In two matchups against the Cincinnati Bengals throughout the 2021 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers simply had no answer for dynamic rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who was well on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while setting NFL records for a rookie wide receiver.
Chase, who finished his rookie season with 1,455 yard and 13 touchdowns on 81 receptions and added another 25 catches for 368 yards and a score in the playoffs as the Bengals made a run to the Super Bowl, is back for a big second season in a loaded Cincinnati offense with Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins, Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd.
That spells trouble for any defense in the NFL, but the Steelers will be tasked with attempting to slow down the Bengals’ offense in Week 1 on Sept. 11. To do so, the Steelers will have to find a way to rein in Chase. In two matchups last season, Chase hauled in seven passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the Week 3 24-10 win over the Steelers at then-Heinz Field.
Those numbers might not be eye-popping overall compared to what he did throughout the season, but the Steelers just didn’t have an answer for him in big spots. When they were able to come up with some sort of way to slow him down, it opened up opportunities for Higgins and Boyd to go off, not to mention Mixon on the ground.
Ahead of the Week 1 season-opener Sunday, the matchup with Chase and the Steelers secondary is the key matchup to watch, at least according to Pro Football Focus, within the AFC North tilt.
“Ja’Marr Chase is a very different prospect on tape than he is in person, and he spent all last year demonstrating that to opposing defensive backs,” PFF’s Sam Monson writes regarding key matchups to watch for every Week 1 game. “Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks are a relative weakness on paper, and Chase will be hoping to establish dominance from the outset. Throwing to Chase against the Steelers last season resulted in a perfect passer rating of 158.3, but he saw only nine targets across the two games. If the Bengals press that advantage hard, big numbers are on the horizon.”
It’s pretty darn startling to read that when Chase was targeted against the Steelers, it resulted in a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Holy smokes. That can’t happen again in 2022, especially in Week 1.
Though Monson calls the Steelers cornerbacks a bit of a weakness, I actually feel better about this group going into the season than I did last year’s, due to the emergence of Ahkello Witherspoon late last season as a shutdown corner, another year of growth from Cameron Sutton, and the addition of Levi Wallace into the mix.
It might not light the world on fire, at least on paper, as a group, but it feels relatively sturdy overall. With ball-hawking safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returning to his centerfield safety role, the Steelers should be able to mix and match throughout Sunday’s matchup in an effort to slow down the Bengals, but not only Chase.
Doing so could go a long way towards a win. If not, the Steelers could have a painful, frustrating trip back home to Pittsburgh.