BENGALS WR JA'MARR CHASE VS. CHIEFS DC STEVE SPAGNUOLO
Bengals assistant wide receivers coach Brad Kragthorpe, who along with defensive quality control coach Jordan Kovacs mans the late-night boiler room on the coaches' wing of Paul Brown Stadium, has charted all of Chase's 128 targets and 81 catches during the greatest rookie season an NFL wide receiver ever had.
That doesn't count the last one, the 19-yard message board to the NFL of the 2020s that Chase caught from quarterback Joe Burrow with 15 seconds left to set up Saturday night's historic divisional playoff win in Tennessee.
If Chase ran a better route this season, Kragthorpe can't remember it. It was the most lethal "Bench," route run in these parts since old Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green spun around Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis with eight seconds left to set up the field goal that put the Bengals 2012 playoffs.
"He's run a lot of good ones," Kragthorpe said this week. "But that one, if you look at the situation, no. Off the top, it would have to be the best one he's run this year."
It is Chase's route running that is the centerpiece of the Bengals' major advantage in Sunday's AFC title game (3 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) where the Bengals' three wide receivers go against a Kansas City secondary that gives up big passing days.
There are those that will say Sunday's true matchup is the Bengals' shell-shocked interior offensive line against Chiefs rampaging three technique Chris Jones just eight days after Burrow got sacked nine times.
But it will be just seven days since the Chiefs allowed the Bills' Gabriel Davis 201 yards after a regular season he had all of 549.
And it also marks 28 days since Chase helped heave the Bengals into the playoffs with a rookie-record 266 yards against the Chiefs, the defining play in the winning drive a 30-yard one-on-one catch against cornerback Charvarius Ward on third-and-27. And that only after a 35-yarder jump-started the drive against Ward that again looked like man coverage.
So, after saluting the Bengals' first trip to a conference championship in 33 years, the second most popular activity in Cincinnati this week has been wondering how the wily Spagnuolo is going to play it. A former NFL head coach who has been calling defenses in the league for the better part of two decades, Spagnuolo likes to mix it up between man and zone. But depending on what source you peruse, no one plays a higher percentage of man than the Chiefs.
That would seem to go out the window now, right?
And it's not like Chase has disappeared since Jan. 2. His 225 yards in the two playoff games are the third most by a rookie in the postseason and he needs just 18 to break Torry Holt's record of 242 yards set in the Rams 1999 Super Bowl run, the year before Chase was born
"Probably safe to assume," says offensive coordinator Brian Callahan of the Chiefs ditching man. "I don't like to assume things too often, but he had a tremendous game against one-on-one coverage. Whether they change or adapt, you except that to be the case. We'll see on Sunday, but he's demanded the attention of defenses. If you leave him one-on-one, he'll be a tough out over the course of the game. I'd be hard pressed to think they leave those guys out there.
"Maybe they will. They got a ton of confidence in their ability to bounce back and recover, we'll see when we kick it off. Ja'Marr has earned the respect of defenses around the league. Tennessee doubled him for the large majority of the second half of that game, and I'd expect to see something more like that than I would expect to see him singled. Who knows what their game plan will be?"
But go back to that second half in Tennessee. Go back to what amounted to the Bengals' second to-last-snap of the game, a first down from their 47 with 20 seconds left and needing about 15 yards for kicker Evan McPherson.
Go back to that 19-yard route the Bengals ran to the AFC title game and it was run against not man, but two-man coverage and it shows why Chase is tough against zones or even the dreaded cloud coverages and why there aren't a whole heck of a lot of answers since you've got a 21-year-old guy who runs routes like he's been running them since Spagnuolo ran the 1994 University of Maine defense.
Bengals slot receiver Tyler Boyd saw Chase's last route up close.
"It's a bench route and you can't run it any better than Chase did," Boyd said this week.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor isn't sure how that route got its name. In his three seasons Taylor has gone great lengths to streamline his playbook and free it of verbiage from other systems so that the vocabulary is unique to this Bengals offense.
But there are universal terms and "Bench," is one of them. When Green left for Arizona last year, he recounted his Bengals highlights and one of them was in Pittsburgh in 2012.
"Bench," Green called it.
It's an out cut to exactly that. The sidelines where the bench is, and Taylor figures someone like Bill Walsh gave it the name all those years ago.
Which would be fitting in a game pitting two of the game's great young passing duos. Both Burrow-Chase and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes-Tyreek Hill are tied with the most 50-yard touchdown passes in a year (including playoffs) by a combo 25 years or younger with five.
Also on that list of five for 50 is the Bengals' Ken Anderson-Isaac Curtis and their quarterbacks-receivers coach was Walsh as he grew the roots of the West Coast Offense on Paul Brown's first Bengals' teams.
"In college we ran it a million times against a million different defenses," Burrow said of his LSU connection with Chase.
Taylor calls the route "our bread-and-butter." A staple against that two-man look. But spectacular given the situation and the dominance of the route Chase ran against cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins, the 10-year vet the rookie schooled.
"Ja'Marr understood the leverage and what that guy needed to be worried about playing two-man. He has to be worried about the in-breaker," Taylor said.
That was heightened by the fact that the Bengals had two timeouts left and had the entire field available despite having just 20 seconds. The Titans opted to make Burrow make the tougher throw outside the numbers and that didn't surprise the Bengals. When they broke the huddle, tight end C.J. Uzomah knew he could throw it to any of his three wide receivers for a completion.
"Ja'Marr didn't just carelessly stem in and push vertical and break out," Taylor said. "He stemmed in violently, he pushed up and then nodded him at the top like he was going to break in and got the DB to false step just for a count and then you got that wide open opportunity down the sideline."
That false step makes Chase smile. That means Jenkins was "stacked." Meaning he was trailing Chase.
Where in the world was the other man in this two-man?
"Half field safety and it's hard getting there when you run a great route," Taylor said.
Or when you've got a guy like Burrow zipping it outside the numbers. If the man they call "Spags,' is going to cloud and shade Chase, he'll have to deal with routes and throws like this.
"We always talk about versus these two-man looks, cloud looks, those bench routes keep your angle high and let Joe throw them flat," Callahan said. "Ja'Marr did a great job of executing the route correctly, got the corner underneath him in trail and set him high and Joe put a great ball to the sideline. Those are a very basic concept for us and one we have a million reps on. One they have thrown to each other a million times. That's what you want in those situations is a chance to execute something you have a lot of and have a lot of confidence in both Ja'Marr and Joe to put that ball where it needs to be and Ja'Marr to be at the spot Joe is expecting him."
The Bengals moved so quickly from Logan Wilson's interception to Burrow's arrow that it looked like Taylor had a play on his call sheet reserved for a pick with 20 seconds left at midfield. In a way, he did.
"We were prepared for that situation. Nobody flinched," Callahan said. "Nobody panicked. We just knew what we were going to do and how we were going to attack it. We were expecting that type of coverage that they played.
"These games are won and lost in seconds. We practice those things. We know what calls we want in those situations. With how any seconds left, with what yard line we are on. Those are things that are practiced and talked about and repped pretty consistently."
Chase is the first to tell you he's not sure what to expect from the Chiefs this week. Burrow knows what the answer is. He saw it on that route. Boyd and receiver Tee Higgins were also open. Boyd may have gone all the way. How close is thing turning into a 42-36 classic like KC won last Sunday?
"If you take away Ja'Marr," Burrow said. "Tyler and Tee are going to have big days. Pick your poison."
The Chiefs' antidote may be Chris Jones wreaking havoc up front. The Bengals' panacea may have been seen on the route they took to a game away from the Super Bowl.
"We had 'Benches,' on both sides and both Ja'Marr and Tee won," Callahan said. "Then TB was over the middle of the over read, so he was just reading coverage and he won over the middle as well."