Ja’Marr Chase was a game-breaker during the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The rookie phenom also poses the biggest challenge for Kansas City heading into the AFC championship game.
Back in the regular season, Chase posted a historic performance with 11 receptions for 266 yards and 3 touchdowns. It ranks No. 15 all-time in single-game receiving yards. Reflecting back on the performance of his defense in that game isn’t a fun exercise for Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo, but he does at least have one good takeaway.
“More tears than smiles I’ll tell you that, but you bring up a really really good point,” Spagnuolo said on Thursday. “They had the upper hand on that day, but I would agree with you that they were all contested, and our guys were where they were supposed to be, just somehow someway we’ve got to try to find a way to make a play. I think all of our guys feel that way.”
Whether it was Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton or L’Jarius Sneed in coverage, Chase wasn’t just wide open and running free. Those defenders were in the position a lot of times to contest the ball, but Chase was the one to make a play on it. This time around, he’s hoping to see some of those plays go the way of his defense in the shape of a turnover or pass breakup.
“We do what we do. We are what we are,” Spagnuolo said. “Hopefully, when that same situation happens in this game, we can find a way to get it knocked out or have him go throw it somewhere else, but we need to make those plays. Our guys understand that, and if we do that, certainly the outcome will be a lot better than it was last time.”
At the same time, Spagnuolo is expecting Chase to get his. He knows how dynamic he is as a player with his unique size and speed. He also knows that he has a level of trust with his quarterback, Joe Burrow, that is unparalleled
“Certainly the talent and speed and the catch radius and all that,” Spagnuolo said of Chase. “I just think one of the things that we found out firsthand is that their quarterback and that receiver really work well together. They know each other really well, obviously the time together at LSU makes a difference, and you can see it in the confidence in the way they play. Those two together are a dynamic duo. No question about it.”
A big outside criticism that Spagnuolo faced after the first matchup had to do with how he handled covering Chase. Many said, “Just double team him.” Spagnuolo would like to do that, but the problem is, it’s not that simple.
“It’s not like they have one weapon, commit two people to it and you’re home free,” Spagnuolo explained. “All three of those guys, I think we talked about this last time we played Cincinnati, throughout the course of the season, all three of those guys have been the leading receiver for them on a given day. So, they’re all capable of what we call wrecking the game. So, we’ve got to pay a lot of attention to all three of them.”
There will certainly be some opportunities where Spagnuolo does put double coverage on Chase, but he’ll have to pick and choose his battles. There’s a subtle balance that he’ll need to find during the course of the game. Whether he finds that balance or not, as we found out last time, could be the difference between a win or a loss for Kansas City.
“The quarterback knows where to go with the ball,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s sharp enough to know that if you’re taking one of his guys away, he’s going to go someplace else. So, we’ll have to play that cat and mouse game, but as dynamic as Ja’Marr Chase is, there’s certainly some other weapons there as well.”