As if the stakes weren’t already high enough, the Ravens now take on a Kansas City Chiefs team that’s fresh from proving that your margin for error for beating them is razor thin, staring down the barrel of an 0-2 start with another loss. This Chiefs team has been kryptonite for the Ravens at their best over recent seasons, and it won’t be news to anyone that watched on Monday night that this Ravens team is far from at their best right now.
So how could they go about beating the Chiefs?
Run. The. Ball.
I know I started here last week, and of course running the ball would be far simpler if the Ravens hadn’t lost all three of their RBs from their pre-camp depth chart, but the Ravens must run the ball against the Chiefs. This defense is plainly, not good at defending the run. Last year they were 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA efficiency measure at defending the run. If you dig a little deeper into those numbers, you find that they actually drop to the bottom of the league in terms of efficiency defending the run, when that run comes on 3rd or 4th down. If the Ravens can get even close to 3rd and manageable regularly, they can sustain drives by running the ball.
The Ravens are ideally suited to running the ball against the Chiefs schematically. The Browns proved this on Sunday afternoon, as Chiefs defenders will be seeing Cleveland o-linemen Wyatt Teller and Joel Bitonio pulling downhill at them in their sleep this week. Pulls are a signature of the power running game and the Browns deployed it masterfully on Sunday.
The Chiefs have two versions of their defensive line, one where they expect the offense to run the ball – this version deploys the heft of Derrick Nnadi and Khalen Saunders inside. The other, in more likely passing situations, sees Jarran Reed and Tershawn Wharton come in. The Ravens should run the ball in all situations but get subtly different with their play calls based on those personnel.
When the Chiefs go big to stop the run with Nnadi and Saunders, the Ravens could mix in some inside zone to attack the weak side B gap and get double teams onto those big Defensive Tackles. The Ravens have been reluctant to run inside zone, but it certainly feels like this would be a good week to start. Then, running more trap concepts when Reed and Wharton are in the game should help to neutralize their more penetrative style.
Power Right, a staple of the Ravens offense, can certainly be used in this game but should be used sparingly and, as with the above run concepts, against certain personnel. One of the important conditions for success on this play against the 4-3 Over front, is the ease at which you can kick out a wide 9-technique Defensive End because of his alignment. This can work when the Chiefs bring in Alex Okafor but they have been increasingly playing Chris Jones outside at base end, with a less wide alignment, a tougher kick-out for Alejandro Villanueva to make.
As well as these specific concepts, I’d like to see a heavy general dose of the Ravens’ usually heavy man blocking scheme. One caveat when comparing the Ravens potential approach to the Browns actual approach last weekend: the Browns have a dominant Offensive Line. A particular key to their success was Bitonio and Teller’s ability to fit and finish their blocks at the second level; in other words, when they got onto Linebackers, it was over. The Ravens do not have as much proven prowess at the second level, and they’ll need to find it in a hurry, as rookie Nick Bolton looked good in Week 1 when he was able to fly around and take on TE blocks, but less so when Bitonio came down the chute at him.
Run. The. Ball. (Part Deux)
All of the above running game thoughts are predicated on running the ball with our backs. We know now, from Monday night, that the Ravens don’t seem to be entirely comfortable with our hastily-put-together RB stable toting the rock. Maybe as both sides get more comfortable with each other this will change but I’m not sure a short week turnaround for a game against the presumptive conference champions will see a drastic change in workload for those backs.
But running the ball doesn’t have to be the running backs’ domain. Not in this offense, and also, not against this defense.
In the Week 3 game last year, the Chiefs took their chances with man coverage at a frequent clip, I’d expect them to do this again. If they do, the approach to running the ball should, as always with this offense without its regular backs, start with Lamar Jackson. I’d particularly like to see them incorporate the inverted veer this week.
Against the Raiders, there was little commitment to the inverted veer, I think, because respect for JK Dobbins’ athletic ability to get to the edge was a vital component of this play’s success. It was one of the few concepts the Ravens had success with in Week 3 last season against the Chiefs and they could get creative in replacing Dobbins’ contribution to it. I would get Devin sDuvernay involved in it, particularly if the Ravens are able to establish him as a viable ball carrier on reverses and other running concepts.
In sports, and in life, I’m not always a proponent of replicating someone else’s successful approach. You run the risk of wrongly identifying the ingredients that went into their secret sauce. I’ve already mentioned the Browns’ success when running the ball with pullers getting into the second level. The Chiefs, though, started to get penetration using the pullers as keys to get into the backfield. Cleveland therefore had a vital additional part to their game plan at which the Ravens can also excel, and would help them in their quest to run the ball without an over-reliance on their backs to do so: pre-snap motion, misdirection and reverses.
The Ravens need to get their pre-snap motion going, not to identify coverage, but to cause hesitation on the part of those Defensive Linemen, keeping them off-balance and off the power running game. Using Duvernay and Marquise Brown in tandem on these might be a good way to get even more confusion into the Chiefs defense. Carries for Duvernay should definitely be a feature of the game plan.
Attack Spagnuolo’s Coverage Plan
When Steve Spagnuolo came to Kansas City, their defense was holding them back. Putting together the beginnings of a historically good offense was not enough, next to a defense that didn’t play to its strengths, with play-callers and scheme bringing little to the table themselves. Enter Spagnuolo, and perhaps most importantly, Tyrann Mathieu in free agency.
Spags went about re-making this defense.
Stereotypically, old people don’t like change, don’t like new things. I don’t actually believe this, but if you do, Andy Reid and his innovative approach to offensive football are an excellent counterpoint. With Spagnuolo, Reid surprisingly found his defensive match with an old school coach willing to embrace new approaches, especially to his coverage scheme.
The casual fan knows that Spagnuolo has developed Tom Brady kryptonite defenses with a formidable front four defensive line that gets pressure to help out on the back end. But the truth is, Spagnuolo is a coverage savant, willing to employ the newest techniques to adjust ordinarily beatable vanilla coverages.
The Chiefs use a lot of roll coverage, where the eventual coverage scheme isn’t revealed until the last possible moment and usually after the play has started. They also employ pattern match coverage principles which are a set of rules that allow flexibility in your coverage to adjust what your defenders do on the fly, based on what the receivers are doing. He has even used an until-recently, predominantly college coverage adjustment called man match, which, in essence, does the same as pattern match except changes up who defenders cover man to man during a play.
All this should tell you that the Ravens are facing a complex coverage scheme. The main reason this scheme works is Mathieu. Missing from their Week 1 clash with the Browns, you could see quite clearly what he brings to this defense. He’s the versatile chess piece that allows Spagnuolo to run all his complex roll coverages. Lamar needs to always know where he is and what he’s doing. Follow the Honey Badger’s trail to find the overall coverage plan, but don’t fall into his trap.
The other thing I’d like to see the Ravens do, is attack the overhang defender in the Chiefs’ pattern match coverage with their personnel. The Browns did this expertly with David Njoku up the seam, running subtle route adjustments and generally using him as the mismatch we all thought he would be when he entered the league. I’d like to see the Ravens use Mark Andrews in the same way. He and Njoku aren’t that far off being comparable athletically, and the Ravens could take a lot from how the Browns used Njoku in attacking the Chiefs particular brand of coverage.
Curb your enthusiasm, Wink
I’ve now watched A LOT of the Chiefs. I have to say, it’s pretty obvious why the Chiefs offense has had the Ravens’ number these past seasons. The Ravens defense, while alarmingly difficult to deal with for most offenses in the league, is alarmingly perfectly put together to hand Patrick Mahomes the advantage.
A little explanation…
I once heard Lance Armstrong talk about the way he would psychologically win the day on his bike before the day’s riding had even begun (little did I know then, that it was actually doping rather than attitude that helped him win the day, but I think the point I’m about to make still stands). On a particularly bad weather day, with wind and rain, maybe even with the race set to go over some cobbles, he looked at the day and relished the difficulty, he lived for the adversity and knew that he thrived above all else in it.
I think Mahomes is built the same when facing the blitz. It’s like he lives for it. Like he wants you to do it, it’s almost as if he’s daring you to do it, just so he can make you look foolish. To change the metaphor, he’s the matador and you’re the bull and you’re never going to get a piece of him.
If the Ravens want to get to his red cloak, they need to get to him when it’s dangling flaccid by his side. I’ll explain: most teams who had success against Mahomes did it without resorting to the blitz. Additionally, when they did blitz, they got burned on those select few plays when they did choose to do so, even if the rest of the game plan worked perfectly.
I think the main reason behind this is actually pretty simple: it’s a numbers game. Mahomes is a next level processor at the position; he has a robot-like ability to read coverage. The more people you have dropped into coverage the more equations he has to solve in his brain before pulling the trigger, more traffic = some hesitation. He’ll work it out eventually, and quicker than anyone else, which is why pressure is still important. But, the more people you take out of coverage, the more exponentially quicker he will be at working you out and carving you up.
Now, I did title this section curb your enthusiasm Wink, and not “get rid of it entirely.” The Ravens are who they are, and Wink’s blitz packages can be like nothing any QB has ever seen…they need to be when facing Mahomes though. You can’t completely abandon who you are and even if you do get burned when you do blitz him, I’m not sure variety is a vice against Mahomes, when dispensed in very small doses.
When the Ravens do blitz, they should stay away from the zone blitz, which seems to particularly annoy Mahomes when teams deploy it against him, but more tangibly, I think the drop into a zone from the line of scrimmage actually gives Mahomes a big advantage given his colleagues’ Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill’s abilities.
Cover Kelce and Hill
With the Chiefs, you have to pick your poison; you have to accept that they will move the ball. The Ravens do not have the talent to play the Chiefs the way the Buccaneers did in the Super Bowl. This means making difficult choices between what you think is the lesser of two evils, knowing you will lose battles, but not too many so that you lose the war.
The Ravens have to do something to surprise Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy. Last year, the Chiefs attacked the Ravens relentlessly. They emptied their playbook and chose to attack the attacking defense. Doing something different in terms of blitzing a whole lot less than normal, would be one way to do this, but I would actually advocate not changing up the predominantly man coverage scheme.
Mahomes will gladly carve up a zone defense all game long. If given even a modicum of time, he will easily dissect even the most complex zone coverage. He’ll also beat man coverage with ridiculous throws into tight coverage that are almost unstoppable. So, you have to pick your poison.
Reid has created a scheme over many years based loosely on the West Coast Offense at its heart but it is, really, a modified, on-steroids version of the West Coast Offense. Like a collection of Christmas decorations built up over a lifetime and thrown on to an obviously over-decorated, buckling-under-its-own-weight tree, Reid’s West Coast Christmas Tree is now covered from head to toe in accumulated proven plays and concepts from a career’s worth of excellence. Check out the story about how he took a play from the janitor if you’re not familiar, and realize that Reid will take inspiration from anywhere and anytime throughout the history of football to design a game plan to beat you.
Reid’s offense is predominantly built around speed and spacing, therefore the additional problem you have, when in zone coverage, is the way Kelce and Hill are used in tandem with each other and the way both of them defeat zone coverage with absurd regularity. The Chiefs have numerous packages for them both lined up on the same side of the field. They flood zones with dangerous precision and they will use one to bait you into uncovering the other. They are both experts at finding soft spots in the zone and run plenty of option routes to help beat zone coverage. Finally, they can often both be used as decoys for others.
This is why the Ravens should stick to their man principles and ask Mahomes to make crazy throw after crazy throw to win the day. Even without Marcus Peters, the Ravens’ strength on defense is still their DBs. Playing man coverage is not the perfect bet but it is the best bet for this team to beat the Chiefs. Just expect to see a fair number of heartbreakingly ridiculous completions from Mahomes.
When in man coverage, the Ravens must be patient on both Kelce and Hill, as they both have lots of disguise on their routes and often the first few moves they make aren’t an indicator of what their final route/assignment will be. Disciplined, fundamentally sound coverage does have the potential to perturb Mahomes, as he isn’t infallible and can get frustrated when the offense isn’t in a rhythm.
Bracketing both Kelce and Hill is also an option that I’d like to see explored now that the rest of the Chiefs’ Wide Receiver corps leaves something to be desired. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is still a dangerous receiving threat but if DeMarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman end up gashing the Ravens defense, that has a more wide range of outcomes where the Ravens win the war, than if Kelce and Hill are the heaviest contributors.
I’d also like to see the Ravens using a heavy dose of funneling – that means getting their corners to consistently play with outside leverage and keep everything between the numbers. This is a necessary additional measure to condense the field when consistently dropping seven defenders into coverage; lots of traffic in a confined space is even harder to decipher. Not to mention the fact that Hill’s most explosive plays are often outside the numbers.
How to attack the Chiefs’ Offensive Line
Clearly crucial to this battle plan is an ability to pressure Mahomes without blitzing. The Ravens struggled mightily to get pressure on Monday night in the desert, even with exotic blitz packages. Having watched the Chiefs’ Offensive Line in Week 1 though, there is a recipe for success that the Ravens might be able to use.
The interior of this Chiefs new-look Offensive Line was remarkably stout. Rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith held up remarkably well and Joe Thuney looked like an inspired pick-up. The problem, evident to any casual observer of Sunday’s game, was on the edges.
Orlando Brown Jr. was the big off-season addition, so got the most attention for his scrambled protection against Myles Garrett’s speed rush. While Brown clearly struggled with Garrett, many of those ugly-looking blocks were actually functional. And Garrett didn’t often change it up, which was odd to me. It was only when you looked to the other side of the line that you started to see the real plan.
Mahomes is outstanding rolling to his right and throwing deep, off-platform. Rolling to his left he can be equally dangerous but he often rolls to scramble this way, or if rolling to pass, it takes him longer to torque his body into position, and with a higher propensity for inaccuracy.
If your pass rushers both challenge the edge with a speed rush and meet in the middle, Mahomes can step up and often out to the right, to create one of his signature wow moments outside the pocket. The Browns therefore attacked Lucas Niang, also a first year starter after an opt-out rookie year, differently. While they consistently tried to go around Brown Jr., they consistently tried, and succeeded, to go through or inside Niang. Niang struggled mightily, I would argue more than Brown, and looks to be the big weak link on this line.
One of the Ravens’ bright spots from Monday night was Odafe Oweh. I’d start working him in tandem with Justin Houston and/or Pernell McPhee. Oweh can challenge Brown Jr.’s edge while Houston/McPhee can try to go through Niang, replicating the Browns’ pincer movement.
The other key for the Ravens defensive line: disciplined back-side pursuit to account for the Chiefs’ most explosive running plays – reverses to Hill, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire running the bend on outside zone runs.
Sammy Watkins vs L’Jarius Sneed
Sammy Watkins seemed to have developed the beginnings of a rapport with Lamar Jackson on Monday night. It is likely that the Chiefs will once again look to take away Mark Andrews as they did last year. They also focused a good amount of attention on Marquise Brown, betting that nobody else could get open against man coverage. It worked, but the Ravens didn’t have Watkins last year. He knows how to get open against man coverage, he’s done it his entire career and has often shown up in big games. This is a big game and it’s against his former team. If he’s getting open against L’Jarius Sneed and Lamar is targeting him, good things could be happening for the Baltimore passing offense.