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  • Paul Dehner Jr

How Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase's week 1 efforts show his impossibly high ceiling

Ja’Marr Chase saw the photo.

At this point, who in Cincinnati hasn’t?

The picture taken by Emillee Chinn is of Chase offering a double-bird salute directly at Pittsburgh safety Minkah Fitzpatrick during Sunday’s game.

It also perfectly typified the decades of contempt Bengals fans have displayed toward their AFC North rivals.

Chase offered the two-finger salute to Fitzpatrick after his third catch of the game — a 21-yarder that drew a vicious shot to the neck from behind by the Pittsburgh safety.

The 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year didn’t want to get into specifics of what prompted the move, other than to laugh when asked what he thought about it going viral.

“Pretty cool picture,” he said.

The same words will be uttered by a generation of Bengals fans who come across the picture framed in basement man caves from Mason to Mount Adams.

Chase’s moment of emotion wasn’t what was being talked about around the stadium this week, though. Oh no. That would be his 10-catch, 129-yard performance where the numbers don’t begin to do justice to the degree of difficulty.

Consequently, “pretty cool” was not the phrase thrown around to describe it.

“A monumental task,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said.

“An unbelievable effort,” Joe Burrow said.

What those paid to analyze every route and movement of Chase witnessed wasn’t merely highlight one-handers and what should have been a walk-off winner at the end of regulation.

This was about the Bengals running 100 plays and Chase never coming off the field once. The five offensive linemen and Burrow did the same, but for a receiver to never once need a breather in the most offensive plays run in a game in 20 years?

“Elite, yeah, there’s no doubt that,” head coach Zac Taylor said.

The amazement internally went beyond the extreme conditioning. The true differentiator in his effort resided in how he handled an unexpectedly rigorous mental test.

When Tee Higgins went out with a concussion in the first half, the Bengals had routes where Higgins’ spot in the play would be featured. Without him, they wanted Chase in that spot. They found matchups in unusual positions running routes plucked from the game plan script.

The Bengals’ first game for Chase’s role expansion was already in place for this season, but seamlessly shifting into mental and physical hyperdrive immediately only added confidence for what the Bengals can do with Chase’s versatility.

“I don’t think he’s going to get nearly enough credit for what he did in that game,” Callahan said. “It was a monumental task for him to take on. Moving to all the spots. He moved all over the place. He was running routes he hadn’t practiced, which we try not to do to guys. We try to at least give them a chance to have reps on things. But he was playing in the slot, he was playing No. 3, No. 2, he’s playing out wide, running all kinds of different routes on 95 or whatever plays, really never came off the field. That kind of effort, I don’t think there’s a precedent for that. My God, it was impressive.”

By the time his 100 snaps were complete on Sunday, Chase played 41 as the right outside receiver, 35 as the left outside, 22 in the slot, 11 of those on the inside of a trips formation and two in the backfield.

He forced two missed tackles and all 10 of his receptions went for a first down.

Then with four seconds remaining and the game on the line needing a touchdown, Taylor killed his original play call at the last second before the huddle and tagged a route to Chase that had not been run in practice that week, but he’d done before.

He counted on Burrow to make it work and Chase to recollect and execute to perfection.

He did.

“It wasn’t necessarily part of the game plan this week,” Taylor said. “You have to adapt to some of the leverages and matchups you’re getting over the course of the game and that was one we felt like might give us a chance on the last play.”

It did because Chase accelerated away from Ahkello Witherspoon to the pylon and Burrow ripped a dart before his longtime target ever made his break.

“I can’t imagine what he did,” Taylor said. “That shows you just his overall understanding of what we’re trying to do to be able to move him around in the huddle and for him to quickly understand what we’re trying to achieve and the detail that it needs to be done with is really impressive. You just walk away, not that we weren’t already impressed with him, but you see even more stuff for him to be able to do that, play 95 plays, play all the different positions and continue to make every play that came his way was real impressive.”

Maybe the most impressive feat of the day was one that didn’t count when he went high behind and over his head to snag what looked to be a Burrow touchdown pass with one hand.

His toe landed narrowly in the white, so it joined his non-challenged 12-yard reception as touchdowns that could have been even on a day when he seemed to make every play.

“He’s a unique, special player that you don’t see a lot,” Burrow said. “And as much as we got him the ball on Sunday, we’ve got to get him the ball more.”

The last line stands out like a “Chosen 1” chain around the neck. Chase finished with 16 targets, three more than in any game from his rookie season. This offense predicated on the quantity of weapons with Higgins, Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd and Burrow’s strength of recognition and processing, the idea of feeding one player — even if it is Chase — can be a step in the wrong direction.

Neither Burrow nor Taylor say they are losing much sleep over it. This game offered a set of unique circumstances. With Higgins improving through the concussion protocol this week, he should return in Dallas to take some heat off of Chase.

Either way, Sunday’s performance removed any worry about paying too much attention to WR1.

“Joe does a really good job of understanding of how a play call may be meant to target Ja’Marr, but the way they’re playing their defense that’s not the best option at the moment, go somewhere else,” Taylor said. ” And being patient and checking the ball down, too when it’s not the ideal look for some of the things we want to do. You’ve just got a lot of trust in Joe that you can call the concepts the way you want to call it and he’s going to find the best answer for you. But we also know Ja’Marr is a premier player and you want to get him the ball as often as you can. That’s usually a good thing when he’s got the ball in his hands, even when it doesn’t look like a great look.”

From Chase’s angle, that was the beauty of his first game of ’22 featuring such a wide range of different spots to feature him. He thought it helped open up the passing game in the second half.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” Chase said. “Just because they can’t cloud on me. Everything’s moving around, now they’ve got to actually pay attention where I’m moving to.”

The next move is to AT&T Stadium in Dallas and a matchup with Trevon Diggs, who picked off 11 passes last year. He’s familiar to Chase because the two met up for a legendary battle in Tuscaloosa when LSU broke through for a win against Diggs’ Crimson Tide.

Burrow hit Chase six times for 140 yards and a touchdown that day.

“I’m looking forward to playing in this Dallas Cowboys stadium more than that,” Chase said. “I ain’t really too worried about the matchup. I mean, it’s a big matchup, but you know what’s coming. Me and him and both … He’s an athlete. He’s got great ball skills in the air and he’s super fast. He’s not too technique-sound, though. He’s a little hit or miss. He’s either all the way on or he’s not all the way on.”

So, the path to confrontation begins again. Maybe this week won’t involve another duo of middle fingers. Or maybe it will.

That’s the beauty of Chase right now. After what he pulled off this past Sunday, he proved you never know what picture he’s going to paint.

It’s a pretty cool picture, indeed.

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