Welcome to “The Dossier” a weekly look across the aisle at the Ravens’ opponents, and how they stack up on paper. This Week 3 edition features one of the great heavyweight AFC matches that we’ll be treated to so far this season.
The Setting: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland
The Forecast: Cloudy with showers. Low 64F. Winds S at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 50% (via The Weather Channel).
The Stakes: The two presumptive superpowers in this conference converge at 2-0. Lamar Jackson is off to an 0-2 start against his main rival, Patrick Mahomes, and his pride is on the line in that regard. Beyond that, the outcome of this one could be big in determining home field advantage at the end of the season.
The Spread: The Ravens are the –3.5 point home favorite.
Here we go again. Almost exactly a year to date, the Ravens will take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3 in what figures to be yet another slugfest between two superpowers. The Chiefs are fresh off of a Super Bowl victory season (in which they dispatched the Ravens in that Week 3 meeting), while Baltimore is still looking to break the code in the playoffs for the first time after getting bounced as a very disappointing number one seed.
In that context, it may seem like these are two teams that went in very different routes after that game, and while that’s sort of the case, it’s not an entirely bad thing. While the Ravens took their first loss of 2019, what transpired on the field that day was partially the reason why Baltimore only dropped one more game the rest of the regular season that year. That would be the culmination of the Harbaugh Rennaissance (Harbaughsance?) that we’ve seen unfold over the last two years since the drafting of Lamar Jackson, and it’s summed up by one simple, yet important word: aggression.
Over the course of the first two weeks of the ‘19 season the Ravens beat two inferior opponents to begin undefeated, but even with a nice record like that to start, they knew they would be facing a different animal when they traveled into Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs’ offense was as strong as any they’d seen in at least five years, the building was going to be absolutely rocking, and even early in the game you could tell that John Harbaugh would be approaching this one differently than we’d maybe ever seen from him because of those two things. That approach was what you’d call a kitchen sink one, in which Harbs went for it on fourth down early and often, and attempted two point tries after multiple touchdowns, even in spots that some believed to be nonsensical.
After the game resulted in a 33-28 loss for Baltimore, he and the coaching staff saw their fair share of criticism for this newfangled slant that they brought into a critical matchup. Among the most vocal in his frustrations not only with the strategy, but with Harbaugh’s decision to explain it all away as “analytics” was The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Preston:
“Once the Ravens failed to pick up that first down, everyone in Arrowhead Stadium knew Mahomes was going for the home run,” Preston wrote after the game. “It’s in the Coach’s Manual, page 101, Rule 131. It reads: When you get a short field, go deep. Harbaugh likes these situations. Before that failure on fourth-and-2, the Ravens had already converted on two fourth-down calls earlier in the game. That’s what concerned me. You can’t keep rolling the dice. The Ravens don’t have to because they have one of the best punters in the NFL in Sam Koch, who could have pinned the Chiefs inside their own 20-yard line and hopefully forced Kansas City to run 10 or 12 plays to score a touchdown, not five. Plus, a better play call would have been to run a hot Mark Ingram II inside instead of allowing a struggling Jackson to throw. It’s all part of having a feel for the game. It’s not always about analytics, but what’s inside your gut and transpiring on the field. Every coach has a philosophy, but sometimes a coach deviates.”
It’s one thing to criticize the actual play calling and execution of said plays (and was somewhat valid in this case), but where Mike wound up being wrong is that allowing gameflow and the emotions that it induces to influence your process actually isn’t the way smart teams thrive. It’s something that’s well summed up by Yahoo Sports’ Chris Kwik’s article that defends the Ravens’ decision making:
“Football analytics have long been in favor of teams being more aggressive,” he wrote. “The numbers show that teams often see their win probability drop when making safe choices. Being more aggressive can be risky, but it can pay off in a big way when a team converts those plays. Even if you hate analytics, consider this line of reasoning: The Ravens weren’t going to beat the Chiefs by punting and kicking field goals. Patrick Mahomes and company are far too dominant to be stopped by those methods. If you’re going to beat the Chiefs, you have to score a lot of points and keep the ball out of Mahomes’ hands. That’s exactly what the Ravens tried to do. It didn’t work out for the Ravens this time, though the team came close. That’s a lot better than most teams do against the Chiefs, and it will be interesting to see if other teams test out similar strategies against Kansas City moving forward.”
Thankfully for Baltimore, they didn’t allow the noise to influence their process, and as a result of sticking to it, they went 11-1 the rest of the way and earned their reputation as the most aggressive team in the league. In that sense, what’s so fascinating about these two teams meeting in Week 3 yet again is that this iteration of the Ravens we’ve come to know and love (analytically inclined and unapologetically aggressive) made it’s first real appearance at Arrowhead that day. Now they look to exorcise one of the few demons that’s haunting them even despite the unprecedented success they’ve had since then: finally getting it done against the Chiefs, who have proven themselves to be an even better version of the already tremendous Ravens team we’ve seen grow into a powerhouse since Lamar took over.
Over the first few weeks, both teams have laid their claim to being the best in the conference, if not the league at large. They’ve both taken care of business against another AFC hopeful in the Texans, while Baltimore opened things up with a bang against the Browns in Week 1, and Kansas City squeezed out a victory last week against their division rival Chargers in L.A. Now they meet at 2-0, and face their first true litmus test on the Monday Night Football stage at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
Two Super Bowl winning coaches at the peak of their powers with dynamic young quarterbacks face off on one of the biggest stages possible. Would you want to have it any other way? I wouldn’t.
Honestly, there’s not too much to say here that hasn’t already been said, but I’m going to try my best. Maybe the spot to start here is that Kansas City’s offense looks and charts a tad differently through the first two weeks than people typically see them is. That is, they haven’t been the high flying, shot play offense we’ve come to know them as since Mahomes took the reigns from Alex Smith.
This is from their Week 1 game against Houston. You’ll notice not only the efficiency of short passes attempted, but also the lack of real deep attempts by Mahomes – on the six he attempted beyond 10 yards, three were completed. It’s a somewhat similar story on his Week 2 chart:
Things are somewhat ratcheted up here as a result of Kansas City getting in a shootout with the Chargers on the road, who put up a much better fight than the Texans squad that Bill O’Brien has put together. Six complete passes beyond ten yards (and two for touchdowns) is absolutely nothing to shake a stick at, but looking at the rest of the chart, it’s clear that Mahomes and this offense are content to take what they’re getting from defenses, and play a shorter small-ball type of game than they have in the past. This is backed up by charting from Player Profiler which charted Mahomes’ 2019 deep pass attempts (20 yards or further down the field) at 68 total, good for 4.9 per game; based on his first two games, he’s well below that pace, only attempting five total, and completing one (albeit that one was the long touchdown to Tyreek Hill last week).
Regardless of the fact that this offense is by the numbers less explosive, that doesn’t mean it’s any less efficient. Per Football Outsider’s DVOA they’re still good for a +15.7 efficiency rating, ranking eighth in the league among all offenses. While that’s pretty damn good, they are facing a Ravens defense that’s 3rd in defensive DVOA with a –31.1% percentage rating, and they’ve so far faced off against less efficient defenses in Houston (25th with +11.4%) and the Chargers (13th with –3.6%). In that sense, this Ravens defense is the first real test they’ll face this season.
This isn’t to say the big play potential isn’t there, as Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and their further embarrassment of riches needs no further analysis. It’s simply that they either are being used differently, or haven’t quite hit their stride yet this season (or both). Per Player Profiler, Mahomes’ supporting cast efficiency is +0.35 through two games, good for 20th in the league, while in 2019 they were a +7.11 which was 12th.
Put simply, the Chiefs offense isn’t quite up to the par it was playing to last season, and it may be a tough draw for them to get all the way back on track here. There are some matchup questions for sure, such as who will cover Kelce, and will the Ravens run defense stack up against Edwards-Helaire, but the numbers bare out that even against a tough test like this, Wink Martindale’s crew should be up to the challenge.
All they have to do is play their game like they have for the first two weeks... and of course, try to avoid letting the Mahomes miracle happen:
My main takeaway re. the Chiefs offense is you have to stay disciplined and keep them in front.— Jake Louque (@Jakelouque) September 22, 2020
And you just have to *hope* they don’t hit a big play like this. To some degree, it comes down to luck. pic.twitter.com/qQsrnL5VGR
Similar to last year, the Chiefs are talented on defense, if not quite as stacked as they are on the other side of the ball. Through the first two weeks of this season, they’re currently ranked 23rd in DVOA which makes sense considering they’ve been solid but unspectacular. They took care of business for the most part against Houston, but had an off moment here and there in that game, particularly in the run game. This was also true against L.A. Justin Herbert played pretty admirably for a guy who got thrown in at the last moment, but it’s what they did involving their running backs, especially on the first drive that immediately jumps out from that game:
From LA’s first drive:— Jake Louque (@Jakelouque) September 22, 2020
- Dive up the middle
- Pass to RB in right flat for big gain
- Speed option pitch to the left
- PA bootleg with option for Herbert to run, he scores
Both scheme and personnel wise, this type of success against KC’s defense bodes very well for Baltimore. pic.twitter.com/AwlXcyYs86
Runs up the middle, speed options to the outside, passes to backs in the flat, and getting the QB out in space worked for the Chargers all day and that’s encompassed on the opening drive. Like I mentioned, this of course sets up very well for Baltimore who have a mobile quarterback of their own, and a stable of backs that’s probably deeper, if not better than L.A.’s. The Ravens should 100% try to take advantage of this. PFF charts K.C.’s best linebacker with over 30 rush defense snaps as Damien Wilson, his grade is 58. This doesn’t mean they have no teeth against the run as defensive lineman Derrick Nnadi has come in stellar against the run with an 89.4 grade, so Baltimore would be wise to try and avoid him when pounding the rock.
In rushing the ball effectively, the Ravens will of course have the option to utilize play action in this one, which regardless of what snarky analytically minded personalities may tell you, will absolutely always go hand in hand to some extent. In that sense, selling the run hard and using some of their top options in the right spots is pretty much a no brainer. One of my favorite plays L.A. ran did exactly that:
This doesn’t hit, but it was a hair away from doing so. A longer field, and Hollywood Brown one-on-one (with a convincing heavy package to sell a run fake) may be what you need to break a big play open here. Gimme this on Monday, Greg. pic.twitter.com/2vA46BipU9— Jake Louque (@Jakelouque) September 22, 2020
If you give Lamar two of these looks, he’s probably hitting at least one of them, as evidenced by his deep strike to Hollywood Brown in Week 1 against Cleveland which was a very similar play. The question is, do they go that route, or is Greg Roman cooking something up for some more unheralded guys this week? Spencer and I spoke on the podcast about how a player like Devin Duvernay (who’s been quietly rock solid) could be primed to get sprung loose against a defense that isn’t expecting it, which happened to an extent for the Chargers on one of their scoring plays:
Total attention getter play here - Keenan Allen draws these two DBs in to a degree.— Jake Louque (@Jakelouque) September 22, 2020
Only Raven I could really see doing that right now would be Mark Andrews. pic.twitter.com/VGdQ9Ptd5o
The player who caught the touchdown is Jalen Guyton, a second year undrafted wideout on his second team. He’s currently listed as third on the depth chart behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and was able to score on this play thanks to the presence of Hunter Henry in-line, and Allen motioning into the slot at the last moment. The Chiefs had a single high safety look on this play leaving left cornerback Rashad Fenton to choose between Allen up the middle, or Guyton on the perimeter. While that wasn’t much of a decision based on talent, it wound up costing Kansas City on this play. Enough noise from Mark Andrews or Hollywood Brown early on could be just what Baltimore needs to get a big play out of a guy like Duvernay when they need it most.
Fenton, L’Jarius Sneed, and Charvarius Ward are a solid cornerback trio all grading around 70 in coverage per PFF’s metrics, but have shown an tendency to get mixed up a bit through two weeks. Behind them, you certainly have to worry about Tyrann Mathieu, who’s off to another strong start as a do-it-all player for the Chiefs. And up front, Chris Jones will still of course be wreaking havoc on the passing game as evidenced by his 81.9 pass rush grade by PFF. Taco Charlton has also been a revelation for this defense as a pass rusher, grading out with an 86.8 in that category, and tallying a sack last week in his second game as a Chief.
All told, this is a unit that has some pieces, but maybe isn’t quite the coherent squad the Ravens have proven themselves to be on that side of the ball. As already mentioned, their +9.7 DVOA is good for 23rd in the league, which is actually up from Week 1 where they came it at 25th overall. Again, this figures to be a close game regardless of what happens, but that ranking compared to Baltimore’s 5th ranked offense by DVOA would have people screaming blowout if Patrick Mahomes wasn’t on the other side of the field, which to be fair, has proven itself to be the great equalizer so far through his two years as a starter.
As both a fan and an analyst of the Ravens, I try to balance between picking with my head and my heart. There were a couple of points last season where I picked against the Ravens in big spots, which could’ve been an indication of me picking with my head, but was probably a little bit of both. In my head, I may not have seen a matchup as favorable to them, but I also was fresh off of several years of having my heart broken by Baltimore in games on the big stage.
In that sense, my picking against them in games such as New England or the Rams last year was a function of me seeing them as either vulnerable or not ready, and also because I didn’t want to geek myself up for a game like that only for the other shoe to drop and them to finally lose. I’m picking with my head and heart in this one. My head says that the Ravens are a team on par with the Chiefs (unlike last year when they met) and are the home team, and my heart says that they’re ready to get it done. Outside of all the analysis I’ve just thrown at you that says the Ravens can hang with the Chiefs next Monday, this game simply means more to them at this stage than it does their opponent.
Baltimore walked out of Arrowhead Stadium disappointed last year, but the process they bought into it proved to be one that would carry them to a 14-2 record. Since then, the Chiefs have climbed the mountain, and deserve to be seen as the best team in the NFL. Until the Ravens a) beat the Chiefs, or b) win the Super Bowl (or of course both), they won’t be in that conversation. In my mind for all the reasons I’ve listed here, I think they’re ready to jump that first hurdle in pursuit of getting over that second one several months from now. It’ll be a fun one that Kansas City won’t let get out of hand by any means, but my official prediction is that Baltimore gets this thing done and enters Week 4 as one (if not the only) 3-0 team left in the league.
Jake’s official prediction: Ravens 38, Chiefs 37