In the aftermath of an instant classic, it was easy to distill the Ravens’ 36-35 win Sunday night over Kansas City down to two decisive running plays: the one the Chiefs fumbled away, and the one they couldn’t stop.
Until outside linebacker Odafe Oweh jarred the ball loose from running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire with less than 90 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the Ravens had to stare down the possibility of another difficult loss, another prime-time setback against an AFC rival. And until quarterback Lamar Jackson punched his way through a hole on fourth-and-1 about 20 seconds later, they had to wonder whether time would be on their side.
But in surviving a “Sunday Night Football” showdown, the Ravens revealed the strength of their first 58 minutes inside M&T Bank Stadium, too.
“I think it shows that we can play with anybody,” tight end Mark Andrews said. “When we play good, Baltimore Ravens football, we’re a tough team to beat. I think it’s extremely positive. Everybody has been counting us out, but we’re going to go out there, play hard. That’s what we did tonight.”
The Ravens’ path to their first win against the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs was not straightforward. But it was revealing, in some ways. Here’s what you might’ve overlooked.
Taking it easy
Because Jackson is the NFL’s best scrambler, sometimes he passes up a good thing — most often a check-down — for a shot at a great thing.
Last season, Jackson attempted just 31 passes to running backs of 5 air yards or fewer, or just over two per game, according to Sports Info Solutions. (Screen passes, shovel passes and touch passes were excluded from the sample.) Compare that with the similarly athletic Josh Allen (40 targets) or Cam Newton (51 targets), and Jackson’s reluctance to dump the ball off becomes even clearer.
But even with three running backs lost for the season, Jackson hasn’t hesitated to trust the team’s new starter, Ty’Son Williams, as a receiver. Late in the second quarter Sunday, with Williams lined up to his left in the shotgun, Jackson saw Chiefs inside linebacker Nick Bolton occupied by tight end Josh Oliver’s route out of the slot. That gave Jackson the green light to make a quick delivery to Williams, who caught a pass just outside the numbers and went for 9 yards.
On the next play, a third-and-4, Jackson faked a handoff to Williams, who leaked out into the middle of the field as Kansas City’s linebackers dropped into a zone coverage. Seeing no one open beyond the sticks, Jackson hit his running back again. Williams slipped after catching the check-down at the 10 — still 4 yards short of the marker — but quickly gathered himself and motored upfield for the first down, again besting Bolton.
The low point in the Ravens’ loss to Kansas City last season came around the end of the first half. Down 27-10 after a 49-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, the Ravens took over with 1:48 remaining, needing a score. The Chiefs were set to get the ball to start the second half.
The Ravens’ two-minute offense was underwhelming. After two completions and a first-down run, Jackson was strip-sacked by defensive end Chris Jones. When Kansas City kicker Harrison Butker missed a 42-yard field goal, the Ravens had five seconds to do something, anything. But with Chiefs defensive backs playing prevent coverage, Jackson missed wide receiver Devin Duvernay badly on a quick hitter. Then Andrews dropped Jackson’s next pass, another simple throw.
“That’s kind of how the first half has gone,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Steve Levy remarked on the “Monday Night Football” broadcast.
On Sunday, the Ravens’ offense had its first two-minute offense opportunity of the season. It got the job done. The Ravens covered 50 yards in 48 seconds, advancing to Kansas City’s 25 despite two penalties along the way. After an 8-yard completion to wide receiver Sammy Watkins near the sideline — the kind of throw Jackson has struggled with throughout his career — kicker Justin Tucker hit a 43-yard field goal with just three seconds remaining.
The Chiefs should’ve felt comfortable sending the house after Jackson. In their 2020 win in Baltimore, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo tested Jackson with a Cover 0 scheme — no deep safeties, pass defenders in man-to-man coverage and the rest of the unit blitzing — five times, according to SIS. Jackson finished 4-for-5 against the aggressive coverage, but for just 23 yards, another quiet part of a quiet night (15-for-28 for 97 yards).
When the Ravens lined up for a third-and-4 in Kansas City territory on their first drive of the third quarter, trailing 28-17, offensive coordinator Greg Roman might’ve sensed another big blitz was coming. It was the kind of scenario the Chiefs had attacked from the year before; they’d wanted Jackson to get rid of the ball quickly and force the Ravens to make a play in space.
This time, they did. Kansas City sent six pass rushers after Jackson, who had just five linemen to protect him but five receivers to choose from. As he dropped back, Jackson looked to his left — but Watkins was well covered. He looked to the middle — but Andrews was stumbling and wide receiver James Proche II’s release had been delayed.
Then he moved to his third, maybe fourth, read. Proche’s route had attracted two Chiefs defensive backs, leaving Brown wide open downfield. Jackson left his feet, threw a jump pass about 25 yards through the air and was soon celebrating a 42-yard touchdown.
“I was like, ‘Oh, he’s throwing it,’” said Brown, whose score narrowed the deficit to 28-24. “It was crazy, because it gave me a little Cleveland vibes” — referring to his go-ahead catch in the epic “Monday Night Football” game against the Browns last season — “but it was cool.”
The Ravens were spiraling when Nick Moore committed a potentially game-saving penalty. When the long snapper headed out with the punt team late in the third quarter, their comeback chances looked bleak. On Kansas City’s previous possession, tight end Travis Kelce had slalomed through the defense on a 46-yard touchdown for a 35-24 lead. The Ravens’ response was uninspiring: five plays, 10 yards.
They couldn’t afford another big play. They almost handed Kansas City one. After Moore’s snap, tight end Jody Fortson broke through the Ravens’ line; Harbaugh said their spacing wasn’t tight enough, and Moore’s footwork wasn’t precise enough. But rather than hope punter Sam Koch would get off his kick in time — he almost didn’t anyway — Moore tackled Fortson from behind.
“I think it comes pretty naturally; when a guy is running by you, grab him,” Harbaugh said with a laugh. “It’s a natural instinct thing.”
The Ravens took the 10-yard penalty, Hardman returned Koch’s next punt to the Ravens’ 49-yard line, and three plays later, Mahomes’ pass was intercepted.
Going against type
The Ravens fell in their season opener partly because of their third-down woes (3-for-12). The Chiefs had the same problem Sunday, converting just two of their six third-down opportunities, with one coming thanks to a Ravens penalty.
On first and second down, Mahomes was 22-for-26 for 322 yards and three touchdowns, good for a nearly perfect 156.7 passer rating. On third down, however, he was 2-for-5 for 21 yards and an interception (13.3 rating).
The Ravens’ success came from a defensive posture antithetical to coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s very essence. Not only did they not blitz on their third downs, but they also lined up with just three pass rushers. Here’s how their game plan unfolded throughout the game:
- Third-and-2 (first quarter): With the Ravens sending an apparent run blitz, Mahomes found Kelce open on a run-pass-option play for 10 yards.
- Third-and-39 (second quarter): The Ravens sent just three pass rushers — including Oweh, who easily beat left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. with an inside move — but Mahomes got the ball out quickly for an 11-yard completion to tight end Joe Fortson.
- Third-and-10 (second quarter): Another three-man rush. After Oweh hemmed in a scrambling Mahomes, safety DeShon Elliott flew in on clean-up duty, forcing an incompletion on a sideline throw.
- Third-and-4 (third quarter): With eight Ravens defenders dropping into coverage, Mahomes scrambled for just 3 yards. A holding penalty on cornerback Marlon Humphrey kept the Chiefs’ drive alive.
- Third-and-12 (third quarter): Oweh lined up over Kelce in the slot, trying to redirect his route, then looped back as a fourth pass rusher. After making center Creed Humphrey miss easily in space, the rookie wrapped up Mahomes’ legs as he forced a fluttering pass over the middle that cornerback Tavon Young easily intercepted.
- Third-and-9 (fourth quarter): Oweh and inside linebacker Chris Board double-teamed Kelce in the slot, leaving inside linebacker Patrick Queen to spy Mahomes behind a three-man rush. Despite a clean pocket, Mahomes couldn’t connect with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, as cornerback Anthony Averett broke up an out-breaking route.
>> Running back Devonta Freeman had just two carries Sunday, but his 31-yard first-quarter carry might have made possible a crucial third-down conversion on the Ravens’ go-ahead drive.
In the first quarter, the Ravens burned the Chiefs with their “counter bash” option concept, with two pulling linemen and the threat of Jackson’s legs clearing a path for Freeman away from the flow of the play. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Ravens facing third-and-5 at Kansas City’s 12, Roman used a similar counter-bash look with Freeman — only this time, Jackson kept the ball and followed left tackle Alejandro Villanueva up the middle for a 9-yard gain. Three plays later, the Ravens had their first lead.
>> The Ravens’ clinching fourth-and-1 conversion was unusual in both its alignment and its execution. From left to right along the line of scrimmage were tight end Eric Tomlinson, center Trystan Colon, Villanueva, right tackle Patrick Mekari, left guard Ben Powers, center Bradley Bozeman, right guard Kevin Zeitler and Andrews.
If that didn’t catch the Chiefs off guard, the timing did. The Ravens snapped the ball just four seconds into the play clock, just as Bolton was apparently directing defensive end Alex Okafor to shift his alignment.
>> Mahomes wasn’t sacked Sunday, but he seemed to get a helping hand from the officials on his first-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson.
On a play-action drop-back, defensive tackle Brandon Williams ripped past Chiefs right guard Trey Smith. Mahomes was just a few steps away. But before Williams could close on the quarterback, Smith grabbed him by the neck and shoulder area. Williams could only lunge for Mahomes with his left hand, and no flag was thrown. Mahomes dipped past the rush, climbed in the pocket and found Robinson, who’d beaten Humphrey downfield for a 33-yard score.