KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With a win Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, the Kansas City Chiefs, who finish the regular season with three of four games at home, can clinch a playoff spot.
Sounds easy on paper, but the Ravens come into town with a new energy.
The offense had become stagnant under quarterback Joe Flacco. The former Super Bowl MVP struggled with accuracy issues throughout the season until his hip injury in Week 9.
That left Baltimore out of sync and wasting quality performances by its defense, which presents the Chiefs a worthy challenge that can help make coach Andy Reid’s bunch playoff ready.
Backup quarterback Lamar Jackson, a speedy former Heisman Trophy winner, has won all three games he’s started since stepping in for Flacco.
Here are a few keys for Kansas City to win and remain in control of the race for home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason:
1. Maintain edge discipline
The Ravens present one of the tougher assignments the Chiefs’ defense has faced in the run game this season.
The Ravens base their run game off Jackson’s elusiveness and escapability. They run him out of pistol and shotgun formations and occasionally from under center on bootlegs.
Baltimore also runs dives, sweeps and options out of its pistol formation with ghost motion going the opposite way.
Jackson has the speed to hit the edge quickly and keep the chains moving. It is where he is in his comfort zone.
The Chiefs have to do everything it can to keep Jackson contained.
2. Take ‘paper cuts’ Ravens’ defense offers
The Ravens’ defense refuses to get beat deep, leaning on zone coverage and clever disguising to keep opponents guessing on where the pressure will be coming from.
Baltimore likes to stack six to eight defenders across the line of scrimmage then drop three or four into coverage. But they will bring pressure inside an opponent's’ 30-yard-line or on third-and-4 or longer.
The closest the Chiefs have come to seeing this look is against the Broncos.
The windows are tight on deep routes, because the Ravens like to keep three defensive backs deep and count on the pressure to force the quarterback to throw the ball quicker than they would like.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will have to accept what the defense gives him to sustain drives rather than pushing it deep into those tight windows.
3. Attack Ravens’ D underneath
Baltimore’s trade off for stopping big plays is that the Ravens struggle with slant routes, crossing routes, and tight end or running back delays.
Baltimore also doesn’t do well with pick routes. Well-timed pick-route combinations create massive separation for receivers.
The Ravens’ struggle accounting for running backs and tight ends is especially apparent when bringing pressure. They are so worried about creating pressure or not getting beat deep that they leave delayed short routes and most of the intermediate routes open to attack.
Generally, Baltimore’s cornerbacks also play off in coverage and are poor tacklers on screens or smoke routes.
4. Rattle Jackson
Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who previously worked for Andy Reid during the Michael Vick era, often uses the option to get Jackson comfortable then begins to use sprint outs, bootlegs and play-action passes to get Jackson into a rhythm.
The first-round pick essentially has two reads on most plays before he scrambles out of the pocket then throws to the boundary or across his body back to the middle or other side of the field.
Jackson has developed a habit side-arming his throws to gain velocity on the football. The problem for him is that his angle is too low and it can easily be batted down if a defender jumps into the throwing lane.
Additionally, Jackson rushes his throws if he sees what he thinks is a free blitzer. He becomes inaccurate on short and intermediate throws, while his deep-ball accuracy is poor at this stage of his development.
Jackson’s wheelhouse is throwing to his initial read off play-action with a side-armed throw or rolling out and reducing the field in half for his high-low reads.
The Chiefs could send one defender to blitz at times, but press coverage and tight zones are likely the best overall course of action for coming up with a couple interceptions.
5. Hit the edge and counter
The Ravens are very stout from tackle to tackle against the run defense. It is tough to find a hole against their front.
But Counter runs along with pulling guards on tosses, sweeps and pitches are the best bet to gain yardage in the run game as well as hitting the edge.
Baltimore is susceptible to opponents running at the edge with the right attention to detail in blocking and a back who hits the hole quickly and hard.
6. What about Flacco?
In the event that Flacco is cleared for this weekend’s game, here are the ways to disrupt him.
He likes the keep his throws inside the numbers. It is the one area his accuracy hasn’t waned at this point in his career.
The determination to force some passes outside the numbers will disrupt some of their drives.
Also, Flacco is starting to fade back on throws when he sees a blitz coming or the pocket collapsing in on him. He doesn’t have the same deep ball or touch anymore and is missing his mark.
Overall, the Chiefs have a great opportunity to come out of Sunday’s battle with their 11th win of the season, but it will take patience, great execution of the points above and limiting turnovers to punch a playoff ticket.
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