On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will face their sternest test of the young season against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have classically had a great defense that makes life rough on the opposition’s quarterback — but in 2019, their offense is no slouch, either.
Through two games, the Ravens have moved the ball easily against a bad Miami Dolphins team and a rebuilding Arizona Cardinals team. Steve Spagnuolo’s defense will also be their best test of the season.
We know the quarterback is dynamic and the running game is very good — but where else are the Ravens dangerous? We’ll take a look at their personnel — and a concept we will likely see on Sunday — and then discuss what the Chiefs can do to slow down the Ravens’ attack.
If it weren’t for Patrick Lavon Mahomes, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson might be the biggest NFL story of the season thus far. Jackson is averaging 298 yards passing and 63 yards rushing per game — and he’s thrown seven touchdowns. He’s also boasting a 72% completion rate and 10.5 yards per attempt. His evolution as a passer is nothing short of extraordinary — and he poses a major threat to this Chiefs defense.
The Ravens boast a solid running back room, which is led by former New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram. He’s got a 5.7 yards per carry average and has found the end zone twice. Gus Edwards has split some of the early-down carries with Ingram. Speedy rookie Justice Hill is still being integrated into the offense, but he carries big-play potential on every touch.
At wide receiver, the Ravens rotate two rookies and two veterans. Willie Snead still has the ability to take the top off of a defense, and Seth Roberts is a solid possession receiver. Rookie Miles Boykin is a fast, big-bodied receiver (6 feet 4 and 220 pounds), who will be a matchup problem — particularly in the red zone.
However, the major story for the receiving corps is first-round rookie Marquise Brown — also known by his nickname “Hollywood.”
Brown has rocketed onto the scene with 233 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his first two games. That’s very good, but his average of 19.4 yards per catch is eye-popping. The Ravens will try to get him into space as often as they can. He’s going to be a problem in downfield coverage.
The Ravens are no stranger to multiple-tight end sets, so expect to see plenty of Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst. Andrews has been the star of the group, hauling in 16 catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns on the season. On some of Spagnuolo’s trademark safety blitzes, Andrews could be a matchup problem for the Chiefs linebacker corps.
The Ravens field a strong offensive line to match up with the Chiefs strong defensive line. First-round pick Ronnie Stanley lines up at left tackle, where he consistently grades out as a strong blocker. Last year’s third-round pick Orlando Brown Jr. may be remembered for an awful combine performance, but he’s played well at right tackle for the Ravens.
13-year veteran Marshal Yanda leads the interior of the offensive line at right guard. He’s been a staple since 2007 and helps organize their offensive front. Bradley Bozeman is the Ravens’ left guard — and also backs up Matt Skura at center. Having played together for the past couple years, the Ravens offensive line is a very cohesive unit.
The offensive concept: Pistol Arc Read
The pistol arc read makes scrape exchanges very difficult and puts an extra blocker in front of the zone read option.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 19, 2019
Unblocked DE crashes on the RB dive, so QB keeps. FB/H-back blocks scrape exchange LB, OT climbs to MIKE. QB has blockers and space in front of him. pic.twitter.com/Vb6shvzgT6
The Ravens are a threat with their deep passing ability, but their running game is the engine that makes the offense move.
Last year, I discussed the scrape exchange as a means to defending the zone-read option. This will also be important while defending the Ravens’ Pistol Arc Read.
The Ravens like to run this concept out of 21 and 22 personnel, lining up a fullback or an H-back in the backfield beside Jackson. The running back aligns behind Jackson — which makes it difficult to predict the direction of the potential running play.
Off the snap, the running back executes a dive, aiming for the open B-gap between the 1-technique and the defensive end. The quarterback reads the unblocked defensive end’s first steps. If the end gets upfield, the quarterback hands off to the back. Otherwise, he keeps it.
Here, we see the end crash on the back, so the back pinches inside to the A-gap, forcing the end to crash further inside and open up the C-gap. All of this is similar to a traditional zone-read play.
The fullback adds the extra wrinkle to the play. Coming across the back side of the formation, the fullback is able to get out wide on the force defender. As the offensive tackle climbs to the second-level linebacker, this creates a big running lane that eliminates a defense’s ability to successfully execute a scrape exchange.
There are a number of ways to defend this — starting with the defensive end getting upfield toward the quarterback.
On this play, the defense has an unblocked linebacker who screams through the B-gap. This is because the defense is entering into a positive shift, aligning the apex with the linebackers to become the new force defender. When this shift occurs, the front can alert the defensive end — having him force the dive by getting upfield — knowing that the unblocked linebacker can pursue from the back side and help shut down the gap.
When that occurs, the Ravens may opt to drop the motion man and force the defense to play without the extra defender in the box. In that scenario, it’s almost better scenario to have the defensive end collapse on the dive each play, forcing the quarterback to keep the ball. In that scenario, the WILL linebacker has to attack upfield to either force the cutback into the teeth of the defense or string the play along to the edge — where the apex and boundary corner can offer run support.
The bottom line
The Ravens offense is dynamic — and the problem isn’t just the quarterback.
Baltimore could easily line up in heavy personnel and have Ingram shoulder the load, mixing in some deep play-action passes to Brown, Snead, and Boykin. With that kind of game plan, the Ravens might be able to dictate the pace on that side of the ball — especially on a potentially rainy day.
But we’ve seen the Chiefs defense play gap-sound football the first two weeks of the year. That discipline might be the biggest key to a victory this week. On early downs, closing run lanes and forcing cutbacks (or stringing the play to the sideline) can help eliminate the read-option. Staying disciplined in the pass-rushing lanes will be important as well, as the Chiefs don’t want Lamar Jackson breaking the pocket in third-and-long situations.
I do think the Chiefs front will bring some bigger blitzes against Jackson this week. He has a tendency to try to find space with his legs to hit the deeper pass. That means blitzing him with good gap discipline that can make quarterback hits add up — particularly if the defense is forcing him to keep it on zone-read plays.
The Ravens have a good offense. Because of their speed and dynamic nature, I do expect them to get loose on a few plays this week. But if the Chiefs can play with good gap control — and force a couple of extra hits on Jackson early — we may see a few more mistakes that the defense can transform into turnovers.