In the postseason, our normal “Question of the Week” becomes a playoff preview in which we’ll consider the biggest questions regarding each Kansas City Chiefs game. Let’s take a look at Sunday afternoon’s AFC Championship matchup against the Baltimore Ravens.
1. How will the Chiefs’ defense respond to an even tougher rushing attack?
There’s no other way for me to say this: if the Chiefs' run defense performs the same way in Baltimore as they did against the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Round, they will lose the game.
On Sunday’s early downs, Buffalo ran the ball 28 times — with a staggering 61% success rate and 32% first-down rate. Until the fourth quarter, they were able to dictate every set of downs through their running game — and force the Chiefs into making difficult decisions with personnel. Would Kansas City use base or nickel against the Bills’ jumbo packages? If they were in base, Buffalo would throw the ball — and vice versa. The Chiefs had no real counters. The defensive line was getting annihilated — and throughout the game, Buffalo was able to stay in positive game scripts.
My biggest worry about Sunday’s game is that the Ravens are an even tougher rushing team than the Bills. While Buffalo does look better in some advanced metrics, Baltimore presents itself based on what quarterback Lamar Jackson can do as a scrambler; the entire ethos of defending against the Ravens still begins with Jackson’s legs.
The Ravens can build a comprehensive running game with Jackson alongside Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. Against an even tougher rushing opponent, can the Chiefs respond? Will they be able to get stops on early downs? Will Kansas City’s defensive line be able to rebound?
In 2023, the Chiefs have had a bad run defense — but until the postseason, it hasn’t really mattered. While the team got through the first part of the most difficult test, the next part will be even harder. Time will tell if Kansas City can get Derrick Nnadi, Willie Gay Jr. and Mike Edwards back — but in the Divisional Round, Kansas City’s run defense scared me.
2. How will the Chiefs respond to simulated pressures?
The Ravens' defense is flat-out awesome. They have a treasure chest of interchangeable players. Their scheme is dynamic and varied — and their players play wickedly fast.
Baltimore defensive coordinator Mike McDonald is excellent at dialing up pressure. For years, his pressure packages have destroyed the Cincinnati Bengals’ offenses. Linebacker Patrick Queen had 24 pressures in the regular season. Against the Texans, McDonald was able to get slot cornerback Arthur Maulet free for three pressures.
Arthur Maulet rushed the quarterback three times on Saturday and produced three unblocked pressures. This one is the fourth-and-5 to end the game, where the Ravens end up only rushing three and Maulet still goes untouched on his way to C.J. Stroud pic.twitter.com/uJSYpEKCHq— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 21, 2024
Unfortunately, Kansas City’s left guard Joe Thuney may miss this game — which will be a significant loss; he’s one of the main communicators on the offensive line. But even if he can go, we’ve sometimes seen the Chiefs’ offensive line struggle to deal with exotic pressures.
While the offensive line has been terrific through two playoff games, Sunday will be its biggest test — both mentally and physically. How will they hold up? If Thuney is out, how big of a problem will that be against the Baltimore front? Through his play-calls, will head coach Andy Reid give his quarterback and offensive line the answers they need?
To win this game, Reid will need to call a nearly perfect script — and much will depend on what the Ravens do with their defensive front.
3. Can the Chiefs get Travis Kelce going against Baltimore’s linebackers?
Both of Kansas City’s previous playoff opponents — the Miami Dolphins and the Bills — had issues with injuries at the second levels of their defenses. The Dolphins were missing Jerome Baker and Jevon Holland, while the Bills did without Terrell Bernard and Matt Milano. It’s probably not a coincidence that during those games, Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce had two of his best performances of the season.
Were those performances just because of those injuries? Probably not. But those teams are likely wondering how things might have been different with their frontline players — and the Chiefs certainly took advantage of those situations.
Kansas City won’t be so lucky against the Baltimore defense, which is built around an outstanding second level. Roquan Smith patrols the middle of the field as well as any NFL linebacker — and Kyle Hamilton is a true Swiss Army knife who can align anywhere and do anything. Patrick Queen, Geno Stone and Marcus Williams will also make it difficult to throw over the middle of the field. The Chiefs can’t ask Kelce to go one-on-one against all those players; the Ravens are just too good.
So what are the other ways Kansas City can get Kelce involved? Will it use him in more screens? Do they use Kelce as a boundary wide receiver, allowing him to match up against cornerbacks?
If the Chiefs want to win, they’ll need to continue getting the ball to Kelce — but against the Ravens, it’s going to have to be through non-traditional means.