An influx of Bengals legends have returned for the franchise's second straight Wild Card Game at Paycor Stadium Sunday night (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 5) against the Ravens and one of them, Ruler of the Jungle and former wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, breaks down the greatness of Ja'Marr Chase's strength in the face of Baltimore's staple physicality. Plus, D.J. Reader and linebackers coach James Bettcher explain what makes the Ravens run.
BENGALS WR JA'MARR CHASE VS. RAVENS CBS MARLON HUMPHREY AND MARCUS PETERS AND LB ROQUAN SMITH
Smith gave Chase a post-snap shot in the end zone last week to ignite a classic, "He Said, He Said," week of media back-and-forth and Houshmandzadeh had a word of advice for anyone who wants to be physical with Chase.
"You've got to be careful with him. If you don't have help, it's six points," Houshmandzadeh says. "And if you want to cheap shot him after the play and take a couple of 15-yard penalties, you just can't do that in these type of games. I think Ja'Marr is a bit too strong and physical himself to play him that way.
"When you watch Ja'Marr, he's not tall. He's a big, strong mother. He's stinking strong. You can think you can be physical with him and kind of punk him out like people thought they could be physical with Chad (Johnson). He didn't have Ja'Marr's strength, but Ja'Marr is physically strong."
Peters, whose 42 takeaways are the most by any active defender, didn't play last week and he's only played against Chase once and that was in the Ravens' win in Baltimore back in October. Chase had just 50 yards that day, his second fewest of the season, but it also began his current skein of at least seven catches in each of his last eight games that is tied for the fourth longest such streak within a season since 1970 and that includes playoffs.
That's Chase's number. That's how he got 1,000 yards despite missing a month and the mirror. He averaged 7.3 catches per game this season, the most by any Bengal ever.
During the streak, the 6-0, 205-pound Chase has won a couple of welterweight titles. He's bounced off the ropes against a dizzying combination of defenses and kept the string going before and after his Oct. 16 hairline hip fracture erased four games. For the past month it appears that defenses have been trying to knock him out with physical play, particularly last week with love letters from the Charm City, but quarterback Joe Burrow keeps finding him.
You've been able to write him in for anything from seven to ten catches for at least 50 or more yards no matter the circumstances or defenses. He's had a high of 132 yards (the day he hurt his hip in New Orleans on Oct. 16) and a low of 50 against these Ravens in the Oct. 9 last-snap loss. But Burrow keeps looking for him no matter the coverage.
Humphrey played all the snaps last week and Pro Football Focus says he gave up just a 20-yarder to Chase after giving him two catches for 19 yards in October. In the one game Humphrey played against him last year, he gave up 165 of Chase's 201 yards, PFF said, and he's one of the guys Chase shrugged off on his 82-yard YAC touchdown.
"Marlon is a really strong dude. His strength does not affect Ja'Marr and that shows me Ja'Marr is really strong," Houshmandzadeh says.
If Burrow is Joe Cool, don't underestimate the chill of the New Orleans native Chase. If your game is trying to frustrate him and get him mad, he's got his own stone-cold-breezy-from-the Big-Easy-style. After grabbing eight balls for 86 yards last week and knocking out the Ravens with a 26-yard go-ball touchdown, Chase ho-hummed it all this week. Even Smith's curious shot on him after an incompletion in the end zone and the lack of flags.
"He did that on purpose. That's all right, we've got something for that … He's the only one doing messy stuff," Chase said last week. "I haven't been getting any calls since the Tampa (Dec. 18) game. I'm one of the best receivers in the league. I should be able to get the calls … The last time I went to even talk to the ref, I went off on him (in) the Tampa game and it didn't go well. I just stopped talking to them. They don't even help anymore."
Chase was unphased by what the Ravens were doing in the secondary. Cornerback Daryl Worley, 6-1, 205 pounds, muscled it up, but he's the guy Chase beat for the go ball.
"The only people that are physical is their upfront. It's not really coming from the secondary and stuff. It's coming from the upfront and linebackers," Chase said. "The corner from the last game (Worley), he was trying to be a little physical even though he was like a safety/linebacker at corner. That was the only person really trying to be physical at the line of scrimmage. Being physical plays into my strength by winning at the top of the route."
Houshmandzadeh agrees after spending the last few years working with college receivers getting ready for the draft.
"Chad and I were talking about that Friday," Houshmandzadeh says. "Ja'Marr releases high. He's so strong, it really doesn't affect him. And that's rare. When he releases (off the line), his chest is up … Being physical with him, what else can you do? That's their last option. Their last resort and hope he gets discouraged and frustrated. But he's just too physically strong."
Chase writes down his seasonal goals and puts them on his mirror. This year he wanted at least 1,300 yards and 10-12 touchdowns because he wants to have double-digit touchdowns in every season of his career. The injury held him back, but he still got 1,000 yards in 12 games and came so close with nine touchdowns.
"Once I got injured that was my biggest goal once I came back," Chase said. "Get my 1,000 yards. It's just a matter of when you get opportunities, you have to take advantage."
BENGALS NT DJ READER AND BENGALS LBS GERMAINE PRATT AND LOGAN WILSON VS. RAVENS RBS
With Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson out, the conventional wisdom is the Bengals can lose only if they let Baltimore control the clock with its second-ranked run game averaging 160 yards per game and get one or two of those dastardly defensive touchdowns from a Peters or Roquan Smith or a Patrick Queen who seems to always play well against his college buddy Burrow.
It's pretty clear if the Ravens can't run it Sunday, they're not going to win. They average 12 points per game with Tyler Huntley as their starting quarterback and the Bengals are seventh in the league with Burrow scoring 26 per.
It's also pretty clear that Reader is the hub of the Bengals' just-as-estimable seventh-ranked rush defense. When he's in the game this year, the Bengals give up an average of 89.5 yards on the ground. When he's not, and he was out of six games, they allowed an average of 134. In the past two seasons when he's been in the lineup against Baltimore, the Ravens have been under their average at 112.5.
And it's also very clear that Reader has high regard for how the Ravens run it and readily admits he could talk about it all day because it is so different than what everybody else is doing.
"It's 11-on-11 run game. They do a good job of getting extra (pulling blockers) out, just creating different math on the line and it's different," Reader said the day after last Sunday's game. "On defense, you're all off the ball, besides the four or five guys that are set up on the ball. So everybody else is flowing to the play.
"On offense, generally everybody's lined up on the line beside the running back and fullback. So when you have people moving that are already on the line, some people are already engaged with those people. It's cutting off half the field, it's making different gaps for the defense … It's just a really, really good scheme and you don't see as many people doing it. So you're trying to prepare for a scheme that's very unique to them."
The game offers an intriguing matchup with Reader against one of the NFL's top rookies. The Bengals were out of the Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum sweepstakes when they signed Ted Karras in free agency, but the Ravens' 25th pick in the draft has fit right into that system. PFF grades him the fourth best run-blocking center in the league.
The uniqueness of the scheme puts a heavy burden on the guys in the middle, as explained by Bengals linebackers coach James Bettcher. But it's also a scheme that shows why Bengals linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson are so good and so valuable.
"They give you a lot of things to affect your eyes. You have to stay disciplined on what you see and how to react to what you see," Bettcher says. "That's the thing we certainly have to do a great job with in the middle of the field. What makes it so unique is everything is based on an option principle where it's multiple guys on any given snap they can carry the ball. But, it's not just simple option football.
"With the added element of pullers and then after pullers it's the motions. A lot of little pieces they dangle in front of you and you have to do a great job of keeping your eyes on every given snap on specific keys on where you need to be."
Bettcher says it helps that the Bengals have practiced for this outlier two weeks in a row. But it comes down to players, right? There is Reader and then there are Pratt and Wilson, the fast, physical answers in the draft that responded to Jackson's 5-0 start against the Bengals when he got the Ravens job in a late 2018 game in Cincinnati.
"They can play in space and maneuver their bodies to get into space," Bettcher says. "But they can also come down and strike offensive linemen, punch and get off. They're one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL."