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Raiders-Bengals Playoffs: How Las Vegas can slow down Ja’Marr Chase

Stats and a film breakdown of Cincinnati’s superstar rookie wideout

Kansas City Chiefs v Cincinnati Bengals
Ja’Marr Chase
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Las Vegas Raiders are set to play their first playoff game since the 2016 season and are looking to notch their first postseason win since 2003. Standing in their way are the Cincinnati Bengals and presumptive Offensive Rookie of the Year, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

Chase has taken the league by storm in year one, hauling in 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. His yardage and touchdown totals rank fourth and third among wideouts, respectively, and he’s tied for 10th with 56 first downs during the regular season.

Diving into some more advanced numbers, the LSU product ranks 10th with an 84.0 PFF receiving grade, has the third-most yards after the catch with 657, and is seventh with 2.51 yards per route run. Also, he’s forced 19 missed tackles — tied for fourth — and averages 8.1 YAC per reception — fifth best.

However, Chase’s production does seem to come in spurts.

For example, he had a huge performance in Week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens – eight catches for 201 yards and a touchdown – but then went on a seven-game stretch where he only eclipsed 50 yards twice and 75 once. After that, Chase managed to put up 391 yards and three scores in just two games.

So, where does the rookie do most of his damage and how can the Raiders stop, or at least slow him down?

Areas of the field

To answer the questions above, we’ll first take a look at Chase’s numbers in four areas of the field to see if there’s a particular spot Gus Bradley and Co. want to force the wideout into. The four areas are, deep/any pass 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, Intermediate/10 to 19 yards, short/zero to nine and behind the line of scrimmage.

Deep

Especially at the beginning of the season, this is where Chase did a lot of damage. He racked up 34 deep targets and 15 deep receptions throughout the year, both of which were the third-most in the NFL.

In addition to that, he ranked second in yards on such throws (576) and led the league with eight touchdowns, three more than the second-place finisher. For comparison’s sake, the difference between second and third was only one. A 99.5 receiving grade that ranked sixth and 16.94 yards per route run which ranked 20th on deep balls wasn’t too shabby either.

However, it does seem like the 20 plus-yard targets were a bit forced.

Starting quarterback Joe Burrow and Chase only connected on 44.1 percent of their deep shots, which was the 33rd-highest in the NFL, and Chase had the second most contested deep targets (15) but only the 54th-best catch rate (26.7 percent).

So, this is an area of the field the Raiders need to account for, but they likely won’t be able to completely take away since Burrow seems to heave it up to his college teammate regardless.

Intermediate

Chase’s volume stats don’t exactly jump off the page here. On the year, he had 27 intermediate targets (the 35th-most), 18 receptions (27th), 336 yards (15th) and three touchdowns (tied for 12th). But, his efficiency numbers are fairly impressive.

The wideout ranked 10th at the position with 12.44 yards per route run, 12th in passer rating when targeted with a mark of 131.1, and earned a 95.8 receiving grade from PFF. The latter figure does only rank 42nd among receivers, but it also falls into the elite category for PFF and is 1.6 points away from being in the top 15. There’s a log jam of guys in the mid- to high-90s.

It’s also worth noting that he and Burrow are the 18th-best at connecting in the 10- to 19-yard range with a 66.7 completion percentage, and the wideout has caught three of five contested targets in this area. So, unlike the deep throws, the ball isn’t being forced to him here.

Between the medium passes and the long bomb numbers, Bradley might want to focus on taking away the former. Then again, it is kind of a “pick your poison” type of deal.

Short

Chase almost becomes more difficult to keep contained the closer he is to the line of scrimmage for one reason, yards after the catch.

He only ranks 21st and 24th in short targets (50) and receptions (37) but managed to have the eighth-most yards (459). That’s because he had 290 yards after the catch, fourth-most among receivers, and led the league with 7.8 YAC per reception. Also, he ranked tied for fourth with nine missed tackles forced and had the 11th-best receiving grade (94.1) in this area of the field.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much Las Vegas can do to take these throws away, especially since Chase can burn you down the field, and the emphasis needs to be placed on sure tackling.

Behind the line of scrimmage

I’ll gloss over this section since it’s going to be pretty similar to the one above it.

The rookie had 11 catches for 84 yards and no touchdowns on targets behind the line of scrimmage. The first two figures were tied for 25th and 16th, respectively, at his position and while that’s not terribly impressive, the more nuanced numbers are.

He was top 10 in yards per route run (7.0, ranked ninth), receiving grade (90.1, 10th) and YAC per reception (10.4, ninth) while finishing 20th with 114 yards after the catch.

Again, the best way for Bradley to remove these throws from the Bengals game plan is to make sure his guys' form tackling is at its best.

Cincinnati Bengals v Las Vegas Raiders
Ja’Marr Chase
Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Types of Coverage

Now that we’ve taken a look at where Chase does his damage, it’s time to see what type of coverage he likes to exploit. To keep this section simple, we’ll break it down into two categories; man and zone coverage.

Man

To put it simply, the former Tiger — well, and I guess the current Tiger, too — is deadly against man coverage.

During the regular season, he caught 25 passes against man — the 14th most — for 507 yards — second to only Cooper Kupp — and three touchdowns — tied for 19th. Diving deeper, his 20.3 yards per catch was seventh-best, 85.5 receiving grade ranked eighth and 3.52 yards per route run were good enough to finish fourth.

Chase also did a lot of his work after the catch here, forcing the most missed tackles among wide receivers (seven) to get the third-most yards after the catch (206) and seventh-most YAC per reception (8.2).

So, maybe the Raiders would have better luck with zone.

Zone

Honestly, Chase’s numbers when facing zone coverage are pretty good too, just not as daunting as the ones above.

He hauled in 45 passes for 715 yards and five touchdowns, ranking tied for 26th, sixth and tied for first, respectively. While the touchdown total can be frightening, the rookie’s efficiency statistics take a bit of a dip against zone coverage.

His 15.9 yards per catch are “only” tied for 13th-best, his 78.5 receiving grade was 15th and 2.31 yards per route run ranks ninth. In other words, his standing amongst his peers in all of those categories is lower against zone than man coverage.

After the catch though, Chase’s rankings are almost identical. He ranked fourth with 342 yards after the catch, eighth with 7.6 YAC per reception and forced 10 missed tackles, ninth-most.

Again, not a dramatic drop-off in production but something Bradley can glean on while putting together his game plan.

Film Clips

Now that we have these numbers and know Chase can beat defenses deep, short and versus man or zone, we have a new question: How the hell do you stop this guy?

Well, we can turn to the film and see where teams have had success and where they’ve failed to contain the dynamic wideout. Luckily, the Raiders were one of the few teams that kept him in check this season — three catches for 32 yards and a touchdown — so we can start there and see what Bradley should and shouldn’t do again.

This first clip is an example of what the Raiders did to help takeaway Chase and is something that they’ll undoubtedly replicate on Saturday.

The situation is first and 10 in the first quarter and the Bengals come out in 12 personnel – one running back, two tight ends – which signals run to the defense. Also, that gets the Raiders to play their base personnel – three linebackers, four defensive backs – and they put the two tight ends on the opposite side of Chase to force the Raiders to widen Johnathan Abram out on the slot receiver.

Since Abram isn’t strong in coverage, Cincinnati is hoping the defense will give him help, leaving Chase one-on-one with Casey Hayward. To make things even more difficult, Cincy runs play action which should get the linebackers to come downhill to play the run.

However, Vegas counters by running Gus Bradley’s staple cover three coverage, and both linebackers – Denzel Perryman and Corey Littleton – stay patient and don’t bite on the run fake. Since they’re in cover three, Abram drops to his curl to flat zone and with no threat in the flat, he can sink and help take away a dig or any route that Chase runs towards the middle of the field and in the intermediate area, essentially bracketing the wideout. That allows Hayward to stay on top and take away the deep ball that Chase is so lethal on, with Tre’von Moehrig’s helping as the deep safety, though Hayward doesn’t need on this rep.

From there, Perryman takes care of the slot on the over route, KJ Wright and Brandon Facyson have the tight end on the out covered, then Wright picks up the back out of the backfield, and Joe Burrow must scramble and forces a throw into coverage. A picture-perfect rep from Las Vegas to take away the offense’s biggest threat and force an incompletion.

Here we are going to see different play calls from each team but the concept is going to be similar defensively.

The Bengals come out in 11 personnel – one running back, one tight end – and the Raiders respond with nickel personnel – five defensive backs, two linebackers. Cincinnati is also using a spread two by two formation with the running back on the strong/tight end side which gives Las Vegas a three on two advantage on the field or two receiver side, and a four on three in the boundary.

Bradley calls cover four where Hayward is locked on Chase man to man and Nate Hobbs and Moehrig will read the second/slot receiver. If the slot’s route stays within 10 yards, Hobbs will take him, and he’s Moehrig’s man if the route is any deeper. The wrinkle that the defense is doing here is, whoever doesn’t end up taking the second receiver – Hobbs or Moehrig – instead of rolling with the flow of the play, which is too the boundary/narrow side of the field, that defender is going to stay in the middle and even slightly work back toward the wide side of the field.

In this case, it’s Hobbs and while initially it may look like he’s covering nobody, he’s doing the same thing Abram was in the last clip, helping Hayward takeaway a dig route from Chase. This time Chase runs the dig route and breaks free from Hayward, who is playing off and bailing to protect against the deep ball. However, Hobbs is sitting right there and hoping Burrow throws it his way.

Instead, the quarterback has to check it down and the defense is more than happy to play for third and one at the offense’s 16-yard line this early in the drive. Chase isn’t in the primary progression on this play, but I can almost guarantee you if he had a one-on-one matchup, Burrow would try to get him the ball on the backside. Just wait for some of the later clips.

There isn’t anything too fancy about this coverage. The Raiders lineup in two-high and the Bengals force them to tip their hand with Tyler Boyd – slot receiver – going in motion with Hobbs and Moehrig following, so Burrow knows it’s man. Post-snap, the safeties – Moehrig and Dallin Leavitt – roll to cover one, leaving the boundary corner, Facyson at the top of the screen, one-on-one with Chase.

Once Burrow sees Facyson doesn’t have safety help, he immediately snaps his head around and tosses it up to Chase on the go route.

Facyson is in press coverage but is playing more of a soft press, so he plays from a trail position and is able to run stride for stride with Chase. At the catch point, the cornerback does a perfect job of locating the ball and playing the receiver’s hands to rip the ball out and force an incompletion.

Remember, Chase’s numbers on contested catches aren’t great, so with Facyson’s ball skills as long as he can stay in phase like this, he has a good chance at keeping the rookie in check. Then again, that’s easier said than done and I’d like to see him get hands on the receiver at the line of scrimmage this time around.

Another example of the Raiders running a zone coverage and working to get the numbers advantage on Chase’s side.

They’re running cover four again, it just looks different because the Bengals have three receivers to the wide side of the field so Perryman bumps over. Pre-snap, it looks like Cincinnati will have the matchup they want, Chase on a linebacker, Perryman. However, with Las Vegas running cover four, Hayward is locked on to the bottom receiver, Moehrig and Hobbs will read the routes of the two slots – the safety takes the deep route and nickel takes the short one. Perryman will stay underneath in the middle hook area and pass off Chase if Chase vacates that area.

Post-snap, the outside slot receiver goes deep so Moehrig picks him up, Chase runs an out, so Perryman gets hands on him to disrupt the route and pass off the receiver to Hobbs. The Bengals' play is perfectly covered by the Raiders and what makes this rep special is the play of Perryman and the boundary safety, Leavitt.

Once Perryman passes off Chase, he works for depth to help Moehrig on any intermediate routes, which prevents Cincy from using Chase as a decoy to hit Tyler Boyd – the other slot receiver – on a dig or a curl. As for Leavitt, he makes a smart play by noticing the Bengals have a tight end at receiver and back in the backfield as the only threats to his side. Immediately after noticing the tight end/receiver stays in to block, Leavitt works to the other side of the field to give turn the Raiders four on three advantage to five a three.

Once Burrow sees that he knows he has to pull the ball down and start scrambling, which leads to a coverage sack.

Now here’s that change that the Bengals made later in the game that would worry me if I’m Bradley.

This is a very similar play to the first clip we took a look at but Cincy is in 11 personnel and has one more receiver on the field than last time, and Vegas is still playing cover three. Cincy also puts Boyd – the slot receiver – in motion which gets the linebackers to shift and is the first step in taking away Abram’s ability to help on Chase. In other words, they’ve managed to isolate the wideout with motion.

Post-snap, the Bengals run play-action with the fake on Abram’s side to take advantage of his aggressiveness as he comes downhill and is in a bad spot to help with Chase. Plus, they leak the back out immediately this time instead of having him scan for any leaks in the protection initially, which occupies Abram playing in the flat.

Littleton does a good job of maintaining his depth against the play-action, but by the time he’s able to turn and locate the wide receiver and help the cornerback, it’s too late and Burrow zips a nice ball between the two defenders. After the catch, Chase makes three guys miss, and luckily, Moehrig is there to make the tackle to keep this to just a 15-yard gain. Defensively, you definitely don’t want to tempt fate with how dangerous Chase is after the catch so that needs to be cleaned up.

The personnel will be different this Saturday as Littleton barely plays anymore and Abram is injured, but this is a tough concept to defend with cover three regardless of who’s on the field so Bradley needs to come up with a wrinkle.

Here’s another good example of the Raiders using cover four to bracket Chase.

The passing strength is to the defense’s right, but Abram – safety at the top of the screen – is clearly cheating to the rookie’s side as he’s sitting between the numbers and hash on the single receiver side instead of playing closer to the center. Since Facyson – corner at the top of the screen – only as Chase to his side, he’ll guard Chase until Chase’s route goes 10-yards and then pass off the receiver to Abram.

Cincinnati runs play-action, but the defense doesn’t bite, and Burrow clearly wants to hit Chase for a touchdown, but the bracket coverage takes that away and the quarterback checks it down. Another win for the Silver and Black.

This is an example of what can absolutely not happen while playing zone against Chase.

The Bengals motion Boyd from the right to the left, which tells Burrow the Chiefs are in zone since no one follows Boyd and leaves Chase in the slot against an off-coverage safety. Now, Kansas City still has their best coverage defender, Tyrann Mathieu, on his fellow LSU alumn so it’s not like this is a completely lopsided matchup. The problem is Mathieu doesn’t get any help from the linebacker, Willie Gay.

Gay drops back and doesn’t work for any width which, combined with the safety playing off, gives the Chiefs no chance to take away the out from Chase. Also, the Bengals give the young backer some eye candy with Higgins running the shallow route and Gay takes the bait, creating an even bigger throwing window for Burrow.

The quarterback hits his receiver perfectly by putting the ball on the receiver’s inside shoulder, setting up the run after the catch. From there, Chase puts one move the pursuing linebacker – Nick Bolton, No. 54 – and kicks it into another gear to break angles and this to the house.

Honestly, I included this clip just to show you how dangerous Chase can be in single coverage.

This is similar to the previous play where the Raiders running cover four and Abram stayed between the numbers and hash. The biggest differences are the Bengals don’t motion the tight end into the backfield and stay in the three-by-one formation, and the Chiefs opt to play a split field coverage with man to man on Chase’s side.

Instead of having Gay – the middle linebacker – take the running back out of the backfield, the safety comes down to cover the back, leaving the corner one-on-one with Chase. The corner does a pretty good job of staying in phase here, but Burrow and Chase have so much chemistry they’re able to perfectly execute this back-shoulder throw for a touchdown.

In my opinion, you have bracket Chase every time and give up the check down to the back because the college teammates will take chances every time the wideout is single covered.

A lesson in bad safety play by Daniel Sorenson – top of the screen. This is a play that will make defensive coordinators pull their hair out because Chase doesn’t do anything special to get open.

Cincy uses motion to get a coverage indicator again and no one follows Boyd, so Burrow knows it’s zone. Kansas City responds by moving Sorenson to the deep safety spot and keeping Mathieu underneath, so Burrow starts licking his chops.

The Chiefs stay in two high and run cover two – easily discernable pre-snap – and for some reason, Sorenson doesn’t widen and plays Boyd running the short out. Once Chase passes the curl to flat corner, the safety has no chance because he didn’t work for width and takes a terrible angle. There’s no such thing as an easy 70-yard touchdown in the NFL, but this is about as close as it gets.

Again, Bradley needs to emphasize to his defensive backs this week to always cheat to Chase’s side and live with giving up short passes to anyone else.

A lot of teams like to play press coverage on Chase because he keeps his hands down by his waist and will let defenders get to his chest. However, if that’s the strategy the defense is going to go with, the cornerback must get hands on the receiver.

The rookie has good feet at the line of scrimmage and can explode off the line, so he’s a tough cover when playing press if you don’t slow him down right after the snap. That’s what happens here and, unlike Facyson, instead of Charvarius Ward — corner at the top of the screen — looking over his inside shoulder to find the ball, he takes a peek over his outside shoulder and that slows him down a bit. It’s not much but it’s enough to give Chase the separation he needs to make this catch near the sideline.

If Bradley and the Raiders are going to leave someone one-on-one with the Bengals’ superstar, the defensive back’s technique and fundamentals need to be flawless.

One last time before you go, leave Chase single covered at your own risk.

Kansas City is running cover zero here – the safety would pick up the either back if they release but both stay in to block – and that leaves Ward one-on-one with Chase. Again, this isn’t bad coverage from Ward by any means, it’s just a better throw and catch from the LSU products.

This was third and 27 with about three minutes to play in a tie ball game. The Bengals ended up running out the clock – thanks to a few Chiefs’ goal line penalties – and kicking the game-winning field goal that cost Kansas City the one-seed.

Gus Bradley, I beg of you, please don’t single cover Ja’Marr Chase!