John Harbaugh couldn’t help himself Sunday night. With the Ravens' 33-16 win over the Houston Texans finally secured, he started to look ahead: to “Monday Night Football,” to a rematch with the undefeated and defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, to the NFL’s game of the year.
“You can’t help it; you think about it,” Harbaugh said at his Monday news conference. “It’s probably the first thing that goes into your mind once you get in the locker room. You kind of start talking about the game, and then everybody is talking about it in the locker room, about the next one, too.”
Monday’s ballyhooed battle of AFC favorites inside M&T Bank Stadium will not decide anything important. Both teams are division favorites and widely considered playoff shoo-ins. Both have an NFL Most Valuable Player playing quarterback. Both might even meet again in the postseason.
The showdown’s greatest value might be as a measuring stick for the Ravens and Lamar Jackson, who are winless against the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes in their two trips to Kansas City. If the Ravens are indeed Super Bowl favorites, this would be a good night to prove it.
With so much talent on the field and creativity on the sideline, two important questions could decide the game.
Do the Chiefs have a shotgun problem?
For the first two weeks of the season, Kansas City’s defense has been, well, not good. According to analytics website Football Outsiders, the Chiefs rank No. 23 in overall efficiency, No. 17 in pass defense and No. 26 in run defense. And that’s after wins over the DeAndre Hopkins-less Houston Texans and Tyrod Taylor-less Los Angeles Chargers.
Even with maybe the NFL’s most talented offense, Kansas City has been outgained by a combined 56 yards over its first two weeks. The Chiefs rank No. 23 in the NFL with 6.1 yards allowed per play, over a half-yard worse than their 2019 rate (5.4).
The bad news for Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo isn’t that this Ravens offense has more talent than the Texans' or the Chargers'. It’s that this Ravens offense is committed to using the kind of formations that the Texans and Chargers bludgeoned the Chiefs with.
According to a review of early-season film, Houston ran 48 offensive plays in Week 1 out of the shotgun formation. It averaged 6.9 yards per play. In Week 2, the Chargers ran 43 plays out of the shotgun or pistol formation, including a handful of zone-read options. They averaged 7.8 yards per play. (Kansas City finished with an interception in both games, but neither came against a shotgun play.)
In Baltimore, the Chiefs will face an offense that avoids traditional under-center formations like they’re potholes. The Ravens have run 123 offensive plays this season. Only seven weren’t out of a shotgun or pistol formation; three were in 1-yard-to-go scenarios, and the rest were kneel-downs.
Even excluding an inconsequential 25-yard completion, the Chargers had four plays of 22 yards or more Sunday. All but one came out of the pistol or shotgun, and each offered a possible window into how the Ravens might threaten Kansas City’s weak points.
- In the first quarter, rookie quarterback Justin Herbert found running back Joshua Kelley out of the backfield on an innocent-looking swing pass. Chiefs inside linebackers Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens were so slow in their cross-field pursuit that Kelley glided by both. With the help of good downfield blocking, he wasn’t contacted until near the end of a 35-yard gain.
- In the second quarter, Herbert threw a check-down pass to running back Austin Ekeler 3 yards past the line of scrimmage. Inside linebacker Ben Niemann couldn’t wrap him up in the open field. Then safety Juan Thornhill missed on his tackle, too. Ekeler ended up with a 22-yard catch-and-run.
- In the third quarter, wide receiver Keenan Allen was one of three receivers running a vertical route against a zone defense with two deep safeties, a kind of overload strategy the Ravens often employed last year. There wasn’t much of a soft spot, but Herbert saw enough over the middle to feather a 25-yard pass between safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.
- Later in the quarter, more tackling trouble: Against a five-man pass rush, Herbert located tight end Hunter Henry over the middle. Safety Daniel Sorensen’s diving attempt couldn’t knock Henry off balance, and off he went into open space on a 22-yard gain.
With Pro Bowl defensive end Frank Clark dealing with an illness and starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland still suspended, the Chiefs need to get healthy, get better and do it fast. Even Mathieu has struggled at times; the first-team All-Pro has four missed tackles in two games. As a team, Kansas City has 29 missed tackles, second most in the NFL, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
On paper, the Ravens are a nightmarish matchup for the Chiefs. At a game-planning level, they use their pistol formation to set up their elite rushing attack and stress defenses vertically and horizontally. At a one-on-one level, they have dynamic playmakers at quarterback (Jackson), running back (J.K. Dobbins), wide receiver (Marquise “Hollywood” Brown) and tight end (Mark Andrews) who can punish shoddy tackling and pursuit.
It doesn’t matter that Kansas City is perhaps even more talented on offense. If the Chiefs defense doesn’t show up, Mahomes might find himself in a hole not even he can throw himself out of.
Does Mahomes change the Ravens' blitz plans?
Game-planning against Mahomes presents something of a Sophie’s choice for defensive coordinators: Do you want to have blitz after blitz shredded with quick hitters to home run threats? Or would you prefer to give Mahomes time to wait for his talented receivers to get open downfield?
The results are usually the same. After two seasons as a full-time starter, Mahomes entered Super Bowl LIV in February with a career passer rating of 109.0 and 66.8% accuracy against four pass rushers or fewer, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Against the blitz — five pass rushers or more — his accuracy was less impressive (60.9%), but his passer rating was even better (116.5).
The Ravens' first two matchups with Mahomes offer few clues as to how defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale might approach Monday’s game. In 2018, Mahomes finished 16 of 22 for 180 yards and a touchdown against five or more Ravens pass rushers, according to ESPN. Overall, Mahomes went 35-for-53 for 377 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, one of his least impressive performances in a Most Valuable Player-worthy season.
In 2019, it was a different story with a similar ending. According to a review of the Chiefs' Week 3 win, the Ravens blitzed just 17 times on Mahomes' 39 drop-backs. A defense that finished the season with a league-high 54.9% blitz rate sent five or more pass rushers after Mahomes just 43.6% of the time. (Even that rate might be inflated, as two “blitzes” came on delayed, passive rushes by linebackers.)
With left tackle Eric Fisher out and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz struggling last year, Mahomes was only solid in the face of pressure: one sack, one lost fumble on a shotgun snap, 12-for-16 for 121 yards and a touchdown. An interception that was negated because of a questionable pass-interference penalty against safety Tony Jefferson also came against a six-man pressure.
This time, it was when the Ravens played it safe that Mahomes made them pay. On his 21 drop-backs against four pass rushers or fewer, Mahomes went 15-for-21 for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Some of the Ravens' errors were self-inflicted, but Mahomes capitalized almost every time. There’s a reason he’s the highest-paid player in NFL history.
“His mobility is unique. His arm strength is ridiculous. He’s very, very accurate,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said before San Francisco faced Kansas City in the Super Bowl. "But what I don’t think people give him enough credit for is that he actually plays quarterback. There’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of quarterbacks in this league, that will say no to [the] No. 1 [receiver], and then it just becomes street ball.
“He gets rid of the ball on time. He puts it where it needs to be. He hits a lot of throws in rhythm. And when he needs to take his shot, he knows how to buy time in the pocket and do it. So he’s a superstar in every way you can possibly imagine and he’s going to be tough to deal with.”
Last year’s film will be only so useful to Martindale. Pass protection is suddenly an issue for the Chiefs, whose win rate (the ability of linemen to sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer) after two games is one of the NFL’s lowest, according to ESPN. Kansas City struggled early Sunday against the Chargers' talented pass rush, which didn’t need a lot of blitzes to help limit the Chiefs to 137 first-half yards.
But if Mahomes has time and space, the Ravens will have problems. Yes, the Chiefs didn’t have to line up against cornerback Marcus Peters, defensive end Calais Campbell or rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen last year. But they didn’t have wide receiver Tyreek Hill (injured), Fisher (injured) or rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire at their disposal, either.
There are no easy answers for the Ravens. Only hard decisions.
Monday, 8:15 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 3½