The 2019 LSU Tigers were a bolt of lightning on a perfectly clear day—a sudden flash of electricity that was so surprising and magnificent that it was tough to tell exactly how it happened. In 2018, LSU finished 38th in the nation in scoring offense. In 2020, it finished 39th. Sandwiched between those good-but-not-great offensive efforts, the Tigers went 15-0 and set the FBS record for points scored in a season. They beat Georgia by 27 in the SEC title game, hung seven first-half touchdowns on Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, and downed Clemson by 17 in the College Football Playoff national championship. After winning the title, the team tied records for the most players taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft (10) and in the draft overall (14). It was tough to accurately assign credit. LSU took home awards for national coach of the year (Ed Orgeron), assistant coach of the year (Joe Brady), best defensive back (Grant Delpit), and best offensive line. At the time, I wondered: Who was most responsible for LSU’s magic?
The same question could be asked about an offense that passed for a power-conference-record 61 touchdowns. Was its dominance a testament to quarterback Joe Burrow, who won the Heisman Trophy and virtually every prominent positional award? Or was it a reflection of Ja’Marr Chase, who led the nation in receiving yards (1,780) and touchdowns (20) en route to winning the Biletnikoff Award presented to college football’s premier wide receiver? (This LSU roster also featured Justin Jefferson, who racked up more than 1,500 yards as a junior before becoming a superstar with the Minnesota Vikings, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who recorded more than 1,800 all-purpose yards before joining the Kansas City Chiefs as a 2020 first-round pick.) These Tigers were the first team ever to simultaneously have a Heisman-winning QB and a Biletnikoff-winning receiver—but was it really possible that one team could have college football’s best quarterback and best receiver? Surely, Chase was making Burrow look good, or Burrow was making Chase look good. Who had the bigger hand in their success?
Luckily, it’s a question we’ll never need to answer. Burrow and Chase both went from the Bayou Bengals to the Cincinnati Bengals, and they’re still making each other look incredible. In 2021, Burrow led the NFL in yards per pass attempt (8.9), while Chase finished his rookie season fourth in receiving yards (1,455) and third in receiving touchdowns (13). The Bengals won the AFC North for the first time since 2015; last Saturday’s 26-19 victory over the Raiders in the wild-card round was the franchise’s first playoff win since 1991, well before Burrow or Chase was born.
Neither player seemed destined to go down this path. Burrow couldn’t win the starting job at Ohio State, where head coach Urban Meyer told him that he belonged in Division III and that he threw like a girl. (Breaking: Meyer is a jackass.) Burrow transferred out in 2018 after it became clear he’d never overtake Dwayne Haskins on the Buckeyes depth chart. Chase was a late-bloomer recruit because of his smaller size—at one point, he committed to Kansas. In 2017, he was supposed to commit to TCU on the NFL Network during a high school all-star game, but got bumped out of his slot because another prospect had a better story, so producers let him fill Chase’s time.
And neither accomplished much of note in the year between the Bengals selecting Burrow in 2020 and taking Chase in 2021. Burrow won just two of his 10 starts as a rookie before he went down with a season-ending knee injury. Chase opted out of his junior year college football season to focus on preparing for the draft.
Together, though? They’re unstoppable. As they have progressed from college to the pros, the degree of difficulty should be getting higher. But nothing is stopping Burrow and Chase from doing the exact same things they did at LSU. (Not even a slightly different football!) Here are a handful of highlights that show how Burrow and Chase are torching opponents like they were in college—only now they’re doing it against the best defensive players in the world.
Ja’Marr Runs in a Straight Line
Burrow and Chase’s connection often happens through the most basic route in football. But it’s telling that they keep embarrassing defenders in the simplest and most predictable way.
Here’s Burrow throwing a go-route touchdown to Chase, lined up wide right, against man coverage in a 42-6 rout of Utah State from 2019:
Here’s Burrow throwing a go-route touchdown to Chase, lined up wide right, against man coverage in a 46-41 win over Alabama. In this clip, the player covering him is Trevon Diggs, who just led the NFL in interceptions (11) as a second-year player for the Dallas Cowboys.
Here’s the Joe Burrow touchdown to Ja’Marr Chase — a 33-yarder that had Alabama’s star corner Trevon Diggs way out of sorts
This route’s almost identical to the one Utah State ran, but Stingley got a highlight INT. Difference is Chase drives to the ballpic.twitter.com/KN1Q3EJmtm
— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) November 9, 2019
In the national championship game after the 2019 regular season, Burrow figured that Clemson’s defense would try to prevent this sort of thing. “I didn’t think they were going to play man-to-man with Ja’Marr,” Burrow said afterward. “And then I got back to the sideline after the second drive and I was like, they really are playing man-to-man with Ja’Marr, so we started going to him heavy.” Chase torched future first-round pick A.J. Terrell for 221 yards with two touchdowns, including this one in which he was lined up wide right against Terrell’s man coverage and ran a go route:
And here’s Chase’s first NFL touchdown—on a go route, lined up wide right, against man coverage in a 27-24 win over the Vikings.
Burrow knows whether to throw Chase a goal-line jump ball or lead him to the back of the end zone. He also knows that Chase will catch the ball in either case. If Chase is running a go route, lined up wide right, against man coverage, expect a touchdown … regardless of whether he’s playing against Utah State or the Minnesota Vikings.
The Slant and Strength
Chase dominated the speed drills at his pro day, running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash. He also dominated virtually everything else. He registered an 11-foot broad jump, posted a 41-inch vertical leap, and put up 23 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press; of all the receivers at the NFL draft combine since 2004, only 10 have benched more. Chase is fast as hell—and he’s as strong as he is fast.
“Obviously, he’s really fast. There’s only a couple of guys like him in the league as far as speed-wise,” Burrow said of Chase last week. “But I think what makes him really special is his ability to break tackles. … It really makes my job easy.”
This dynamic was on display during a 61-yard touchdown against Ole Miss in 2019. Chase caught a slant from Burrow, broke a tackle, and burst into high gear en route to the end zone:
Roughly the same thing happened in October against the Ravens, except on this one Chase also spun through a few defenders on his way to pay dirt:
Chase excels most on the edges of the field. If defenses try to take that away, though, Burrow can just dump the ball to him over the middle, where his speed and strength allow him to make plays anyway.
The Wait and Chuck
Burrow recently joked that his strategy as a quarterback is “F it, Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere …”
This is a reasonable strategy! After all, Chase may be the best deep-ball receiver on the planet. In 2019, he made 24 receptions on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, which is the most Pro Football Focus has tracked in a college season. In 2021, Chase led the NFL with eight touchdowns on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air—nobody else had more than five. Only three players have ever managed more in a season since PFF started tracking the statistic in 2006: Randy Moss, Antonio Brown, and Terrell Owens.
Combining his LSU and Cincinnati careers, Chase has somehow scored more touchdowns from 50 yards or more (13) than from inside the 20-yard line (12). It’s absolutely ridiculous that any player could be more likely to score from the other side of the field than from the red zone: There were 62 passing touchdowns of more than 50 yards this season, and nearly 600 from inside the 20. (Chase had five of the 50-plus yarders this year, accounting for 8 percent of the league’s total.)
This means the dumbest thing any defense can do is give Burrow and Chase time to work. When Georgia rushed three against Burrow in the 2019 SEC championship game, the Bulldogs bet that eight defenders could contain Chase. Instead, Burrow waited eight seconds, and Chase opened up approximately one football’s worth of space in the end zone. Burrow stepped up in the pocket and threw a touchdown:
In Week 5 against the Packers, history repeated itself. Green Bay didn’t bring a real pass rush against Burrow; eight seconds after a snap in the second quarter, he stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike into a football-sized window to Chase 50 yards downfield.
At the College Football Playoff national championship media day in January 2020, Chase said his favorite aspect of Burrow’s game was his mobility. “When Joe makes his Heisman moments, it comes from his legs.” That checks out. When Chase does score in the red zone, it’s typically not because he beat someone off the line of scrimmage—that’s not really his game. But if Burrow keeps a play alive long enough with his legs, Chase will get open. With fewer downfield opportunities, he just has to outrun defenders laterally instead of vertically:
The Chase for Chase
Chase’s breakout performance for LSU came in a September 2019 game against Vanderbilt when he reeled in 10 catches for 229 yards with four touchdowns. Even when Vanderbilt broke the rules, its defense couldn’t stop Burrow and Chase: On one play, officials threw flags for roughing the passer and pass interference, and the pair still hooked up for a spectacular highlight. Chase scored two 50-plus-yard touchdowns that afternoon; he caught the ball in the heart of the defense and simply blew past everybody in a sprint to the end zone:
Chase looked like a man against boys against Vanderbilt—which makes sense, because it was Vanderbilt. But here’s Chase doing pretty much the same thing against the Chiefs earlier this month:
I’ve watched this play about a billion times. Unlike the Vanderbilt highlight, Chase corrals the ball at a dead stop—but within seconds, he’s blowing by the Kansas City defenders who had a running start to catch him. Vanderbilt never managed to get more than a defender or two around Chase; on this play, the Chief had six. He still scored.
Three years after Burrow and Chase took over the college football world, they’re still equal contributors in a potentially legendary combo. It feels like there should be some higher level of football for them to reach, but there isn’t. They’ll just have to keep making NFL teams look like Vanderbilt.