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How the Chiefs and Ravens blitz-heavy game plans have delivered contrasting results

Blitzing determined the last matchup, will it happen again?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Kansas City Chiefs will square off against the Baltimore Ravens for the fourth straight year on Sunday night. In each of the last two matchups, the Chiefs have assaulted the Ravens on both sides of the ball in the first half.

The defending AFC Champions have established 17-point leads going into halftime in 2019 and 2020. In the second quarter specifically, the Chiefs have scored three touchdowns in each game and quarterback Patrick Mahomes has totally obliterated the Ravens defense. Mahomes has completed 25 of 31 passes in the second frame of play, totaling 369 yards and five touchdowns. He hasn’t been sacked, nor thrown an interception. Mahomes has thrown the ball away more times (twice) than Ravens defenders have broken up a pass (Brandon Carr had the lone pass breakup in 2019).

Meanwhile, Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson has thrown 21 passes, completing eight of them, totaling 67 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. The longest completion among them? A paltry 13 yards. Let’s examine the previous two matchups in greater detail, as there have been more consistencies in terms of personnel and coaching staff than when the Chiefs and Ravens squared off in 2018.

Kansas City Chiefs’ Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has mixed up his game plan in glaring contrast against Greg Roman’s offense. In 2019, Spagnuolo blitzed Jackson on only eight of his 50 drop backs. The savvy longtime defensive play caller chose to send the house against Jackson in 2020, sending five or more pass rushers on 18 of Jackson’s 35 drop backs. Within those, Spagnuolo has become more aggressive as the game wore on. Kansas City has only blitzed on one of seven drop backs in the first quarter (14%). The Chiefs blitzed on 17/28 drop backs (60%) in the final three quarters. Effectively, they showed Jackson similar looks to what they did in 2019, before sending an all-out assault over the final three quarters as their offense exploded.

Jackson had an EPA of -6.54 over those final three quarters against the blitz, in other words, he costed his team almost more than a touchdown. In contrast, Patrick Mahomes has completed 20 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns against the Ravens defense when they’ve blitzed over the final three quarters. In 2020, Mahomes EPA against the blitz over the final three quarters was 11.88 — 18.42 points higher than Jackson’s. This isn’t only an indictment on Jackson or Ravens’ Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale. There are countless variables: offensive line play, the aptitude of receivers to aid their quarterback, environment (The Chiefs have never played in Baltimore in front of fans), etc. At the end of the day, though, the Chiefs blitz has worked and Baltimore’s hasn’t. For the Ravens to finally throw the proverbial stone that collapses Goliath, they have to be better rehearsed against the blitz.

Let’s examine the tale of the tape to see what has worked for the Chiefs offense and what hasn’t for the Ravens defense. In the video I broke down ten blitzes the Ravens sent at Mahomes and how the Chiefs navigated them.

As the tape shows, the Chiefs won both battles and wars against the blitz. They hit home runs to Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman, while also converting key first downs and taking easy gains when they were given to them. The Ravens, in contrast, won battles, but never wars. When the Chiefs saw the Ravens in empty, they flushed Jackson to his right, under control. When Jackson didn’t have an outlet or a hot read, the Chiefs defense won the rep and got the Ravens off the field. Late in the game, Jackson started pressing and lost battles, taking sacks.

Considering the Chiefs have now given Jackson polar opposite looks in terms of blitzing frequency between 2019 and 2020, the Ravens have plenty of tape on both scenarios. Baltimore’s defense, conversely, hasn’t limited Mahomes when blitzing or rushing four or less. He’s 35/48 for 466 yards three touchdowns and no interceptions when they don’t blitz him over the last two years. When they do blitz, he’s 23/31 for 287 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Damned if you do; damn if you don’t.

The greatest failures have seemingly occurred when the Ravens elect to blitz defensive backs. The Chiefs quickly have a receiver replace the space that the blitzing player occupied and take small gains. They also beat Baltimore with an out-and-up to Mecole Hardman resulting in a long touchdown, despite the fact that Marlon Humphrey was unblocked. Vacating the middle of the field (hooks) and allowing short completions to Travis Kelce will never be the answer. Sending combinations of Justin Houston, Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser, Justin Madubuike, Patrick Queen, Pernell McPhee and Calais Campbell gives the Ravens the most explosive pass-rushing group they’ve had in quite some time. Using tight end stunts and simple games against Kansas City’s inexperienced offensive line (their center, right guard and right tackle all played their first game in Week 1) could provide free rushers that can actually corral Patrick Mahomes in space.

Utilizing a less complex but more talented blitzing game and taking away quick throws over the middle will force Mahomes to move, scramble and push the ball downfield. Shading a safety to account for Tyreek Hill will force Kelce, Hardman and company to beat the Ravens. By utilizing more dime packages, inserting Jimmy Smith and/or Brandon Stephens in lieu of Malik Harrison or Chris Board, the Ravens can better defend short hooks and carry depth in zone, while seceding ground in the run game. Losing to Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the Chiefs’ run game is less painful than being taken out back by Mahomes and company for the fourth straight year.

The Chiefs, of course, will add wrinkles and new concepts to throw the dogs off their scent. They utilized a bevy of screens, running back route concepts from the backfield and even threw an offensive lineman a touchdown pass last year. In the end, Baltimore must figure out how to win the game of blitzing on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, they must win on third down and in the red zone if they want to take down the defending AFC Champs.

Only one team (Colts) have beaten the Chiefs and scored under 20 points. Only two teams (Colts, Chargers) have beaten the Chiefs and scored under 30 points (Chargers scored 2019 in a win). To beat the Chiefs you must outscore them.

With Spagnuolo showing Greg Roman his blitz heavy game plan in 2020 to contrast his plan from 2019, a goldilocks-like approach, where the Chiefs blitz at a typical rate, feels likely. However, those Chiefs will keep you guessing.