On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will head to the East Coast to take on the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game. The Ravens have one of the best defenses in the NFL, but the Chiefs are hot on offense right now.
Here are three ways the Chiefs can find success:
Running the ball
As good as Baltimore has been in 2023, they have been mediocre to below average at playing against the run, ranking 23rd in yards per carry at 4.4 per play and allowing nine games of over 100 yards rushing in the regular season.
Three of the Ravens' four losses came in games where they gave up over 100 yards rushing— Week 18 against the Pittsburgh Steelers they didn't have any starters play — but three of the other one hundred-yard performances only resulted in one score wins.
This season teams have found some succusess running against the Ravens' defense.— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 26, 2024
Plays that have been most effective against them:
Three-run looks, in particular, gave the Ravens defenders issues this season.
Almost every team in the NFL has some variation of a mid-zone run, but teams with solid run-blocking guards found success against the Ravens' front. Their defense uses large space-eating defensive tackles, but against guards who can reach block them one one-on-one and allow either their center or tackle to work to the linebackers they were able to move the ball.
Pin and pull also worked well because the Raven tended to play a high number of snaps in Nickel or Dime's defense. With multiple defensive backs in space, the opposing teams were at a disadvantage already in the run game, especially when teams with athletic big men ran right at them. The quick pull by the tackle forces secondary players to make a quick decision to fill and try to set the edge or to run the play wide.
Dart— or tackle wrap— also found success because it allowed offensive lines to get a hat on a hat and angle block some of the bigger defensive tackles. Teams with backs with good cutting ability could also use this look to make Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith potentially pick sides, which opened up a running lane. Smith and Queen are great linebackers, but they can be physically matched with a power-running game.
Protect the passer — but keep getting open
The Ravens led the league in total sacks this year with 60 on the season — Kansas City trailed by just three with 57 — but were only a mid-tier team in terms of total pressures allowed. The Ravens' pressure percentage was only 19.5% on the season, which ranked 22nd in the NFL.
Being ranked first in sacks, but so low in pressures doesn't quite add up at first, but when putting on the tape it becomes more clear. The Ravens linebackers and secondary are outstanding, but their defensive line lacks a true off-the-ball pass rush. They have great-effort players like Justin Madubuike, Jadeveon Clowney, and Kyle Van Noy, but they win with power rushes and effort. These plays take time to develop, but they do get home.
What this tells us is that the Ravens create most of their sacks with great coverage and take away downfield options that allow the effort rushers to get home.
This might give the Chiefs a slight edge at being able to create downfield as the lay progresses since Patrick Mahomes has the 6th highest pocket time of any quarterback in the NFL at 2.5 seconds per dropback.
Even with All-Pro guard Joe Thuney being declared out, the Chief offensive line should be able to protect initially, but the receivers will need to continue to work downfield as the play progresses.
The Ravens led the league in sacks in 2023, but were only 22nd in pressures. If protection holds up, the QB can throw on the run, or if the QB is willing to take a hit things can open up downfield. pic.twitter.com/nJgHlfXbgH— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) January 27, 2024
There have also been a few instances this year where, if protection can be held long enough, quarterbacks were able to take some deep shots on the Ravens. It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs look to mimic any of these looks this week.
Finish with touchdowns, not field goals
The Ravens' red-zone defense was elite this season, so for the Chiefs to come away victorious, they must find a way to slay the beast when they get near the goal line.
Touting one of the second-lowest opponent touchdown percentages in the red zone all season at allowing a conversion rate of just 40.82%, while the Chiefs have been mediocre scoring touchdowns 52.1% of the time in the red zone this season which puts them at 19th.
For the Chiefs to find a way to win this week, they will need to shake the trend they have set in the red zone and find a way to get into the endzone.
The Chiefs will need to find a way to incorporate parts of the prior two points — strong power run game inside the five and Mahomes' ability to create — but they will still need more ways to find touchdowns.
The Ravens have been one of the best teams in the NFL at stopping tight ends this year, having only allowed three touchdowns to them all season, so Travis Kelce will likely be under heavy scrutiny once the Chiefs enter the red zone. They will also key in on Pacheco when he gets touches and try to clog the run lanes.
This will mean that some of the Chiefs' auxiliary players will need to find the endzone. The most likely candidates to score near the goal line will be Rashee Rice, Noah Gray, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Richie James, Justin Watson, and possibly Blake Bell.
Rice seems like the most likely target, but with Kelce, Pacheco, and himself drawing so much attention, it could open up a chance for an unlikely hero to emerge— Big man touchdown?
The bottom line
This weekend is looking to be another classic championship weekend showdown between two of the league's best quarterbacks and two of the best overall teams in football. This week all of the small details will make a difference in the outcome of the game.
The first team to flinch will likely lose.