Chiefs’ speed, mobility of QB Patrick Mahomes pose tough test for Ravens defense in rematch
By Daniel Oyefusi
Sep 19, 2019 | 7:42 PM
Ravens second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is focused on the team and not the hype that's surrounding the team.
Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey received a straight-forward text message from his father, former NFL running back Bobby Humphrey, about his team’s upcoming Week 3 game against the Kansas City Chiefs: Be ready to run.
“My dad just sent me a text, saying, ‘You better have your track shoes on this week,’ ” Humphrey told reporters Wednesday.
Matching up last season against Kansas City, the league’s top-scoring offense, the Ravens defense did just about everything one could ask for in a 27-24 overtime loss.
Pressure the quarterback? The defense hit Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes a season-high 15 times.
Force turnovers? Mahomes threw a rare interception and nearly turned the ball over again in overtime.
Keep the offense out of the end zone? The Chiefs were held to 24 points, well below their league-leading 35 points per game.
And still, Mahomes was able to give the Ravens defense fits, whether it was the infamous no-look pass over the middle of the field, or the across-the-body prayer to wide receiver Tyreek Hill late in the game on 4th-and-9.
So how does the Ravens defense replicate, and possibly surpass, last year’s performance against the Chiefs? It might ultimately be a matter of philosophy.
With pass attempts and scoring at an all-time high in the NFL, increased importance has been placed on pass rushers. Advanced metrics tell a different story, implying that a standout secondary — and in turn, better coverage — can be a more reliable predictor of defensive success than a quality pass rush.
The Ravens’ decision-making over the past few years, investing draft capital and free-agency money to bolster their secondary, has played into the belief that the ability to keep up with receivers across the field trumps all.
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive defense is rooted in intricate blitz schemes and confusing quarterbacks.
“I think anytime you’re playing a game on Sunday, to affect the offense, you need to hit the quarterback," Martindale said. “That’s been our philosophy since last year and so far this year.”
This was the case in last season’s game, even with an undermanned secondary.
Slot cornerback Tavon Young didn’t play because of a groin injury. Safety Chuck Clark started in place of Tony Jefferson, who missed the game with an ankle injury. Jefferson will play Sunday, with Earl Thomas III expected to provide more speed and playmaking on the back end than former Ravens safety Eric Weddle.
Young will once again miss the Chiefs game, this time because of a season-ending neck injury suffered in training camp, and cornerback Jimmy Smith will miss his second straight game because of a knee sprain.
The Chiefs will also be forced to play without a key member of their offense, as Hill is sidelined with a shoulder injury he suffered in the team’s season opener.
Hill’s absence hasn’t resulted in much of a drop-off, however, with Kansas City scoring 40 and 28 points in its first two games, respectively.
Receivers Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and rookie Mecole Hardman have all had their moments filling Hill’s void, substituting speed for speed — even if it’s a tick slower.
Tight end Travis Kelce, who caught seven passes for 77 yards and a touchdown in last season’s game, still poses one of the hardest matchup problems in the NFL.
And the foundation of the Chiefs’ success is the play-calling of coach Andy Reid, whose play design and pre-snap motions are among the most difficult to decipher in the league.
“[Reid] is the grandfather, he’s the OG of the innovators of offense,” Martindale said. “The offense that he has there in Kansas City, everybody steals from it. He’s the king of the [run-pass option], he’s the king of the shots, he’s the king of the screens.”
There’s a risk to both defensive approaches. Blitz with one or two extra defenders, and place your faith in the secondary to cover a “world-class tight end, world-class sprinters at wide receiver,” as Martindale put it.
Bringing three or four rushers and placing everyone else in coverage allows Mahomes the chance to get comfortable in the pocket or move around, forcing a team to defend what Martindale calls “the second play.”
“You’ve got to play to the whistle,” cornerback Brandon Carr said Wednesday. “[Mahomes is] a guy who can extend the play, smart guy, big arm, strong arm. You’ve got to lock in each and every down.”
There’s only so much a defense can do to simulate Mahomes and his ability to improvise when a play breaks down. Ravens defensive players and coaches have said they’ll prepare with more scramble drills than typical this week. Having players on their team with similar skill sets — quarterback Lamar Jackson and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown — helps.
But when facing a talent such as Mahomes, only time will tell if the defense will hold up Sunday.
“[Reid] runs the whole thing,” Martindale said. "And when having a quarterback like Mahomes, as smart as he is in making checks and things like that, it’s a tough out. I think we’re just the men for the job, but it’s a tough out.”