Mon, 03 Oct 2022

Bengals Training Camp Vignette: My PBU Against Ja'Marr Chase

Cincinnati Bengals
05 Aug 2022, 21:58 GMT+10

Geoff Hobson

In a few years down the road when the grandkids ask about No. 1 in stripes, and you know they invariably will, you'll tell them about the day you had a pass breakup against the most prolific rookie receiver in NFL history.

One more PBU than the Rams had against Ja'Marr Anthony Chase in the last Super Bowl. According to Pro Football Focus, the website that doesn't grade extra work after a training camp practice.

"One PBU. That's pretty good," versatile Bengals equipment manager Adam Knollman tells you as the concierge of the passing machine known as The Jugs. "A lot of times he'll go through a barrel and not drop one. Maybe one, maybe two for three barrels."

"You did The Distraction stuff?" asks quarterback Brandon Allen as you tell him how you had the audacity to hop into a drill with his coveted target.

"The majority of passes in this league (have) some kind of distraction. You've got to be focused on the ball."

The only thing hotter than Chase's crowd-screeching popularity in Bengaldom these days is the 90 degrees sizzling off the Kettering Health Practice Fields a couple of days ago. He's also putting in overtime with the fans. Extra autographs and a few steps of an occasional Griddy with a youngster.

On this day Chase had already made a couple of his patented now-you-see-it-now-you-don't steals from the Bengals cornerbacks in team drills and now he was just getting warmed up as Knollman and his staff set up the Jugs for the skill players' post-practice extracurriculars.

Wide receivers coach Troy Walters has a five-minute "Get Better," period after practice and his guys either catch Jugs balls, or tennis balls that he throws them or they throw the football to each other. The Big Three of Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins always go a little extra as you would expect of the league's top receiving corps.

When they throw to each other, they try to distract the receiver as the ball is coming at them. One stands next to the receiver jabbing their arms. Or locking their elbows briefly with a towel. Or just waving a towel in front of them. Then they'll switch. A lot of times, there are guys on either side of the receiver.

"It does no good to stand straight away and catch the ball (at the face mask)," Walters says. "My son can do that."

During these days of the dog in training camp, it always seems like the guy who broke long-standing league records last season is the last guy standing as practice ends.

And keep the towel in mind.

"Ja'Marr works as hard as anybody. I don't think he ever gets tired," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan tells you. "He just runs and runs and runs and works and works and works. He goes out there all day catching balls. He's determined to be the best player in football. I think his will power and work ethic combined with his talent are enough to get him there.

"It's really special when your really talented players are incredibly hard workers. That's what Ja'Marr is. That's what Burrow is. We have a lot of guys like that."

Quarterback Joe Burrow isn't out here as he recovers from appendicitis, but the crowd has no problem latching on to Chase's every movement, hoping for that walk-off selfie or signature. And he'll give it to you, too, if he's got time because he remembers when he was a kid in New Orleans how good it felt to get a signed Chris Paul jersey.

"That was kind of cool," Chase will later tell you.

At the moment, running back Chris Evans is pulling on Chase's jersey as they take turns catching balls from the Jugs. "We were the only two offensive (skill) players drafted last year, so we say we have to stick together," Evans says.

But then Evans has to head into a special teams meeting and you think Chase looks lonely as Knollman keeps feeding the ball from the final bucket into the machine.

"Hey Ja'Marr. I'll help you out," you find yourself saying.

And maybe he said, "If you want," because there is no bigger distraction than a guy in a bucket hat with dripping sun screen carrying a battered notebook that looked like it was from the draft the Bengals took wide receiver Peter Warrick No. 1 when Chase was a month old.

You throw down the notebook, grab a towel and as you figure out where you should stand five yards from the Jugs (that's 180 inches), Knollman spits out a thing going 40 miles an hour that whizzes uncomfortably past the bucket hat. You can drive for a half-hour on Columbia Parkway and not go as fast as the ball Chase casually plucks like an idea. He is working on catching from the side.

You think about grabbing his arm like you saw Evans do. But a potential Pro Football Talk story flashes before your eyes:

"Hobson, the former senior writer for Bengals.com, put Chase on IR when he wrenched the shoulder out of his socket during a post-practice drill."

And Peter King, the Peter Gammons of NFL scribes, is recording the damn thing over there on the sidelines.

So you start brushing the towel against his side.

"Wave it in front of my eyes," Chase says. "That's what I like. In front of my eyes."

The last time you did anything on a football field with a ball came 42 years ago in another audacious moment writing about playing running back for Syracuse during a week in spring ball.

Your position coach, a young gun named Tom Coughlin, could barely hide his disgust. But in 2022 Chase cheerfully lets you wave the towel across his shield as he puts away ball after ball. He doesn't even mind if your arm gets tired and you can't get the towel in position for a couple of balls.

"It's cool because he's one of the best in the league and he doesn't act bigger than anybody else," Knollman says. "He helps the other guys. He'll wait to the very end when he'll take his turn a lot of times. He waves the towel, he'll grab an arm."

He'll even let an old Syracuse running back help him out if it means getting better. Knollman's people roll out a mini-dumpster full of footballs. Think of your recycling bin on steroids. He figures there is about 40 balls in there.

"Ja'Marr's a perfectionist," Knollman says. "If he misses one, he puts it back in the bucket."

It's hard to believe now after those 266 Bengals-record yards against the Chiefs, but a year ago in this camp Chase was taking heat for dropping balls. Practices. Games. It didn't matter.

Now after watching him this week, Walters has a theory.

"I think the drops were coming from him not catching enough balls," says Walters of how he changed up the last camp. "Then he got into a routine with the Jugs. We did a tennis ball circuit inside before he went out to practice. A hundred tennis balls at different angles off the wall. He's willing to put in the work. If I ask him to do something, he won't bat an eye."

During his playing days, Walters shared a receivers room with four Hall-of-Famers and caught balls from a pair of Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner. When it comes to putting in the work, Walters says Chase is "right up there with the greats."

"All the players I played with," Walters says, "work ethic is the common denominator. A guy like Cris Carter would catch balls from the Jugs at different angles. He'd get up close and catch it one-handed. He came up with some pretty creative drills."

Chase, who has been catching footballs since he left basketball in the eighth grade, says, "You have to love it."

"You try to (eliminate) the distraction with hand-eye coordination," Chase says. "The same thing with tennis balls. The defender's around me keeping me off balance. That's what the towel does, too. A lot of distraction drills because in a game you've got defenders fronting your face, behind you tackling you, pushing you off-balance."

Maybe you waved for about 35 balls like you were flailing against Max Scherzer and Chase dropped one. He almost dropped another one, but he caught it with his shoulder pad at the last instant. He assured that you helped.

"Just waving the towel across the face, it makes it seem like you're sitting behind a door," Chase says," and if you were to open the door ... I have to be ready for the the ball at the same time."

That was his third bucket. Knollman figures Chase catches 120 balls a day after most practices. When the regular season gets going, he won't be at the Jugs all that much, so this is the heavy season.

"At some point," Walters says, "we'll get back on the tennis balls (inside). There'll be a time we'll change it up."

But Chase doesn't seem ready to change up his routine with the fans. He acts a lot older than 22. Knollman was struck how one day last week Chase and Higgins went overtime on the Jugs and then went across the field to sign even though they weren't asked.

"I was driving him back in the cart and I told him how nice that was," Knollman says, "and he basically said it was the thing to do because it's not always going to be like this. I thought that was kind of neat for him to say."

As the Bengals man-child walked off the field on this day after all those catches and the sweat beading and another meeting beckoning, a knot of fans waited outside the gate. Chase signed a few for the smallest kids and pulled out a little guy do a quick Griddy. Then he was walking to the locker room again.

"Just enjoying the moment," Chase says of his accessibility. "When I was young, I would have loved to have an opportunity like this. To see a practice. I never did that as a kid. I was just being a kid. I never did stuff like this."

A few minutes later, after he had packed up the Jugs, Knollman sends you a text. You knew you forgot something.

"Your notebook is down in the equipment room."

Only one guy was distracted in the drill.

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