1) Identifying the Outside Rusher: With a new defensive coordinator in place, the Kansas City Chiefs will shift from a static 4-3 front, to a shape-shifting 3-4 base formation. The Chiefs will look to apply more pressure from this scheme to improve upon a dreadful output of 10 sacks in 2008.
The key to applying greater pressure will come from the play of the two rush ends. Kansas City added veteran Mike Vrabel in the offseason to pair with Tamba Hali, who is now a stand-up linebacker. The two backers will take turns rushing from a three-point stance and a two-point stance. And in certain situations, the two defenders will fake the rush and drop into coverage.
It will be up to quarterback Joe Flacco to locate the ends and figure out if they are rushing or dropping. While Vrabel and Hali need to be accounted for, neither player warrants being double teamed – tackles Jared Gaither and Michael Oher have to secure the edges without help.
2) Up the Gut: If a 3-4 defense is to be solid against the run, it needs strong play from its nose tackle. For Kansas City, this means that Tank Tyler will need to fit the bill as the man in the middle. While Tyler is a squat and powerful player, this is his first time handling the nose guard position, so he may struggle to play with consistent technique. In turn, the backers behind Tyler are also making a switch to starting roles on the inside. Demario Williams is a former weakside linebacker; Corey Mays has been a backup and special teams performer.
The Ravens will need to test this green interior triangle through baptism by fire. When the team runs the ball, it should be in-between the tackles. Center Matt Birk will need to block Tyler one-on-one, freeing the guards to run right at Williams and Mays at the second level. If the line is able to handle its blocking assignments, there should be some gaping holes for the backs to dash through.
3) No Need to Huddle: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will use the no-huddle attack in certain situations to force a defense to stay in its base and create favorable matchups. If the offense opens up in a three-wide set, and catches the Chiefs in its base 3-4 alignment, the Kansas City backers will have a tough time matching up in coverage situations.
Specifically, if tight end Todd Heap is flexed to the slot, one of the outside backers will have to slide over, which would free up Ray Rice. The emerging tailback will have space to operate on out routes and circle routes underneath.
1) Defending the Slot: When creating a game plan to stymie a Todd Haley led offense, a defensive coordinator must prepare for the unexpected. The Kansas City head coach is a master tactician – he will elect to throw on first down and run in obvious passing situations. Moreover, as an offensive coordinator for Arizona, Haley used three-wide formations to force a defense to substitute its base personnel. Of course, under Haley’s watch, the Cardinals boasted Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Kansas City does not come close to matching the Cardinals’ talent at the receiver position, but expect Haley to continue to run a variation of the spread. And the receiver he will lean on to dictate matchups is Dwayne Bowe.
Like he did with Fitzgerald, Haley will line Bowe up all over the field, including in the slot. Bowe operated from the slot during the preseason. He is a strong, and able to break free from press coverage.
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison must find the right combination of defenders to handle Bowe on the inside. At the moment, the nickel position is in flux. The nickel could be safety Haruki Nakamura, rookie Lardarius Webb or veteran Frank Walker, or all three in rotation.
No matter who lines up across from Bowe, it will be a tough challenge and a potential matchup headache.
2) Compressing the Pocket: The Baltimore blitzkrieg will be in play on Sunday afternoon. The defense is licking its chops at the prospect of facing a potentially gimpy quarterback, and an offensive line that was a sieve in the preseason.
Still, the defense will need to play with discipline. In facing Matt Cassel, blitzers must be prepared for a quarterback who will try to run through gaps in the pocket. If Cassel is healthy, he has the ability to make plays out of the pocket.
The game plan should be to keep Cassel contained within a collapsing pocket. The ends will need to take diagonal angles when they come off the edges, instead of rushing straight upfield. By taking these angles, the ends will block Cassel from stepping through the left and right voids inside the pocket.
3) Beware Jamaal Charles: Nearly three years ago, the Baltimore defense prepared to stuff a giant in Larry Johnson. At the time, Johnson was one of the dominant power rushers in the game. Now, Johnson is a shell of his former self. While he is still the main cog in the running game, he will not run the ball 30-to-35 times as he did in ‘06. Instead, Johnson will be off the field in obvious passing situations, and Charles will take his place.
Charles is an explosive back with the ability to turn the corner. He brings the big play potential that Johnson does not possess at this point in his career.
The backers will need to account for Charles as an inside runner and a pass-catcher from the shotgun set.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch: Branden Albert versus Terrell Suggs: Albert is a talented player, but he will have a tremendous challenge when he faces Suggs. Despite missing most of training camp, the seventh-year rush end was in midseason form against the Atlanta Falcons, in the preseason finale. Suggs has active hands and constantly strives to disengage blocks. Albert is a converted guard who is surprisingly nimble. He has the power and athleticism to anchor in the running game, but he is still honing his pass-blocking technique, and that is a concern against a seasoned player like Suggs.