The connection between Ja’Marr Chase and Joe Burrow helped lift the Cincinnati Bengals to their first playoff win in 31 years. Chase racked up 116 yards on nine receptions and threw in 23 yards rushing on top. Burrow has been on a heater himself and thrust his name into the MVP conversation with 1,215 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a 76.5% completion rating over his last three games.
The Bengals move Chase around a lot to try and create matchups and avoid double coverage. He splits out at X one play, then bumps into slot another, and comes in tight to the formation the next. His versatility is invaluable to the Bengals offense and the Raiders had a tough time trying to cover him. Things might be a little harder against the Titans. Las Vegas has refused to break out of their one-safety shell regardless of the opponent. They got torched twice against Kansas City when they stayed with one deep safety and the Bengals got them again in the playoffs.
However, Tennessee typically runs a two-safety shell with safeties Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker back deep. They’ll ride that coverage and rely on their safeties to fill in the run game and rally to plays underneath. The Titans are betting they’ll be more efficient on offense than their opponent will be. As a result, they want to force you to steadily move down the field, be patient, and not mess up. That strategy could keep a lid on Chase and Burrow, but that’s easier said than done.
Isolating Ja’Marr Chase
Against Las Vegas, the Bengals made a conscious effort to feed the ball to Chase whenever they saw single coverage. For a lot of the day, the Raiders shaded a safety to his side, but when they didn’t, Chase got the ball. A really common Cover 3 beater, and a play that the Bengals love to run, is Dragon. It isolates the flat defender and allows Chase to work on a corner one-on-one. As long as he wins his route and the flat defender flows, he’s going to get the ball. The quick game is huge for the Bengals. Regardless of the coverage, they’re going to try and work the defender key off of the guy that Chase is lined up over. They’re betting on him to win to whatever matchup the defense wants to set up for him.
Through the season, the Bengals have done a better job of using motion to help isolate Ja’Marr Chase and create space for him. Here, Cincinnati motions Tyler Boyd at the top of the screen. In the Raiders’ Cover 3, that immediately bumps the flat defender inside to help with force since there is now only one receiver to that side. That helps clear the space underneath the Sail route that Chase is about to run. The motion also gets the corner to bump inside over the top of Chase and gives a more room to the outside for him to run his route. From there, it’s all timing and trust from Burrow as he gets the ball out before Chase is out of his break.
Using Chase on in-breakers
The Bengals love isolating Chase and one way to do that for an intermediate gain is with the Bow concept. The Bow concept is pretty common in McVay and Shanahan-tree offenses. Bow usually has a Arrow/Hook route that sits in front of the flat defender, but as long as there is a route to pull that defender, the read stays the same. Bow uses a short route from the #2 receiver and a dig outside by the #1, where Chase usually aligns. The short route holds the flat defender and allows the dig to wrap in behind them for a chunk gain. The Bengals run the concept a lot and it’s almost always Chase getting the dig.
I’d bet on that concept coming up more than once against the Titans. As mentioned, Tennessee likes to stay in more of a two-safety shell than the Raiders do. I wanted to see how San Francisco used Deebo against the Titans, because I think he is at least roughly the same type of dynamic play-maker that Chase is and Tennessee saw him in the last few weeks. Being a Shanahan offense, San Francisco also ran the Bow concept. Since the Titans like to be in their two-safety shell, that means one less player in the box. Typically, Cover 4 defenses will align their sole outside linebacker to the field or to the passing strength.
That’s how the Titans are aligned here with their linebacker bumped out to the trips side. However, that leaves one less defender to the boundary side where Deebo Samuel is. That’s where the 49ers run the Bow concept. There’s one less player over there to deal with and the linebacker has to get out to cover the running back, so that again isolates the outside receiver on the corner. By the defensive structure, the safety to the single-receiver side needs to cover the #3 receiver vertically. George Kittle’s seam route removes the safety from being able to help on Deebo.
The 49ers ran the same concept multiple times against the Titans and had multiple explosive plays off of it. The underneath route can pull defenders away and isolate Deebo or Chase on a safety or a corner.
How the Titans can slow down Chase
However, what the Titans like to do, and what I think they may do to help on Chase and his in-breaking routes, is rotate safeties down into robber roles to help on intermediate routes in the middle of the field. What that can do, is give the illusion that the Titans are giving an advantageous matchup pre-snap and bait Burrow into making a throwing into a window with a dropping safety. It’s a way to create an inside-out double on Chase.
You can see an example of that with Byard at the top of the screen. He’s rotating down to the middle hole. That lets the corner up top play with outside leverage because he knows he has help in the middle. That way he’s set up for the out-breaker and doesn’t have to worry about the dig because he can just funnel it inside. It puts Byard around the ball which is always a good thing and disguises the coverage on Chase.
Mixing their shells can also give the illusion of a light box. It invites the Bengals to run before rotating a safety down to help in support.
Of course, there’s always a counter. If the Bengals can catch the Titans in a rotation, they may try to take some shots deep on them before they can get into position in the middle of the field.
The Titans should be content staying in their two-safety shell. They stayed in it against the 49ers for much of the game and while Mixon is legit, the Bengals are ranked 20th in rush DVOA. They’ve had some struggles on the interior, so they like to run a lot of pin and pull schemes to get the ball outside. That’s perfect for a two-safety defense because it allows them to spill things outside and let their speedy secondary get in on the run fit.
The cat and mouse game will be in full effect when the Bengals and Titans face off this weekend. Burrow and Chase have the magic, but Tennessee’s defense is set up to be able to challenge the passing game of the Bengals. If they don’t keep a lid on Ja’Marr Chase, it might take all the firepower of Derrick Henry, AJ Brown, and Julio Jones to keep pace.