Can the Ravens Beat the Chargers Again, or Will the Rematch Be Different?

Despite going 12-4, the Chargers are slight betting underdogs. Here's how they can win Baltimore on wild-card Sunday.
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Before wild-card weekend, Andy Benoit is giving a blueprint for the four underdogs to win on the road. Here’s his plan for the Chargers in Baltimore.

On offense…

The Chargers can align wide receivers tight to one another and run them on intersecting vertical routes. This tactic—known as a “switch release”—has given the Ravens trouble at times, especially out of their staple matchup-zone blitzes. In fact, when these teams met two weeks ago, the Chargers twice got the Ravens with downfield switch releases late in the first half, including one where Tyrell Williams was open for what would have been a long touchdown. Unfortunately, it was one of the few snaps this year where Philip Rivers played too fast mentally. He hastily looked for the checkdown and never saw Williams.

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Perhaps part of the reason Rivers played fast was he knew his guards, Dan Feeney and Michael Schofield, could not hold up in pass protection. Both have struggled in recent weeks, with Schofield, in particular, getting embarrassed by Ravens pass rusher Za’Darius Smith in Week 16. Schematically, it’s hard to help guards in pass pro, especially against a Ravens defense that shows (and brings) so many different inside pressures. But the Chargers could consider copying what offenses have lately tried against the unstoppable Aaron Donald: leave a running back inside, helping the guard from behind. The question is whether the Chargers are comfortable risking the loss of their running backs in the passing game. No QB is better at using his checkdown than Rivers; if the back is helping the guard, he might not get into his late route. The good news is Rivers is so shrewd in the pre-snap phase, he can check the back in and out of help assignments, depending on Baltimore’s look.

On defense…

You can’t get caught up with all the moving pieces of Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson-centric rushing attack. Most Ravens run plays feature a pull-blocker (usually coming from left to right) and either a jet-sweeper or tight end shifting across the formation. It’s a lot for defenders to process. The Chargers, however, did a decent (but only decent) job against it two weeks ago, and they’ll be the first defense Baltimore has faced that has seen this Jackson ground game before.

The Chargers also have two unique pieces for combatting Jackson: defensive end Melvin Ingram, whose combination of patience and burst makes him the best read-option defender in football, and No. 3 safety Adrian Phillips, who serves as an extra speedy linebacker in the dime package that L.A. has come to rely on.

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Phillips was the culprit on the Mark Andrews 68-yard touchdown that put Baltimore ahead in that Week 16 matchup. It was a classic Cover 3 zone-beating design, with a simple, defined read for Jackson. That’s all the rookie QB is capable of making at this point, which makes stopping the run that much more crucial. Get Jackson in 3rd-and-long and you likely get the Ravens off the field. Which brings us to one more tactic for the Chargers: condensing their fronts. Late in last Sunday’s game, the Cleveland Browns started shifting their defensive linemen inside right before the snap. That out-leveraged Baltimore’s blocking assignments and angles, eliminating the interior lanes that tailback Gus Edwards depends on. The Ravens never really found an answer and had to rely on their defense to save the win. Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is not known for diversifying his run fronts. But against a ground game as unique as Baltimore’s, a coach must be willing to go outside the box.

Chances of an upset: 65%. It’s hard to imagine Rivers struggling twice against the same D in three weeks, and L.A.’s familiarity with Lamar Jackson is an equalizer the Ravens have not yet encountered.

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