The Kansas City Chiefs' first offensive play Monday night inside M&T Bank Stadium was not a pass to tight end Travis Kelce or a handoff to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. It was an end-around for wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
The Ravens' first defensive play with a 3-0 lead was not a zone coverage or a traditional pressure package. It was a cornerback blitz from Marcus Peters.
In a meeting of some of the NFL’s most aggressive and creative coordinators, the Chiefs were already a step ahead. Peters was blitzing from his spot opposite Hill, but Hill had started closer to the ball, and he was faster, too. With a 22-yard carry, Kansas City was off and running.
The Chiefs' 34-20 blowout of the Ravens, their third win in as many years, was framed as Patrick Mahomes' latest triumph over Lamar Jackson, and rightly so. Mahomes looked like the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Jackson looked out of sync.
But it was also a triumph for Kansas City’s game-planning and execution. On offense, the Chiefs picked at the Ravens' weak spots in coverage, targeting their playmaking receivers and using them as decoys. On defense, they gambled that their tackling would hold up, that they wouldn’t need zone coverage to limit Jackson, that they could blitz often and live to tell the tale.
For most of Monday, they were right.
“You have an opportunity when you play a team that good, because they do show things that you can improve on, and we got a chance to see that firsthand, obviously, in a very painful way," coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "So we’re going to have to go to work on those things.”
In preparing for the Ravens' passing game, opposing defensive coordinators face the same question they do every week: When do you plan man coverage? And when do you play zone coverage?
Jackson’s mobility changes the calculus. Zone coverage is the devil you know: Drop six or seven players into coverage, clog up scrambling lanes, give Jackson time to read defenses and find holes in coverage.
Man coverage is the devil you don’t: Take your chances with blitzes, have defenders turn their backs to Jackson, leave wide swaths of open field.
The Chiefs decided to be bold. Under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a former Ravens assistant coach, Kansas City blitzed Jackson 16 times on 35 drop-backs, according to Pro-Football-Reference. In wins against the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans, he was blitzed a combined 18 times. Most coordinators last season preferred zone coverage, too.
When the Chiefs blitzed, they usually played man defense behind the pass rush. And when they blitzed, they usually came after Jackson hard, a high-risk, high-reward strategy. According to a review of Monday’s game, Kansas City played a “Cover 0” defense seven times, leaving no safety help and making every defender in coverage responsible for one receiver.
Jackson handled the pressure well enough; his first two sacks came on four-man pressures and his last two on back-to-back blitzes of five pass rushers in the fourth quarter. But Kansas City got what it wanted out of almost every all-out blitz it sent. Against Cover 0, Jackson finished 6-for-7 for 33 yards — with just one first down converted.
The Chiefs missed nine tackles Monday, according to PFR, and they now have the third most in the NFL (36). None were hugely important. Running back J.K. Dobbins, maybe the Ravens' most elusive player, caught three passes in space against Cover 0 looks and was tackled every single time. Instead of 15- or 30-yard catch-and-runs, Dobbins was limited to 6 or 7 yards on all three receptions.
Jackson was more successful against zone looks, but the Ravens couldn’t make Kansas City pay when he had time to pick its secondary apart downfield. Early in the third quarter, offensive coordinator Greg Roman called for a deep shot to wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown down the left sideline. With tight end Mark Andrews' vertical route drawing the nearby safety’s attention, all Brown had to do was win deep against cornerback Rashad Fenton. And he did — but Jackson overthrew him.
One quarter later, Brown won again at the line of scrimmage on a go route. And again, Andrews occupied the nearby safety, this time with a deep crossing route. But the angle of Jackson’s pass to Brown wasn’t high enough, allowing cornerback Charvarius Ward to undercut the ball and nearly make a diving interception.
Sometimes all Jackson could do was throw up his hands in frustration. A second-quarter play-action pass to Andrews found a soft spot behind the Chiefs' linebackers and between their safeties. But it slipped through Andrews' hands, one of three dropped passes Monday.
Later in the quarter, Jackson looked for Andrews over the middle again on a run-pass-option play. Linebacker Damien Wilson, unaffected by the run fake, looked to bracket Andrews with a safety’s help. As Andrews broke inside, Wilson mirrored him smoothly in zone coverage. Jackson’s pass was just far enough behind that Wilson was able to get a hand on the ball and knock it incomplete.
“We just weren’t executing," Jackson said Wednesday. "We weren’t finishing plays. We just weren’t us Monday night. We’ve just got to do better, that’s all. We’re going to be good.”
How surprising was the Ravens defense’s collapse Monday? Entering Week 3, over eight quarters and one overtime period, the Chiefs had generated 13 plays of at least 15 yards against the Texans and Los Angeles Chargers. The Ravens gave up 12.
The Texans allowed only one play of 25-plus yards. So did the Chargers. The Ravens gave up three.
Mahomes and his three-ring circus are a bad matchup for a lot of defenses, even good ones. The Ravens are not immune. Over the past three seasons, they’ve allowed nearly 1,500 total yards to Kansas City, with more and more yardage each meeting: 442 yards in 2018, 503 in 2019 and 517 on Monday night.
The Ravens do not have the pass-rushing talent up front to challenge the Chiefs as the Chargers had in Week 2. Under defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, they don’t rely on four-man pressures to knock quarterbacks off their spot. They attack relentlessly and from every angle, daring everyone from Mason Rudolph to Mahomes to quickly diagnose and deliver.
On Monday, the Chiefs used the Ravens' aggressiveness against them, turning defenders into pawns on touchdown plays. There was the underhanded goal-line pass to fullback Anthony Sherman, who scored easily after inside linebacker Patrick Queen overpursued Hill in the flat. There was the toss to wide-open left tackle Eric Fisher, whom inside linebacker Malik Harrison probably believed would never leak out past the goal line.
But some of the Chiefs' biggest plays were also byproducts of unfavorable circumstances: a bad gamble with a big deficit, a lack of experience, an ill-timed bump, issues that might be resolved by the date of a potential postseason rematch.
On the game’s longest play from scrimmage, Mahomes' 49-yard bomb to wide receiver Mecole Hardman in the second quarter, the Chiefs faced third-and-14. Cornerback Marcus Peters appeared responsible for a deep zone, while safety DeShon Elliott played underneath, guarding the first-down marker. As Hill crossed in front of Peters and Mahomes wound up, Peters jumped the route, eyeing an interception. A pick-six could’ve cut the lead to 20-17.
Except Mahomes wasn’t aiming at the sticks. He was looking deep, looking for Hardman. When he caught it, the closest Ravens defender, Elliott, was 5 yards away. Not a lot of quarterbacks can outsmart Peters. Fewer still can make a throw like that in the face of pressure.
On two other big plays, Peters happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. There was the first-quarter end-around for Hill. And on Hill’s 20-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, a perfectly placed ball from Mahomes, Peters was a step behind Hill only because inside linebacker L.J. Fort had happened to bump into him as he ran into the flat.
There were problems elsewhere. As a 21-year-old rookie, Queen has struggled in coverage, but Ravens coaches have said that he rarely makes the same mistake twice. Monday offered plenty of tough lessons.
On a 29-yard catch-and-run by Kelce in the second quarter, some presnap motion froze Queen, keeping him from dropping into coverage. Mahomes looped a pass right by him, hitting Kelce in stride. One quarter later, Queen approached Edwards-Helaire so quickly at the top of the running back’s route that a quick shoulder fake put Queen in his rearview mirror. Edwards-Helaire ran underneath a touch pass easily for a 24-yard gain.
“If you don’t give Patrick Mahomes credit, that would be foolish, wouldn’t it?” Harbaugh said Wednesday. "All of us saw the game. He played a tremendously great football game, and he played to his level. That’s just all you can say about it. ...
“We’ll look at us and the things that we need to do to get better. Mistakes that we made, things that we could call differently or scheme differently, we’ll look really hard at those things."