Jalen Ramsey was built to play cornerback.
I don’t just mean physically—the 6-foot-1 208-pounder with 4.41-second 40-yard dash speed could play most of the positions on the football field. But mentally, he has the perfect demeanor for what might be the most challenging position in sports. The part of the job that makes it so difficult—being left on an island against receivers who have a rule book slanted in their favor—seems to be the part Ramsey enjoys the most.
Before the Jaguars picked Ramsey fifth in the 2016 NFL draft, there was some discussion about what position he’d play at the next level. He had split time between safety and corner at Florida State, and given his bigger frame, some thought he’d be best at safety. But Ramsey disagreed, and he explained why to NFL Network during the combine:
“I think my best position is cornerback,” Ramsey said. “I like being out there at cornerback mano a mano against a man. Better man wins.”
Throughout his six seasons in the NFL, Ramsey has taken on that challenge on a weekly basis, and he’s done so against all types of receivers. One week he’s covering a speedster like Tyreek Hill with no safety help over the top; the next he’s going against Mike Evans, who’s basically a power forward cosplaying as a wideout. And it doesn’t make a difference. Ramsey can run with the league’s fastest and brawl with the bullies. Those latter matchups may even be his favorites. In a 2017 interview with ESPN, Ramsey gushed over his battles with DeAndre Hopkins, who was the league’s most physical receiver at the time.
“That’s one of my favorite matchups, just ’cause I get to play him twice a year,” Ramsey, who was playing for Jacksonville at the time, said of the then-Texans receiver. “Physical guy. Hands [are] crazy strong. … Big playmaker for that team, so I know he’s going to get a lot of the targets, so I like taking on that challenge, taking on that role of covering him in games. I feel like if you put me on their best, our team is going to have a good chance to win.”
Well, if Ramsey relished those matchups against Hopkins, he must be awfully excited about taking on Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase in Super Bowl LVI. With Hopkins out injured for much of the season, Chase might now be the NFL’s preeminent bully receiver. And whether the Rams allow their star corner to face Chase one-on-one—and whether he’s able to contain the rookie—could go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game.
As much credit as Joe Burrow deserves for the Bengals’ quick turnaround, Chase also deserves his fair share. The rookie was the missing piece of a passing attack that’s carried Cincinnati to its first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years. His ability to win contested catches on the perimeter and to turn short passes into big gains after the catch has added a big-play element to an offense that ranked dead last in explosive pass rate a season ago, per Sharp Football Stats.
Joe Burrow throwing slants and go routes in 2020: 7.1 YPA— Seth Galina (@pff_seth) October 26, 2021
Joe Burrow throwing slants and go routes in 2021: 17.1 ypa
wonder what changed
Chase is the star of the show. Yet defenses can’t often bring extra help against him because Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd—two exceptional receivers in their own rights—are lurking just behind him on the depth chart.
“They got a nice crew, man,” Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said of the Bengals receiving corps last week. “They got Higgins who can go up top on you, they got Ja’Marr who can absolutely do it all, and inside they got Boyd, who is the ultimate [option route] runner. If you’re coaching wideouts and you’re coaching that room, you’ve got to really feel good about the people you got. … It’s no secret why they are here because of those guys.”
As Morris says, overseeing that group is a receivers coach’s dream. Putting together a plan to stop them, though … that’s nightmare fuel for even the most veteran defensive coordinators.
The issues obviously start with Chase, who is uniquely good at running deep perimeter routes. He racked up 453 yards on straight-line vertical routes run outside the numbers this season, per Sports Info Solutions, and led the NFL—by nearly 140 yards. His abilities limit the defense’s coverage options. Playing with just one safety deep leaves opponents vulnerable to those deeper throws, which is a big reason Burrow led the NFL in EPA against single-high coverages this season, per TruMedia.
So teams are basically forced to play two-high against the Bengals, which can cause other issues. The defense is lighter in the run box without that extra safety dropping down, and it’s harder to deploy a spy on Burrow, who gashed Kansas City for two big third-down scrambles in the AFC title game. And as the season has worn on, Bengals coach Zac Taylor has figured out ways to punish teams for playing two-high. His go-to strategy throughout the second half has been to isolate Chase to one side and put three receivers to the other: The rookie receiver averaged just over 10 isolated routes per game through Week 8, per Sports Info Solutions; from Week 9 on, he’s averaged more than 15.
The unbalanced formation creates a dilemma for the defense. If they push a safety to Chase’s side, the Bengals have a numbers advantage to the other. That’s when Boyd and Higgins do most of their damage. But if the defense leaves a corner on his own against Chase, well, we’ve already explained why that’s not a winning strategy.
That’s what makes the Ramsey-Chase matchup so important. If the Rams can leave Ramsey on his own and push extra help to the Bengals’ other talented receivers, that will open up Morris’s call sheet and allow him to throw different looks at Burrow.
Morris is not technically a member of the Vic Fangio–Brandon Staley coaching tree that has started to infiltrate teams around the league, but after replacing Staley as the Rams defensive coordinator this season, he has run his own version of that group’s preferred scheme. And Cincinnati hasn’t done very well against those types of defenses this year. The Bengals are 1-3 in games against the Packers, Bears, Broncos, and Chargers (who all have head coaches or coordinators from that tree), and they scored just 19 points per contest. Against the rest of the league, they went 9-4 and averaged 29.5 points.
Cincinnati’s worst offensive output of the season came against Fangio’s Broncos in Week 15. Unlike his protégés, the former Denver coach had his own star corner in rookie Patrick Surtain II. With Surtain capable of holding up against Chase, Higgins, or Boyd, Fangio was able to play more man coverages with only one safety back deep. In that game, Burrow averaged negative-0.57 EPA per dropback against Cover 1, per TruMedia. In the other 16 regular-season games, he averaged 0.38 EPA per dropback against Cover 1, which led the NFL.
The Fangio-Staley tree vs. the Bengals
|Opponent||Cover 1 rate v. CIN|
|Opponent||Cover 1 rate v. CIN|
Fangio obviously mixed in other coverages—he played plenty of his preferred zone looks—but having a corner he could trust on an island allowed him to mix things up and keep Burrow uncomfortable.
Things didn’t go so well for the other coaches when they left their corners on an island. Staley asked Michael Davis, who’s a good corner but not an elite talent, to cover Chase one-on-one during their Week 13 game. The first warning shot came on a play that actually turned out well for the Chargers. Chase had no problem shaking Davis and getting open deep, but catching the pass was another matter:
Staley dialed back on those coverages when it became apparent that Chase’s physicality was overwhelming Davis, and the Chargers coach eventually had to give Davis more safety help.
Doing that against Ramsey won’t be so easy. The man lives to get in these physical battles with receivers, and he’ll have no problem running with Chase on those deep vertical routes. Throw in his tackling ability, which should help prevent big YAC plays, and he looks like the ideal corner to take on the challenge the Bengals star presents. On paper, at least.
Sunday, the All-Pro defender will get a chance to go “mano a mano” on the NFL’s biggest stage, just as he prefers it. And while it remains to be seen how the matchup will play out, we do know this: Ramsey isn’t going to back down.