Even while the LSU football program has fallen behind, it has become one of the dominant storylines in the modern NFL. LSU has now, from one team, produced one of the most dynamic, marketable, productive, and entertaining young franchise QBs in recent memory and two of the best overall receivers in the entire league. Excluding Justin Jefferson, who deserves his own piece and has become, in my view, a clear top 5 receiver on the planet, arguably the single biggest storyline in the entire NFL last season was the reunion of Joe Burrow and his most explosive batterymate from the 2019 LSU team, and what they accomplished for a franchise in desperate need of a spark.
After the 2019 season, I knew I was going to follow the NFL career of Joe Burrow very, very closely. Little did I know that I would find myself watching Bengals games every single Sunday, and planning my football watching around them. When they drafted Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals football felt like appointment viewing for the LSU fanbase. It hasn’t disappointed. Not only have Burrow and Chase thrived there and grown into top-of-market NFL superstars, but they have also elevated the Bengals franchise to heights it hasn’t experienced in generations, with the promise of more on the horizon. Watching Joe and Ja’Marr pick up right where they left off has been incredibly special. Bengals fans have embraced and cared for our favorite players in the best way possible, and it has been, to this point, incredibly fruitful for all sides. I encourage any LSU fan who may be in the market for an NFL team to join me in adopting the Bengals. Watching the playoff run with their great fanbase was an absolute joy. During this past season, I had many flashbacks to the 2019 LSU team, and the magic that lit up college football that year isn’t even close to dead. They truly have picked up exactly where they left off when the clock hit triple 0 and the 2019 LSU Tigers became National Champions. Both of them have become superstars at the highest level by playing basically the same game that they did in college. Let’s check in on exactly what makes Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase so successful at the NFL level.
Explosive Plays on the Outside
The Bengals offense generates its home-run plays the exact same way the 2019 LSU team did:
Seriously that’s pretty much it. The Bengals relied heavily on Chase winning 1 on 1 match-ups on the outside vertically and relied heavily on Joe Burrow getting him the ball when he won them. A multitude of different skillsets between Burrow and Chase allowed this to be so effective, but the sideline go-ball to Chase RAN the Bengals offense last year as far as chunk plays are concerned, as was the case for the 2019 LSU team.
One of Ja’Marr Chase’s defining characteristics is his ability to dominate at the catch point. Despite only standing about 5’11, Chase’s ball skills, strength, and vertical jump allow him to be both physically imposing and play above the rim in contested catch situations at an incredible level. With Chase, 50/50 balls are 70/30 balls, making a 1-on-1 situation on the sideline dangerous for the defense even if the throw isn’t perfect.
Joe Burrow’s accuracy and ability to read/throw to leverage is another reason the sideline is so dangerous for the Bengals against man coverage. That, plus Chase’s ability at the catch point and their chemistry really make the sideline back-shoulder ball a deadly weapon for the Bengals against man, as it was for LSU in 2019.
Here, in a critical 3rd and 27 against Kansas City, the Chiefs decide to bring heavy pressure. While it leaves a corner on an island, it stands to reason, from the DC’s perspective, that Burrow will not have enough time for a vertical throw to develop. The Bengals have their two split backs occupy the highest danger rushers away from the slide of the line, buying Burrow JUST enough time to hit the top of his drop and, without wasting any time or motion, get the ball out. He sees on Chase’s release that he has outside leverage, so all he has to do is make a perfectly placed throw in rhythm to the back-shoulder. The placement is absolutely perfect and Chase makes a great adjustment to go get it. Once again, 50/50 situations with a receiver as strong, athletic, and gifted as Ja’Marr Chase, and a QB as technical and accurate as Joe Burrow are not 50/50.
On this rep we can see a good example of another element of Chase’s game that makes him so dangerous on the sideline. Dating back to his college days, Chase has always had a pretty uncanny ability to generate separation and pull away late in his route. He’s also good at eating cushion and getting even with an off corner. Once he gets there, he ends up behind him. This is where Burrow and Chase’s chemistry really comes into play. Burrow understands and trusts pretty well that, even if he doesn’t have separation when the ball is released, Chase will get behind his guy. Here, Chase doesn’t get open until well after the ball is actually released.
Ja'Marr Chase touchdown!— Mike (@bengals_sans) September 13, 2021
Joe Burrow effectively using a hard count to get the Vikings to show their 4d2u fire zone. Before the hard count, it looks like cover 3.
Perfectly thrown ball to Chase so he can just catch and run. pic.twitter.com/WAscUmMoW8
(Special shout-out to my guy Mike over at All Bengals, go check out his work ASAP)
The dominant concept the Bengals used to achieve all of this was “989.” If this seems familiar, it’s because the 2019 LSU team did the same thing. The concept (for LSU and the Bengals, not Norv Turner’s earlier version of the concept below) involves two vertical read routes on the outside and a middle read route on the inside. This means that, if the outside receivers cannot get vertical leverage, they will cut their route short and come back, and the inside receiver will bend his route into more of a deep over vs single-high safety looks and split the safeties vertically if it is two-high. This is the Bengals favorite shot play, displaying a good ability by their staff to adapt to the skillsets and shared experience of Burrow and Chase.
The concept has been a staple in the NFL for a long time, being really popularized, at least in part, by Norv Turner, this is a basic diagram of what the structure sorta looks like.
It really is exactly the same.
BURROW’S RETURN TO FORM
Before the injury Joe Burrow had, by every account and metric, a really encouraging rookie year. He was thrust into a very adverse situation and was able to display clearly that he was able to adjust to the speed and difficulty of the NFL game, able to keep his offense on schedule, make reads, throw accurately, and just handle himself well overall. In particular, he displayed a really rare ability for a rookie to process, make complex reads, work the intermediate middle, and stay on time.
However, something felt like it was missing. Burrow was competent, but he wasn’t displaying the big-play ability that his classmate Justin Herbert was. He struggled massively throwing deep, placing near the bottom of the NFL in deep passer rating at 50.8. Additionally, he wasn’t creating a ton out of structure. In short, Burrow looked advanced, but really limited, especially in comparison to other successful young QBs like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert.
While he had always shown an advanced ability to make difficult reads, react, and process what’s in front of him as the bullets fly. Burrow took that to another level in his second year. Against the Ravens, we see a good example of his ability to complex process at the NFL level. The rotation of the field safety initially suggests that the Ravens will rotate to cover 3 or some other single-high coverage, meaning the corners will carry their respective outside WRs vertically, as the safety appears headed to the middle of the field. In the end, the corner to the boundary is trapping number 2 and jumping his route. Burrow anticipates this really well, throwing the hole shot off of the positioning of the corner. Being able to make this read and throw with this kind of quickness and anticipation is one of the clearer indicators of advanced processing. He doesn’t hesitate or lose any timing despite having the picture changed on him, perfectly placing the ball away from the closing safety as well. His mental acuity pre and post-snap seems to be all the way back to near college levels.
Another aspect of Burrow’s game that has grown in year 2 is his spatial awareness and work within the pocket. This was one of his most impressive traits in college, but in year one, as he adjusted to the NFL game behind a porous offensive line, he found himself reacting to things a bit late and taking sacks that he didn’t really have to. I thought he was a step slower in reacting/moving within the pocket than he needed to be. That’s not at all abnormal for even very good rookie QBs, so it’s not surprising to see that he has improved upon that greatly.
Another key trait that makes Burrow a game-breaking QB, missing in his rookie year, that made an emphatic return, was his ability to escape deteriorating surroundings and create out-of-structure. Along with his sharp process and top-tier accuracy, this trait is a major contributor to Burrow’s MVP-level upside and a significant characteristic that separates him from average to good, but limited NFL QBs. There’s not a lot to break down here on a granular level, other than that Burrow is once again great at playing backyard football and creating big plays when it all breaks down. This is a HUGELY important trait among NFL QBs now, as so many of the young QBs that are hitting display this ability. It raises the floor of an offense so much when your QB and receivers can create productive, even explosive plays when the designed concept doesn’t work out. Even when the defense wins, they can still lose.
Ja’Marr Chase has always been a fantastic WR, but he hasn’t always been quite as polished and refined as he has become in the NFL. In college, he could rely on his raw strength, speed, athleticism, and vertical separation ability to produce at an elite level. Despite being lauded as a prospect, Chase was frequently criticized for allowing corners to get their hands on him at the line, as well as relying a bit too much on contested catches and vertical shots for production instead of generating separation in a variety of ways.
While I think these criticisms were always fairly overblown, they weren’t entirely imagined. Chase did have a bad habit in college of simply using his strength, athleticism, and body control to just play through contact instead of using his technique to avoid it altogether. In college, he didn’t have quite the repertoire of separation techniques both at the line and in-route that you’d expect from a receiver of his caliber. That has changed, and he simply never needed it at earlier levels.
Here you can see Chase effectively sells his release outside, gets Marlon Humphrey to open his hips to the sideline, wins inside leverage, and generates a ton of YAC. On his inside break he swipes Humphrey’s arm away to prevent his break from being impeded. In college would use more raw strength and athleticism to win inside on routes like this but is able here to engineer leverage and positioning with route technique.
Ja'Marr Chase is mostly billed as a vertical threat and ball-winner on the outside, but he frequently showed the ability to snap off a dig route and generate separation against man on quick and intermediate concepts.— Max Toscano (@maxtoscano1) May 5, 2022
He is somebody they can move around and give a complete tree. pic.twitter.com/i0UX5532AH
While always great against press, in college, Chase would often let corners get their hands on him at the line because he could easily fight through the contact using just raw strength. At the NFL level, he has adjusted by becoming far more technical and deliberate in his releases to defeat press techniques. In the league, it is essential when facing press to ensure that the corner can not sufficiently get his hands on you and impede your release, as NFL corners are far too strong, good, and athletic for receivers to be able to reliably just bowl through solid contact at the line and get into their routes properly. He is able here to engineer his release with a single move to avoid any real contact, which allows him to get into his stem without his timing and route integrity being negatively impacted. He doesn’t stay squared up and present an easy target for the corner, he gets narrow and avoids contact. He then snaps off the dig beautifully to generate separation at the break-point. Additionally, he does an incredible job using his top-end speed to run away from defenders after the catch and get out of bounds to stop the clock in an end of half situation. This is a professional, technical route in the intermediate middle, showing that Ja’Marr Chase isn’t merely a vertical threat, raw athlete, and/or ball-winner (like a Chase Claypool), but a complete NFL X receiver who will be a fixture at the top of the league for a long time.
Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase joined, in years 2 and 1 respectively, the highest class in the league in terms of QB-WR tandems. Their talent and connection, along with the emergence of a very impressive Tee Higgins, drove a very flawed offense to incredible heights. The Cincinnati Bengals, on their backs, went to heights they hadn’t been in my entire lifetime. As an LSU fan, it has been an incredible joy to watch these two link back up in the NFL and make it look like they never left college. These guys are both on rookie deals and figure to get extended handsomely at the end of them, so they’ll be in Cincy for the long haul. I couldn’t recommend following them as closely as I have enough. LSU fans, I urge you to tune into Bengals games on Sundays. Share Burrow and Chase with an awesome fanbase and add a ton of pride and joy to your NFL viewing. I have enjoyed every second of it.