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How Preparation Has Put Ja'Marr Chase On Historic Route

Ja'Marr Chase: History man.
Ja'Marr Chase: History man.

This is what you do if you're the hottest football player on the planet and it is the morning after you just turned the NFL power structure upside down with a move straight out of Harry Houdini's Halloween week.

You know, the one Sunday in Baltimore where wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase vanished to escape three Ravens in the middle of the field. Then reappeared in the end zone with an 82-yard touchdown that vaulted the Bengals into first place in the AFC North with a puff of smoke that signaled they're here to stay with the NFL's newest prolific playmaker.

It is a Victory Monday, so Chase didn't have to be at Paul Brown Stadium. But less than 24 hours after his phone blew up and there was too much to scroll, there he was. In the weight room and then in the lunch room breaking bread with his position coach, Troy Walters and fellow receivers Tee Higgins and Trenton Irwin.

Naturally, the man who stayed close to his native New Orleans to bring a national title home to LSU opted for the gumbo.

And, by the way, if Chase is a lock for the Associated Press' NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, shouldn't Walters be the frontrunner for NFL Assistant Coach of the Year for negotiating Chase through the best seven games a rookie receiver ever despite not playing the year before?

"Got a good lift in to get the soreness out," Chase is saying. "Watch the film. I watched a little bit on the plane. Looking for things I did right, did wrong."

Believe it or not after those dizzying 201 yards against the Ravens, Chase saw some wrong. There were some routes he's maybe run for the first or second time that weren't quite right. But not nearly enough to wrinkle a season he's got a supersonic 21.5 yards per catch and six touchdowns already.

"I'm doing better in real life than I am on Madden," says Chase, probably because the software has enough info to double team him every snap. "(The Ravens) double covered me a little bit in the first half and we were going to (Higgins) on third down."

Which Walters loved. Chase maybe had one target in the first quarter before he went off against Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey's one-on-one coverage.

"He wasn't complaining or griping," Walters says. "He understood his time was going to come. His average shows when he gets the ball in his hands, he can make some magic."

But like Houdini, there is plenty of savvy sprinkled in with the smoke. Here's what else Walters loves about Chase:

About an hour before the game, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan checked in with Walters to see how the receivers were doing. And he knows. About 90 minutes before each game, Walters, still looking like the guy that backed-up a slew of Hall-of-Famers during eight seasons in 96 games in the league, puts on cleats and runs routes with the guys.

"They're ready," Walters told him.

"Yeah, I know," Callahan said. "I just looked in the locker room and Ja'Marr is watching his iPad."

The Bengals figured Humphrey was going to follow Chase, so during the week Walters put together about 80 or 90 clips of Humphrey in press coverage and Chase did the rest with study.

"What I'm excited about is his preparation from week to week," Walters says. "Nothing has changed. A lot of times when guys have success they stop doing what got them there. But he's putting the time in all the days before Sunday. He's got the routine down of how to be a pro."

When they took Chase with the fifth pick in the draft, the news was that they had drafted Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow's stunningly gifted weapon from LSU's dream 2019 season. What they are actually discovering is that they got a 21-year-old guy with the hardened mind of a grizzled 10-year vet.

If there's one thing that has surprised Walters about Chase it is that he runs routes like a guy that's been in the league for five years. And route running is everything. Walters, 44, tells his receivers when he runs around with them on game day that once a receiver, always a receiver.

You may not be as fast, but you can always run routes. Backup quarterback Brandon Allen knows to add in a bit of a hitch on the deep ones to give Walters time to get his depth.

"He's not a long way off, but he needs to improve on some of that, but the scary thing is how good he is now and how good he is going to be," Walters says.

"It's film study, but it's also during the course of the game we talk about how the corner is playing, what technique he's playing. When you run a go route with an outside release, you run by him and if he's cutting you off then you know you can use that same release even though you're going inside and trying to get him to run."

Walters says Chase is a quick learner and he only has to click the 82-yarder to see that. He told Chase that last month he couldn't have run that slant so decisively and effectively like he did against Humphrey Sunday.

On third-and-two and the Bengals nursing a 20-17 lead in the middle of the third quarter, Chase lined up opposite Humphrey. Knowing he had to get inside Humphrey for the slant, Chase took off on his release like he was going to run a go route down the outside.

Humphrey opened his hips to run with him and he was done. Chase stuck his foot in the ground and flashed inside under Humphrey. The chess game completed, Chase converted to Madden and showed off his physical run-after-catch athleticism.

"He works his craft," Walters says. "He sold the go route. I told him three weeks ago he wasn't making that same release. He just didn't have the same confidence that he could burst outside and come back underneath. But he worked on it every week, every week, and every week and now he's comfortable doing that."

Chase can also talk the game as well as watch it and play it. For the fifth time this season he made a huge catch in the last 37 seconds of the first half to get them points. The one on Sunday was a 26-yarder where he ran Humphrey across the field.

"It was a stride route. I was pressed. Inside released him and stacked him," Chase says.

Stacked him?

"When I stack him, I can get him to think I'm going anywhere. I did it maybe three times on him," Chase says. "Where he's pressing me and I had to stack him. Get on top of him so he can trail me from behind.

"On my go balls I didn't really get to do it because he was cutting me off. Getting in front of me before I could get on top of him. That's something he did great."

Chase didn't have to stack Humphrey on the slant because he deked him so well with the go route: "I just got him to open his hips."

Stacking? Getting on top? Pressing? Releasing?

"It's a lot," Chase says. "It's a lot."

But he keeps learning. And Walters is a good man to learn from. He backed up three 1,000-yard seasons in Minnesota (one by Cris Carter, two by Randy Moss), seven in Indianapolis (four by Marvin Harrison, two by Reggie Wayne, one by Brandon Stokley) and one in Arizona (Anquan Boldin). In Arizona he saw Larry Fitzgerald miss 1,000 by 54 yards and in that first year in Detroit Calvin Johnson fell more than 200 shy of 1,000.

Walters know what NFL greatness looks like. But the thing is, he can't put Chase in a box with any of those guys. The closest comparison to style, he thinks, is Steve Smith, the ex-Panther and ex-Raven.

"He's unique in terms of speed and explosiveness. It doesn't look like he's running fast but he's separating," says Walters of those go balls he pulls away at 30 and 40 yards. "He has that second gear. He's got that running back body. Thick lower body. Strong lower body.

"He kind of has that demeanor of a Steve Smith if you're looking for a guy that I played against. Good ball skills, explosive, strong runner after the catch. (Chase is) taller, probably a little thicker."

When Chase was in the draft, there were a lot of comparisons with Boldin just in style. But style and the fact it was Boldin whom Chase passed for the seven-game rookie record is about all they have in common.

"I played with Q and (Chase) is faster, more juice, more acceleration," Walters says. "Where they're similar is they've got strong hands. They make the contested catches and they're tough to bring down.

"He's unique."

But the day after pulling a Houdini on the NFL, Chase is putting in quite a regular day. And his usual week night of sleeping and playing video games and relaxing. But he can't beat himself on Madden.

"I don't know why," Chase says.