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How did the Chiefs slow down the Ravens’ offense in the AFC Championship?

Kansas City put on a defensive showcase during Sunday’s game against Baltimore.

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s Kansas City Chiefs defense held the electric Baltimore Ravens offense to just 10 points. Even though the box score says Kansas City was outgained in the AFC Championship, the defense was able to keep a lid on Baltimore’s explosive passing game and limit runs by quarterback Lamar Jackson and the team’s running backs.

How did Spagnuolo (and his players) do it? Let’s take a look.

Taking rushing off the menu from base defense

Much has been said about Baltimore’s offensive coordinator Todd Monken failing to run the ball. His running backs had just five carries — and Jackson had only two designed runs. But that happened because the Chiefs' defense took certain runs off his menu — particularly when they were in their base defense.

The Ravens tried getting into variations of 12 personnel (with fullback/tight end Patrick Ricard or tight end Mark Andrews) to get Kansas City into base and test their run defense. While this has always been a struggle for the Chiefs, it wasn’t an issue in Baltimore.

On this snap, the Ravens fake the speed option with a front-side tackle pull — but end up giving Zay Flowers the ball on an end around. Linebacker Drue Tranquill plays with perfect discipline on the back side to blow up the play.

Here we see the Chiefs start in a two-high safety shell. Baltimore actually shifts back to its normal formation to keep that two-high look. But after the snap, safety Justin Reid flies to the line to get downhill against this center-tackle counter run. Since Reid has entered the mix, the Ravens don’t have numbers; Reid makes an excellent tackle.

On this play, the Ravens are running a center-tackle counter read. The blocking scheme heads right, giving Jackson a chance to run on the back side. Defensive end Charles Omenihu squeezes the run — giving Jackson an easy edge — but safety Mike Edwards takes a terrific angle from depth, getting inside the blocker and slowing Jackson down.

We can argue about whether Baltimore ran the ball enough. But it largely happened because of how well Kansas City defended the run from its base personnel.

Taking advantage of running backs in pass protection

Monken likes to attack defenses with speedy running back Justice Hill against linebackers in man coverage. So when teams call man coverage (or blitz Jackson), the running back’s speed gives the Ravens an easy counter. Monken probably noticed James Cook’s effectiveness against the Chiefs in Buffalo — and tried to replicate that with Hill.

But Spagnuolo’s blitzes took that option away. While there are many ways to counter blitzes, Baltimore likes to operate from spread formations. That generally leaves a running back in protection — and the Chiefs took advantage. In particular, Reid and Tranquill each registered pressures while facing Hill in pass protection.

Spagnuolo made a smart move. Hill was going to be an issue against the Chiefs’ linebackers — but by forcing the running back into protection more often, those play-calls were no longer available to the Ravens.

Marrying pass rush to coverage

Kansas City didn’t generate a lot of quick pressure in Baltimore — but there were multiple instances where it married its pass rush to its coverage.

As we see on Omenihu’s strip-sack, the Ravens motion into a 3x1 formation for a play-action pass. The Chiefs are in Cover 3. Baltimore has called the right play against this coverage. But linebacker Nick Bolton does an excellent job of ROBOT-ing Flowers on his back-side dig route, eliminating Jackson’s first read.

Still, there is an opening. L’Jarius Sneed is held by Odell Beckham’s curl route, opening Rashod Bateman’s one-on-one post route against a safety. With enough time, Bateman could score. But Omenihu wins his matchup against left tackle Ronnie Stanley, using a chop to clear Stanley’s left arm and strip it around the corner. With Flowers unavailable, Jackson is late to get to Bateman’s post — and Omenihu does the rest.

Here’s another example of the same thing. The Chiefs are in Cover 1 man, taking away the front side of this concept. Tranquill defends Andrews on the option route, while safety Charmarri Conner takes away the out-and-up route.

On his back side dig route, Bateman can separate — but by the time Jackson gets there, Chris Jones has won on a long bull rush, collecting a sack.

Other great coverage plays

For a moment, let’s ignore the touchdown on this play, which happens because linebacker Leo Chenal doesn’t finish his sack. The coverage, however, is terrific. It’s one of many instances on Sunday where the defense plays a variation of Cover 4 to keep eyes on Jackson and deal with vertical routes.

Here, the Ravens try a Scissors concept from a YY-Wing formation; one tight end runs to the corner and the other runs a post route — creating scissors. The Chiefs pass it off well — and the play should result in a sack.

Since I haven’t watched a lot of Jackson’s All-22, I can’t say it definitively — but I wonder how much Spagnuolo knew about Jackson’s tendencies against man coverage. Against single-high man coverage, Jackson was routinely trying to hit go routes to his isolated receivers on the back side. The Chiefs would rotate front side, leaving routes open underneath.

My theory is that Spagnuolo was baiting Jackson into taking those go routes against man coverage — but cornerback Joshua Williams made every one of his attempts a low- percentage throw that put the Ravens behind the chains.

I would love to know how this play occurred. The Ravens have a great play-call against Cover 2. They try holding both McDuffie and Edwards with their tight end on a sit route, running a wrap dig route behind it in the hope they can high-low Edwards. Whether Reid tells Edwards to fall off and take the dig or Edwards recognizes it himself, this is fantastic coverage. This concept is designed to beat Cover 2 — but because the Chiefs communicate well, they force a sack.

The bottom line

Any list of reasons why the Baltimore offense was bad on Sunday has to begin with Jackson. I love watching him play — and I thought his progress as a pocket passer was real and meaningful this season — but he played poorly against Kansas City. I also think Monken is getting too much heat; he did a good job scheming concepts open for Jackson.

But none of that should take anything away from the Chiefs’ defense. It was instrumental in making Jackson look bad. Its combination of coverages, blitzes and disguises kept the Ravens from getting into a rhythm.

Jackson was completely erratic in the pocket — missing open guys — which speaks to the bind into which Kansas City placed him. Then combining that with the base defense removing running plays from Baltimore’s playbook? The Ravens were never allowed to get comfortable — and could not sustain drives.

On Sunday, Spagnuolo continued to make his case for being one of the best all-time defensive coordinators. With a win next Sunday, he’ll have his fourth ring as defensive coordinator. After many many years calling defenses, Spanguolo has a Rolodex of knowledge on how to plan against specific offenses and quarterbacks.

While I thought the Chiefs’ defense would perform well, I didn’t think it would perform this well. Thank you, Steve Spagnuolo. Once again, you proved me wrong.

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