We are in for one of the best Monday Night showdowns I can remember in a long time, as I already highlighted this as the best game of the 2020 NFL season when the schedule came out, and there is nothing that should take away from the hype coming in. The reigning league Lamar Jackson and Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes both have their teams at 2-0 and fairly entrenched as the two elite squads in the AFC, ready to battle for the right to stay undefeated.
Two years ago, the Ravens seemed to have this one in their bag, until Mahomes pulled off some magic on a couple of fourth down plays to still turn things around and last season these two teams went up against each other in week three as well, where the Chiefs controlled the game for the most part, but then Lamar tried to manufacture a late comeback, to make the final score 33-28 Kansas City. Baltimore would lose the following week to Cleveland, but then went undefeated the rest of the way, until they lost in the Divisional Round to Tennessee.
This is the matchup everybody wanted and expected to see in last year’s Conference Championship game and it could easily be a preview of what we see in this year’s semi-finals, with crucial tie-breakers being on the line Monday. In this preview, I will break down both offenses and how they match up with the opposing defense, talk a little bit about special teams and two X-factors for each group.
Chiefs offense vs. Ravens defense:
Before anything else, Kansas City’s offense is built on the vertical passing attack, where they have the speed with guys like Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and company to beat any coverage and put a lot of stress on opposing defense, which opens up other stuff for them. In particular, they love those three-by-one sets with Travis Kelce as single receiver in a reduced split, putting their three fastest guys on one side, and then Kelce works across the field underneath, plus then they throw in a change-up, with the tight-end starting that way and pivoting back out. This season they have used a more quick-rhythm passing attack, where they get the ball out of Mahomes’ hands more quickly and allow him to take advantage of soft zone looks. On their first two touchdown drives of the 2020 season, they methodically worked their way down the field for 165 combined yards, with different run plays and not a single pass completed further than six yards across the line of scrimmage, heavily relying on RPOs and screen plays. First-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU is starting to get involved as a receiver as well. He should quickly become one of the ultimate check-down option, where he is just so tough to bring down, especially when the defense has to account for Mahomes and those speedster going over the top first and then come back upfield to corral the underneath guy. The rookie caught six balls last week for 32 yards last week, after focusing more on the run game in the season-opener, and also had another big gain wiped out due a holding call, on a beautiful adjustment down the seams. The Chargers defensive line did put plenty of heat on the Chiefs’ superstar QB in week two, but overall he has only been sacked twice and not only was he seemingly not touched in the season-opener, but he also stayed clean when it mattered most last week – in the fourth quarter and overtime.
With as much split-safety looks as opposing teams are presenting the Chiefs, Andy Reid & company have started to punish the opposition with a heavy dose of their run game, when they are presented numbers advantages in the box. First-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire has looked spectacular so far, with his ability to break tackles and create yardage after contact, with all but 50 of his 176 rushing yards coming after being touched initially, and averaging five yards per carry. He really excels on those duo and inside zone run from the shotgun, where his patience to let the combo-blocks draw in the linebackers and the quickness to get onto the right path before putting his foot on the gas, makes him really tough to bottle up. With receivers being motioned in and out of the backfield, fake jet sweeps or end-arounds to bind defenders and those integrated slant, flant or bubble options, they don’t allow the defense to flat-out win against those plays. Versus the Chargers last week, it was Mahomes’ mobility that ultimately kept them in and won the Chiefs the game, as he scrambled five times on third downs and converted on all but one of them. And for Kansas City as a team, when they really needed to be physical in overtime of this past matchup, they picked a big first down on fourth-and-one with a simple Power-G play, before hitting the game-winning field goal.
The Ravens are a tough matchup for these guys however. First of all, with the collection of big guys up front, with Brandon Williams at the nose and two true base-ends, the Ravens can commit more to their deep coverage, without being compromised in run defense, plus then they upgraded their pass-rush, with Calais Campbell’s versatility along the front in particular. Their most improved unit compared to last season are there inside linebackers, where they now have first-round pick Patrick Queen from LSU, whose tremendous range allows them to slow down wide zone runs and throws between the hashes at a higher rate, plus then they pair him up L.J. Fort and fellow rookie Malik Harrison splitting time, as bigger bodies to take on blocks and do the dirty work. Baltimore to me has the best collection of corners – even with starting nickel Tavon Young out for the year once again – with the speed to match up against Kansas City’s track team and play-making ability from those spots. Their safety duo has been exchanged compared to who they started with last year, as Chuck Clark was one of the most underrated players in the league, filling in for the injured and overpaid Tony Jefferson, while DeShon Elliott is now stepping into the shoes of another overpaid and apparently toxic teammate in Earl Thomas. This new tandem is highly versatile, with how they can rotate high-and-low, while Clark in particular can fill in as a dime backer or contribute in their blitz packages. So on early downs, they will not allow teams to just move ahead of the chains with the run game and then on third down is where they are as creative and aggressive as any defense in the league, They show so much pressure pre-snap, with up to seven or eight defenders at the line of scrimmage, and they are really good at now showing who’s actually coming, as they might send the house or only rush four in the end and drop everybody else out.
Mahomes has improved so much in terms of his ability to find solutions for pre- and post-snap changes, when I go back to how New England kept him under control for the first halves of their two games in his first year as a starter, compared to where he is now. One of the teams that can confuse even the best of quarterbacks however is Baltimore, because of how many different looks defensive coordinator Wink Martindale presents and how he doesn’t give away what they do pre-snap on passing downs, which forces quarterbacks to pull the ball down and as they try to get a clear picture. That’s why I believe it will be so crucial for Kansas City to get Clyde Edwards-Helaire and that run game going, to limit third-and-long situations and the exotic looks the Ravens can throw at them. With rookie Patrick Queen at inside backer now, they have the speed to take away those Mahomes scrambles in those situations, while he can also match up with Clyde and those other backs out on the route, especially having faced CEH in every practice down in Baton Rouge over the last couple of years. His closing burst helps out that pass-rush tremendously, as the opposing QB can’t just escape if the rush lanes get to wide, and he is pretty dangerous as part of their cross-dog action as well. Even though you obviously have to have the personnel to do so, the Chiefs had their most trouble last season when defenses could man up against their receivers and not allow those speedsters to get clean releases, which is where I think Baltimore could create some issues, if their rush gets home. With all that being said, Mahomes might the only player in the league who has that switch he can turn over and just be unstoppable, which never allows the Chiefs to put out of a game.
Ravens offense vs. Chiefs defense:
For Baltimore, last year everything started with the run game, as they set a new all-time record with 3296 rushing yards, with was pretty much exactly 1000 more than any other team in the league in 2019, and they blew everybody out of the water with a team rushing play percentage of 54.3 and an average of 5.53 yards per carry (0.5 yards more than any other squad). The Ravens have four legitimate backs, who can hurt the opposition, with Mark Ingram as the long-time veteran and one of the angriest runners in the league, Gus Edwards as a true sledgehammer, never really getting off that North and South approach, Justice Hill as more of a change-of-pace guy and pass-catcher and rookie J.K. Dobbins, who was a 2000-yard rusher at Ohio State last season and already looks like the most dynamic one of the bunch, after I said he would be a perfect fit for this type of offense. As far as the offensive line goes, they are one of the biggest and most physical groups in the entire league, with just under 330 pounds on average across the front-five and the ability to create vertical movement whenever they need to seemingly. They run a lot read option plays from pistol alignment, where they get their backs going straight downhill on the dive action and Lamar Jackson is the threat around the edge, when he decides to pull the ball, plus then they add that triple-option element at times and have a lot of RPO concepts integrated, that give the defense another thing to worry about if they go all-out to stop the run. The two things that really makes it tough for opponents to slow down that machine are how many different formations and looks Baltimore presents that force defenses to be perfect in their assignments and how much they influence run fits with their heavy amount of motion at the snap, where they have that jet sweep threat or add another blocker late. Last year they easily led the league with 34 percent of their offensive plays having a man in motion as the ball is snapped, while the league as a whole only did so on 11 percent of plays (which is already a climbing number thanks to Greg Roman’s playbook to some degree).
In 2020 however, the Ravens’ drop-back pass game is much more effective and that is what could make this offense nearly impossible to defend. In my weekly recaps of these last two weeks, I have already talked about how efficient and sharp Lamar has been so far, operating from within the pocket. Baltimore has added some depth to their wide receiver room, with a guy like Devin Duvernay as that perfect slot weapon that can run those RPO option routes and should continue to work his way into the offense, but Marquise Brown not dealing with a foot injury and threatening the defense with his speed, to go along with Mark Andrews entering the conversation for the best tight-end in the game outside of that separate tier that George Kittle and Travis Kelce are in, have helped the reigning MVP make the game easier and be so much more comfortable just delivering the ball on the money. And I have to say, his ball-placement and understanding of the offense is so much better than it was a year ago, recognizing defensive looks and where he needs to go with the ball. In week one against the Browns, he was literally throwing guys open with how the ball was put away from the leverage of defenders and to spots, where his pass-catchers were allowed to make plays on it. Of course the Ravens still run their heavy play-action fakes, where they keep up to eight men in protection, giving Lamar a lot of perfectly clean pockets once they got the defense playing the run, and I believe he has also improved his deep ball passing, as he has learned to put more arc and air under the ball, allowing his receivers to win late and adjust to it.
The Chiefs defense overall has been pretty impressive so. In week one they held one of the top five quarterbacks in the league in Deshaun Watson to seven points through three-and-a-half quarters and they held the Chargers to six points through the second half and overtime, after rookie Justin Herbert caught them a little off guard with his surprising start against them, where he made a couple of outstanding plays with his arm and legs. They sacked Deshaun Watson four times in the season-opener and forced him to move around on several other occasions, and then last week former first-round bust Taco Charlton of all guys came up with a huge sack on third-and-goal with about three minutes remaining in regulation. Chris Jones has once again been the Chiefs’ most dangerous pass-rusher, but Frank Clark also beat the Texans’ Tytus Howard like a drum to at least force Watson to step up on a bunch of plays, while Tyrann Mathieu has been heavily involved as a blitzer with a couple of hits on opposing QBs, where he excels at timing the snap and getting oast the back in protection. The Chiefs have had some big issues with their corner situation, as Charvarius Ward fractured his hand early in week one after I thought they already lacked some depth at the position, and they have played with three safeties on the field for about 80 percent of the snaps. Luckily fourth-round pick L’Jarius Sneed out of Louisiana Tech – who is supremely gifted athletically and played on the outside until his final year with the Bulldogs when he moved to safety – has played extremely well for them so far, competing in press-coverage and getting his hands on the ball, with two picks and three more passes broken up. The Chiefs defense under Steve Spagnuolo is also one of the more aggressive units in the league, which asks their guys on the back-end to stick with receivers in man-coverage on several occasions and gets home with their different pressure packages, if the ball doesn’t come out on time.
Kansas City’s run defense may not be something that fans hang their hat on a whole lot, especially considering Baltimore racked up over 200 yards on the ground when these teams last went up against each other, and I don’t believe any team can really stop this bruising rushing attack, but the Chiefs quietly really improved in that regard over the second half of 2019. After giving up a season-high 225 rushing yards to the Titans in week ten, they went from 148.1 until then to only 93.6 rushing yards allowed the rest of the way, leading up to the Super Bowl. With Derrick Nnadi swallowing up double-teams at the nose and a mixture of big bodies around him, they at least have a chance to slow this Ravens machine down. In terms of the Chiefs’ pass-rush, Chris Jones will certainly draw a lot of combos and have protections slide his way. And as good as Orlando Brown has been at right tackle, he could have some trouble with Clark’s speed off the edge in particular, when they put him in a wide alignment, where he could work in up-and-under maneuvers if the 350-pounder starts to over-set to the outside. In last year’s matchup, Clark beat him for a sack on what actually wasn’t the prettiest of spin moves, just because Brown was caught off balance by exactly that. The second level is where KC can be had a little, as they will have those backers stay home for Lamar pulling the ball and match the Ravens tight-ends to some degree. I would expect the Honeybadger to be used as a robber or even dime backer at times on passing downs to take away those easy completions to Mark Andrews on hook and dig routes, where he will have to fight through that guy’s big frame on a few occasions. And finally, I’m interested to see what their plan for Hollywood Brown will be, because as aggressive as they might want to be and L’Jarius Sneed does have sub-4.4 speed, I’m not sure if you want to have a rookie one-on-one with him for most of the day.
One of the biggest keys for Baltimore offensively will be that they don’t let the Chiefs draw him into a shootout with Mahomes, which I thought was a mistake for them in last year’s matchup. They need to do what they do best.
Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker are the two best kickers in the league (in that order) for my money. Tucker is one of the all-time great long distance field goal and arguably the GOAT kicker overall, with an NFL-record 90.9 percent rate of FG makes and a league-high touchback percentage of 93.3 percent so far this year. You know who is right behind Tucker in terms of field-goal conversion percentage in the all-time ranks? – You guessed it, the “Buttkicker”. He is the only other guy at the position right now to make at least 90 percent of his attempts career-wise, including several long-distance makes and game-winners. Last week in particular was one of the most impressive sequences of kicking I have ever seen, when Butker in overtime basically made a 53-yarder (blown dead by false starter) and two 58-yarders (iced on first try by Chargers) to bring home the W.
The Ravens have one of the most technically advanced punters in the league in Sam Koch, who I have listened talk about having about ten different types of kicks, that he has developed in combination with long-term assistant Jerry Rosburg. While Koch has been a stalwart in Baltimore for more almost 15 years now, the Chiefs made a big switch this offseason from their 15-year veteran Dustin Colquitt to rookie Tommie Townsend, who has been pretty good so far over a small sample size, downing three of his eight punts inside the opposing 20-yard line and averaged 48.2 yards per punt outside of that. That is after they finished third league-wide in terms of punt return yards allowed on average last season.
Long-time special teams guru Dave Toub has given the Chiefs the edge in that facet of the game over most of their opponents for a long time now, with how clean they always are with their procedures, the way they set up dynamic return-men like Tyreek Hill and now Mecole Hardman up to succeed, how well they usually cover kicks and how ready they are for all eventualities. Just think back to that punt fake the Texans ran in the first half of their Divisional Round matchup, which kind of changed the momentum of the game, after a Hardman kick return already gave them some life earlier.
For Baltimore, their head-man John Harbaugh is a former special teams coordinator, which not only allows him to have a very balanced, general overview of his team, but also reflects in the quality of the staff he builds in that respect, led by a rising young coordinator in Chris Horton, who could get some looks as a head coach potentially, following this 2020 season. Over the last decade, they have had one of the most dangerous field goal block teams in the league, with big guys in the middle putting their long arms up in the air to force opponents to get it off at a different angle at times, and they are always good for some kind of trick play on fourth down to keep drives going.
After Clyde Edwards-Helaire immediately handled the majority of the load for KC in the season-opener, Thompson entered week two as the number three back, but once Darrell Williams went down with an ankle injury, he saw more of the action. Last year’s UDFA played about 20 percent of the snaps against and he was the one in on that fourth-and-one play in overtime, where they converted for what set up the game-winning field goal. I know this is the CEH show, but I was already high on Thompson last year and thought he could eat into the production for Damien Williams. Last week he went for 21 yards on four carries and even if he doesn’t touch the ball a whole lot, he has that explosiveness to rip off a big play or two, when he is in there, if the Ravens get lulled to sleep at some point by CEH’s patience behind the line and then Thompson just hits the hole at full speed.
My defensive pick for the Chiefs is even more of a long-shot, but to me that is what true X-factors are about. This second-round back from April has only played six defensive snaps and collected to total tackles so far. I don’t really expect Gay to start in this contest and his playing time will probably be limited once again, but this is a matchup where his skill-set could be a major benefactor. Coming out of Mississippi State as a boom-or-bust type prospect with limited college tape due to changes to the coaching staff and some off-field altercations, athleticism was never the question with this guy, as he finished top two in the 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jump at the combine. He has that explosiveness and flat-out speed they could deploy to slowing down Lamar and that option run game, even if they are out-leveraged at times.
Third-round pick Devin Duvernay has only caught one pass in each of the first two weeks, for 12 and 19 yards respectively, on two targets over 17 total offensive snaps. With Willie Snead as their top option in the slot, it’s tough for the former Texas standout to get on the field, but he adds a different dimension to the offense with his speed to attack the edges on jet sweeps potentially and the toughness to go over the middle, where the Chiefs D might be most vulnerable. I could see a larger role for him on Monday Night, to show their opponents something they haven’t quite seen yet. Duvernay has also taken over as Baltimore’s primary kick returner and his average of 23.8 yards per return ranks in the top five league-wide among return men with at least five attempts. He could bust loose on one of those if this becomes a high-scoring affair and he gets a few opportunities.
Once a former first-round pick for Baltimore, Smith has been an excellent and highly underrated player as long as he was healthy, but with Humphrey and Peters in the lineup, he has been the primary backup for all three corner spots so far. However, now with Tavon Young out for the year, he becomes a starter pretty much again – which was already clear last Sunday, when he played 85 percent of the defensive snaps – who depending on where the Ravens want to deploy Marlon Humphrey, could play inside and out. Against the Chiefs, Smith may not have the speed to run with guys like Tyreek Hill or Mecole Hardman anymore, but if KC plays Hill in the slot, they might have Humphrey shadow him and put Smith on Sammy Watkins on the boundary, or I could even see them match him up against Travis Kelce detached from the line, since he has the length to bother flex tight-ends.
In the end, I believe Baltimore’s combination of being able to limit possessions for that explosive KC offense, to go along with Lamar’s growth as a pocket passer forcing the Chiefs defense to commit less to slowing that physical rushing attack, will be difference in this one. With Baltimore’s group of corners to play bump-and-run against Kansas City’s collection of track guys and their multiple defensive looks to stop the opposition on a few third downs, or even create a turnover to swing the momentum, I think they have what it takes to finally give Lamar his first win in this series, which could be one of the premiere rivalries in the entire league for the next several years, and we could already see chapter IV on Conference Championship Sunday potentially.
Chiefs 23 – Ravens 27
Make sure to also check out my recap video of week two!