CINCINNATI — Standing in front of his locker last week, a few days after his team’s 24-17 wild-card victory against the Ravens, Bengals wide receiver Ja’Mar Chase praised coach Zach Taylor for the game plan that moved him around in different formations and led to to nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
“Zach did a good job last game, moving me around, keeping me close to the RPO,” Chase said. “It was great. It was one of the best game plans he had.”
It only took four days for him to slide down the Chase rankings.
What Taylor, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher and offensive line coach Frank Pollack cooked up for Chase in Sunday’s 27-10 divisional rout of the Bills was nothing new, but the frequency was.
And the results definitely were.
There were nine plays — including four of the first 12 — in which Chase spent time in the offensive backfield before the snap. Sometimes he would start there and go outside. He stayed put several times. More often than not, he would start in the slot and orbit behind quarterback Joe Burrow and whatever running back was in the game at the time, forcing defenses into difficult adjustments that were usually misguided and sometimes fatal.
“Sometimes you change the passing power with him in the backfield, so then they have to make decisions about how they want to approach it,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it can interfere with games. It can confuse you sometimes.”
On Sunday at Highmark Stadium, the Bills were mostly a mess.
The Bengals gained 107 yards on a whopping 11.9 carries on those nine snaps with Chase in the backfield.
Four of those were passes, with Burrow completing all four for 66 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown to Chase to complete the opening drive.
In the five plays, Joe Mixon had three carries for 31 yards, Samaje Perine one for seven and Chase one for three.
“These are people with middle fingers to form a movement,” former Bengals quarterback and QB School founder JT O’Sullivan said during a game film breakdown on the QB School YouTube channel.
“It’s beautiful. It’s art. World-class offensive construction,” O’Sullivan continued as he deconstructed the formation that set up Mixon’s 16-yard run, his longest of the day.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the nine plays.
Play 1: First and 10, Cincinnati 32, 13:45 left in first quarter (third play of game).
Chase orbits right to left, leaving no receivers on the right side of the formation. He sits at the 28 as a swing option in the flat, drawing coverage from Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmonds. But Burrow hit Tyler Boyd, who ran a layoff with Tee Higgins, for a 23-yard gain on a corner route, putting the Bengals in Buffalo territory.
Play 2: Second-and-3, Buffalo 28, 11:48 left in first quarter (sixth play of game).
The pursuit starts in the backfield and moves to the left slot.
The Bills play a zone and Chase and tight end Hayden Hurst sit in the zone, with Hurst in the field and Chase in the middle about 5 yards downfield. Burrow gets into the pocket when he feels pressure from the left edge and two Buffalo defenders await a checkdown against Hurst. Chase turns and sprints up the middle of the field and is wide open when he catches the ball at the 9 before splitting the safeties to find the end zone for the first points of the game.
“It was a good little package,” Pitcher said.
Play 3: Second-and-5, Cincinnati 33, 9:24 left in first quarter (eighth play of game).
Chase is lined up in the left slot before running into orbit behind Burrow, dragging nickel corner Taron Johnson into the box as the two linebackers slide left, leaving the middle of the defense open.
Right tackle Hakeem Adeniji pulls and sacks Johnson, giving Mixon a huge gap to run through for a 16-yard gain.
“I’m not a defensive guy, but I can tell you I don’t want a tackle going against my nickel DB trying to fill the B gap,” O’Sullivan said. “That whole action is saying swing screen, swing screen, swing screen, so you’re running the end players out there and you’re running a run, you’ve got that NFL tackle-wrapped nickel on you.”
“If defenses are going to keep two safeties up, that nickel carries a lot of responsibility,” Pitcher said. “And Buffalo doesn’t really play base defense, so it doesn’t really matter who you put on the field, that nickel is there and they want him to do a lot. We’ve been able to get into some good spots with that.”
It was one of five drives (there was also a 21-yard scramble by Burrow) that went for 10 or more yards Sunday, and two of them came off the pack with Chase in the backfield.
Play 4: First and 10, Buffalo 30, 6:48 left in first quarter (12th play of game).
The least productive play of the pack, Chase runs behind Burrow and takes a deep strike 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He tries to wait out his blocks before turning up, but the play stretches too long and only goes for 3 yards.
It’s a reminder of why Taylor and the rest of the staff waited so long to rely more heavily on using Chase in the backfield after they started working on him last season.
“The first time we played Baltimore, it didn’t put us in a great position,” Taylor said, referring to a second-and-12 play in Week 5 this year in which Chase and Mixon flanked Burrow in a shotgun formation, with Chase receiving of the transmission and a wide stretch through internal penetration that does not lead to profit.
The Bengals offensive line was supposed to be a liability. So how does it dominate the bills?
The Bengals had two similar setbacks in the same series two weeks earlier at the Jets. On the first play of the drive, Chase lined up in the slot and jettisoned a 1-yard loss. On 11 plays, fourth-and-1 at the Jets’ 19, Chase lined up in the left slot, orbited behind Burrow, took the field 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage and couldn’t get to the marker, losing a yard for a turnover on downs .
But Taylor remained confident in the scheme and continued to add to it.
“There’s an initial part of the package, that there’s a reason to do it, and then there’s things you have to carry to complement it,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you get to it, sometimes you don’t. Whether we bring it every week or not, it’s more dictated by the scheme they’re going to run on defense, whether that gives us an advantage or not. But the initial intent is always to think that we can stress them that way, and then you have to build on that and be ready for some adjustments that they might make. There’s a lot that goes into it.
Play 5: First and 10, Cincinnati 25, 7:25 left in second quarter.
It was the first play after Buffalo’s touchdown that cut Cincinnati’s lead to 14-7. Chase and Perrin flanked Burrow in the rifle.
Burrow changes the play and Chase goes to the right slot, Higgins slides further outside to the right and Perine turns to Burrough’s left.
Burrow looks for Chase over the middle, but he’s covered by Johnson, so he passes to Perine for 4 yards.
Play 6: Second and 1, Buffalo 26, 4:02 left in second quarter.
Chase and Perine again flank Burrow, who sends Chase on the move to the left behind him as the ball is snapped.
Dive hands to Perine up the middle for another big slice. Perine gets 5 or 6 yards before he even gets a touch and ends up with a gain of 7.
“It’s tough because if you’re trying to do some kind of double or something, now you have to add the element of, ‘Well, what happens if he lines up in the backfield?’ What are you doing?'” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said, explaining the dilemma of his view of the scheme. “And usually that’s going to really change the coverage because you don’t want to double a guy that’s in the backfield because generally speaking, those guys don’t go deep routes. So now it’s all down to stuff or us passing them the ball and stuff like that. It just adds another layer to your preparation if you’re trying to plan, just to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to double him in this game.’ plan now.
Game 7: Second and 10, Buffalo 20, 3:22 left in the second quarter.
It’s just two snaps after Perine’s 7-yard gain and the Bengals are at it again.
Chase is in the left slot and orbits behind the formation. Johnson follows him.
Burrow hands off to Mixon who runs into the zone vacated by the slot corner for a 6 gain.
The Bengals drive into the red zone and end up getting an Evan McPherson field goal to take a 17-7 halftime lead.
Play 8: First and 10, Cincinnati 38, 6:27 left in third quarter.
The chase starts in the right slot. He moves into the backfield to the left of Burrow while Trayveon Williams is to the right.
Buffalo does not change its orientation.
Chase goes behind Burrow, who hits him for a 5-yard screen behind the line of scrimmage, and he turns it into a 12-yard gain.
“There are different varieties of packages,” Taylor said. “Some games work, some don’t. He’s proven to us that he’s capable of figuring out wherever we want to put him, and he can do it, whether it’s just catching the balloon and making people miss and getting a first down out of nowhere. That’s the weapon we have with Ja’Marr. So you have to find ways to be creative and use it.
Play 9: First and 10, 50-yard line, 15:00 left in the fourth quarter.
Chase is in the left slot and orbits behind the Burrow. Johnson, the slot corner, goes with him.
Mixon again rushed into the zone vacated by Johnson for a 9-yard gain, continuing what would be a nine-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a McPherson field goal that pushed the lead to a final score of 27-10.
With the scrimmage, the Bengals neared the 400-yard mark, which they would eclipse on their next series. They finished with 412, the second-highest total in franchise history behind the 439 they posted in a 2013 wild-card loss to the Chargers.
Chase finished with five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown (along with a 10-yard touchdown tipped over on a replay), plus a lot more offense created by all the movement and time spent in the backfield.
“Sometimes you go into a package like this and maybe it gets called a few times, and sometimes it has success early and it gets called more often,” Pitcher said. “I just think Zach does a really good job in the game of seeing how the defense is setting up and using what’s working right now.”
And on Sunday everything was working. Burrow was accurate and distributed the ball to everyone. The line with three new starters was holding on. And the running game was both efficient and explosive. When that happens, the opposing defensive coordinator practically throws up his hands and finds himself at a loss for what to do.
“Anytime you’re passing the ball to all kinds of different guys, and we’ve got a lot of different weapons, everybody feels like they’re a part of it,” Pitcher said. “We’re picking up first down after first down after first down, there’s just confidence and momentum building and you feel a sense of letdown and frustration with the defense. This is a game played by people with emotions and there are definitely times in the game when you can feel that from your opponent.
(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)