How the Bengals helped Ja'Marr Chase overcome preseason drops en route to historic start

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CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow stepped up for his postgame news conference with something on his mind.

Following the team’s season-opening win over the Minnesota Vikings, as he walked up to the microphone, Burrow crossed paths with rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, his former LSU teammate who caught five passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in his NFL debut.

“I thought he was dropping everything?” Burrow sarcastically quipped to the gathered media as he took his seat.

Burrow was referencing the dominant preseason narrative surrounding Chase that almost felt too bizarre to be true -- the fifth overall pick, once the best receiver in college football, suddenly was unable to catch. While some hyperbole took hold on the situation, the facts remained accurate. Chase, who opted out of the 2020 college season to focus on the 2021 draft, had indeed struggled with the transition to the pros.

Fast-forward two months into the season, and the whole ordeal seems like a fever dream. The same guy who was dropping passes against the air in preseason practices is now one of the best receivers in the NFL.

He’s second in the league with 754 receiving yards, the most any player has produced through the first seven games of a career. Chase’s record-setting total is a testament to his growth over the past two months.

“He’s done something that no other receiver has done,” Bengals wide receiver coach Troy Walters said. “Just to see his growth, his progress from when he first got here in May until training camp, preseason, struggled in the preseason and to where he is now, it’s special.”

Chase’s drops weren’t a contrived narrative fueled by local beat writers. They were something that had to be addressed by the Bengals, starting after their preseason game against the Washington Football Team on Aug. 20. In that game, Chase failed to catch any of his three targets, displaying some of the woes that plagued him all training camp.

So, at around 10 o’clock the next morning, Chase met with Walters, who showed the 2019 Biletnikoff winner a highlight reel from his time at LSU.

“This is who you are,” Walters recalled telling Chase. “We gotta get you back to that.”

Walters also had a heart-to-heart conversation with Chase. The coach told the rookie he was there to talk football, life and to keep reminding Chase of his potential.

Then, the two men went downstairs into the team’s weight room and got to work, with Walters bouncing tennis ball after tennis ball to Chase to help with his eye discipline and concentration. It’s a routine they continue to perform before each game and practice.

That preparation with Walters and fellow assistant Brad Kragthorpe, along with the coaching staff’s experience, were among the reasons head coach Zac Taylor said he didn’t overreact to Chase’s early struggles.

“There’s so much confidence there,” Taylor said. “And it’s not just false confidence and bravado of, ‘I’m talented so I go out there and make plays.’ They’re putting in the work behind the scenes.”

Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd said when Chase first arrived, he always had a knack for making plays in practice but seemed to display some nerves in those preseason games. But the confidence Chase has shown since the season started is what has impressed Boyd the most.

Chase has been brilliant to start the season and is a big reason why the Bengals (5-2) are tied for the best record in the AFC North. He leads the NFL in catches of 30 yards or more, with five resulting in touchdowns.

"He's a grinder,” Burrow said. “He's a worker that comes to work every day and prepares to play the way that he expects, and he's just getting better and better.”

Walters said an hour before last week’s 41-17 win over Baltimore, Chase was at his locker studying footage of Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is considered one of the best at the position.

Chase finished the day with eight catches for 201 receiving yards and a touchdown, becoming the first Bengals player to have more than 200 yards in a single game since A.J. Green in 2015.

“You have to know your opponent like they know you,” Chase said after the game. “I took my time and watched a lot of film on him.”

Walters said he doesn’t have to worry about Chase staying level-headed. But he added that he’s reminded Chase if his work rate doesn’t continue, he could revert back to the version of himself that showed up against Washington in the preseason.

“That motivates him,” Walters said.

As the Bengals prepare for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Chase’s preseason struggles feel like a distant memory. Even at the time, the concern from those around the 21-year-old were minimal.

“It wasn't nothing that we felt was gonna be a problem, and he knew that as well,” Boyd said.

“He just had to find himself again and play ball.”