The 2019 matchup
A year ago, week three, at Arrowhead, the Chiefs beat the Ravens 33-28. The Ravens led 6-0 in the first QTR before the Chiefs would score 23 unanswered 2nd QTR pts. With the Chiefs leading 23-6 at halftime, the pressure would be on the Ravens to score on their first drive of the 3rd QTR. The Ravens would do just that going 75 yards on nine plays using more than 4 minutes of the clock. The Ravens, down 23-13 were back in it and would need their defense to get a stop vs. a red hot Chiefs offense that had scored 3 TD's and a FG on their previous four possessions.
The Ravens would get the stop they needed on the next Chiefs possession, but the Ravens offense did nothing with their next opportunity punting the football back to the Chiefs. The Chiefs would go on an eight-play 80-yard drive in 4:14, scoring another TD while taking a commanding 30-13 lead.
The Chiefs ability to gain and maintain a lead in 2019 vs the Ravens
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens were a run-first team that ate up clock and leaned on their opponents with their dominant offensive line, and with the Chiefs up three scores, they would need to depend on Lamar in the passing game to cut the deficit. Lamar would make some big-time plays down the stretch in the passing game, including two critical 4th down throws that would keep drives alive. But it would prove to be too much for the Ravens offense. Once the Chiefs were up two scores, they maintained that advantage into the 4th QTR, and that is not a situation the Ravens and Lamar Jackson can flourish. The Chiefs would love to get a two-score lead on the Ravens to apply pressure and force them out of their comfort zone tonight.
The importance of 3rd/4th down stops
The 2020 Baltimore Ravens defense ranks 2nd in the NFL through two weeks in third-down defense. The Ravens were a top ten defense a season ago defending against third-down conversions. Against the Chiefs in 2019, the Ravens struggled to get the Chiefs into third-down situations, and when they were able to, they allowed them to convert 5 of their 9 third-down attempts. The Ravens offense went 5-13 on third downs vs the 2019 Chiefs defense.
The Chiefs defense forced 8 third-down stops vs. the Ravens defense, who only forced four third-down stops. The Ravens offense did go 3 for 4 on 4th down attempts in what would prove to be the difference in keeping them in the game. The 3rd/4th down stop differential between the Ravens and the Chiefs would favor the Chiefs, who forced four more 3rd/4th down stops than the Ravens.
A handful of plays decides the outcome of most NFL games.
The difference in most NFL games will come down to a handful of plays. You can point to these plays as the reason for the outcomes that transpire in any game. In 2019, the difference between the Chiefs and the Ravens came down to a handful of High Impact plays. Getting stops on 3rd/4th down is the most impactful to winning or losing a football game. Both teams will do their best to stay ahead of the chains to prevent third down and long.
Stay ahead of the chains (on-schedule)
If the Ravens are going to win tonight, they will need to stay ahead of the chains (2nd and four yds or less, 3rd and three yds or less. Staying ahead of schedule on early downs will help them win the 3rd and 4th down stop rate vs. the Chiefs. The run game once again becomes vital to early-down success. Lamar Jackson will need to put pressure on the Chiefs defense with his legs early in the game, setting up RPO and play-action opportunities, and opening the run game for Mark Ingram and company.
The Chiefs will do what they can early to get a lead on the Ravens and take them out of their comfort zone. If the Chiefs can get early 3rd down stops, force punts, or get a turnover that leads to a multiple possession lead, they can try to control the game as they were able to do in 2019. Both teams are top five at getting third-down stops through two weeks (Ravens 1st, Chiefs 5th).
The importance of the run game for both teams
The run game for both teams will need to be a factor. The Ravens secondary will face its toughest battle yet, while the Chiefs defense will be forced to defend all eleven because of Lamar's ability to run the football. The Chiefs can also put pressure on defenses with Mahome's ability to move the chains with his legs. The Ravens will need to scale their man defense on third down and keep a spy on Mahomes in key situations. The Chiefs will spy Lamar the entire night.
I expect the Chiefs to be more than happy to force the RB on the inside zone-read plays where Lamar is looking to take the edge. The Ravens could exploit this scenario by running a midline zone-read attacking the one or the three techs. The Midline would allow Lamar to keep it through the middle of the defense while reading inside out. If the Chiefs force the give on a midline zone read, Lamar will give to the RB going outside.
Lamar Wants to win from the pocket and will do what it takes to keep plays alive, but should take what is given to him vs. the Chiefs.
Lamar wants to throw the football. I recently diagramed a few examples of Lamar Jackson wanting to throw the football by keeping a play alive so his receivers can get open. Even when there is open grass, Lamar keeps his head up, eyes up, looking to make a throw instead of taking off running. How Lamar handles these situations will be a factor. Steve Spagnuolo will use simulated pressure before dropping 7, or even eight into coverage. Lamar should take what they give him if they drop 7, or 8 into coverage. If Lamar can get into space, he should take the quick 5 yards on the ground in situations where the Chiefs are only rushing four. Doing this will force the Chiefs to dedicate another defender or two to contain Lamar and open man to man opportunities in the passing game. The Chiefs will do what they can to get Lamar to force a bad throw, and that can be the difference in a game as evenly matched as this one. One possession lost due to an unforced error could be the difference.
The Ravens don't need to blitz Mahomes consistently.
The Ravens need not blitz Mahomes as consistently as they have the other QB's they have faced the last few weeks. The Ravens have the third-highest blitz rate in the NFL through two weeks (47%). On the other hand, the Chiefs offense has faced a blitz on 19% of their pass plays through two weeks (5th lowest). Since 2018, Patrick Mahomes has been deadly against the blitz, throwing 25 TD's to only 1 INT according to PFF. If the Ravens are going to try to get after Mahomes with extra defenders, it will have to get home, or he will make them pay. Through two weeks, opposing defenses have utilized two-high shells to help contain the Chiefs explosive pass offense. It may better serve the Ravens to take a less blitz-happy approach against the Chiefs.
The red zone might be the difference.
The red zone might be an area that decides the outcome of the game. The Chiefs have had some red zone issues the first two weeks of the season, scoring a TD on 57% of their opportunities. If the Ravens attempt to play a bend but don't break style of defense against the Chiefs, they could take advantage of the Chiefs red zone woes as the field becomes more condensed.
Expect a chess match that will be highly entertaining.
These teams are evenly matched, and the outcome of this game should come down to one or two possessions. There will not be a home filed advantage making this game more of a toss-up. If the Ravens can limit the Chief's explosive plays, keep the 3rd and 4th down stops even on both sides while successfully running the football, they will put themselves in a position to win the game. The Chiefs can win if they can keep the Ravens off schedule on 1st and 2nd down, forcing third and medium to long consistently. The Chiefs defense will have to make themselves susceptible to the big play over the top on occasion if they decide to sell out to stop the Ravens run game. The Chiefs, like the Ravens, are in a rob Peter to pay Paul scenario defensively. If the game comes down to who can score TD's in the red zone, the Ravens might have the advantage.