adds another layer to your preparation when you try to plan just by saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to double him in this play.’ You generally don’t talk about it as, okay, he’s in the backfield now too.
Play 7: Second-and-10, Buffalo 20, 3:22 remaining second quarter.
This is just two snaps after Perine’s 7-yard gain, and the Bengals are at it again.
Chase is in the left slot and circles behind the formation. Johnson follows him.
Burrow hands to Mixon, who runs into the area cleared by the slot corner for a win of 6.
The Bengals go into the red zone and eventually get a field goal from Evan McPherson to take a 17-7 halftime lead.
Play 8: First-and-10, Cincinnati 38, 6:27 remaining third quarter.
The chase begins in the correct slot. He moves to the backfield to Burrow’s left, while Trayveon Williams is to the right.
Buffalo does not change its alignment.
Chase gets moving behind Burrow, who hits him 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage in front of a screen, and he turns it into a 12-yard gain.
“There are several variants of the packages,” Taylor said. “Some games are ready, some games are not. He’s proven to us that he’s capable of understanding anywhere we want to put him, and he can do it whether it’s catching the bubble and making people miss and getting a scoop out of the nothing. That’s the weapon we have with Ja’Marr. So you have to find ways to be creative and use it.
Play 9: First-and-10, 50-yard line, 3 p.m. remaining fourth quarter.
Chase is in the left slot and circles behind Burrow. Johnson, the closing corner, goes with him.
Mixon again runs into the area vacated by Johnson for a 9-yard gain, continuing what will be a nine-play, 61-yard gain and finishing in a McPherson field goal that extends the lead to what will be the final score of 27 will be. 10.
With the ripple, the Bengals will eclipse near the 400-yard mark in their next series. They finished with 412, the second-largest total in franchise history after the 439 they posted in the 2013 wild card loss to the Chargers.
Chase finished with five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown (along with a 10-yard touchdown that was destroyed on replay), plus many more offenses caused by all the moves and time spent in the backfield.
“Sometimes you go to a package like that and maybe it gets called a few times, and sometimes it has early success and gets called more often,” Pitcher said. “I just think Zac is doing really well in the game seeing how the defense adapts and using what’s working at the moment.”
And on Sunday it all worked. Burrow was accurate and spread the ball to everyone. The row, with three new starters, held. And the run game was both efficient and explosive. When that happens, the opponent’s defensive coordinator basically throws his hands in the air and doesn’t know what to do.
“Any time you split the ball between all kinds of different guys, and we have a lot of different guns, everybody feels like they’re a part of this,” Pitcher said. “We pick up first down after first down after first down, there’s just a confidence and momentum that builds and you feel a sense of deflation and frustration from the defense. It’s a game played by people with emotions, and there are definitely moments in the game where you feel that about your opponent.”
(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)