After a great start to the 2020 season, the Kansas City Chiefs defense took a step back in its second game. Missed tackles, slow identification and sloppy run fits made for a poor performance for large stretches of their game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
This week, they get a team that can make them pay dearly for those same mistakes in the Baltimore Ravens.
Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman have been a match made in heaven for the Ravens offense. Their heavy personnel, diverse run packages and dangerous deep threats make for a difficult ask for any defense, leaving Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs will quite the task on their hands.
With that in mind, let’s dig into the Ravens personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and get ahead of one of the most threatening challengers to the top seed in the AFC.
Jackson is the reigning NFL MVP, and he’s started off the 2020 season well. He’s always a dangerous player with his legs, but has taken some strides as a passer thus far this year. He hasn’t turned the ball over often in his career, but he is a bit susceptible to taking some sacks while trying to create outside of structure.
The Ravens have a three-headed monster at running back, and they appear to be riding the hot hand each week. Mark Ingram is a solid veteran presence that gets the most consistent touches in the offense. He tallied a touchdown on the ground and through the air against the Houston Texans in Week 2. Veteran Gus Edwards and rookie J.K. Dobbins have split the remaining reps so far this season, with Dobbins getting the bulk of the Week 1 touches and Edwards getting the Week 2 touches.
The Ravens wide receiving corps is very young and reasonably solid without a true superstar. Marquise Brown is the closest Baltimore has to a top-end wide receiver, and Jackson looks his way often. He’s gotten six targets each game — good for 25% of Jackson’s attempts. Another second-year wide receiver is a Jackson favorite in Miles Boykin. Boykin is a tough, big-bodied receiver that can pull in contested catches. Veteran Willie Sneed is still providing a third option for Jackson while rookies Devin Duvernay and James Proche — both quality route runners — are developing in Baltimore.
At tight end, Mark Andrews is an absolute matchup nightmare. He is a fantastic blocker with the speed and hands to be a threat on any route. Baltimore lines Andrews up as an in-line blocker, out wide, as an H-Back, and in their pistol formations. The Chiefs will have to keep an eye on him, as he’ll be a featured weapon in any alignment. Nick Boyle is more of a blocking tight end than a receiver, and the Ravens will align him with fullback Patrick Ricard to pave the way for Jackson and their running backs.
The Ravens have a fairly strong offensive line. Orlando Brown and Ronnie Stanley line up at offensive tackle, and both are considered among the best at their positions. Bradley Bozeman has looked fantastic through two weeks this season and looks to have taken a big step for the Ravens at the left guard position. If there is a spot that the Chiefs may be able to target, it’s veteran center Matt Skura and rookie right guard Tyre Phillips. Skura is a fine center but has shown weakness against some high level rushers — like Chris Jones. Phillips is a rookie and will be put to the test by Spagnuolo with blitzes, stunts and simulated pressures.
The offensive concept: Pistol sweep/split-zone with jet motion
BAL loves their pistol looks, and they're fantastic with misdirection out of it.— Craig Stout (@barleyhop) September 24, 2020
- 22p forces base D
- Split-zone look keeps MIKE and WILL plugged
- QB reads DE pushing on the dive
- Jet motion doesn't influence DE, puts a blocker in space
- QB keeps for big gain on sweep pic.twitter.com/CiUHuIg6DD
The Ravens have fully embraced the pistol offense since Jackson’s arrival, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman is extremely creative with it’s usage. The Ravens love to utilize it with 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver) as well, as the play above highlights.
The play call is a split zone look for the two backs, with the fullback climbing to the WILL linebacker. Jackson has a sweep option attached to the play, predicated on how the defensive end reacts to the third component of the play: the jet motion.
If the defensive end tries to chip the end and knife upfield, Jackson hands the ball off and the back can hit the B-gap with blockers well into the third level. However, if the defensive end stays home — like the play shown above — Jackson pulls the ball and keeps it on the sweep with a blocking tight end in space in front of him.
The WILL linebacker — Zach Cunningham — actually does an excellent job plugging the initial gap and chasing Jackson to the sideline. While it’s a first-down conversion, Cunningham prevents this play from an even bigger gain. The Chiefs linebackers don’t have the same combination of quick identification and range that Cunningham possesses, making this option combination particularly dangerous if it crops up on Sunday.
The bottom line
The Baltimore Ravens are a very good football team and a particularly dynamic offense. Roman and Jackson are a particularly dangerous combination for defensive coordinators and require a grade-A game plan to beat, as the past two years have demonstrated.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, Steve Spagnuolo is capable of such a game plan. In their matchup last season, Spagnuolo did an excellent job crashing his defensive ends on the option and exchanging gaps with linebackers on the outside. This forced Jackson to cut back into the alley and allowed the pursuit safeties and linebackers to make the stop. On the more “traditional” run plays, Spagnuolo held the point of attack with two heavier defensive tackles and plugged the interior gaps with their heavier linebackers, forming a wall.
In the passing game, the Chiefs will have to lean on their high football IQ in the front to have success. Rushers will have to stay sound in their rush lanes, keeping Jackson in the pocket. Kansas City’s linebackers will have to drop quickly and stay sound in their hook zone spacing — where Andrews will operate — to collapse on the catch point and limit extra yardage.
I like the matchup on the outside for the Chiefs. L’Jarius Sneed matches up well with Brown, particularly on deeper routes. Charvarius Ward’s physicality should counter Boykin’s as well, affording Spagnuolo the ability to trust his cornerbacks in single coverage when they receive those matchups. I also like Chris Jones’ matchup on the inside on passing downs against Skuda and a rookie guard. This could afford both edge rushers solo matchups on the outside, which may mean big games from Frank Clark and Tanoh Kpassagnon.
If the Chiefs linebackers can step their game up in a big moment — plugging gaps and making secure tackles — the defense has the ability to slow down the Ravens, similar to the Week 3 matchup in 2019. However, if the defense shows up with a similar execution to that of last week’s game, Jackson and Roman could make for a long night on Monday.