You couldn’t say that the Chiefs Defense did everything it could to take away the Ravens’ running game and force Lamar Jackson to win with his arm. In fact, they didn’t really do a good job against the run at all (158 yards, 7.5 yards per rush). But the Chiefs had absolutely no problem handling the Ravens’ passing game due to an aggressive approach that challenged Jackson and his receivers. Kansas City was able to limit the 2019 MVP’s effectiveness as a result.
We’ve seen teams sometimes shy away from playing man coverage against the Ravens because of the threat of Lamar Jackson’s legs. Man coverage often results in defenders turning their backs to the quarterback, which can lead to huge plays on the ground. Chiefs Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo appeared to have no such concerns.
Kansas City played man coverage on almost 50% of Baltimore’s called pass plays. Two thirds of those snaps were some kind of Cover-0 or combo-man coverage where there was no deep defender in the middle of the field. This was especially true against Baltimore’s empty formations.
The below play was 3rd-and-6 from Baltimore’s own 31-yard line. You can see that the Ravens were in an empty formation. The Chiefs matched up with man-to-man coverage across the board. But focus on how they approached Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
Cornerback Rashad Fenton and safety Tedric Thompson were bracketing Brown. This was not man-free coverage with a safety providing help in the deep middle. Instead, Thompson immediately attacked the line of scrimmage at the snap to account for Brown’s route inside. The deep middle of the field was left wide open. It didn’t matter.
The Ravens would be forced to punt.
Later in the game, Baltimore faced a 3rd-and-9. Again, they went with an empty formation. The Chiefs’ response was a bit different here. Instead of leaving a defender inside to provide help, Spagnuolo called for a Cover-0 blitz. That meant man-to-man across the board with the deep middle left wide open once again.
Safety Tedric Thompson at the top of the screen did a great job of fighting through the traffic and making the tackle short of the first down.
From the end zone angle, you can get a better sense of the idea behind the approach: Bring one more defender than the Ravens could protect to force a quick throw…
..and trust that your defensive backs will be able to play tight coverage and tackle well.
As long as the Chiefs could rush under control without getting too far upfield and allowing escape lanes, they could take Lamar’s legs out of the play and neutralize the Ravens’ offense out of empty formations. The Chiefs didn’t just use this look close to the end zone, by the way. You can see an example from when they used it in the middle of the field here.
Kansas City’s approach helped lead to a dismal night for the Ravens on 3rd down. On called pass plays, Baltimore converted just 1 of 7 attempts against the Chiefs. Jackson was 3 of 5 for just 14 yards with 2 sacks on the money down. Many people are probably wondering why the Ravens didn’t have more than 21 carries when they were running the ball so effectively. The answer is that they couldn’t stay on the field.
In a game where Lamar Jackson had to be his most precise throwing the ball due to the Chiefs’ approach, he wasn’t. It wasn’t egregious, by any means, but this is where the weakness in his game exists. 97 yards through the air ain’t gonna cut it against the defending Super Bowl Champs. He has improved dramatically from the pocket in just 2+ years in the NFL. But the better defenses in the league are going to challenge him to win consistently with his arm. Can he do it against those upper-echelon teams? That’s a fair question to ask, because the answer is still up in the air.
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