After one of the worst performances of the year, the Kansas City Chiefs defense gets to come back home to the warm confines of Arrowhead Stadium.
Unfortunately for them, a Baltimore Ravens offense that is predicated on the run awaits them, and the Chiefs’ run defense — ranked 32nd in DVOA — is a very poor matchup.
What can they do to try to come up with some stops this week?
Like we do every week, we’ll go through the opposition’s personnel, then dive into some of the things that showed up on the tape and where the Chiefs can find success in this week’s matchup!
The Ravens offense
Rookie Lamar Jackson leads the Ravens, replacing Joe Flacco. Jackson is the focal point of this pistol option offense. Averaging over 70 yards per game on the ground, the Ravens use the run to set up the pass. Jackson hasn’t broached the 200-yard mark through the air yet this year and has a completion percentage under 60 percent.
After starting running back Alex Collins went on injured reserve, the Ravens turned to rookie Gus Edwards to shoulder the load in the backfield. He’s eclipsed 100 yards rushing in two of the last three games, and is a key part of the Ravens option rush offense. Spelling him in the passing game is former Green Bay Packer Ty Montgomery. Montgomery is utilized pretty evenly in both the run and the pass.
The wide receiving corps has some talent with Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead — but with Jackson starting, they’ve received a total of 22 targets over the last 3 weeks. That’s just under 2.5 targets per receiver per game. Under Jackson, the big-play capability in the passing game has come from rookie tight end Mark Andrews. Nick Boyle has moved the chains well while being targeted underneath and has been utilized as a blocker. Rookie Hayden Hurst hasn’t been much of a factor with Jackson at the helm.
The Baltimore offensive line has played well as of late, adapting well to the change in quarterback and offensive philosophy. They rank among the league’s best in sacks allowed and in pressure rate, and they own the number seven rushing offense in the league. Ronnie Stanley and rookie Orlando Brown Jr. start at tackle for the Ravens. Marshal Yanda starts at right guard and Matt Skura is the Ravens center. Alex Lewis is struggling with a shoulder injury and may be replaced at left guard with former starting right tackle James Hurst, who has been out due to a nerve injury since Week 6.
How to defend
The pistol option
BAL could find plenty of success against slower KC linebackers with their Pistol Load Option. Ideally, the OT and the C can reach the second level, leaving Jackson to read the EDGE. The lead blocker can get in front of the Safety, and there should be one force defender to beat. pic.twitter.com/5HPVX8O2vn— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 6, 2018
The Ravens often use 12 personnel and line up the second tight end in the backfield to be utilized as a lead blocker as part of their pistol formations. In this example, the Ravens run the pistol load option to the field. The right tackle is supposed to get to the second level to seal the weak-side linebacker, while the center is supposed to climb to the second level for the strong-side linebacker. This leaves the play side edge defender unblocked, which is what the quarterback keys on to determine whether to keep the ball or toss it to the running back.
The Atlanta Falcons have quick linebackers, and both are able to beat the offensive lineman to get to the edge. The weak-side linebacker gets blocked by the slot wide receiver, but the strong side linebacker has an angle to the quarterback. The safety spins down and the lead blocker goes low, which slows the linebacker’s pursuit and forces him up and over the block to try to bring the runner down. The force defender stays outside of Jackson, keying on the running back and forcing the cutback by the quarterback, who is able to run through the linebacker’s tackle to the end zone.
The Falcons’ biggest problem on the play comes from the play side edge defender. By not reading his keys, he attacks an interior run that isn’t there, rather than identifying the direction of the play and attacking the quarterback or running back to force a commitment on the option early. Instead, the force defender has to respect the pitch all the way to the boundary — instead of being able to attack the play aggressively.
If KC plan to spy Jackson with a LB, they'll need to make sure to scrape exchange with the EDGE to help cover interior gaps on zone reads. The defense shifts the 3T to the TE, the LB reads and tracks to the edge, but that leaves the A gap open for the RB without the exchange. pic.twitter.com/LpO9yO1Q8M— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 6, 2018
In order to keep Jackson in check, the Chiefs may opt to utilize a spy to follow him around and key on his every move. To make the approach effective, they’ll need to make sure to implement scrape exchanges and backside gap-fills from their edge defenders and safeties.
In this play, the Falcons utilize a weak-side linebacker to spy Jackson. After the tight end shifts across the formation as an H-back, the Falcons shift the front to align a three-tech to the H-back. This shift isn’t well-communicated, because off the snap, the three-tech and the strong side edge defender end up in the same B-gap. The one-tech gets doubled out of the gap, and the weak-side linebacker collapses on the back side C-gap. That leaves nobody in the A-gap, and easy yardage up the middle of the defense.
The Ravens keyed on the Falcons’ tendency to spy Jackson on this play, and by watching the alignment of the strong side edge defender and the three-tech, the Ravens knew they had yardage up the middle even before the snap.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that this is a “prime Dorian O’Daniel game” because of his speed and his ability to track to the edges as a quarterback spy. While that may be the case, these two examples show the importance of the edge defenders in the run game this week. When playing against a read-option team, the defense has to attack one of the options and force the offense to react early in the development of the play, so the other defenders can key on what’s actually happening — rather than what might happen.
Defending the option, the Chiefs run a scrape exchange between Houston and DJ. Houston dives on the RB and DJ keys off of the QB. DJ's C/D fit helps string the play along on the QB keeper, and good backside fits would have swallowed up the RB. pic.twitter.com/U819swP7iR— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) August 6, 2018
The Chiefs have the capability to run scrape exchanges well — especially to Justin Houston’s side of the field — thanks to his ability to read the blocking scheme and react quickly. Here — with Houston collapsing on the running back immediately — the quarterback is forced into keeping the ball. Executing the exchange with the linebacker behind him, the quarterback is limited in his ability to get easy running yards.
Being patient and allowing the run game to develop in front of the defense can spell disaster this week. Simplifying the gap responsibilities — giving a player a single gap to target and attack, instead of forcing them to read multiple gaps and react to what they see — can allow the Chiefs to utilize more exchanges, and give them the ability to successfully spy Jackson in the run game.
Shot plays from play-action
As good as their run game is, the Ravens will set up some shot plays off of play-action out of 12 personnel. Here the two TEs run a 98 combination against Cover 2, stressing the DS and resulting in a wide open fade route. The dig opposite the TEs is there if the safeties rotate. pic.twitter.com/EXsOzMr0di— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 6, 2018
The Chiefs could find themselves playing a fair amount of zone this week, allowing the defenders to drop to their zone responsibilities and keep an eye in the backfield to defend the run. The Ravens will attack those zone shells with shot plays from play-action, and they’ll do it out of their 12 personnel.
Shown above, the Ravens run a fade/post route combination to the boundary opposite a dig against the Oakland Raiders’ Cover 2 shell. The run fake freezes the corner just long enough for the boundary tight end to get by him. With both a post and a fade to his side of the field, the stress is on the boundary safety as the field safety is sitting on the dig. He covers the post route instead of trying to keep a lid on the fade, and with the corner trailing the tight end, a huge play is given up.
While selling out to defend the run this week seems like a good idea on the surface, Baltimore’s offense has some definite big-play potential from play-action. It doesn’t happen particularly often, but the Chiefs safeties will need to make sure to process their keys quickly to identify these plays when they do.
Throwing back across the defense on the run
Jackson likes to roll right. BAL uses plenty of bootlegs, and he has a tendency to bail to that side when his first read is taken. Where he could find himself in trouble is a tendency to throw back across the defense after a rollout. KC could find success robbing MOF this week. pic.twitter.com/0RRe2ZiUPz— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) December 6, 2018
The Ravens like to get Jackson on the move in the passing game, and he’s comfortable moving to his right. But the Ravens tend to dial up bootlegs too often, which leads to Jackson bailing out of clean pockets to his right when his first read is gone. An even bigger problem is that Jackson has a tendency to throw back across the defense when he is on the run.
In the clips above, Jackson rolls right and throws some risky throws back across the field. While none result in an interception, all three of these throws have a high-risk factor. Jackson can revert to a low sidearm release on shorter throws, and if he can’t get his base fully set while on the run, that low release and lack of velocity can cause balls to float over the center of the field.
This week, the Chiefs will already want to bring a safety down into the box on most downs to help with the run. Having that safety — or another hook defender — rob the middle of the field on that kind of rollout could result in some easy interceptions as Jackson throws back across the defense.
The bottom line
The Ravens run game scares me.
The Chiefs slower inside linebackers and poor-tackling safeties are a recipe for disaster against an unpredictable pistol option offense. If the Chiefs play like they have against the run in most games this year — especially against 12 personnel where they’re giving up over five yards per carry — they’re in for some long, clock-killing drives.
The idea of utilizing O’Daniel as a spy is a good one. He’s one of the few that can run sideline to sideline with Jackson. However, the Chiefs will still need to spin another safety down into the box to account for interior and back-side runs from Jackson’s options. Sutton could employ a tactic similar to what he used in the Los Angeles Rams game: often blitzing a linebacker in the A-gaps to clog the middle of the offense.
This is a week where it is imperative that Justin Houston and Dee Ford show up in the run game. Reading their keys and attacking a single element of the option consistently can force the Ravens offense to become less dynamic in the run game. That, in turn, can help the rest of the defense rally to the other elements of the Ravens option run game, which could result in a few more stops on early downs.
Forcing the Ravens into obvious passing situations is key for the Chiefs defensive success this week. Jackson is susceptible to getting rattled by the Chiefs excellent pass rush, and that can force him to get careless with the ball — resulting in strip sacks as he’s trying to escape the pocket and interceptions as he’s throwing across the defense.
If the Chiefs can keep the Ravens run game from destroying them early, the Chiefs offense can get points on the board and force some urgency. If the Ravens panic and abandon the run to try to keep up with the high-powered Chiefs offense, this game will play right into the Chiefs’ hands.