The 1-on-1 Matchup That Will Decide the Super Bowl

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Pre-snap motions, play-action fakes, and complex play calls make it easy to forget what the game of football ultimately boils down to.

1-on-1 matchups.

This year’s Super Bowl features one of the most exciting individual matchups in the entire sport.

Bengals’ rookie phenom Ja’Marr Chase has been sensational in his debut campaign. By demolishing nearly every secondary he’s squared off against, Chase has helped elevate Cincinnati from a 4-win team in 2020 into AFC champions just one season later. Super Bowl LVI however will provide his toughest test yet.

Jalen Ramsey has been one of the league’s best defensive players since being drafted in 2016. He’s shut down some of the game’s best receivers and oftentimes does it from all over the field. The term “shutdown corner” doesn’t get used lightly in the NFL, but Ramsey’s one of the few players who has earned that title.

Chase and Ramsey have been so dominant at their respective positions that each week opponents are forced to game plan around them. How these two perform on the biggest stage will go a long way in determining who’s crowned Super Bowl Champion.

In just his first year in the NFL, Ja’Marr Chase has already become a nightmare for opposing defenses. His stats are mind-boggling, but the most telling sign of his dominance may be how he impacts the game schematically.

Cincinnati LOVES lining Chase up as the single receiver on one side of the formation. This provides him with tons of space all to himself where he can inflict damage on opposing secondaries.

Look at how far away Chase is from every other player on the Bengals’ offense. Whenever he’s lined up like this, Chase forces defenses to answer a tough question — double him and leave holes in other areas of the field, or take your chances playing 1-on-1.

There’s no right answer.

The Chiefs really struggled with this decision throughout the entire AFC Championship. Let’s look at the clip from the above screenshot to see what I mean. This play came on a 3rd and 5 in the first half of the game, and the Chiefs opted to focus on Chase and prevent him from converting the first down:

Mission accomplished… sort of.

The Chiefs successfully prevented Chase from getting the ball, but their playcall left three defenders 1-on-1 against three pass-catchers at the top of the screen.

The bunch formation (three receivers at the top) used by Cincinnati did its job wonderfully on this play. Congesting that side of the field forced Chiefs’ defenders to work through numerous bodies en route to their respective assignments. They didn’t have any additional defenders available to provide help on that side of the field, and Tyler Boyd got open for an easy first down.

Let’s look at another screenshot from the above play to see just how much attention is dedicated to Chase:

This is where everyone was lined up right as Joe Burrow was releasing the football. Three defenders surrounding Chase, three defenders surrounding the other three receivers.

Worth noting, yellow #2 (Tyrann Mathieu) is likely tasked with covering the running back on this play. However, he intentionally takes a path that goes in front of Chase to disrupt any in-breaking routes from the star receiver.

All in all, Chase has one defender tasked with covering him deep (#1), another whose attention is focused on him en route to his primary assignment (#2), and a third who’s matched up with him in man-to-man coverage (#3).

You don’t need a math degree to know the numbers drastically favor the Bengals here.

Kansas City oftentimes dedicated two or more defenders to stopping Chase, but they didn’t do it on every single snap. On the snaps where they left a defender matched up 1-on-1 with no help… the result was predictable:

Once again, you see Chase as the lone receiver on his side of the screen. This time though, there was only one defender between him and the end zone.

Burrow notices this immediately and doesn’t waste any time delivering the football. He knows exactly where he’s going every time he sees Chase has a one-on-one matchup, and the connection these two have is truly special.

That’s the bind Chase puts defenses in. When forced to allocate extra bodies to stopping him, the rest of the defense gets put in a difficult position.

The Chiefs simply don’t have a shutdown corner who can hang with Chase in one-on-one coverage. Yet they had to try it on occasion to avoid being predictable and to prevent Burrow from continually dicing up the other side of the field.

That’s where Jalen Ramsey comes into play in this year’s Super Bowl.

While Chase has gotten the better of numerous cornerbacks this year, Jalen Ramsey is a different breed. He’s one of a handful of guys who might be able to hang with Chase in 1-on-1 coverage, and if he’s up to the task it could spell trouble for Cincinnati.

Ramsey brings a unique blend of size, athleticism, physicality, and technique that allows him to match up with any style of receiver. If you look at his game log on Player Profiler, you’ll notice he’s shut down some of the league’s best receivers who possess a diverse range of skillsets. Roughly a third of his snaps have come in the slot too, so there’s no spot on the field where Ramsey is uncomfortable. Where he’s at his best though is on the outside — where the Bengals love to put Chase.

Look at how the Rams utilize Ramsey (bottom of the screen) here in a key 3rd down against the Packers:

The Packers isolate Davante Adams — arguably the best receiver in the game — at the bottom of the screen where he has the entire right side of the field to himself. Not many defensive coordinators would consider putting a defensive back 1-on-1 in this situation, but Ramsey’s all alone here and he delivers.

Adams’ game is built around some of the best route running the NFL has ever seen. His releases off the line of scrimmage are nearly unstoppable, yet Ramsey elects to get up in his grill and play him straight up. This is a very risky defensive approach, but Ramsey and Rams’ Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris don’t seem to mind.

It’s not just the savvy route runners who Ramsey’s adept at stopping either. He’s capable of shutting down anyone.

Let’s look at another example back in week 9. Ramsey (bottom of the screen) is isolated against A.J. Brown — one of the league’s largest and most physical receivers — on a 3rd and 2 early in the first half:

Look at how much space there is between Ramsey/Brown and the other 20 guys on the field. This is a dream for an NFL wide receiver, but even with all the space Brown has, Tannehill doesn’t look in his direction.

Before the snap, you can see the Titans have four pass-catching options at the top of the screen while the Rams have five defenders on that same side of the field. These 4x1 looks are designed to force the defense into making a decision before the snap — double team the single receiver (usually the offense’s #1 guy), or send help to the other side of the formation. The Rams give Tannehill the pre-snap look that suggests he should target his #1 receiver, but he instead avoids Ramsey altogether.

The result?

4th down Titans.

That decision in itself embodies how terrifying it is for a quarterback to throw in Jalen Ramsey’s direction. He’s snagged more picks this year (4) than he’s allowed touchdowns (3), and the risk quarterbacks take when looking his direction rarely outweighs the reward. He impacts an offense’s decision-making process on every snap, and he’s got the talent necessary to completely erase star receivers from a game plan.

In Raheem Morris’ defense, Ramsey hasn’t followed #1 receivers around as often as he did with previous defensive coordinators. However, when the game’s elite receivers have lined up on the other side of the football, Ramsey turns into the best eraser in the league:

In the Super Bowl, having Ramsey follow Chase around wherever he goes may be the best bet for Los Angeles.

The Bengals offense is built around the destruction Chase causes from the outside receiver position, but Ramsey might just be the perfect counter punch. If he can turn this game into 10-on-10 by removing Chase from the equation, that’s a resounding win for Aaron Donald and the rest of the Rams defense.

The Burrow-to-Chase connection is what’s gotten Cincinnati this far, and it’s only fitting that this connection will decide their fate in the biggest game of the season. If the Bengals can’t successfully target Chase when he’s matched up against Ramsey, it’ll be nearly impossible for them to leave Los Angeles with the Lombardi trophy. Chase won’t need to win on every single snap, but he’ll need to do enough to force the Rams to think twice about leaving Ramsey on an island all game long.

When the stakes are highest, schemes can only take you so far. In order to win a Super Bowl, your big-time players need to make big-time plays. Ramsey and Chase are two of the biggest names in the game today, and watching these two duke it out with a title on the line is going to be a matchup for the ages.



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