The Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens’ opponent this Sunday, boast the top-ranked run offense in the NFL. But the very foundation of that ground attack could also be their area of vulnerability.
Ryan Lilja will be making his second consecutive start at center against the Ravens. A converted left guard who had never started at center until this season, Lilja replaced Rodney Hudson, who was placed on injured reserve Sept. 26 after breaking a bone in his left leg in the team’s 27-24 overtime win against the New Orleans Saints.
Nose tackle Terrence Cody said the defensive line spent a considerable amount of time studying Lilja during that unit’s review of the Chiefs’ 37-20 loss to the San Diego Chargers last Sunday.
“As a D-line, we looked at it, and whoever lines up in front of him has to win that one-on-one matchup, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Cody said.
Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel praised Lilja’s performance, noting that the former Indianapolis Colt made the seamless transition from left guard to center.
“You had no issues with the quarterback-center exchange, shotgun snaps and all of those things, which when you have a new center, that’s one of the main concerns,” Crennel said Wednesday during his conference call with Baltimore reporters. “But he handled it very well. He is a pro. He is a competitor.”
Ravens nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu said he and his teammates would be wise not to overlook Lilja, who spent six seasons being directed by former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning,
“Obviously, they have a lot of trust in him to move him to center and have him start,” Kemoeatu said. “He’s a veteran player, so we’re not going to take him lightly. But we’re looking forward to a good matchup with him. It’s hard to play against them. They have a good running game and they put up a lot of positive numbers on offense. So it’ll be good.”
With Lilja moving to center, Kansas City inserted rookie Jeff Allen at left guard. With second-year pro Jon Asamoah making each start at right guard, the Chiefs have some youth along the interior portion of the offensive line.
NFL Network analyst and former New York Giants center Shaun O’Hara said he expects the Ravens to unveil multiple looks to confuse the young linemen.
“The Ravens are probably one of the savviest defenses in the league,” O’Hara said. “It starts with their veteran leadership in [inside linebacker] Ray Lewis and [free safety] Ed Reed and [defensive tackle] Haloti Ngata. So those guys know that when they have a young guy in there – whether it’s at center or at quarterback – and their No. 1 job is to confuse the blocking scheme and try to make you think that they’re blitzing when they’re not and try to make you think that they’re dropping when they’re blitzing. So that mental aspect of it is going to be a challenge not just for the center, but for all the linemen. A lot of times, the center is the one that makes the calls, but if it’s a new guy not comfortable with making the calls, then sometimes the guard can make the calls. But that brings together all new challenges because now it’s the guard that has to relay it from one side to the other and it’s a little easier if the center is doing it because he’s in the middle. So I’m sure their defense will look to take advantage of that and try to create some different looks and confuse the center and the quarterback.”
Kemoeatu, however, took the cautious approach again and said the defense will plan as if the Chiefs have prepared for whatever the Ravens throw at them.
“You never underestimate whether they’re a rookie or a veteran,” he said. “We will go in there and try to challenge them and see how they’ll take the pressure of starting in the National Football League.”