Last time the Kansas City Chiefs took on the Baltimore Ravens, it was only the third-ever game as a Chiefs player for key defenders like pass-rusher Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu. It was the first game that Mathieu made a game-changing impact in Kansas City. He totaled two passes defended, including one that should have been his first interception for his new team. Those plays helped the Chiefs secure a 33-28 victory.
Only a year later, Clark and Mathieu feel like long-time Chiefs while the Ravens feel exponentially more dominant and dangerous than they did in Week 3 of 2019. It all sets up for the most anticipated game of the NFL season so far. The vocal leader of the defense is taking in the hype.
“This is a big-time football game, there’s no way around it,” Mathieu declared to reporters during his Friday press conference. “Monday Night Football, playing against Super Bowl contenders, playing against a team that has really won most of their games since Lamar [Jackson] has taken over quarterback. For me, it’s any other game — but the emphasis is that there’s only one first-round bye this year. I think all these conference games are important, especially when you’re playing against teams that you know are going to have the chance to take that spot.”
Mathieu makes a noteworthy point. This season, seven teams from the AFC will make the postseason — meaning that only the first seed earns a bye-week during Wild Card weekend. The Ravens were able to beat out the Chiefs last season even with a head-to-head loss, emphasizing the importance of getting a leg up.
They earned the first seed because of quarterback Lamar Jackson. In his second professional season, Jackson took the league by storm and won the MVP award. He was an unproven commodity the last time these two teams faced, but now, his greatness will motivate the All-pro safety that opposes him in Week 3.
“It’ll be a great challenge for me,” Mathieu vowed. “Obviously [Jackson]’s one of the best players in this league... you can see him really beginning to develop, he’s able to read different coverages. I think deep down inside, he wants to be a pocket passer, he really wants to prove that part of his game. Anytime you compete against somebody of that caliber, especially under the bright lights, in my mind it’s always going to bring the best in me, so I’m expecting the best from him and hopefully, it’s a good game.”
Viewers are surely in for a tightly-contested, exciting battle — but it’s not as likely if the Chiefs play similarly to their overtime win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2. The Ravens will pounce and take advantage of the lack of execution if so. Mathieu was upset after a seemingly good performance in Week 1, and Week 2 didn’t change his mind much.
“I’m still kind of pissed, but I’m definitely encouraged,” Mathieu shared. “I wouldn’t say that I’m discouraged. I know the guys that we have in our room, I know the coaches we have, and I know we’ll be able to adjust and get it right. So I’m not worried about that, obviously we had high expectations coming into the season to try our best to live up to the standard we set last season. We have to dig a little deeper.”
Digging deeper is all about effort, and tackling is a skill that is helped by great effort. The Chiefs had an ugly tackling performance against the Chargers, and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo isn’t willing to chalk up the sloppiness to the elimination of preseason.
“We talked extensively about [tackling] the other day... You can’t tackle what you can’t see,” Spagnuolo began during his own presser on Friday. “That’s a basic, right? You’ve got to have your pad level low. You can’t arm-tackle in this league, because NFL ball carriers run through those. Certainly we can’t be dipping our eyes — all those fundamental things... You brought up the point about the preseason games. But I’ve said this before: we’re not going to use any of that as an excuse. We have to find a way to tackle better.”
Sometimes though, effort pails in comparison to the importance of understanding the defensive scheme. Rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. has yet to make a significant impact on the defensive side of the ball. He saw his first snaps at linebacker in Week 2, and looked uncomfortable.
“About Willie, we always have hopes of playing as many guys as we can,” Spagnuolo assured. “I think he’s progressed really well. You know, you have guys in there that are a little more experienced. The position that he plays, there’s some adjustments that you have to go through. He’ll find his way in there. We’re hopeful to continue to add on plays and reps in practice and then find his way into the game.”
His athleticism at the linebacker position would be a huge plus to have on the field against a team that loves to use misdirection and their speed to win off the edge of a defense.
Gay’s athleticism may be on the field against Baltimore, even if the second-round rookie isn’t ready: Dime linebacker Dorian O’Daniel missed Friday’s practice with a knee designation. His athletic skillset has mostly been used to spy an opposing, athletic quarterback. In his absence, is Gay trusted to execute in those scenarios — against arguably the best rushing quarterback in NFL history?
It will take the help of veterans like Mathieu to play at their best, hopefully making up for the mishaps that are bound to happen when a first-year player’s first big chance comes against an opponent that can put a rookie like Gay in a mental pretzel.
It won’t always look good for either side of the ball on Monday night. The Ravens are a great team, and should give the Chiefs as big a battle as they’ve had in the past year or so. The defense has a daunting task ahead of them. However, with as explosive of an offense as they have on their side, they just need to come up with a few big plays when the opportunities present themselves.