The much anticipated NFL “Game of the Year” is on tap for Week 3 with the Ravens scheduled to host the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Monday Night Football. This contest will feature a pair of dynamic MVP quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. John Harbaugh will match wits against his former mentor Andy Reid. The two odds-on Super Bowl favorites square off with postseason bye implications on the line.
Baltimore and Kansas City are each model franchises with perhaps the two best rosters in the league. Both teams have playmakers littered across their depth charts. Although constructed quite differently,, both contenders have the personnel to exploit the other’s vulnerabilities. Four key individual player matchups that could determine the victor in this exciting battle between AFC Goliaths:
CB Anthony Averett vs WR Mecole Hardman
The Ravens secondary was better equipped to mark Kansas City’s arsenal of receiving threats a month ago when Earl Thomas and Tavon Young were still in the fold. The depth of the NFL’s most talented cornerback corps will be tested with the unproven Averett pressed into action. The Chiefs are dealing with their own injury issues, former top-5 overall pick Sammy Watkins’ gameday status is currently questionable.
Enter Hardman, a second-year speed merchant. Mecole is a world class burner and returner extraordinare who was remarkable efficient as a rookie, scoring touchdowns on 23-percent of his receptions along with a 20.7-yard average. Hardman has not been involved much through the first two weeks, but even if Watkins suits up, expect Reid to call a few deep shots for Mecole from the slot.
Before the attrition in the secondary, the Ravens had the flexibility to line Marlon Humphrey up across from the dangerous Tyreek Hill, Marcus Peters on the other boundary receiver and use Jimmy Smith to limit All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, without concerns in the slot. Now coordinator Martindale is likely to keep his safeties deep, ceding some ground to Kelce. Averett, with sub 4.4 speed and experience coming from Alabama’s pattern matching system, has the skill to neutralize Hardman. Doing so will be crucial in the aim to avoid the disadvantageous situation of playing from behind.
C Matt Skura vs DT Chris Jones
After the retirement of future Hall of Fame guard Marshal Yanda, the battle on the interior favors the Chiefs. Jones is arguably the most disruptive penetrator in the game today. He recorded a sack against Baltimore during his 2018 15.5 sack All-Pro campaign. With exceptional power and an explosive first-step, Jones is a bonafide drive wrecker.
Skura has had a slow start to the season following knee reconstruction and Yanda’s replacement Tyre Phillips has experienced the typical rookie growing pains. Through two games, the offensive line has not been as dominant as they were in 2019, as evidenced by their 17th best 4.30 adjusted line yards and 2nd worst 10.7-percent adjusted sack rate.
Fortunately for the Ravens, blindside blocker Ronnie Stanley can eliminate any pass rusher he meets, including the Chiefs $20 million per season defensive end Frank Clark. Orlando Brown Jr. is stout on the other side of the line, left guard Bradley Bozeman has been a sturdy presence to begin his third season and tight end Nick Boyle chips in whenever necessary. These advantages will allow coordinator Roman to devote extra blockers to thwart Jones. The unit must block well in order to take advantage of the Chiefs bottom-third run stopping unit. That starts with keeping Jones out of the backfield.
OLB Tyus Bowser vs LT Eric Fisher
Mahomes, like any quarterback, can be rattled by consistent pressure. Including the Super Bowl, he has been hit 19 times over his last three games, contributing to his less than incredible performances. In the 2019 meeting between these clubs, the Ravens managed eight hits on Mahomes, led by Matthew Judon’s four.
Judon could be stonewalled by perennial All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and Calais Campbell will often face capable former Raven Kelechi Osemele. But Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser may find some pass rushing success against mediocre left tackle Eric Fisher, who has missed several blocks in pass protection this season.
Bowser is in the midst of a breakout season, notching a pair of sacks through two games, which follows a trend for Ravens fourth year edge rushers. His proficiency dropping into coverage and range could be effective against the Chiefs potent underneath and screen game. Baltimore currently ranks second in the league with 19 quarterback hits, Tyus should pad that total in Week 3 while preventing Mahomes from growing comfortable in the pocket.
WR Miles Boykin vs CB Rashad Fenton
Against high octane offenses, a third productive pass catcher is often required to keep pace. Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews have winnable matchups versus impressive 4th round rookie La’Jarius Sneed and versatile safety Tyrann Mathieu, respectively. Yet Boykin may have the most favorable, Miles has a significant advantage in size and physicality over Fenton, as well as Charvarius Ward if he is able to return from a broken hand suffered in Week 1.
Boykin leads Ravens receivers with a 71-percent snap share, in large part due to his downfield blocking ability. While he has secured only seven receptions this season, he displayed big game, big play ability last season, including a 50-yard catch in Seattle and a 39-yarder in Los Angeles on Monday night. Reliable contributions from Boykin could be the missing piece that the Ravens need to defeat Kansas City and eventually advance in the postseason.
The Lamar Jackson based rushing attack will be the centerpiece of Roman’s gameplan. As usual, Jackson will make plays on the ground himself and open wide running lanes for his backs. Controlling time of possession is a logical strategy. Nonetheless, setting up the run with the pass in order to play with a lead, as Baltimore has grown accustomed to, may be advisable.
General manager Eric DeCosta spent the offseason bolstering the Ravens run defense and supplemented the already formidable running back group to directly combat the rugged teams that occupy their division or have bounced Baltimore from the postseason in successive seasons. But he was not able to upgrade the receiving corps overall, or land a top shelf edge rusher. The Ravens secondary has also been depleted through attrition.
These shortcomings pose problems against the Chiefs, a team that does not rely on rushing offense or need time of possession to build a large lead.
The Ravens brilliant coordinators will scheme around these deficiencies, but Reid is an excellent tactician in his own right. Mahomes will combine downfield bombs with Kelce’s chain-moving to put points on the board early while the Ravens grind yards on the ground. Lamar will a inspire a valiant comeback but ultimately Baltimore falls short, prompting DeCosta to swing trade that finally gives Jackson the weapons he needs to overcome negative game scripts.
Chiefs 31, Ravens 29