CINCINNATI — Standing at his locker last week, a few days removed from his team’s 24-17 wild-card victory against the Ravens, Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was praising coach Zac Taylor for a game plan that moved him around in various formations and led to nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
“Zac did a good job of that last game, moving me around, keeping me near the RPOs,” Chase said. “That was pretty cool. That was one of the best game plans he’s had.”
It only took four days for it to slide down a notch in Chase’s 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-round destruction of the Bills wasn’t anything new, but the frequency of it 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. He would sometimes start there and move out. He stayed put a few times. Mostly he’d start in the slot and jet into an orbital motion behind the quarterback Joe Burrow and whichever running back was in the game at the time, forcing the defense into difficult adjustments, which were usually flawed and occasionally fatal.
“At times you’re changing the passing strength with him in the backfield, so then they’ve got decisions they’ve got to make about how they want to treat that,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it can prevent matchups. Sometimes it can mess you up.”
Sunday at Highmark Stadium, the Bills were mostly a mess.
The Bengals gained 107 yards for an incredible 11.9 per play on those nine snaps in which Chase occupied space in the backfield.
Four of them were passes, with Burrow completing all four for 66 yards, including the 28-yard touchdown to Chase to cap the opening drive.
“This is motion formation middle-fingering people,” former Bengals quarterback and QB School founder JT O’Sullivan said during his breakdown of the game film on the QB School YouTube channel.
“That is beautiful. That is art. World-class offensive construction,” O’Sullivan continued while deconstructing the formation that created a 16-yard run by Mixon, 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 remaining first quarter (third play of the game).
Chase goes in orbit from right to left, leaving no receivers on the right side of the formation. He sits down at the 28 as a swing option in the flat, drawing coverage from the Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. But Burrow hits Tyler Boydwho runs a switch release with Tee Higginsfor a 23-yard gain on a corner route, putting the Bengals in Buffalo territory.
Play 2: Second-and-3, Buffalo 28, 11:48 remaining first quarter (sixth play of the game).
Chase starts in the backfield and moves to the left slot.
The Bills are playing zone, and Chase and tight end Hayden Hurst sit down in the zone, with Hurst in the flat and Chase in the middle about 5 yards downfield. Burrow steps up in the pocket when he feels pressure off the left edge, and two Buffalo defenders anticipate a checkdown to 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 game’s first points.
“It was a good little package,” Pitcher said.
Play 3: Second-and-5, Cincinnati 33, 9:24 remaining in the first quarter (eighth play of the game).
Chase is lined up in the left slot before running orbit behind Burrow, dragging the nickel corner Taron Johnson into the box while the two linebackers slide left, leaving the middle of the defense open.
Right tackle Hakeem Adeniji pulls and obliterates Johnson, giving Mixon a huge gap to run through for a 16-yard gain.
“I’m not a defensive aficionado, but I can tell you that I don’t want a tackle running at my nickel DB trying to fill in the B gap,” O’Sullivan said. “All this action says swing screen, swing screen, swing screen, so you have the linebackers running over there and you run the run, you’ve got this nickel with an NFL tackle wrapping for you.”
“If defenses are gonna keep two safeties high, that nickel has 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’s out there and they ask him to do a lot. We were able to get into some advantageous spots with that.”
It was one of five designed runs (there was also a 21-yard scramble by Burrow) that went for 10 or more yards Sunday, and two of them came out of the package with Chase in the backfield.
Play 4: First-and-10, Buffalo 30, 6:48 remaining in the first quarter (12th play of the game).
The least productive play of the package, Chase runs behind Burrow and takes a deep pitch 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He tries to wait for his blocks before turning upfield, but the play stretches out too long and goes for just 3 yards.
It’s a reminder of why Taylor and the rest of the staff waited so long to lean more heavily on using Chase in the backfield after starting to tinker with it 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 shotgun formation, with Chase taking the handoff and getting stretched wide by inside penetration, resulting in no gain.
Bengals’ offensive line was supposed to be a liability. So how did he dominate the Bills?
The Bengals had a pair of similar failures on the same series two weeks earlier at the Jets. On the first play of the drive, Chase lined up in the slot and took a jet sweep for a loss of 1 yard. On the 11th play, a fourth-and-1 at the Jets’ 19, Chase lined up in the left slot, ran an orbit motion behind Burrow, took the pitch 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 reasoning for doing it, and then there’s things you need to carry to complement that,” Taylor said. “Sometimes you get to it, sometimes you don’t. Whether we carry that every week or not, it’s more dictated by the scheme that they’re gonna present on defense, whether that gives us an advantage or not. But the initial intent is always we think we can stress them this way, and then you’ve got to build off that and be ready for some adjustments they could make. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Play 5: First-and-10, Cincinnati 25, 7:25 remaining in the second quarter.
It was the first play on the drive after a Buffalo touchdown that cut the Cincinnati lead to 14-7. Chase and Perine flanked Burrow in the shotgun.
Burrow changes the play, and Chase goes into the right slot, Higgins slides further out to the right and Perine flips to Burrow’s left.
Burrow looks for Chase over the middle, but he’s covered by Johnson, so he checks down to Perine for 4 yards.
Play 6: Second-and-1, Buffalo 26, 4:02 remaining in the second quarter.
Chase and Perine again are flanking Burrow, who sends Chase in motion to the left behind him as the ball is snapped.
Burrow hands Perine up the middle for another big chunk. Perine gets 5 or 6 yards before he’s even touched and finishes with a gain of 7.
“It’s hard because if you’re trying to do any kind of doubling or anything like that, now you gotta add the element of, ‘Well, what happens if he lines up in the backfield?’ What do you do?’” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said, explaining the dilemma for his view of the scheme. “And typically, that will really change the coverage because you don’t want to double a guy that’s in the backfield because generally speaking, those guys aren’t going on deep routes. So now it’s all underneath stuff or handing them the ball and things like that. It just adds another layer to your preparation if you’re trying to plan just to say, ‘All right, we’re going to double him on this play.’ Generally, you don’t talk about it when, OK, he’s also in the backfield now.”
Play 7: Second-and-10, Buffalo 20, 3:22 remaining in the second quarter.
This is 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 to Mixon, who runs into the area vacated by the slot corner for a gain of 6.
The Bengals move into the red zone and end up getting an Evan McPherson field goal to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.
Play 8: First-and-10, Cincinnati 38, 6:27 remaining in the third quarter.
Chase starts in the right slot. He motions into the backfield, left of Burrow, while Trayveon Williams is to the right.
Buffalo doesn’t shift its alignment.
Chase goes in motion behind Burrow, who hits him for a screen 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and he turns it into a 12-yard gain.
“There are some different varieties of the packages,” Taylor said. “Some games that’s up, some games it’s not. He’s proven to us that he’s capable of understanding anywhere we want to put him, and he can do it whether it’s just catching the bubble and making people miss and getting a first down out of nothing really. That’s the weapon we’ve got with Ja’Marr. So you’ve got to find ways to be creative and utilize him.”
Play 9: First-and-10, 50-yard line, 15:00 remaining fourth quarter.
Chase is in the left slot and orbits behind Burrow. Johnson, the slot corner, goes with him.
Mixon again runs into the area vacated by Johnson for a 9-yard gain, continuing what will be a nine-play, 61-yard gain and ending in a McPherson field goal that ups the lead to what will be the final score of 27- 10.
With the wrinkle, the Bengals near the 400-yard mark they will eclipse on their next series. They finished with 412, the second-largest total in franchise history behind the 439 they posted in the 2013 wild-card loss to the Chargers.
Chase finished with five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown (along with a 10-yard touchdown overturned by replay), plus a whole lot more offense created by all of the motions and time spent in the backfield.
“Sometimes you go into a package like that and maybe it gets called a couple of times, and sometimes it has success early and it gets called more often,” Pitcher said. “I just think Zac does a really good job in the game of seeing how the defense is adjusting and using what’s working at the moment.”
And Sunday, it all was working. Burrow was accurate and spreading the ball around to everyone. The line, with three new starters, was holding up. And the running game was both efficient and explosive. When that happens, the opposing defensive coordinator basically throws up his hands and finds himself at a loss for what to do.
“Any time you’re distributing the ball to all sorts of different guys, and we have a ton of different weapons, everybody gets a sense that they’re a part of this,” Pitcher said. “We’re picking up first down after first down after first down, there’s just a confidence and momentum that builds and you feel a sense of deflation and frustration from the defense. It’s a game played by humans with emotions, and there’s definitely moments in the game when you can sense that from your opponent.”
(Photo: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)