For weeks on end, many Ravens fans salivated - and others panicked - at the thought of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs traveling to Baltimore for an AFC Championship showdown that once appeared a foregone conclusion.
Instead, the Ravens never got their shot at avenging two straight losses to Kansas City, falling to the Titans in the Divisional Round. On Sunday, the Chiefs defeated the same Tennessee squad that ended Baltimore’s historically successful season, doing so via a formula that the Ravens would be wise to take note of.
On the surface, there were some similarities between the 2019 versions of the Chiefs and Ravens, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. First, both teams possess quarterbacks with unique athletic traits and off-script ability. No, Lamar Jackson may not be on the same level as Mahomes as a passer, but both players are capable of doing damage as a thrower and runner, which can only be said by a small class of QB’s.
Second, there are some personnel consistencies between the two squads. Kansas City has maybe the best TE-WR combination in the league with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The Ravens have their own version of this duo in Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown. Before you call this comparison asinine, understand that this is purely from a schematic and skill set perspective - in no way am I suggesting Andrews and “Hollywood” are as good as their counterparts.
However, Andrews is fairly similar to Kelce in terms of his play style and the way that he’s utilized as a vertical chain-mover in the Ravens offense. As for Brown, his unique speed and athleticism is comparable to that of Hill. Greg Roman would be wise to utilize Brown’s skill set in similar manner to the way Hill is deployed by Kansas City, especially given the presumption that he’ll be 100% healthy next season.
Looking outside the quarterback, tight end and wide receiver positions, though, it’s evident why the Chiefs were able to find more postseason success than the Ravens.
Sure, the Ravens have their de-facto versions of Kelce and Hill but after that, where is their Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman? The importance of these complimentary offensive weapons in the Chiefs’ success should not be overlooked. Watkins came up big in the AFC Championship with a 60-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, a play that only Brown and Andrews could have made on the Ravens roster.
Even when Watkins, Hardman and Robinson aren’t putting up noteworthy stat lines, defenses have to honor their big-play potential and can’t necessarily sell out to key in on Kelce and Hill. In the case of the Ravens, the combination of Willie Snead IV, Hayden Hurst and Miles Boykin - the team’s third, fourth and fifth leading receivers on the year - left much to be desired.
A fully-healthy version of Marquise Brown should do wonders for both himself and the offense, but adding at least another playmaker or two at the receiver position should be a high priority for Eric DeCosta and the Ravens leadership this offseason.
In addition, we saw on Sunday that the Chiefs were able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball - an issue that has reared its ugly head for the Ravens in back-to-back playoff games.
Nobody can forget the absolute manhandling that the Chargers put on the Ravens in the 2018 Wild Card matchup. While this year’s playoff matchup against the Titans didn’t go quite as disastrous, the Ravens still struggled to get any sort of push up front, even after having one of the highest-graded offensive lines in the regular season (both in terms of pass-blocking and run-blocking).
The same five-man group that helped the Ravens become the most successful rushing offense in NFL history failed to convert on multiple 4th-&-1 attempts and allowed four sacks after keeping Lamar Jackson off the ground for most of the season.
There’s obviously more to this than just the offensive line. You can argue that the play-calling was poor and that Jackson held the ball too long on multiple occasions. Still, you can’t ignore that fact that for the second consecutive postseason, Baltimore’s o-line underwhelmed mightily and failed to consistently win battles up front.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, didn’t suffer the same issues against the Titans that the Ravens did. No, they didn’t find too much room running the ball but their pass protection was far superior, which, combined with having receivers that can create more separation and have more reliable hands, contributed to their offensive success.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs defensive line was far more stout and impactful than that of the Ravens. Kansas City’s combination of Frank Clark, Chris Jones and others, including Terrell Suggs (yes, that guy) and Tanoh Kpassagnon, were able to consistently generate pressure on Ryan Tannehill and close off rushing lanes for Derrick Henry.
This is something the Ravens struggled to accomplish. Instead, they ceded early play-action throws to Tannehill and were worn down by Henry as the game progressed. Baltimore simply didn’t have the same horses up front as the Chiefs do and between each team’s game, it was evident.
Baltimore Beatdown’s own Vasilis Lericos often says “the best run defense is a high-powered offense”. What this essentially means is that by putting points on the board early and jumping out to a lead, you’re able to neutralize an opponent’s running attack by forcing them to throw the ball. We saw the Ravens do this to several teams on the year and the Titans do something similar to Baltimore last Saturday.
There’s a lot of truth to this strategy. However, this isn’t to say the Ravens shouldn’t prioritize adding able bodies up front. At defensive tackle, Brandon Williams isn’t getting any younger and adds little as a pass-rusher. Neither does Michael Pierce, whose future in Baltimore is up in the air this offseason. Domata Peko Sr. was a nice midseason find but doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans.
At defensive end and outside linebacker, the Ravens definitely need more impact players, especially given the pending free agency of Matthew Judon. Even if Judon is re-signed or franchise tagged, a group headlined by Chris Wormley, Jihad Ward (also a free agent), Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson lacks the juice that Baltimore needs.
DeCosta and company have a done an excellent job in taking the modernized, analytical approach to building a defense back-to-front. In doing so, they’ve ensured that the Ravens defensive backfield is in good hands for next year and beyond with Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Earl Thomas III, Chuck Clark and others under contract. Therefore, with the secondary sewn up, the Ravens can shift their focus to addressing the team’s needs on the defensive line and at linebacker.
You can bet that DeCosta took a hard look at the Chiefs on Sunday and knows exactly what they have that the Ravens don’t, which ultimately contributed to their downfall: Playmakers at receiver and the ability to control the line of scrimmage.