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Film Breakdown: How Defenses Are Taking Away Ja'Marr Chase and Ways the Bengals Can Get Him More Involved

Defenses have changed the way they're guarding the standout rookie.

Over the past few weeks, Ja’Marr Chase has struggled. There is no other way to put it. 

Since his Week 7 game against the Baltimore Ravens where he put up over 200 yards, Chase has yet to eclipse 60 receiving yards in a game. His worst game by yardage before Week 8 was his 54 yard outing against the Chicago Bears. On the other end, his best game since Week 8 was the 52 yards he racked up against the Los Angeles Chargers. Chase also leads the league in drops over this period. His drops have not only led to missed opportunities but also directly caused a turnover. 

So what is going on with the young receiver? Let's take a look at the film. 

Ja’Marr Chase: The Vertical Monster

Early in the season, one of the staple plays of the Bengals was the Chase go route or the back-shoulder fade. Both of those plays were critical to the Bengals' success on offense and work together as a called option for the quarterback and wide receiver. 

The above example showcases Chase’s ability on the vertical route and why defenses have adjusted. Chase plays with late hands, an extra gear to separate from the defense, and great tracking ability. The late hands make it so the defender does not know when the ball is going to come when they are “out of phase".

Out of phase means that the corner is looking at the receiver and using cues from him to play the ball. As I said with the late hands, the defense does not get the cue that they need. Chase's hands come out so late to catch the ball that the defense cannot react. On this specific play, the ability that shines the most is his extra gear to separate from the defense while down the field. The extra gear that he uses towards the end of this play is a fantastic display of athleticism. Chase scored this touchdown because of his athleticism mixed with his ability to track the ball. All three of these traits were what led to an elite downfield threat early in the season. When the opposing defense would sell out over the top, Joe Burrow would find a way to hit the back-shoulder fade.

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This back-shoulder fade in conjunction with Chase’s ability on go balls is nearly impossible to guard with single coverage. The main key for this play compared to the go balls is Chase’s body control. His ability to quickly turn his body, shield the ball from the defender, and catch it along the sideline with both feet down is astounding. Having a receiver who is this good at both go routes and back-shoulder fades is nearly impossible to find. It’s one of the main reasons the Bengals took Chase with the No. 5 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. If the defender is over the top to take away the go ball, then Burrow can throw it to Chase’s back shoulder. If the defender is underneath Chase, then Burrow can lead him down the field on the go-ball.

The answer to this conundrum for the defense has been to make sure that Chase is always capped by a safety with someone underneath to take away the back-shoulder fade. They're using cloud coverage to contain the star rookie. 

Cloud Coverage

QQH Cloud

When asked in a press conference about his recent struggles, Chase mentioned "cloud coverage" as a way team's are trying to take him away.

Cloud coverage is not a true double team in the traditional sense. It involves a corner playing pressed against the receiver with a safety over the top ready to take away any deep shots. This is a way to get two players over one receiver while playing zone coverage for the defense. The corner will play with outside leverage and typically will carry the receiver unless he gets something into the flat. If there is a route into the flat, the corner will fall off and trap that route. He can sit on everything like this because there is a safety over the top of him. Essentially the underneath defender makes it so that the receiver cannot pick up underneath yardage, while the safety over the top limits what a receiver can do deep down the field. This hi-low combination from the defense takes away the go/back-shoulder option. The underneath corner is in the window for the back-shoulder fade and the safety over the top can make a play on the go ball.

Cloud coverage can be played from just about every zone coverage shell, which is the main reason that it is utilized to “double” very good wide receivers. This makes it an effective, flexible, and variable tool for defenses to use. It can also be utilized with a variety of corner techniques from catch to jam and squat. When you compare all of this flexibility to brackets and doubles which can only be played from man coverages, the true value of cloud coverage shines, but cloud coverage also requires the corner to be a solid run defender. The defensive back is now the “force” player on runs to their side. This means he is the man who forces the ball back inside on any outside runs.

Beating the Cloud Defender

Now that you know what cloud coverage is and why it is useful against someone like Chase, let’s look at one of the ways the Bengals can beat it and get the ball to their star wide-out. This one is probably the most difficult out of all of the options, but if the receiver is talented enough they can beat the cloud defender in his zone.

This is an example of Chase beating cloud coverage by crossing face and winning against the leverage given by the corner. Like I stated earlier, the corner in cloud will be playing pressed and with outside leverage. This means that he will try to force the receiver to the inside where there is help. 

On this out route, Chase starts by selling the inside portion of his route. He makes it seem as if he is running something similar to a slant. After he pushes to the sticks vertically, he crosses the corner’s face and breaks outside. This puts him where he needed to be for the out route and the inside release set up the corner to get beat. Due to the corner’s hips being turned towards Chase when he gets beat, the rookie is able to create separation as the corner needs to both flip his hips and run on the out which takes him too long. This is excellent wide receiver play to defeat cloud coverage from the defense.

The other way that the Bengals could attack cloud coverage is by taking the leverage from the corner and running an RPO to put the corner’s help in a bind. They have not done this yet to my knowledge, but a simple way to attack the cloud side would be to run a dragon concept with Chase on the slant route. The flat route should hold the cloud defender and the nearby hook defender will be stuck defending both the run and Chase’s slant route. This requires the formation to have either a slot receiver or a tight end to Chase’s side and the back to the opposite side. This play would attack the leverage given up by the corner, rendering the safety over the top useless, and puts the defender who could help the corner into conflict.

Moving Chase Around

Another easy way to get Chase involved despite cloud coverage is to avoid the cloud altogether. Cloud coverage is only utilized on the perimeter, so if the receiver moves inside then they will not face cloud. The Bengals have toyed with moving Chase around and not just to the inside. Against the New York Jets, Chase was lined up as a running back on a few plays.

On this play, he runs a wheel route and is left one-on-one. He doesn't get the ball, but he avoided any type of double team and got to work against just one player. The wheel route is a good way to stress the defense vertically from Chase, but they could have him on choice routes, shoot/flat routes, and angle routes from the running back position. This play and later on a toss to Chase after orbit motion showed some very nice creativity from Zac Taylor and his staff. They know that defenses are keying in on Chase, so to get their star receiver going, they moved him around so that he could avoid some of that. Lining up in the backfield is also something that Chase did in college at LSU, so he is not unfamiliar with this position.

This was another creative concept from the Bengals coaching staff in the Jets game. This is the slot fade concept and typically you want to put Chase on the fade with a running back or tight end on the hitch. This isn't cloud coverage, but against cloud this could hi-lo the safety. If the corner stays close to Chase, then the ball can go to the fade. If the corner falls off of Chase and drops into that window, then the ball goes to Chase. 

He is also very good at running after the catch, so throwing some of these underneath concepts to him could net explosive plays. As you see on the above play, he can move quite a bit. He made multiple defenders miss with his elusiveness, but what was not shown on this play is his strength. He is a very strong wide receiver and can run through arm tackles.

Shading Safeties

The other way that defenses have been trying to stop Chase is by shading their single-high safety towards him. This allows the safety to get over the top of Chase even on outside release go routes. The Bengals have been doing a good job of attacking this by utilizing Tee Higgins. While Chase has struggled lately, Higgins has flourished and it has to do with what opposing defenses have done to try to take away the rookie wide receiver. 

This was Higgins' biggest catch in Sunday's career-best performance from Higgins. You can see that the middle of the field safety is shaded towards Chase. With the ball on the right hash, the safety should either be over the ball or in the exact middle of the field. Instead, he is all the way over on the right hash. This gives Burrow enough room to throw the ball up to Higgins for the touchdown. If the safety was in the middle of the hashes, he would most likely be able to make a play on this ball, but because the safety is shaded towards Chase, he is too late to get involved on this pass.

On this play, the post safety is shaded almost all the way over to the numbers on Chase. This works out very well for the Bengals because that leaves Higgins and James Pierre one on one down the field. There is no chance that the safety can get involved on this play with how heavily the Steelers shaded him over. It does not help Chase’s stat line, but you can see on both of these plays that his ability to pull in safeties is doing wonders for Higgins. 

It’s a bit like Steph Curry in basketball and the idea of gravity in sports. Curry will pull defenders towards him because of his ability to shoot the ball even if he does not have the ball which leaves his teammates open for their own shots. Similarly, Chase is pulling in defenders even if he is not getting the ball from Burrow which is leaving his teammates open for passes.

Missed Opportunities

Despite all of this talk about cloud coverage and shaded safeties, Chase is still getting one-on-one opportunities. Defenses cannot commit two defenders to stop Chase on every play. When he has been singled up, he has done a good job of winning on the route, but he’s dropped the ball.

This is a prime example of what I mean. He runs an inside release go and there is no safety there to cap it. Burrow throws a perfect pass to him and he just bobbles it. Chase got single coverage, got open, and got the ball, but it ends up in an interception because of his inability to come down with the catch. It was not just in this past game either.

This one is on another inside release go from Chase. Burrow may have slightly overthrown this ball, but it was catchable for Chase. Instead of coming down with the huge reception, it’s another missed opportunity. Instead of racking up huge yardage and helping his team, he is hurting them by dropping passes.

This time he is on an outside release go. He beats the corner deep, gets a good throw from his quarterback, but then drops the opportunity at a touchdown. To me, these plays are the biggest reason for Chase’s lack of volume in recent weeks. The opportunity is there, despite defenses keying in on Chase, but he isn't taking advantage of that opportunity.

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This is the last example, but again Chase gets open against single coverage. That’s what you expect your great wide receiver to do. The issue is that he drops another pass. This time he is sitting in the end zone with nobody on him. This is the most egregious drop to me and it took a touchdown off of the board. The Bengals didn't score on this drive, which makes this play even worse. 

Defenses have begun keying in on Chase this season. Whether it’s cloud coverage or shading the post safety to him, they are committing multiple defenders to stop him. Despite this, Chase is still getting one-on-one opportunities in these games. He has squandered these opportunities and in many cases taken points off of the board for the Bengals. 

All of the NFL’s elite receivers face these different types of coverages, but the one thing they all have in common is that they make the most of their opportunities when they are given them. If Chase can return to form and take advantage of the opportunities he gets in every game, then that will lead to the best form of the Bengals offense. Defenses will still commit multiple resources to Chase, his gravity will open up teammates, and he will still punish defenses on the snaps where he faces single coverage. 

Hopefully he can return to form over the next few weeks because the Bengals could really use him as they make their push for the playoffs.

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