During the just-completed regular season, no team accumulated more rushing yards than the Baltimore Ravens. With a league-high 541 rushing attempts, the Ravens accumulated 2,661 yards — averaging 4.9 yards per rush — and rode that into the postseason. Then in the Divisional Round, Baltimore controlled the Houston Texans with 229 team rushing yards as it cruised to a 34-10 victory.
That leads to a worthwhile challenge for the Kansas City Chiefs, who have struggled in run defense during some of this season’s important games. Last Sunday, the Buffalo Bills totaled 182 rushing yards over 39 attempts, scoring 24 points through three quarters and rarely facing a third-and-long.
The Chiefs’ defensive leaders — safety Justin Reid among them — understand that an effort like that will be a lot harder to overcome in Baltimore, where they will face the Ravens in Sunday afternoon’s AFC Championship.
“They will try to wear down defenses,” Reid told reporters on Wednesday. “They run the ball. A lot of teams are able to match that in the first half — [but] then they come out in the second half and start to beat down on them. That’s when they start having success running the ball down peoples’ throats.”
At 6 feet 1 and nearly 240 pounds, the Ravens’ starting running back Gus Edwards has a powerful running style — and running back Justice Hill has the quickness to complement him. Then there’s (presumed) MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson, who continues to be as dynamic as any other ball carrier when the play is designed for him.
All of them depend on a strong offensive line. Reid and his teammates know it will take a certain mentality to rise to their team’s latest challenge.
“The biggest thing is to have that intensity and run discipline the entire game, not just when everyone’s juiced up in the first half,” he observed. “To come out of halftime and have that same level of intensity — the want-to, will to tackle, will to take on blocks, will to be physical... that will be a major key for us.”
The Chiefs’ defense has had experience coming out strong in the second half. In many games down the stretch of the regular season, it was the first half where Kansas City’s defense looked exploitable. But in the third and fourth quarters — when it’s needed most — the defense has been able to lock things down. For that, Reid credits defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
“That’s the Spagnuolo effect,” declared Reid. “We make adjustments at halftime. We have the players that are able to take in those adjustments. Some of the things we put in, we don’t even practice throughout the week; it’s just based on what we’ve seen and what we’ve been getting throughout the day.
“We believe in [Spagnuolo] wholeheartedly. He believes in us and we believe in each other. Nobody goes out there and tries to play hero ball. We just play the defense, play our responsibility with intensity — and a little bit of violence — and good things happen.”
Defensive tackle Chris Jones will have a big responsibility in the Chiefs’ game plan — and it’s not simply to be a dominant pass rusher. With starting nose tackle Derrick Nnadi hurt, it will be even more important for Jones to be a consistent presence against the run.
“You’ve got the finesse teams, you’ve got the downhill running teams — and then you’ve got the Baltimore Ravens, who can do a little bit of both,” Jones explained to reporters on Wednesday. “They can run the ball [and] they can pass the ball. They’ve got weapons on the outside, but they also have a dominant offensive line who can just run the ball. I think it’s a great challenge ahead of us. We’ll watch a little more film and see what we can do.”
Against Buffalo, the Chiefs’ defense was consistently attacked with handoffs — but never an explosive one; running back James Cook’s longest gain was eight yards.
It will be tough to expect the same from Baltimore. Against Houston last Saturday, the Ravens generated eight runs that gained more than 10 yards. Jackson accounted for five of them — and that’s a warning to a Kansas City defense that has often struggled to truly contain running quarterbacks.
“Lamar’s athleticism is second to none,” noted Reid. “His strength, his power, the way that he’s able to run the ball, his speed to get around the edge and be able to get north and south? All of those things are a big challenge for us, so we’re going to have to have our p’s and q’s knocked out.”
Reid knows the first order of business will be to keep Jackson behind the line of scrimmage.
“[We’ll] try to contain him in the pocket as much as we can to make sure that we get him on the ground in those times that he does run,” said Reid. “He can still make all of the throws like everybody else.”
The Ravens’ offense is dynamic — and unfortunately, Kansas City’s defense hasn't faced it since 2021. That’s unlike the team’s first two postseason opponents, where familiarity with the opponents helped it prepare.
But the good news is that the Chiefs may be able to lean on their experience from their Divisional Round game in Buffalo against a similar rushing attack. There, they didn’t have to shut down the Bills’ running game. They just limited Buffalo’s explosive plays — and were able to leave western New York with a win.