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Opponent Scout: Secondary receivers have a chance to shine against Ravens

While Baltimore’s run defense was stout, there were holes in their pass coverage throughout their Week 1 loss.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

In this weekly opponent scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.

On Sunday night — in their first primetime game of the season — the Chiefs face the Baltimore Ravens on the road at M&T Bank Stadium. Both organizations (and fanbases) are very familiar with each other; this will be the fourth consecutive regular-season meeting between the two AFC foes.


Overview

Fresh off an 11-5 season that led to quarterback Lamar Jackson’s first postseason victory, the Ravens have been decimated with injuries. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards — along with cornerback Marcus Peters — all suffered season-ending injuries before Week 1. In addition, their first-round draft pick — wide receiver Rashod Bateman — is currently on their Reserve/Injured list with a groin injury.

In a back-and-forth Week 1 game, the Ravens fell to the Las Vegas Raiders 33-27 in overtime, losing their first season opener since 2015.

On offense, they played as run-heavy as ever — a trend that continues from previous seasons. Last year, the Ravens led the NFL in rushing attempts, yards and yards per rush — all while attempting the fewest number of passes. They finished with the league’s third-highest rushing DVOA, while ranking 17th in passing DVOA.

Defensively, Baltimore is as aggressive as any other team. In 2020, they blitzed on a league-leading 44.1% of their defensive snaps. Overall, they allowed the second-fewest points and seventh-fewest total yards. They allowed the league’s second-lowest third-down conversion rate and ranked ninth in total defensive DVOA.

Offense

Even before the unfortunate injuries to their running backs, the Ravens’ most voluminous (and effective) rusher was quarterback Lamar Jackson. Last season, he led the team in rushing attempts and yards (1,005) — while also leading the team with 6.3 yards per attempt. That continued in Week 1. Jackson led his offense in all three categories — although 74% of his rushing yards came on scrambles. That was the inverse of 2020, in which 64% of his rushing yards came from designed runs.

In Week 1, both Baltimore offensive tackles struggled with pass protection. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley — who has now been ruled out for Week 2 — was in his first game back from suffering a broken leg in 2020, while 33-year-old right tackle Alejandro Villanueva was adjusting to playing on that side for the first time in his career. With Stanley’s injury, Villanueva is slated to be back at left tackle. Between them, the two allowed 19 pressures, forcing Jackson to scramble frequently.

Against the Raiders, Jackson struggled with ball security. I counted three times Jackson fumbled — all in different situations: the first while mishandling a handoff, the second while running and the third while in the pocket. The last two were crucial turnovers; a lack of ball-carrying fundamentals caused both.

When the Ravens wanted to hand the ball off, they couldn’t find consistent success. Outside of a 35-yard touchdown run, Baltimore’s running backs averaged 3.2 yards per rush. That was against a Las Vegas defense that was 24th in rushing yards per attempt allowed last year — and ranked 28th in defensive rushing DVOA.

Even with the weak rushing attack, Jackson had the sixth-highest rate of play-action passes among starting quarterbacks in Week 1. Two of Baltimore’s most significant plays came from play-action — to dangerous after-the-catch receivers Marquise Brown and Sammy Watkins.

Chiefs’ linebackers and safeties will again be challenged to defend a dangerous running game — while simultaneously keeping themselves in position to cover passes out of run fakes.

Defense

Baltimore is unapologetic with their game plan on defense: they want to play man coverage, and they want to blitz. They still blitzed nearly half the time last season, even against Patrick Mahomes, who has consistently proven to destroy blitzes.

Against the Raiders, however, they didn’t blitz as frequently. Quarterback Derek Carr was blitzed on only 33% of his dropbacks, more than 11 percentage points less than Baltimore’s 2020 average. But Las Vegas receivers still found open space on deep routes.

So Sunday’s game will be a perfect opportunity for Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman to break out. Against the Ravens last season, he had a 49-yard touchdown reception by getting behind the secondary while Mahomes avoided the blitz. The Ravens’ secondary — especially without Peters — is susceptible to big gains.

But when the Raiders tried to run in Week 1, the Ravens’ run defense was a brick wall.

Baltimore has quite a collection of run stoppers along their defensive line. The biggest problem is still veteran Calais Campbell. His huge frame is always hard for offensive linemen to overcome — and when necessary, he still shows excellent hand usage and burst off the snap. Along with Campbell, defensive linemen Brandon Williams — and our old friend Justin Houston — will be stout against the run.

On the second level, second-year linebacker Patrick Queen looked improved against the run. He led the team in run stops — a PFF statistic identifying tackles that “constitute a failure for the offense.” Queen had five of these on his 19 snaps against the run.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ defensive line should be expected to dominate their matchup with the Ravens’ offensive line. Especially with Stanley out, they have mismatches across the board; it will be much weaker than the one the Chiefs faced against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. But when Jackson is able to avoid the rush, Kansas City linebackers have a considerable challenge in limiting his scramble yards.

On offense, the Chiefs know how to beat this Ravens’ defense: take advantage of their Cover 1 and Cover 0 repetitions with players like Hardman and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Baltimore’s primary coverage defenders will be focused on stopping tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill — which should help their secondary receivers get mismatches in one-on-one situations.

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