The top-seeded Baltimore Ravens will host the third-seeded Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in their first AFC title game appearance in over a decade. While they are slightly favored to come out on top, the challenge of facing their defending Super Bowl champion is still daunting.
The Chiefs are equipped with the best defense of the Patrick Mahomes era by far. The unit ranks second behind the Ravens in both sacks (57) and points allowed per game (17.3), and is orchestrated by renowned veteran Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
This heavyweight bout with a trip to Super Bowl 58 on the line marks the first time that these two foes will have met since the 2021 regular season. It’s their first meeting in the playoffs since the 2011 postseason. None of those past games have anything to do with the outcome of this latest edition. However, 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.
Here’s a breakdown on how Lamar Jackson and Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken can attack the Chiefs’ defense and punch their ticket to the big game.
Pound the rock and don’t stop
As stout as the Chiefs’ pass defense has been this year, ranking in the Top 5 in both DVOA and EPA, their efficiency against the run is on the opposite end of the spectrum. They rank poorly in both metrics and allowed the Buffalo Bills to rack up 182 rushing yards and a couple of touchdowns last week. Both scores belonged to quarterback Josh Allen, who led the team with 72 rushing yards on 12 carries.
The Ravens are bringing the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense to the party having led the league in rushing attempts (541), yards (2,661), and yards per game (156.5). They ranked third in yards per carry (4.9). They’re coming off a resounding divisional round win, where they ran all over what had been an elite Houston Texans’ run defense for a whopping 229 yards.
In addition to a talented stable of running backs in unheralded difference maker Justice Hill, Gus Edwards, and four-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook, the Ravens have the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in NFL history. Jackson led the team in rushing last week with 100 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns, so expect to see him heavily involved in the ground game again this week. The Ravens’ biggest key to success in this matchup is staying true to the formula that got them here, which is their potent and punishing rushing attack.
Continue to have answers for the blitz
The Texans stunned the Ravens offense to a degree in the first half by sending additional pressure on blitzes. Their strategy worked for the most part, as the game wound up being tied 10-10 at halftime. Thankfully, after an impassioned speech from Jackson and some collaborative adjustments by him and Monken, their unit was able to get into a rhythm. They took over in the second half, scoring on all four of their drives including three straight for touchdowns.
Lamar Jackson faced a career-high 75.0% blitz rate, completing 13 of 18 passes against the blitz for 120 yards & 2 TD.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 21, 2024
Jackson got rid of the ball more than a second quicker vs the blitz in the 2nd half (2.25 seconds) compared to the first half (3.51).#HOUvsBAL | #RavensFlock pic.twitter.com/j49zz4jjEr
On Sunday, they certainly won’t be caught off guard by the Chiefs’ defensive plan of attack, as Spagnuolo is one of the most aggressive play callers in the entire league. His defenses’ have historically lived and died by the blitz and this year has been no different. Kansas City finished with the fifth-highest blitz rate percentage (40) and the seventh-highest blitz percentage per dropback (32.9) in the league, which are both the highest marks among the remaining playoff teams.
While the Texans were able to give the Ravens some fits early and blitzing Jackson has historically been the best way to get after him, it hasn’t been nearly as effective of a method recently. According to NextGenStats, since the Ravens’ Week 13 bye, Jackson has gone 39-of-61 for five touchdowns and no interceptions with a completion percentage of 63.9% against the blitz. His 0.24 EPA per drop back and 53.9 percent success rate in those situations both rank second in the league during that span as well.
Against the Texans, the Ravens’ primary adjustments were to get the ball out quickly, provide checkdowns and hot routes, and stay committed to running the ball. Spagnuolo will certainly have more wrinkles up his sleeve but Monken and Jackson will also have more ways to counter and make him pay for sending more defenders to rush.
Frequently deploy multiple tight end sets
The Ravens officially activated three-time Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews to the 53-man roster on Friday. Andrews was a full participant in practice coming off ankle surgery that caused him to miss the final six games of the regular season. That means that Jackson will have his full complement of passing-catching weapons at his disposal for the biggest game of his career.
In Andrews’ absence, second-year tight end Isaiah Likely has emerged as one of the Ravens’ top playmakers on offense. He’s also firmly established himself as one of the best players at their position in the entire league. The former All-Pro’s triumphant return shouldn’t relegate his mentee back into the role of emergency understudy. Likely didn’t have much of an impact in the first half of the season outside of showing off his improved blocking skills.
Having one dangerous receiving threat at tight end can be a headache for opposing defenses to limit, as the Ravens will be attempting to do on defense when it comes to the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce. However, having two tight ends who can create mismatches and generate big plays will be an absolute nightmare for Kansas City’s linebackers and safeties on Sunday. Their combined presence will open space for each other to make plays and create favorable matchups for the Ravens’ explosive receivers.
Don’t be afraid to throw at L’Jarius Sneed or attack other corners
The Chiefs’ pass defense, led by their talented young secondary, is the overwhelming strength of the unit. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t susceptible to giving up plays in crucial situations. Sneed went the entire regular season and first round of the playoffs without giving up a touchdown as the nearest defender in coverage. Last week, though, he allowed a go-ahead score late in the third quarter on a 13-yard strike from Josh Allen to second-year wideout Khalil Shakir.
This is the first TD L'Jarius Sneed has given up all season https://t.co/mqJp4lm67s— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) January 22, 2024
According to NextGenStats, the third-and-goal pass had a completion probability of just 26.0 percent but still wound up resulting in the first touchdown he has allowed in coverage since Week 15 in 2022. Jackson is just as, if not even more, capable of completing highly improbable passes on extended plays. He also has the greatest group of pass-catching talent that he’s ever had up to this point in his career.
The Chiefs also have first-team All-Pro nickel cornerback Trent McDuffie, who has had an elite second season. However, he isn’t without faults either; he gave up a pair of touchdowns this season and an opposing passer rating of 94.4, completion percentage of 65.8, and 10.5 yards per completion. Watching the battles between him and Ravens’ standout rookie receiver Zay Flowers or Odell Beckham Jr. will be a couple to monitor.