BENGALS CB CHIDOBE AWUZIE VS. BROWNS WR AMARI COOPER
They always talk about football being a game of chess. But on Monday night in Cleveland (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 9 and ESPN) you've got a chess match being a football game when two of the league's best pros at their positions open and close on the board by The Lake.
"Chess is a game of war. Football is a game of war," Awuzie says.
An opening. An end game. A middle game. Cooper taught Awuzie all those things about chess while they became close friends during their two-and-a-half years in Dallas playing in a locker room of Call to Duty and Madden. Then they took it into the players' lounge. The pros' pros didn't want to be a distraction.
"Amari taught me the principles of chess. Before that, I would just play," says Awuzie, an online player who didn't know how to set up the board until Cooper showed him little things like how to match up the Queen to her color.
"He taught me the deeper level of chess. That opened it up to me wanting to play even more. I was playing already, but it was on different level with Amari … He's a very competitive person. I'm a very competitive person. We'll stay for a very long time to figure who's going to win or keep winning. Even in arguments and debates. We both like to learn and have knowledge. I really like his competitive nature."
Awuzie calls Cooper more than a close friend.
"Everybody knows he's one of the greatest route runners our generation has seen the way he gets in and out of breaks," Awuzie says.
Then what does that make Awuzie? He won't say it, but he has blossomed into one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, stacking last year's brilliant first season with the Bengals on top of another. One of the best players you barely hear about on one of the league's best defenses nobody knows.
"It's hard to say until the season's over," says Awuzie when asked if he's having as good of a year as he did last year. "I think we've played mostly running teams. It's kind of the opposite to last year when we played (passing) teams like Green Bay, Minnesota and Pittsburgh early. This year the schedule is back-loaded. A lot of tests to be had."
Kansas City. Tampa Bay. Buffalo. They're all waiting for December and January. Five of the seven teams the Bengals have played are ranked in the 20s and 30s in passing. And now a Browns team quarterbacked by Jacoby Brissett in place of Deshaun Watson is ranked 22nd, but still has that devastating No. 3 run game.
It doesn't take away from what Awuzie and the Bengals defense have accomplished this season. He's hit and covered with the best, according to Pro Football Focus, during assignments he often travels with the No. 1 receiver.
The website has Awuzie taking the 14th most coverage snaps among cornerbacks and he hasn't allowed a touchdown, one fewer than Sauce Gardner and three fewer than Jalen Ramsey. Among those 14, he has allowed the sixth lowest passer rating. Better than Trevon Diggs and just below Marlon Humphrey. He's been targeted just 41 time and allowed 18 catches.
After watching him blow up Falcons all-everything tight end Kyle Pitts on the goal line last Sunday, it's no wonder he's allowed just a stunning 20 yards after catch. The guy ahead of him who has allowed 19 YAC has taken 17 snaps. The gag in the building is Awuzie's worst play of the year might have been his best, running step for step with the NFL's fastest projectile, Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and tipping the pass before Hill caught it.
The coaches love his old school old soul. His teammates love his single-minded competitiveness that is going to be on display Monday against a close friend. Cooper is grinding with a backup quarterback, but he's still a top 20 receiver with 34 catches, 422 yards for a 12.4-yard average and four touchdowns.
"You'd be surprised. It doesn't really come up in conversation," Awuzie says of any discussions they may have had about a future matchup. "Obviously we were teammates for a long time. I might have asked him a certain thing if he completed a pass on me or got me, but it never went further than that, though.
"It was understood, but it didn't have to be explained," he says of the trade back in march that put Cooper in Cleveland. "We know we have to face each other twice this year. It's going to be a fun matchup … I'm just excited to see what it's going to be like to face him in a game. For challenges like this I get excited because it tests me where I'm at, too."
Awuzie puts his friend in an elite group of route runners since about 2015, when Cooper was the fourth pick in the draft by the Raiders: "Keenan Allen, Julio Jones. Definitely Davante Adams. Stefon Diggs is creeping up there. Justin Jefferson and Ja'Marr (Chase) are two of the younger guys coming up."
(For slot receivers, Awuzie rates the Bengals' Tyler Boyd in the top group with guys like Julian Edelman, Cole Beasley and old friend Andrew Hawkins.)
When Awuzie describes Cooper as a chess play, it kind of sounds like him on the field.
"Amari has tactics," Awuzie says. "In the chess world we would say he's a tactical player. He may be down a piece or down a couple of pieces, but he's looking for a tactic to make a big win to change the game in his favor. You may think you're up against him, but you're actually not positionally."
If you want a sense of Cooper's professionalism and approach to the game (football, not chess), you only have to go back to Sunday in Baltimore. What would have been the winning touchdown, his 34-yard touchdown catch from Brissett with 2:18 left, was negated by his curious penalty in a game Cleveland lost, 23-20. It didn't look like much, but not to Cooper.
"Had a go ball, we were tussling a little bit while the ball was in the air," said Cooper, always old school at his locker after every game. "Guess the referee saw what I did last. At the end of the day, just got to play more sound, can't give a referee an excuse to make a call."
If you watch Awuzie play, it's not surprising he talks about positioning in chess.
"I like to dictate what the opponent is going to do," Awuzie says. "I like to play from a good, solid position. That makes me susceptible to some tactics because I may look at my board and say, 'I'm in a good position," but then there's a tactic someone may have."
Tactics vs. Positioning.
Welcome to chess on a Monday Night by The Lake. But the board has been pretty much shelved during the season. Awuzie has a wide variety of interests, like his music that ranges from hip-hop to African, and his stylish dress often includes a nod to his African roots. But he shuts a lot of it down during football season.
"We're friends," Awuzie says. "So maybe after the season we'll talk about it. Jostle about it. But during the season we both obviously know we've got a job to do.
"To try and win."