The most interesting NFL game of last season, from a strategic standpoint, was when the Baltimore Ravens visited the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14. In Lamar Jackson’s fourth NFL start, the Ravens, per their profile, ran the ball often and well, totaling 40 carries for 194 yards (Jackson himself 14 times for 67 yards). But Baltimore’s ground game was just a counterweight to its stingy defense, and the way that defense approached MVP Patrick Mahomes and the vaunted Chiefs offense is what made the contest—which ended 27–24, tilted in the Chiefs’ favor—so compelling.
An offense like Kansas City’s can make a defense overthink its strategy. Teams assume that they have show Mahomes and Andy Reid something they haven’t seen before and do something extra. The Ravens, however, took the opposite approach by becoming not something else, but rather, more of what they already were.
For John Harbaugh’s team, that meant blitzing. Fighting fire with fire, Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale attacked the Chiefs’ offense with the same gusto that Kansas City’s offense had for attacking them. If not for seeing which team was actually holding the ball, someone unfamiliar with football would not have known who was on offense and who was on defense, based on how both sides went after the other. Strategically, the Ravens won that battle, often stymying the Chiefs with tactics we’ll explore in greater depth momentarily. But Kansas City still won the game, simply because their wizardly QB conjured a handful of unthinkable big plays when things broke down.
Now, these teams are back, in full schematic force. Yes, Baltimore’s defense was weakened over the offseason by the unexpected departures of Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley, on top of the likely anticipated exits of edge defender Za’Darius Smith and safety Eric Weddle. And Kansas City’s offense, right now, is minus Tyreek Hill (collarbone injury), which is not unlike a small plane being minus a propeller.
Still, neither side seems to have regressed. The Ravens have given up 10 and 17 points this season, albeit to the rebuilding Dolphins and Cardinals. The club offset its defensive departures with in-house promotions to young edge players like 2017 second-and third-rounders Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser, and ’18 fourth-round linebacker Kenny Young. They also upgraded at safety by signing likely future Hall of Famer Earl Thomas. The Chiefs have bumped what appear to be improved incumbent receivers Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson up a level and added second-round rookie Mecole Hardman, who they hope can be a clone—or at least a respectable ersatz—of the injured Hill. Both sides this Sunday might be less talented than when they met last December, but both are also more experienced in their respective systems. It’s how those systems match up that make this Sunday’s Week 3 contest so intriguing.
Kansas City’s offense is built on a few core concepts:
Misdirection and horizontal spacing. Running Hill (now Hardman & Co.) across the field just before, or immediately after, the snap isn’t just for show. The idea is to make defenders move laterally. From there, the ball either goes the other way (creating a full misdirection effect), or it attacks right where it would have attacked anyway, but now with the defense widened and yielding more space.
Multi-level routes. We think first of the Chiefs’ deep balls, but most of their explosive plays come on high-low route combinations, where one receiver threatens a defender downfield while the other goes underneath. Most prominent here are Kansas City’s three-level route designs, with one route going 30-plus yards downfield (usually a wide receiver), another going 18-22 yards (often tight end Travis Kelce) and a third (a running back or jet-motioning receiver’s) going just a few yards. Only one zone coverage has an answer for this: Cover 2, and usually it will still need an eighth defender dropping back to help. But Cover 2 is uncommon because most three-level stretches—Kansas City’s included—come on early down play-action, when a defense must honor the run. The Chiefs are one of the few teams that can consistently execute three-level stretches in obvious passing situations, in part because their quarterback—with his uniquely quick, compact throwing motion and sheer arm talent—can afford to hold the ball a beat longer. Kansas City’s three-level stretch is also extra lethal because of Kelce’s versatility. The seventh-year tight end can run any route from anywhere. Mixed with all the speed at wide receiver, it allows Kansas City to get into three-level stretches out of any look.
As for the Ravens, their defense has its own core principles:
Fire zone blitzing. Most blitzes have man coverage behind them. The idea is the blitz will force the quarterback to throw quickly, and so defenders should be up on their receiver immediately. The Ravens, however, often play zone structures behind their blitzes. Being a predominantly one-deep safety defense, Baltimore’s fire zones have three defenders deep and three underneath. Essentially it is Cover 3 but with one less guy underneath.
Matchup coverage. Here’s the twist: Baltimore’s zone coverages have a lot of man-to-man principles built in. Because playing zone with one fewer guy means each player must defend a bigger zone, it makes sense to base assignments not on covering an area of space, but rather, on which receivers enter into an area of space.
Matchup zone coverage like this has become so common in pro football that it’s almost the norm, but the Ravens play their matchup zones differently. Most teams have their defender maintain the matchup coverage on a receiver once he enters a specific seam area. But in Baltimore’s defense, when a receiver enters a seam, a defender only takes him for a certain distance downfield. After that, he’s passed off to one of the three deep defenders, which allows the first defender to return to his seam to look for other routes coming his way (99.99% of the time, it will be some sort of crossing route).
And if a receiver enters an area running horizontally instead of vertically, the defender passes him off to the next defender over… if there is one. If there’s not, the defender matches up right away. Can this get complicated? Absolutely. But it can be less complicated for the defense than it is for the quarterback trying to read it. And all of this happens quickly, thanks to…
Complex pressure. The downside of matchup zone is that a linebacker in zone can be forced to cover a receiver inside. (The Chiefs, by the way, fully understand this and often put their fastest receiver inside, especially if it’s a “trips” alignment.) But this is where the zone pressure comes in. The Ravens will live with mismatches in coverage because they expect that adding a fifth pass rusher will force the QB to throw before the downfield mismatch can completely unfold. To make the fifth rusher potent, the Ravens disguise it, showing six or seven possible rushers, with some of them coming and others dropping back as underneath defenders. Usually the side with the most defenders presnap is where the droppers will be, while the blitzers sneak up from the other side, after the offense has set its protection. To further challenge blockers here, the Ravens employ stunts and twists.
The $64,000 question is whether the Ravens will again commit to playing aggressively this way against Kansas City. Mahomes is a conundrum; a team can blitz him in hopes of making him play on its schedule, but he’s so mobile that the blitzes are liable to miss, leaving the quarterback with fewer defenders to worry about downfield. This is what happened in that December matchup.
But just rushing four and playing more traditional seven-man coverages can also be perilous because most offensive designs are built around exploiting seven-man coverage, and Kansas City’s designs are some of football’s sharpest. The only other option would be to rush three and drop eight into coverage, which more teams are doing, especially with the increased popularity of empty-backfield formations on offense. (The Chiefs are in the upper-third of the league for empty set usage.) But just rushing three really invites Mahomes to extend plays. Though who’s to say that isn’t better, since it can force the well-designed Chiefs offense into a more randomized mode?
There’s no good answer for defending this offense, which is why the smart defenses decide to just double-down on what they do best. For the Ravens defense, that means going on the offensive.
THE TACTIC WE NEED TO SEE MORE OFTEN
Most pass plays are built on putting three routes to one side and two to the other. In the more sophisticated offenses, one set of routes beats a certain type of coverage (either man or zone, or more often, either a one-deep safety or two-deep safety look), and the other set of routes beats another type of coverage. But what almost no coverage, save for straight man-to-man, is designed to handle are four routes to one side of the field. The Chiefs employ these more than anyone. They’ll either line up in a 4x1 formation, which can send a defense into a panic, or they’ll bring a fourth route over to the three-route side after the snap.
This is especially problematic for matchup zone defenses (which, remember, are becoming the NFL’s norm) because the matchup elements can take defenders out of the zones. Run, say, two receivers from your 4x1 concept downfield and there likely won’t be enough bodies underneath to handle the other two receivers. For a fire zone team like Baltimore, where only six defenders are in coverage, there is almost guaranteed to not be enough bodies. Privately, many defensive coordinators admit to losing sleep about 4x1 pass designs. The Chiefs would be wise to employ these at least 15 times this week—and so would 31 other teams.
Several people suggested Russell Wilson for this list, and I understand the thinking: he is maybe the best deep ball thrower in football. But deep balls do not reflect arm strength the way we think. Growing up, arm strength is about who throws the farthest. But in the NFL, it’s more about who throws the fastest. The faster your ball, the smaller the windows you can attack. Plus, the later you can be on throws. You don’t want to throw late by design, but it can be a great fallback in improvisation.
Just for fun, QBs ranked six through 10 on the arm strength list, in no particular order: Jacoby Brissett, Cam Newton (if healthy), Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff and Joe Flacco. (And to be honest, these selections feel a lot more arbitrary than the first five selections.)
WHAT TO MAKE OF THE RAMS OFFENSE?
It has looked bad in the first half of games so far. But, to the Rams’ credit, in both weeks the offense got on track in the second half, mainly by reaffirming its identity, which starts with play-action. This figures to only get sharper as Jared Goff, already a great fit in Sean McVay’s system, becomes even more comfortable, especially when you consider that Goff is working with the game’s most fundamentally pristine trio of receivers: Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp. Of course, for L.A. maximize its play-action, the Rams must continue being great on the outside zone runs that those throws are built from. Right now, the ground game is not close to its usual level, as the young interior O-line—guards Joe Noteboom and Austin Blythe, plus center Brian Allen—tries to find its footing. That’s a lot of youth up front. Offensive line coach and run game coordinator Aaron Kromer is one of football’s best teachers, and he has his work cut out for him.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Falcons at Colts
Frank Reich has been a conservative play-caller thus far, asking Jacoby Brissett to manage drives that are built off Indy’s formidable ground game (which starts with stud left guard Quenton Nelson). But this week the Colts face a Falcons defense that, schematically, is very similar to the Cover 3-based Chargers they saw in the season opener. Reich’s scheme is ripe with designer plays to beat Cover 3. Will more of those be unleashed?
Raiders at Vikings
Kirk Cousins struggled at Green Bay. A good way to get the 31-year-old quarterback on track is to throw on early downs, when the defense is predictable. There will be myriad opportunities to do that Sunday, especially if the Vikings replace some of their two-tight end sets with more three-receiver sets, encouraging the Raiders to fall into their two-deep zone looks.
Saints at Seahawks
Russell Wilson last week was fantastic at getting the ball out quickly against Pittsburgh’s fire zone blitzes. Seattle’s passing game has helped in two ways: a greater emphasis on switch releases, with roues intersecting off the snap, and the arrival of D.K. Metcalf. The second-round rookie receiver has plenty of room to grow, but he has given Wilson a big perimeter target to fall back on a few times each game.
Is it impolite to not close a porta-potty lid? In addition to the refreshing explanative sign that hangs in some porta-potty’s—“Please do not put trash in the toilet, it is extremely difficult to remove”—you sometimes see signs requesting that the lid be shut after use. Sometimes the sign will explain that this is to fight odor. The problem is you’re already so grossed out by that odor, and by the plain visibility of its source, that it’s hard to bear spending any extra seconds in there, especially just to touch a toilet seat that is almost certainly in the upper five percentile for filthiness. On the other hand, if people did consistently close the toilet lid, maybe the odor wouldn’t be quite so robust in the first place. So what should you do? A rule of thumb: if the porta-potty offers some sort of hand sanitation—either liquid hand sanitizer or, if you’re at a fancy outdoor event with an attached wash station outside—close the lid. If it doesn’t, then the request to touch the lid is unreasonable, and you can ignore it guilt-free.
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