The first game each new season against a divisional opponent always has its interesting elements. Of course, many teams don’t change much from year to year, but roster turnover is inevitable. Returning 22 starters year to year is tremendously rare.
The Cincinnati Bengals are certainly not one of those teams, with their starting lineup now including rookie first-round wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who has already made an impact in the AFC North, and will get his second opportunity today against the Baltimore Ravens after scoring two touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’s actually been really surprising; he’s really made the NFL look pretty easyv”, Ravens All-Pro cornerback Marlon Humphrey said of Chase last week. “I know it’s, of course, a lot better players, but there really hasn’t been many speed bumps in the road. It seems like being that Joe [Burrow] and him played in college together, it’s not really a new relationship. So, it seems like they’re like a fifth-year tandem that they’ve been doing it for a while. That’s kind of how easy it’s looked on film”.
While natural year one to year two growth is obviously a factor, I do think there’s a lot to be said for how much the drafting of Chase has positively affected Burrow, and particularly his deep passing game. He averaged 6.7 yards per attempt last year, and now is averaging 8.9. He’s thrown more touchdowns in six games than he did in 10 last year—though he already has more interceptions, too, in spite of the fact that his average intended air yards is actually lower than last season’s. But I digress.
“You’ve just got to change up different looks on him, depending on the defense, know what you can take advantage of different ‘man’ techniques and different things”, Humphrey said when asked how you defend a player like Chase. “The biggest thing with him [is] you really want to stay on top, because he has that [ability] when the ball goes up in the air, he kind of takes it into another gear. So, we’ve really got to be careful with him. He’s definitely a young receiver, but he’s looking like a vet pretty early”.
Chase has caught 27 passes so far through his first six career games for 553 yards and five touchdowns; four of his touchdowns, however, came in his first three games. He has ‘only’ one touchdown over his last three games, which came in a loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Still, the Bengals are 4-2 on the season and are playing for the divisional lead today. They would take it if they beat the Ravens. The two teams would be tied at 5-2, and Cincinnati would have the head-to-head tiebreaker. Should they manage to pull that feat off, you can bet that Chase will have been a key part of it.