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How the Chiefs offense beats the Ravens defense

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The Ravens’ zone coverage can be attacked by the Chiefs’ wide array of weapons

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens played a tight game last year that resulted in a 27-24 Chiefs victory in overtime.

The Chiefs’ offense in last year’s game had one of its more pedestrian outings and is often referred to as one of the “worst” performances by Kansas City since the start of the 2018 season. The Ravens’ philosophy on defense has always been to play hard and throw a lot at opposing offenses and when a younger quarterback like Patrick Mahomes is across from it, things normally hedge the Ravens way. Last year took some late-game heroics, outstanding no-look passes and a gritty performance by Tyreek Hill for the Chiefs offense to score enough points to win the game.

This year, the Chiefs are hoping to not need to rely on such late-game heroics to win, but rather find their offensive footing earlier in the game. The Ravens defense — through two games — hasn’t faced a top-notch challenge yet, so they haven’t had to put a whole lot on film.

Down in the Arrowhead Pride Laboratory, this week’s film session focuses on how to attack the Ravens match-zone coverage and how the Arizona Cardinals were able to have success doing so in Week 2.

Ravens defense

Personnel

Baltimore Ravens v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Along the front seven, the Ravens had quite a few key departures this past offseason, losing two of their top three rushers in Zardarius Smith and Terrell Suggs, as well as losing their star linebacker, C.J. Mosely. The front line is still incredibly stout with the likes of Brandon Williams, Mike Pierce and Chris Wormley — all providing good anchors and power.

The edge is being held by Matt Judon and Pernell McPhee, who also happen to be good power rushers that reduce pocket space and do a good job of peeling off for late pressure. The Ravens don’t rely on one-on-one pressure to produce their pass rush, but rather a combination of blitzes and players working together. The linebacker group for the Ravens plays fast but are still adapting to losing their leader in Mosely and have a tendency to get drawn out of position against play action.

The Ravens secondary is where the strength of their team lies, even after losing Eric Weddle — whom they replaced with Earl Thomas — as they return all the cornerbacks of the talented unit.

Marlon Humphrey is working his way up the list of the best cornerbacks in the NFL while Brandon Carr provides steady, good play across from him. Second-year defensive back Anthony Averett is a good nickelback, while the tandem of Tony Jefferson and Earl Thomas provide contrasting styles at safety. The Ravens are kind of the poster boy in the NFL for keeping teams guessing about their coverage shells. They will play static zone, pattern-match zone and man coverage based on the tendencies they see of their upcoming opponents, while still utilizing tendency breakers to keep offenses guessing.

Pattern-match coverage

The more common zone defense run by the Ravens is pattern-match zone — as it allows for more dynamic play — and they don’t discriminate from single-high or two-high safety shells. So far this year, the split between three-match, single-high safety and Match Quarters with two high safeties has been almost even for the Ravens. While the goal of pattern-matching zone is to eliminate the obvious holes in the zone coverage, a quality offense can still take advantage of it.

The one downside to having such a deep playbook as a defense is simply not having perfect execution on everything. A defense as varied as pattern match requires a lot of drill time and practice.

This is a Match Quarters defense that appears to be based out of the four-read principles. Given that it is trips to one side of the field, there is likely a tag onto the coverage for that side of the field, helping the defenders cover all the receivers.

The Ravens appear to be playing a special coverage technique that has the outside cornerback read the receivers from inside out, while the nickel cornerback has to read the inner-most receiver as well but has to match the middle receiver until the linebacker can get to him. That cornerback is responsible for picking up an in-breaking route from the outside wide receiver. As the slot wide receiver gets vertical, the safety over the top retreats to the hole in the middle of the field and without any underneath carrying cornerback, the wide receiver is wide open on the corner route.

When a team runs so many types of coverage, it is hard to have all the rules correct on every single play and every single adjustment down. Both the slot and outside cornerback realize that there is no bracket under the corner route, but it’s too late while the strong-side safety didn’t allow the free safety to cover the hole in the middle of the field.

The Ravens lean a little more on Three Match coverage (think Nick Saban’s defense), in which one safety rolls down into intermediate zone earlier on in games when offenses aren’t in pure passing downs. This asks all the deep defenders to cover more ground but allows for more flexibility underneath. The key with this RIP/LIZ type coverage is that the second-level defenders — often linebackers — have to carry vertical routes to the back line, or there will be open throwing windows. Like this seam route to the tight end, the windows won’t be huge but they will be present. If the Chiefs can hold the the defensive backs into the flats with their responsibilities, then it’s up to younger, less athletic linebackers to carry these vertical routes.

Here is another example of the Ravens’ RIP/LIZ coverage, only this time, the safety isn’t spinning to the box but rather playing a sink technique that takes away that high hole in the middle of the field. The deep cross concept runs right into this sink technique and the wide receiver going against the grain is easily picked up. The issue for Baltimore was that there was no one deep on the boundary side of the field, as the safety had to run under a post and the cornerback got caught looking into the flat. The WILL linebacker likely should be reading and buzzing out to the flat, but as the H-back leaks out wide, the cornerback still has his eyes on it while a deep cross comes in behind him.

Another thing worth noting on these last two plays is the use of the biltz by the Ravens’ defense. They are a very good team in terms of getting after the passer but they don’t rely on one-on-one skill but rather overloading pressures and bringing blitzes. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs will need to have their protection calls on point this game.

This play concept should seem extremely familiar to Chiefs fans — Sammy Watkins’ second TD against the Jacksonville Jaguars — but it’s a simple example of the protection holding while a team utilizes an athlete against a linebacker on a wheel route.

If the protection holds, when the Ravens get into these zone looks, using running backs or wide receivers on these long wheel routes can pull a linebacker into the flat, then force them to run vertically.

The bottom line

The Baltimore Ravens defense is one of the top groups in the NFL from the coaching staff down to the players’ execution. It almost seems like any player ran through that system comes out knowing how to play quality defense and can insert right into that group. Bundle that with playmakers like Thomas, Humphrey and Judon and you have an incredibly talented defense.

Buthere are still ways to attack their defense, and this year, the most successful time has been when they are in zone coverage. The Chiefs’ team speed should force the Ravens into more zone than most other opponents, and Andy Reid and the Chiefs have to be ready to punish them when they do.

Look for the Ravens to run these variations of pattern-matching zones and for the Chiefs to get after them. When the Ravens are spinning a safety down and leaving only three deep defenders, there will be holes up the seams for Mahomes to fire the ball into. As long the protection can hold up, deep crossing routes and disguised wheel routes can take advantage of these pattern-match zone rules as well.

The Chiefs have shown the ability and desire to utilize these same play concepts already in this early season, and they should continue to build on them against a Ravens team that does leave some holes in their zone coverage.