If one college football coach had his way, the Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase connection would never have come to fruition and the Cincinnati Bengals might not be preparing for an AFC Championship this week.
Bengals fans should be grateful Chase walked off the field at an LSU recruiting camp when then-coach Les Miles tried to convert him to defensive back. Chase stayed with his belief he could be an elite receiver, and Miles ended up fired midseason in 2016 anyway.
Three years later, Chase became one of Burrow’s favorite targets as they won a national championship together, but he said this week that bit of doubt from Miles drove him to become the player he is today. And now, the rookie first-round draft pick is preparing for the Bengals’ AFC Championship against the Chiefs on Sunday, one win away from a Super Bowl.
“Les Miles told me I couldn’t play receiver when I was coming out of high school,” Chase said this week. “That was something I had on my shoulders growing up. Les Miles told me he thought I could play cornerback. I wasn’t really in full position at receiver yet so I just kept working on my craft [in the] offseason, waking up early mornings to work out. I just kept focused.”
Chase was the Bengals’ No. 5 overall draft pick last spring and immediately was viewed as someone that could take the offense to another level, but there were some who thought they should have drafted an offensive lineman instead. Then, Chase struggled with drops in the preseason, and questions arose whether he could make the transition to the NFL as quickly as believed.
Those questions – just like Miles’ doubt – likely only motivated Chase more, but they disappeared pretty quickly. Chase topped 100 yards in the opener and had 754 yards and six touchdowns through the first seven games. He finished the regular season with a team-high, franchise-record 1,455 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns.
Chase most notably played a big role in the Bengals’ clinching of the AFC North title in Week 17 – with a win over the Chiefs. He sparked the offense in that game by catching a 72-yard touchdown pass from Burrow in the first quarter, cutting a 14-point deficit in half, and finished with an NFL rookie record of 266 yards and three touchdowns on 11 catches. Burrow finished with 446 yards and four touchdowns.
“They took advantage of some one-on-one opportunities,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of the duo in that first meeting. “There was accurate throws and coverage awareness, and Ja’Marr made some really great plays. They were on the same page against some of the zone coverages. The Chiefs do a great job of employing a variety of schemes and try to keep you off balance. I thought Joe and Ja’Marr did a good job of being on the same page.”
Chase likely will be priority No. 1 for the Chiefs on Sunday.
“It’s hard not to believe, I could say that,” Chase said. “They’re a great defense, great secondary. If Tyrann Mathieu comes back it’ll be a great game. Those guys are unbelievable, that’s why they’ve won the championship that many times, so should be a good game. Excited to play against them again. Can’t wait to play.”
Kansas City seems to adjusted against top receivers since that Week 17 matchup, though. In the first round of the playoffs, none of the Steelers’ wideouts had more than 37 yards receiving, and in Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff against Buffalo, the Chiefs held Bills’ top receiver Stephon Diggs to three catches for seven yards.
Chase isn’t sure if he should expect the same type of coverage. Opponents have been doing a lot of cloud coverage on him since his hot start to the season.
“Sometimes they played a little man (on Diggs), kept it regular on him,” Chase said. “I don’t really know what to expect. I expect two, I expect a lot coming into this game, but it’s really about adjusting on the fly once the game time comes so we’ll see once the game comes.”
Taylor said the Bengals won’t try to force anything to Chase if it’s not there, because Burrow also has capable receivers in Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah. Even if the Chiefs do find a way to limit Chase, he is likely to still play a key role in some way.
“We don’t feel like we have to force the ball to anybody,” Taylor said. “The ball goes to where the coverage dictates with the concept. Obviously, over the course of the year, each of those guys have had their big games and big moments. And there’s been games where they’ve had two or three catches, but they’re critical (catches) for us. That’s why it’s key to have such an unselfish group of receivers, where they all know they’re going to have their moments. There can be days where one guy maybe gets 15 targets and the other guys don’t but when the balls do come their way, they’re going to make the most of it and I think that’s just kind of a great picture of our entire locker room, is that receiver room and how unselfish those guys are and how much they pull for each other.”
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