If Bengals Pro Bowl quarterback Joe Burrow has been the man the last month leading the NFL in passer rating and completion percentage, then what about his main man Ja'Marr Chase averaging a league-leading nine catches per game the last five weeks?
Chase, the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, said after Thursday's limited practice that he's got a bruised back and he's a "last-minute," decision for Sunday's date (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium against the Texans.
After an MRI revealed a bruise in the wake of his fall trying to make a leaping deep catch last Sunday, Chase didn't work Wednesday. But on Thursday he ran routes on air and while he didn't run against defenders, he was moving and he took that as a good sign for Sunday.
He seemed to be in better shape than running mate Tee Higgins. Higgins apparently injured his hamstring during Wednesday's practice, it was significant enough he didn't practice Thursday, and there was at least one published report he won't play Sunday.
After crawling out of bed Monday morning barely able to turn his hips, Chase felt a lot better and looser and said there's a shot he can go Sunday.
"Moving is not a problem now," Chase said. "If I can move, I can do something … Game-time decision. It's a last-minute thing right now."
Chase indicated he can't let Higgins' status impact his own.
"Yeah and no. I don't want to put too much wear and tear on myself for the team just because we have two of our best receivers down right now," Chase said. "It's just about how you handle it and go about it the right way."
The last time both Chase and Higgins didn't play in a Bengals game was the last game before they drafted Burrow and Higgins 1-2, the 2019 finale against the Browns dominated by running back Joe Mixon's 162 yards.
Just in case, Chase says he's channeling wide receivers coach Troy Walters as he watches this week. It's not a given that rookie wide receiver Charlie Jones (thumb) is going to be cleared off injured reserve, although he's gone full the last two days.
"I'm going to try and coach these guys like I'm Troy, too, with my knowledge," Chase said. "Let them see what I see and hopefully they can learn off that. I can help get them to play together as a unit. At the end of day it's just about being a good teammate."
Chase has been almost as hot as Burrow even though he got hurt in the third quarter last Sunday and finished with four catches for 41 yards. He's tied for fourth in the NFL with 64 catches and eighth with 697 yards.
Plus, he remains No. 2 on the NFL's all-time list with an average of 86.4 yards per game, behind only old LSU teammate Justin Jefferson's 98.1 and just ahead of Julio Jones' 86.3 and Pro Football Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson's 86.1.
And, Bengals assistant head coach Darrin Simmons found himself Thursday wistfully picturing Chase as his kick return man. Pure fantasy, but with Chase's 339 yards after the catch second only to the Dolphins' Tyreek Hill, one can dream.
"He'd be a great returner," Simmons said before practice.
"Just when you walk out (to practice), look at his lower body structure. His calves are like that. His quads are like that. The guy who was like that in my history is Steve Smith. Steve Smith was built the same way. Steve Smith had huge calves, huge quads. Nobody could tackle him. He wasn't very big (upper body). Ja'Marr's a much bigger person in general, but just a lower body structure.
"They don't go down. They have great balance and they can run through tackles. If he could, if we get the red light or green light to ever use him, all he would have to do is catch a ball. Nobody tackles him. He's spectacular that way."
Chase, who returned kicks in LSU practices, put up the stop sign.
"I'm not doing that. They run too fast at me," said Chase, who still thinks he could avoid the tackles. "I just don't want do it any more."
Chase did reveal to The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr., that his dad put baby oil on him when he was nine years old in his football debut season and it may be a reason he makes the first tackle miss.
"It put it in my head not to get tackled. Confidence," Chase said. "Just telling me you're not going to get tackled because you've got baby oil on you. They'll slip off you. Something like that sits in the back of your mind and lets you know you're not going to get tackled."
JONAH's BIG YEAR: How quietly and well have the Bengals tackles played this season?
According to Pro Football Focus, Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., the man whose signing dictated Jonah Willams' move from left to right tackle, has been as advertised while allowing just one sack. But Brown is raving about the work of Williams, credited with allowing three sacks, the same as the three-time Pro Bowler Laremy Tunsil they face Sunday.
"In my opinion, he's one of the best players on the team right now," Brown said after practice this week. "I had the utmost respect for him before I got here. It's not easy playing left tackle in this league in a pass-first offense. To be able to switch over to the right side without a full year of experience and just have a training camp under his belt and go right into the regular season, he's playing lights out."
Brown and Williams have been terrific in some big moments, amplified by their quarterback unable to move in the first month of the season. Williams hears people say this is his best season since he arrived as head coach Zac Taylor's first draft pick in 2019 and while he appreciates it, he's not sure about it.
What he is sure about is the move to right tackle coinciding with the birth of his eight-month-old daughter Pi'a has helped.
"She put everything into perspective. I realized there are bigger things in life than my pass set," Williams said this week. "There's a child I'm responsible for that I love so much. That family life has put this in perspective for me.
"(Right tackle) kind of just made me let go some of the pressure I put on myself and say, 'All right, I'm kind of being thrown into a different situation here. I'm just going to do my best in that situation.' A lot of it is putting things in perspective and taking some of the pressure off of myself mentally and play a little looser … I'm not trying to be perfect. I'm just trying to go out there and play."
Brown says it's going to pay off.
"He's balling. He's playing his butt off in a contract year," Brown said. "He's someone who is going to get paid and he's going to be very deserving."
TEAMS COMPARISON: Sunday's game features two top ten special teams units built with different philosophies. The Burrow Bengals have stitched it together with largely first and second-year players, such as rookie punter Brad Robbins, rookie personal protector Jordan Battle, rookie punt returner Charlie Jones, rookie gunner Andrei Iosivas and second-year long snapper Cal Adomitis. Although the two linchpins are vets, linebackers Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey, Davis-Gaither just returned from a month-long knee injury. In his first year playing, safety Tycen Anderson was tied for the NFL lead in special teams tackles before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in the Oct. 29 win against the 49ers.
Meanwhile, the Texans with a quarterback on a rookie deal, have veterans such as nine-year linebacker Neville Hewitt and fifth-year cornerback Ka'dar Hollman who are in the NFL's top 20 in special teams tackles, per PFF.
"They don't give up anything," said Simmons of a kick and punt defense that is both ranked third. "What they're taking advantage of right now is they have not had a quarterback there in some time. And so they can pay the lower half of the roster higher than what the rest of the league can because they don't have to pay the quarterback yet. They have a bunch of good veteran special teams players and they're taking advantage of that."
STATE OF TEAMS: Despite the loss of Anderson, Simmons is bullish on his young guys.
Robbins, he says, has bounced back from his nightmarish 10-punt opener in the rain and been solid. He particularly points to the last punt in San Francisco with 19 seconds left and a 14-point lead.
"It didn't seem big to a lot of people, but it is to me, how we handled the situation at the end … We ran the play clock down. We called timeout. We talked about the rush. But then I told him, this punt has to be out of bounds," Simmons said. "Because there's going to come a time it's a seven-point game, or it's a three-point game with 20 seconds left where that ball's got to be out of bounds. And he executed it perfectly, kicked it out of bounds."
Translation: If the punt in the AFC title game with 30 seconds left had gone out of bounds, the Bengals could have been in the Super Bowl again. At the very least, overtime.
Simmons says one guy can't replace Anderson because of his unique size and speed, but keep an eye on Battle. Battle, the third-round safety from Alabama, bowled over Simmons with his 18-minute interview at the NFL scouting combine that had Simmons drawing in his notes they had to have him. The only other guy he did that with this year is future Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs.
"Jordan's in a bit more of a position where he can affect the game better or, or more. He's in critical spots. He's playing the old spots that Mike Thomas played," Simmons said of his old captain still around on the practice squad.
"He's an inside player on kickoff. He's not had to change with the injury to Tyson … He's trying to handle a lot right now in addition he's got a role on defense, too. So there's a lot going on for him. And I think he's managed it pretty well for the most part. He's a smart kid that you can tell has played a lot of football in his career and some things come naturally to him. Some things take work, but he's willing to put the work in and do it."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The Bengals could use a fellow Buckeye to get Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud out of the pocket, but left end Sam Hubbard (ankle) didn't work for the second straight day …
You know that false start called on Orlando Brown that turned Evan McPherson's 55-yard field goal into a punt on Sunday night? Simmons is still shaking his head.
"They had a player right in front of Orlando that simulated the snap count. He yelled out,' set.' You can see his head move and see him do it to Orlando," Simmons said. "I mean, the official that called the penalty, there's no chance he saw Orlando move. Zero. Okay. I can barely see him move on video. Just look at the (video)." …