Though my career as a high school cornerback was short-lived and mostly forgettable, I have one vivid memory of lining up against someone who was, by every measure, more talented. It was the fourth game of my last season playing organized football, in a division of Miami football that was less a feeder for top colleges and more a place for broadly unathletic goobers such as myself. Most teams just ran the ball or threw short slants, so my responsibilities as a cornerback were to keep everything in front of me and help corral running backs on the occasional toss play.
Not this game; though I can’t remember what school this guy played for, I do remember that No. 7 ran me ragged on a muggy September evening. He was taller, faster, and quite an incredible pass-catcher in traffic, not that I forced him to show off that skill too often on this day. After giving up my third touchdown of the day to him, my coach pulled me aside and said that it was fine, there was very little we could do against someone who was clearly so much better than everyone else on the field.
This is all to say that I have some idea of what Baltimore Ravens defenders must have felt trying to defend Ja’Marr Chase on Sunday.
Chase’s eight-catch, 201-yard outburst in Baltimore was notable mostly for how common it has already become for the former LSU wide receiver. Through seven games this year, Chase has 754 yards, obliterating the old record for rookie receiving yards through the first seven games, which was set at 621 by Anquan Boldin in 2003. Chase’s dominance is such that he could sit out the Bengals’ next game and still own the eight-game record as well. Cincinnati’s No. 1 wide receiver, both in number and on the depth chart, tore apart Baltimore’s secondary, notching catches of 27, 26, and 21 yards. He also ripped an 82-yard score that effectively ended the game, putting the Bengals up 27-17 with 5:48 left in the third quarter.
Do yourself a favor: Pause that highlight at the moment when three Ravens defenders have Chase generally contained at the 30-yard line. A 12-yard catch there, on third-and-short, would have been a strong momentum boost for the Bengals, who had been riding the LSU-bred connection between Chase and Joe Burrow to a strong 4-2 start to the season. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that Chase gets stopped there, the drive stalls out, and maybe we’re looking at 6-1 Baltimore lording over the AFC North once again.
Instead, though, Chase shakes off one tackle, spins out of another, and he’s gone. Football is a complex sport with a high amount of individual moments that add up to a final score, but I don’t think it’s out of pocket to say that Chase’s ability to not go down and bust open such a long touchdown ended the game on Sunday. Baltimore never scored again after that, and ended up losing by a humbling 41-17, aided by Cincy’s stout defense and two long touchdown runs by Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. This is what a game-breaking wide receiver can do: He can break games, and break spirits.
Chase is already that. Through seven games, he’s amassed enough yards that, if he were to continue this pace into the colder months of the season, he would break the old rookie receiving yards record by about 400 yards (he’s on pace for 1,831 yards; his college teammate and the current record holder, Justin Jefferson, amassed 1,400 last year). This isn’t a case of a bad team funneling targets to a supernatural receiver, either; Chase is only second in catches for rookies, and third in targets. He is getting his yards inside of Cincinnati’s suddenly high-powered offense, which shook off a slow start as Burrow worked himself back into game speed and shape. The Bengals are currently the seventh-ranked offense by points per game, and it could only get better from here as Burrow keeps cementing his bond with Chase, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and C.J. Uzomah, all of whom have 250-plus receiving yards already.
It all starts and ends with Chase, though. Cincinnati took some shit for drafting the former Biletnikoff Award winner with the fifth pick of April’s draft. Conventional wisdom said at the time that the team should have drafted a lineman to help protect its valuable quarterback coming back from a brutal leg injury. Through seven games, Chase has proved that conventional wisdom resoundingly wrong, helping Burrow reach new heights in his second pro season (he finished Sunday’s game with 416 yards and three scores). The Ravens found out on Sunday what I did so many years ago: A star wide receiver can paper over so many cracks, and Chase isn’t just one of the best rookie receivers that the NFL has ever seen. He’s already one of the best pass-catchers in the league, and the Bengals are roaring in first place in large part to his near-limitless talent.