How Ja'Marr Chase and the Bengals Proved the Internet Wrong

Cincinnati Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

In the weeks leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, a meme circulated through Cincinnati Bengals Twitter, eventually permeating into the national draft conversation. It was an infographic illustrating the Bengals' two paths lying before them with the fifth overall pick. Cincinnati could go with Option A, showing Joe Burrow comfortably passing to "anybody" as Oregon Ducks tackle Penei Sewell blocks for him. On Draft Day, however, the Bengals elected to go with Option B.

The infographic would lead you to believe that Burrow would be too busy being suplexed to ever throw to LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, no matter how open he got. Instead, Burrow and Chase have been one of the most productive passing connections in the NFL. One of the things this meme doesn't take into account is the unbelievable connection Burrow and Chase had during their time at LSU. Passes with 60-plus air yards looked like they were being placed right into Chase's hands. It felt like draft prognosticators couldn't properly evaluate Chase off his 2019 film because of just how good he played with Burrow at the helm. Not only did they not have to imagine Chase without Burrow at the NFL level, that college connection never went away.

Through seven weeks, Cincinnati is tied for third in passing touchdowns with 18. Six of those have come from Chase. Chase's 754 receiving yards this season is an all-time record through a player's first seven games. In fact, he's on pace to break the all-time rookie DYAR record set by Michael Thomas.

But the Burrow-to-Chase connection isn't the only thing making this Bengals offense click. Despite what the infographic would like you to believe, Burrow has not been on the receiving end of a piledriver every time he drops back. Cincinnati's offensive line ranks ninth in fewest hurries, tied for 14th in hits allowed, and 11th in pressures allowed. Even with the historic pace Chase is on, the contributions of Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and C.J. Uzomah in the passing game cannot be ignored. When Ja'Marr Chase is capable of doing things like this:

That makes things easier for the other receivers, because more attention gets placed on Chase. This emphasis on the passing game then makes Joe Mixon's job easier.

Despite the offensive production, no one could really make heads or tails of this Bengals team. Cincinnati's four wins headed into this week came against the Vikings, Steelers, Jaguars, and Lions. Their two losses came in Justin Fields' NFL debut and whatever you want to call that overtime field goal-palooza against the Packers. The Baltimore Ravens acted as the first real test for this Bengals team, and Cincinnati rose to the occasion on more ways than one.

Now, the offensive performance in this game can be labeled as somewhat fluky. Cincinnati's five touchdowns all came on "drives" of four plays or fewer. A handful of breakout plays like the one from Chase can be chalked up to luck, and the Ravens defense got extremely unlucky on Sunday. However, this Cincinnati defense means business. The Bengals currently spend the eighth-most cap dollars in the league on defensive players, but there aren't any household names to reference here. Offseason acquisitions such as Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, Chidobe Awuzie, and Mike Hilton have lived up to their contracts and then some this year, elevating 2020's 27th-ranked defense by DVOA into 2021's fifth-best defensive unit by DVOA through seven weeks.

This was Cincinnati's "prove it" game defensively. Cincinnati's four games with negative defensive DVOA prior to this week came against a slow-to-start Vikings offense, a mix of Andy Dalton and Justin Fields, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jared Goff. Despite being a field goal shy of beating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, this Bengals defense needed a real standout performance against a good offense.

Holding the ninth-best offense by DVOA rankings to a season-low in points seems like a good place to start.

The Bengals capitalized on a battered offensive line by sacking Lamar Jackson five times, the highest total Baltimore has allowed in a game this season. They held Jackson to his least accurate passing day since Week 7 of 2020. Jackson actually fell from eighth to 13th in CPOE between Weeks 6 and 7, per Ben Baldwin's RBSDM. Baltimore's running backs finished the afternoon with 27 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, just barely falling short of being the Ravens running back committee's worst performance of the season.

In typical Bungles fashion, the one move the viral Bengals Twitter infographic predicted would be a disaster was the move the Bengals actually made on draft night. However, no meme, infographic, or Twitter post would have convinced Bengals fans where they'd be right now. Cincinnati currently sits atop the AFC at 5-2 with a top-five defense, the Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runner, and a handful of quality performances strung together.

Where the Game Swung

 

Qtr Time Down To
Go
Yard
Line
GWC
Change
Play
3 6:04 3 2 CIN 18 +24.3% Ja'Marr Chase coasts for an 82-yard touchdown
2 6:41 1 10 CIN 45 +14.2% C.J. Uzomah's second touchdown
3 13:27 1 10 CIN 39 -11.0% Marquise Brown 39-yard touchdown to open the second half
3 11:13 1 10 BAL 32 +10.7% Uzomah's first touchdown
3 8:22 3 8 CIN 34 +10.2% Lamar Jackson sacked by Trey Hendrickson to force fourth-and-15

Obviously, the big home run plays were going to show up here. You can mostly chalk that top one up the Ravens defense inexplicably forgetting how to tackle for a second. C.J. Uzomah looked like prime Gronk at points on Sunday, needing just three catches to secure his second 90-yard, two-touchdown game in four weeks. Uzomah was schemed seamlessly into a one-on-one matchup on his 55-yarder, but he earned his separation with his route-running, then out-muscled Marlon Humphrey to finish for the score.

That sack Jackson took on third-and-8 set up a Ravens punt. Three plays later, Burrow connected with Chase for what was effectively the game-sealing touchdown. The Ravens had a 58.7% win probability prior to that third-and-8. By the time the Bengals kicked that post-Chase PAT, that probability had fallen to 24.5%. That's a 34.2% point drop in six plays.

By The DVOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
CIN 26.3% -5.1% 5.6% 37.0%
BAL -5.6% 22.2% 7.0% -20.8%
         
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
CIN 23.7% -6.1% 5.6% 35.4%
BAL -14.3% 20.0% 7.0% -27.3%

The Baltimore Ravens offense by down:

  • In this game:
    • 21.3% on first
    • -14.9% on second
    • -40.6% on third/fourth.
  • For the season:
    • 18.0% on first (fourth)
    • 23.8% on second (fourth)
    • -44.1% on third/fourth (31st)

Third down is a serious problem for the Ravens. In particular, throwing on third down, where their -70.5% DVOA sits ahead of only Chicago. Cincinnati's defense is oddly well-equipped to specifically handle this kind of offensive struggle. The Bengals defense ranks 21st in DVOA on third/fourth downs at 4.5%, but that's mostly dragged down by a 6.5% DVOA on third/fourth-and-short (1 or 2 yards to go) and a ghastly 47.5% on third/fourth-and-medium (3 to 6 yards to go). On third/fourth-and-long, however, the Bengals rank seventh with a DVOA of -49.7%.

The Ravens converted five of 16 third downs on Sunday with an average distance of 9.6 yards to go. Lamar Jackson picked up a third-and-8 with his legs on the Ravens' opening drive. From then on out, the Ravens were able to convert just two third-down attempts of more than 5 yards.

Nevermore

Just in time for Halloween, things are starting to get a little spooky for Ravens fans. The entire AFC North, currently separated by just a game and a half, is basically built out with horror movie tropes specifically designed to scare Baltimore.

  • Cincinnati's a jump scare. No one was expecting it, but all of a sudden, the Bengals sit atop both the division and the conference after hanging 41 on you and taking the tiebreaker.
     
  • The Cleveland Browns are zombies, the slow-moving, bullet-sponge kind. Man, they've had the absolute snot pummeled out of them with injuries across the offense, but they keep somehow getting back up and inching closer.
     
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers remind me of a Michael Myers-type villain. You have seen enough of the Halloween franchise to know that no matter how confident you are that they're dead, if you take your eye off them, they'll be breathing down your neck before you know it.

The Ravens can feel somewhat confident that Cincinnati's schedule is going to get harder down the stretch. Their past schedule ranks 25th in our database, while their future schedule ranks 17th. However, Baltimore's schedule splits are a nightmare of their own. Moving from 21st in past schedule to second in future schedule is a daunting leap.

Coming out of their Week 8 bye, Baltimore has Minnesota at home, the Dolphins in Miami, and the Bears at Chicago. Nothing too overbearing. Then comes the gauntlet. Five of Baltimore's last seven games are against divisional opponents. The two non-division games down that stretch are against the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams, both at home.

Now, I don't think there are any major changes Baltimore needs to make after this game. They got blown up by big plays. Some of them were schemed up, some of them can be credited to total breakdowns in tackling fundamentals. This was simultaneously the team's worst defensive performance and worst offensive showing in one game, with Lamar Jackson's least-accurate performance of the year as a cherry on top. I don't expect the Ravens to just turn into a pumpkin overnight. However, a loss like that should be the jolt that keeps them on their toes headed into the bye week.

Six teams in the AFC have two losses. Twelve teams in the AFC have two to four losses so far. The AFC playoff race barely has its racers around the first turn, but it is already contentious. In a division as cutthroat as the AFC North, Baltimore needs to watch its back around every turn.

Comments

9 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2021, 4:16pm

1 Sewell can still be good

But listening to Burrow and picking Chase over Sewell was fantastic process! Good to see it pay dividends (but still not stop GB :p)!

Also crazy how Joe Brady has fallen off and Zac Taylor has turned it around. I guess being cheap isn't always bad?

4 At some point

He needs to tell them no thanks and put his foot down on these projects (Teddy, Darnold).

He'll still get a job but Cincy surely won't have much justification to move on from Taylor at this pace. Which is nice for them. 

3 No respect

Even in this article about the Bengals resurgence, somehow the Ravens become the subject halfway through.