As important as each game is in the National Football League, there are some that deserve an extra level of attention. From the teams’ perspectives, you take on each week one at a time — but certain games require multiple weeks or months of preparation because they are that important to win.
The Week 3 Monday Night Football battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens definitely meets that criteria. Both teams understand how significant a head-to-head win could be for playoff seeding. That leads me to believe that we haven’t seen the full extent of either team’s attack so far in 2020, as both coaches understand the advantage of not putting formations and plays on film.
We’ll see it all this week though. Expect some heightened play-calling creativity from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, and maybe a few special teams trick plays from Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. The contest should be an instant classic that lives up to every bit of hype its receiving.
I have five things to watch in a potential AFC championship preview:
1. Chiefs early-down defense
In 2019, the Ravens had the second-highest rate of converting third-down plays in the NFL. So far this season, they are converting 44% of their third-down plays — good for 15th out of all teams. They’ve had so much success on early downs that this reduction in conversion rate hasn’t hurt them yet this season, but they haven’t faced an opposing offense that can take advantage of a wasted possession like Kansas City’s.
Baltimore has attempted the 18th-most third-down conversions this season, a low ranking that proves their ability to avoid third down by succeeding on first and second down. If the Chiefs defense can tighten up on early downs by being stout against the run, getting pressure on passing plays, and coming up to tackle everything in front of them, they put the Ravens’ offense in maybe its only uncomfortable position: third-and-long.
It’s important to get in a third-and-long scenario rather than a short-yardage third down. The Ravens are not shy about going for it on short-yardage fourth downs, and they had a league-best 71% conversion rate on fourth downs last season. However, a forced incompletion on third-and-long will likely bring out the punting unit.
The more the Chiefs can force third-down conversion attempts from Baltimore, the better.
2. Attacking the Ravens’ off-ball linebackers
Two of the three main off-ball linebackers for the Ravens are rookies Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. The other is 30-year-old L.J. Fort. While Queen was a first-round pick and a draft crush for many Chiefs fans, he’s only playing in his third-ever live NFL action at 21 years old. All that to say: the second level of Baltimore’s defense is exploitable.
So far this season, Baltimore has allowed opposing tight ends to rack up 16 catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans. They’ll face their toughest test yet with tight end Travis Kelce coming up. Kelce has 15 catches, 140 receiving yards and two touchdowns himself in 2020.
It’s usually Kelce, but the Chiefs will need whoever the security blanket is for quarterback Patrick Mahomes to step up and make a play as the Ravens heavily blitz him. If that leaves rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire out in space with Patrick Queen, it won’t be the first time: the two are former college teammates from LSU.
While there will be opportunities to hit the long ball against the Ravens’ aggressive defense, the Chiefs should take advantage of the individual matchups with Baltimore linebackers.
3. Tyrann Mathieu vs. Mark Andrews
In the 2019 matchup between these two teams, safety Tyrann Mathieu saw the most targets out of all Chiefs defenders in coverage against Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. Andrews was able to catch two of the three targets for 10 yards total, and only one yard came after the catch. Mathieu nearly intercepted the third ball thrown his way. Basically, the Honey Badger was blanketing Andrews.
Andrews had a pretty good reputation as a player then, but he has ascended to become one of the best at his position in the league. He hauled in 10 touchdowns last season and already has three more this year. He does most of his damage in the middle of the field, where Chiefs linebackers will need to help too, but the Chiefs should rely on Mathieu to cover him up.
Mathieu mainly covers the slot position for the Chiefs, and Andrews has lined up there 66% of his snaps in 2020. Watch for this matchup to be one of the difference-making individual battles to determine this game.
4. Tyreek Hill
The last time wide receiver Tyreek Hill saw the field against the Ravens, he was on the receiving end of one of the crazier, more incredible highlights of Mahomes’ young career. The fourth-and-9 desperation heave against the Ravens in 2018 was one of multiple game-changing plays that Hill made that day to help Kansas City win 27-24 in overtime.
Hill missed the 2019 matchup due to a shoulder injury — and was actually hobbled during the 2018 contest as well. This season, there is no physical hampering to hold Hill back, and that will be key to countering the aggressive Ravens defense.
Baltimore will blitz as much and as randomly as any team in the NFL. With all the Chiefs weapons to account for, it will be hard to blitz and have a plan to contain each of the receiving threats. Hill may be a priority to stop, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plays where they risk leaving him with minimal coverage help. It’ll be up to Mahomes to see that and take advantage of it.
The Ravens haven’t faced a fully-healthy Tyreek Hill since he’s entered the league. They will get their first taste Monday night.
5. Marcus Peters
The Chiefs hope they don’t run into their former cornerback, Marcus Peters, much in Week 3. It has been two full seasons since Peters was traded away from Kansas City, and after another trade, he has found a home in Baltimore. He even signed a three-year, $42 million contract extension last December.
After an uncharacteristic stint with the Los Angeles Rams, Peters is back making plays and creating turnovers like he used to with the Chiefs. He made first-team All-Pro last season after accumulating five interceptions — including three that were returned for touchdowns. He got his first of the 2020 season in Week 2.
With Peters’ elite ability to come off of his coverage responsibility and make a play like that, it’s important that Mahomes knows where he is at all times. The only other time Peters faced the Chiefs was the Monday Night Football shootout in 2018 against the Rams. The Chiefs put up 51 points in that game, but Peters wasn’t playing up to this standard then.
Peters can give up the big play, too, but if Mahomes tests him too much, Peters is bound to make him pay eventually.