The Baltimore Ravens currently boast the top-rated defense in the NFL by many metrics including points against, yards allowed and points per drive. They have given up 24 or more points only three times this entire season and haven’t done so since late October against the Carolina Panthers.
The Kansas City Chiefs offense is one of, if not the best, in the NFL, ranking first, second or third in all of those same categories that tout the Ravens as the top defense. The Chiefs haven’t scored 24 or less points a single time this season and only under 30 points twice. This game is two units of football that are objectively in the elite category against each other.
This is going to be a massive chess match between an offensive coaching staff that has excelled picking apart defenses and generating favorable matchups and a defensive coaching staff that has found a way to force nearly every offense out of rhythm. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes spoke to the media about how this Ravens’ defense will be a huge test. Both Mahomes and Reid touched upon the Ravens unique style of defense and the pressure it places on a quarterback:
“He will have a nice test this week with what they give him,” said Reid. “That is one of the tougher things to do with all the different protections you have. Calculating in that split second, diagnosing it, then making things happen.
With the respect the Chiefs have for the Ravens defense and the praise for the Chiefs offense was sent back to them from the Ravens staff, it’s time to head down into the AP Laboratory and break down this vaunted Ravens defense.
Baltimore Ravens defense
The Ravens, like much of their defense, have a slightly different way of choosing their personnel packages. They look to match offensive personnel, but it’s equally important to them to rotate players often and have ever-changing fronts.
They have a deep rotation of five defensive linemen that all play about half the snaps to keep them fresh but they also utilize larger EDGE players. These bigger EDGE players blend a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 defense end, which allow them to lose an interior defensive lineman in a nickel package but still play without a “light front.”
Their secondary rotation is heavier on the cornerbacks than it is on safeties, which does allow more flexibility in their coverage. Normally, a team opts to bring a safety into the nickel, especially heavy nickel, in order to play the run and pass equally well. Baltimore, however, often plays with that heavier front and asks them to occupy space and blockers. This frees up the linebackers to roam freer against the run placing less stress on the nickel back in the run game.
The downside to this heavier front, especially one that two-gaps so often, is that they’re one-on-one pass rushing ability isn’t great.
Their pressure from the front four or even five is often a slow bleed that compresses the pocket rather than players quickly beating their blocker. To counteract this, the Ravens have a very creative and deep blitz package that they dial up well. They aren’t scared to blitz on any down or distance or to call a Cover-0 (man coverage on every receiving option, everyone else rushing the passer) or bring a number of defensive backs.
Some blitzes are designed to be quick and off the edge while others involved delays, stunts and twists. Matt Judon and Terrell Suggs provide the most consistent pass rush for the Ravens, both coming off the edge, but it really is a team effort on the pass rush.
Their coverage behind the pass rush is most often man with a single-high safety, but they are not married to the coverage. They can go an entire game man to man only to drop into a static Cover-2 on an important third down or visa versa. Their coverage shells really are multiple and not only change within a game, but also week to week, their identity may alter as well. The CB tandem of Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith challenge wide receivers throughout their routes but also play very aggressively in all coverage, allowing big plays from time to time. Eric Weddle usually mans the deep post and while he is an extremely good and heady player, he’s lost a step since he last played within the AFC West.
The Ravens’ run defense is one of the last remaining two-gap systems that ask the interior defensive linemen to control the gaps to either side of their blocker. There isn’t a ton of penetration by their line of scrimmage players, but they do a good job eating up single and double blocks, allowing their linebackers to flow to the ball cleanly and quickly. It takes a ton of patience as well as discipline to execute this gap control system and it has bit the Ravens a few times this year.
Brandon Williams is the star in the middle of this two gap system with surprising quickness for his size. Behind him, CJ Mosely is a rangy linebacker that can come downhill with the best of them. When Mosely and rookie LB Kenny Young are kept clean and allowed to pursue, they are hard to escape.
Beat the pressure
The Chiefs’ most important task will be handling the pressure packages of the Ravens and getting their protection calls right against the blitz. Whether they plan to attack the blitz with quick passes in the holes vacated or try to protect the blitz and get them over the top, the key will be to handle the pressure.
The Chiefs protection calls will have to be on their Ps and Qs against the Ravens. First down, first play of the game and the Ravens come out with a Cover 0 blitz w/ a LB on a green dog. Matt Ryan IDs it and gets the ball out quick for a moderate gain, Chiefs will have to as well pic.twitter.com/grXoG8ZknB— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 6, 2018
The Ravens telegraph this blitz in subtle ways but it’s the little stuff the Chiefs will have to pick up on. With six players crowding the LoS, plus a Mike linebacker, the protection already has to account for seven potential rushers. This means that the running back is going to responsible for a guy/gap and the quarterback will be responsible for at least one player who will be unblocked if everyone rushes.
It will be up to Mahomes and Mitch Morse to get these protection calls correct, then up to Mahomes to get through his reads before the unaccounted for player can reach him.
Coverage shell game
When blitzing or not, the Chiefs’ next most important goal has to be to identify the coverage and properly attack it. The Ravens, unlike many teams, don’t follow a specific pattern, so pure man beating or zone beat route combinations across the board aren’t always doable. The Chiefs will need to split the field into a man-beating concept and a zone beating concept opposite of it. Patrick Mahomes will then have to read the defense pre and post-snap to determine where he starts with his progressions.
Chiefs should use trips, stacks, and tight alignments with switch releases off the LoS to put the Ravens DBs in trail. Balt will play zone if they see a steady dose of these free man releases, but forcing them to play left handed is a win for KC. pic.twitter.com/LhSBoYAYfO— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 6, 2018
This is a Tare route combination, it essentially has a clear-out fade with a two-level read underneath it for the quarterback. The fade takes away any player with a deep-zone responsibility, trying to create stress on the flat or buzz defender underneath it. On the back side of the passing strength, trips receiver alignment is a tag for the X wide receiver based on how the cornerback plays them. It’s often a slant but can be one of many man-beating routes. The Oakland Raiders ran this from a trips formation with a tight split that actually created a little bit of a natural rub which made the combination equally good against man and zone.
The Chiefs would be smart to incorporate plays designed to take advantage of both coverage shells whether splitting the field in half or using these bunched sets to get natural rubs for what is normally a zone beating route.
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To help Mahomes with the identification process, the Chiefs should use pre-snap motion to determine man or zone coverage. Additionally, they should manipulate the pre-snap alignment to help force the Ravens into showing their coverage. The use of trips, stacks and tight formations will force defenders to change their alignment which can key their coverage call. The Chiefs should also dial back into the empty sets and get all five receivers out of the backfield.
Would love to see the Chiefs go back to the empty sets a ton this week. The Ravens defense is big, strong, and physical but susceptible to speed and being spread out. That and the empty sets make IDing coverage easier and create natural rub routes. pic.twitter.com/01ZLoq5KAR— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 6, 2018
The availability of Sammy Watkins plays a large role in how effective the Chiefs empty sets can be, but even without him, they should look to around 10 snaps from empty. Not only does it force the Ravens to show man or zone, it also puts all the defenders in space. The Ravens defense is very stout and physical but does have some weakness to overall team speed. Going empty should help the Chiefs take advantage of that as well as initiate natural rub routes within the context of the route combinations.
Know the Ravens’ weak points
The Ravens defense fares very well against outside receivers or what is termed a team’s top two receivers, as well as running backs in the passing game. Where they struggle a quite a bit more is with a third wide receiver, often when lined up in the slot and tight ends.
Oh, Travis Kelce repeat performance? pic.twitter.com/01Akw0ZsLY— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 7, 2018
The Chiefs should heavily rely on Travis Kelce, esepicially when the Ravens try to get Kenny Young in coverage against him. Beyond Kelce, the combination of Watkins and Chris Conley should find some space to work over the middle as well as Demetrius Harris getting loose for a second game in a row.
Use over-pursuit against them
When a defensive lineman is looking to control two gaps, he can often disengage to the gap a running back looks like he is aiming for. The linebacker behind them is also in control of attacking that gap, so you end up with two players in the same gap. It works great when the runner actually goes to that gap, but a savvy running back with good vision sees this happen they can cut against the grain. Baltimore forces a ton of negative and short plays to the play side of the run action but a running back, who stays patient and presses the line of scrimmage without committing to the hole can open a cut to the backside of the run.
The Ravens run defense is aggressive and prone to over-pursue runs, especially when in in a nickel personnel. They often have two DL or a tight from from three DL and they will crash into the blocks trying to squeeze outside. RBs have to be aware and look to cut behind the BS DT. pic.twitter.com/lFWWjdsBHP— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) December 6, 2018
The nose tackle and back-side defensive end read the zone step from the blockers and try to attack the blocks directly, even at the lateral angle. This ensures they can release, or attempt to release, both to the play side of the blocker and the back side rather than get sealed away from the play. What can happen is a good offensive linemen will drop their play-side shoulder and hip and try to torque you further play side if they know they can’t seal you away from it. They are essentially washing you down the line of scrimmage allowing the running back to cut off their backside hip. As a running back, you can’t explode into the first daylight you see but rather be patient pressing up to the line of scrimmage and forcing those two-gapping defensive linemen to commit before you do.
The bottom line
This is a very good Ravens defense that is going to test the Chiefs offense at all levels.
The gameplan is more about identifying their coverage in various manners and how to disrupt their physical play rather than a specific attack. The reason for this is because of how often the Ravens defense changes from week to week or drive to drive.
Due to that multiple scheme and varied philosophy, the Chiefs have to focus on identifying the coverage before they can commit to a plan of attack.
Team speed is often what gives the Ravens the most trouble through the years and that’s something the Chiefs do have in spades. As Reid and Mahomes spoke about, this is a playoff type of test for the Chiefs offense.