The top-seeded Baltimore Ravens will host the third-seeded Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday to kick off conference championship action in the AFC title game. While they are slightly favored to come out on top, the challenge of facing their defending Super Bowl champion is still daunting as they are led by two-time league and Super Bowl MVP, Patrick Mahomes, who is already regarded by many as the greatest quarterback of all time.
This heavyweight bout with a trip to Super Bowl 58 on the line marks the first time that these two teams will have met since the 2021 regular season and the first in the playoffs since the 2011 postseason. None of those past games have anything to do with the outcome of this latest edition but it could be decided by a few key points that could go in the home team’s favor if they execute or work against them if they don’t.
This article breaks down how the Ravens Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald’s elite unit can attack a Chiefs offense and cause a bevy of issues for Mahomes and Co.
Dominate in the trenches at point of attack
The Ravens were able to cool off a red-hot Houston Texans’ offense last weekend in the divisional round despite not logging a single sack or turnover thanks in large part to the incredibly stout play of their defensive front seven that allowed the entire defense to dominate. They were able to impose their will on an offensive line that had been playing very well as of late and make them look inept in both pass and run blocking.
Standout rookie quarterback CJ Stroud was under constant duress from their relentless pressure and the few plays that he was able to make almost exclusively on the run or from a crumbing and collapsing pocket.
Justin Madubuike in the Divisional Round:— PFF BAL Ravens (@PFF_Ravens) January 22, 2024
7 QB pressures
21.7% pass rush win-rate
78.3 PFF grade
Outside of finishing better when they get close to the quarterback, a repeat of last week’s performance against a banged-up and undisciplined Chiefs offensive line would be great although Mahomes has proven that he is perfectly capable and sometimes even comfortable with making big plays in the midst of chaos and pressure.
The Ravens also held Houston to just 38 rushing yards—their second-lowest amount allowed all season—and bottled up veteran running back Devin Singletary all game outside of one 16-yard run. They’ll be facing a much more physical presence and powerful runner this week in second-year running back Isiah Pacheco. Winning and dominating at the point of the attack in the trenches will mean preventing the undersized bruising ball carrier from gaining momentum and breaking into the second and third levels of the defense for bigger plays.
Keep contain and maintain rush lane integrity
As important as winning up front will be in this matchup, making sure Mahomes can’t escape out the back door or up the middle once a play breaks down and he isn’t able to find an open target is just as paramount. While Lamar Jackson he is not, the six-time Pro Bowl is still an elite scrambler when it comes to getting loose and picking up key first downs or even huge chunk gains with is legs.
The way he runs as if he is a fan trying to hurry back to their seat before the second half kickoff without spilling their beer makes him look like the most unassuming dual threat quarterback but he is dangerous when he takes off. He could either be buying more time for someone uncover late before crossing the line of scrimmage and committing to running.
Mahomes 24 yard run! He got Douglas to jump pic.twitter.com/Dme0r333KN— ★★★★★ (@TSV__1) January 22, 2024
Having one of their two All-Pro off-ball linebackers spy Mahomes on passing downs makes a lot of sense on as long as it doesn’t compromise their coverage. However, it may not be necessary because of how fast, physical, and aggressive Macdonald’s unit plays downhill on every single snap so if he does decide to take off, they’ll be more than willing to make him pay for it before he can pick up a new set of downs.
Limit Travis Kelce’s impact
The nine-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Fame tight end is still essentially a big-bodied wide receiver and remains Mahomes most trusted and dangerous target in the passing game. He has begun to heat up since the playoff got underway after having a less productive regular season than has been the norm for him for nearly a decade. Kelce has recorded at least five receptions and over 70 receiving yards in the first two rounds of the postseason and will be looking to stay hot and extend his streak to three straight on Sunday.
Completely neutralizing Kelce is nearly impossible barring and unforeseen injury. However, the Ravens’ defense is the best equipped unit to prevent Kelce from having a profound impact on the outcome of this game. The primary responsibility for covering him in one-on-one situations will likely be second-year Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro safety Kyle Hamilton who has been quite the effective pass-catching tight end eraser dating back to last season. While he has the utmost respect for the four-time All-Pro, Hamilton is looking forward to the challenge but doesn’t anticipate being limited to just that specific role.
“He is a great player in our league,” Hamilton said. “He has been a great player for as long as I can remember, as long as I have been watching him at this level. He has earned every ounce of respect that he has received until this point, and it will be a challenge.”
Whether Hamilton is one primarily responsible keeping up with Kelce in man coverage, when they’re in zone or match zone, it will take almost an entire team effort to make sure that Kansas City’s dynamic gold jacket duo doesn’t consistently gash them on high-leverage downs. If one of the Ravens’ two All-Pro inside linebackers end up on him in man coverage, expect to see one of the two or three safeties on the field at a given time shade over to that side of the field just in case the ball comes that way.
“I am part of the plan to hopefully take him away, but it is a team effort at the same time,” Hamilton said.
Take away crossing routes and contest deep shots
Although the Chiefs wide receivers have been the most underwhelming position group on their offense by far and away for the vast majority of the season, a couple instances where they have proven dangerous is on crossing route concepts. Whether the opposing defense is man or zone, their wideouts have been able to cause a lot of damage and generate plays when they actually catch the ball in stride while streaking across the middle of the field.
Standout second-round rookie receiver Rashee Rice has been especially effective and explosive on such routes as he continues to try to round into a more complete player at the position. He is Mahomes’ second most trusted pass catcher and finished regular season ranked second on the team in targets (102), receptions (79), and receiving yards (938) and led them in receiving touchdowns with seven.
In Kansas City’s win over the Bills last week, much-maligned veteran receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling started stepping up and making plays as well. He made a pair huge catches down the field for long gains of 30-plus yards and finished with 62 receiving yards, his second-highest single-game total of the entire season. Both he and Rice are capable of being physical at the catch point and can be dangerous vertical threats so their corners can’t allow much breathing room in coverage and will need to compete to force incompletions when Mahomes inevitably throws the ball up in hopes that one of his guys will make a play.
Continue to scheme up unblocked rushers
In football, the best and most effective pressure is the kind that the quarterback doesn’t see coming or can’t evade because a defender is barreling toward them unabated because they weren’t accounted for as part of the rush by the pass-protecting unit.
Against the Texans last week, the Ravens sent seventh-year veteran cornerback Arthur Maulet on a trio of nickel blitzes over the course of the game, and each time, he wasn’t blocked. He was able to generate an impactful pressure that resulted in a rushed pass, throw away, and even an intentional grounding penalty.
Arthur Maulet rushed the quarterback three times on Saturday and produced three unblocked pressures. This one is the fourth-and-5 to end the game, where the Ravens end up only rushing three and Maulet still goes untouched on his way to C.J. Stroud pic.twitter.com/uJSYpEKCHq— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 21, 2024
Trying to deploy it once a drive would be too much and make the pass predictable because even if they don’t figure out a tendency when it’s used, the fact that they’d have to expect on any given passing down takes away part of the element of surprise. One of Mahomes’ many elite traits is avoiding pressure and not getting sacked so Maulet or whoever gets an open lane into the backfield needs to make the most of the opportunity and get him to the ground if they can or try their best to ensure he can’t complete an accurate pass in the field of play.