Burrow and Chase have already won something together, but what follows is the biggest game in all of football, and it was only their first year together.
CINCINNATI — During one practice this season, something didn’t feel right between Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
A couple of passes missed the mark. So the two stayed afterward for four or five extra pitches. Chase told Burrow where to put the ball, and Burrow, the most accurate passer in the NFL this season, took note. The next ball hit Chase right in the hands.
“That’s the pitch,” Chase celebrated. “That is.”
The connection between Burrow and Chase, dating back to their days at LSU, has been the backbone of Cincinnati’s installment in Super Bowl LVI. The pair has led the Bengals to their best season in 33 years. Job campaigns have formed one of the most unique quarterback-receiver partnerships in NFL history.
In two seasons at LSU and one at Cincinnati, Burrow and Chase combined for 206 receptions for 3,801 yards and 37 touchdowns. The combination has already led to one championship: LSU’s 2019 national title.
On Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams the two will have a chance to win another.
“Everything is an opportunity,” Chase said after the Bengals clinched their first Super Bowl appearance since 1989. “We still have opportunities in front of us and we continue to take them. We have one more chance.”
THE LINK BETWEEN Chase and Burrow forged in the Louisiana humidity with few people watching.
When LSU acquired the two players in 2018 (Chase as a freshman, Burrow transferred from Ohio State), the coaching staff knew they had two players willing to work their craft.
That was evident during the summer of 2019. After a 2018 season full of turnovers, Burrow and his receivers threw and caught approximately 10,000 balls to prepare for what would be a historic 2019 campaign in which the offense broke a series of national and conference records and college playoff records. Former LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger often found Burrow working with Chase and other receivers on Saturdays in the summer or after practices if things weren’t looking good.
Eventually, those reps led to the supreme confidence Burrow had in his best receivers, especially Chase. At one point, even when Burrow wasn’t instructed to throw the ball to Chase, he did anyway. During a video session, Ensminger asked Burrow why.
“If you don’t want me to cast it, don’t designate it,” Burrow replied.
LSU’s 2019 offense featured several future NFL players, including wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall, and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But if Burrow saw a favorable matchup and a patch of grass Chase could run to, Ensminger knew where Burrow would throw him.
And Burrow knew what was going to happen when the ball dropped. Burrow and Chase combined for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns during their championship season. Burrow won the Heisman and Chase won the Biletnikoff Award given to the best catcher in the country.
“Joe knew he was going to get the ball,” Ensminger stressed. “Whether [lanzamiento] to the back shoulder, in front of him, a disputed reception”.
“The guys on offense laughed at the 50-50 ball. They said, ‘Hey, here with Ja’Marr and Joe, it’s 80-20.'”
There’s a reason the percentages skewed in his favor. When the two met in Cincinnati, the Bengals’ coaching staff quickly noted the byproduct of their time together at LSU.
Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan noted that the pair are always discussing what the routes should look like, the location of the ball and when the pass should be thrown, all things that have allowed Cincinnati’s offense to be successful.
“They have a great feeling for each other,” Callahan said. “A lot of that is because they communicate so easily.”
SO THAT THE FLARERS To go from the worst team in the NFL to the Super Bowl in two seasons, management needed to get the big decisions right. None was bigger than matching Chase with Burrow with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft.
There were other options besides Chase, including Oregon tackle Penei Sewell. But Cincinnati wanted a playmaker.
“We needed to be more explosive, and you always want to put more pressure on defenses,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.
Arguably no connection in the NFL has stressed defenses like Burrow and Chase, specifically on the scoring routes. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, vertical routes between the two produced 542 yards and seven touchdowns, marks that led the NFL in any individual route per receiver.
The most notable of those plays came during Chase’s 266-yard performance in the Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, when Burrow hit Chase for a 30-yard completion to lead to the game-winning field goal.
Burrow warned opposing defenses about the dangers of guarding Chase one-on-one all season. And after the game, Burrow made a joke about his mentality on the play.
“Everyone knows that meme, ‘To the…, Ja’Marr is in there somewhere,'” Burrow quipped. “I’ll just throw it to him and he’ll make the play.”
But the play that best exemplified their bond came earlier in the first quarter. With the Bengals trailing 14-0 and in danger of being eliminated at home, Chase ran upfield and cut to the sideline. But instead of going further to the left of him, he stopped. If he had continued to run, he risked an interception.
Chase knew when to stop. Burrow threw it at exactly the right time, and Chase did the rest: he caught the ball, sliced into and through the heart of the defense for a 72-yard touchdown.
“He knows exactly where the ball is going to be, depending on what the cornerback looks like,” Burrow said.
JA’MARR CHASE 72-YARD TD! #RuleTheJungle
— NFL (@NFL) January 2, 2022
LOOK AT BURROW AND CHASE close enough and the connection seems telepathic.
Burrow will often anticipate when Chase will come off the top of the route. By the time he turns around, the ball is where it belongs.
It’s the result of a training standard that requires everything to be done perfectly before the offense leaves the field.
Take a routine 17-yard completion against the Raiders in the AFC Wild Card game, for example. On the play, Chase got a one-on-one matchup and pretended to go inside before going to the sideline to catch Burrow’s pass. It seemed easy.
But three days before the game, he wasn’t doing well in practice. Burrow and Chase did a few extra reps afterward to perfect timing and work the game on each side of the field.
“The one thing about it is, if Joe doesn’t feel like the play is coached, then we’re not going to take it,” Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters said.
That explains why Burrow and Chase have often made things look so easy. The same work ethic and chemistry they exhibited at LSU has been carried over to the NFL. And because of their familiarity with each other, there was no guesswork about how Chase ran the routes or where Burrow placed his passes.
“We already had that on the way and we already knew how to talk about the routes that we missed and we would fix that very quickly,” Burrow said Monday. “It’s a huge advantage when you already have a relationship with a new catcher.”
It’s a bond Walters has never seen before.
“They came to this by being on the same page understanding each other,” Walters said. “Joe knows exactly what Ja’Marr is going to do in terms of throwing him; where to throw the ball. Ja’Marr understands where Joe is going to put the ball. He’s just amazing.”
THE DEPTH OF Understanding between Burrow and Chase is evident in how little they say to each other when they work things out in practice.
Whenever they part ways to work on routes and timing, most of the communication occurs through physical cues or short phrases.
“Their conversations are very short,” Callahan noted. “Your comments about him are very direct.”
At LSU, Burrow was the one who first emphasized the value of watching video and studying defenses. Now, Chase wins praise for his detailed study of the video.
On draft night, Burrow texted Chase and told him to pack for Cincinnati for a meeting that was weeks in the making. And while they may not spend a lot of time together off the field, there’s no doubting how they view each other.
“It’s very different,” Chase said after the AFC Championship Game. “He’s very confident. He’s someone you want to be with. He’s growing as a person.”
“I just hang out with him, ask him questions. I lean on him like he’s my big brother, basically.”
On January 13, 2020, Burrow and Chase helped their team win the college football championship. Just over two years later, they have a chance to win the Super Bowl.
After the Bengals beat Kansas City to secure the trip to Los Angeles, Burrow reminded Chase that he opted out of the 2020 college football season, and has played for a title in each of his last two seasons.
Chase told him that it was funny before he hit him.
“They were with you too.”
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Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase the story of a collegiate connection that will now play a Super Bowl