The Ravens have a game plan for trying to slow down the Kansas City Chiefs, but don't expect Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale to give up details.
It's hard enough to contain Patrick Mahomes without providing him clues. Whether the Ravens will use less blitzing or more blitzing, more zone coverage or less zone coverage, Martindale isn't saying.
"It's going to be a fun chess match," Martindale said.
It will be more fun for Martindale if the Ravens win. And against Mahomes, winning hasn't happened yet for the Ravens. He is 3-0 as a starter against Baltimore, with stats that are off the charts. The Ravens can look almost anywhere on social media and find pundits dismissing their chances of winning Sunday. Former Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe of FOX Sports says he thinks the Chiefs will win, "fairly easy."
Mahomes has completed 70 percent of his passes against Baltimore with an average of 379 yards passing per game, while throwing nine touchdowns to one interception (116.2 quarterback rating).
That's what you call dissecting a defense. No other quarterback has found a comfort zone like that against Baltimore. It's why Martindale thinks Mahomes is one of the best who's ever played.
"I've compared him and [Chiefs Head Coach] Andy Reid to [Joe] Montana and [former 49ers Head Coach Bill] Walsh – the combination [and] that type of relationship they had," Martindale said. "The best way to put it with Patrick Mahomes is, whoever your favorite quarterback is, and whoever is sitting there having a conversation with you and saying, 'This is my all-time favorite quarterback,' he's always in that conversation."
So how will the Ravens' defense deal with Mahomes? Here are three keys for the Ravens' defense.
Get Pressure on Mahomes Without Blitzing
Mahomes has done much of his damage versus the Ravens against their blitz. According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens have blitzed Mahomes 64 times over the past three seasons but have sacked him just once. He's a combined 48 for 63 for 554 yards and six touchdowns, and has a 134.0 passer rating against Baltimore when getting blitzed.
Martindale calls more blitzes than anyone else in the NFL. But how hard is that balance against the Chiefs?
"I think Sunday night will be good timing for [revealing] that," Martindale said. "Andy – he knows how much we pressure."
This is where the additions of pass rushers Justin Houston and Odafe Oweh could pay huge dividends for Baltimore. Houston, Oweh, Calais Campbell and other pass rushers need to win their one-on-one battles, so that Baltimore doesn't have to blitz and leave its pass defense more vulnerable.
Oweh adds another speed dimension to the defense the Ravens didn't have last year, and he had an impressive NFL debut against the Raiders on Monday night with a sack, two quarterback hits, and four pressures. Houston is a proven pass rusher with 97.5 career sacks who spent two seasons with Mahomes when they were teammates with the Chiefs. Houston knows Mahomes' tendencies and has great familiarity with the Chiefs' offensive system under Reid.
Inside linebacker Patrick Queen had a tough night against the Chiefs last season, but he has improved in pass coverage and he's an excellent blitzer when the Ravens decide to bring him. The Ravens believe they're better equipped than they have been to deal with Mahomes.
Eliminate Tyreek Hill's Big Plays
This is easier said than done, but it's crucial.
Hill didn't play against Baltimore in 2019 due to injury, but he has crushed the Ravens in two games against them – 13 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown.
In 2018, the Ravens were on the verge of beating Kansas City, leading 24-17 with 1:29 left in regulation and the Chiefs facing 4th-and-9 from their own 40. But Mahomes and Hill made a remarkable play. Rolling to his right while being chased almost out of bounds, Mahomes flicked a long pass downfield that Hill adjusted to and caught for a 48-yard gain that kept the Chiefs alive. Kansas City completed its drive for the game-tying score, than prevailed in overtime.
Mahomes and Hill connected on a very similar play last week against the Browns. Their chemistry, particularly on extended plays, is off-the-charts.
"You have to defend – this is all in one play – the first play, his second play and sometimes his third play all in one that one play," Martindale said. "I think that's what makes [Mahomes] so special."
Hill will make some catches Sunday; he's too fast and too good to keep completely in check. Defending him becomes even more difficult with Marcus Peters out for the season. But if the Ravens can keep Hill from making the huge catches that cover 40 yards or more, especially in key moments, their chances of winning improve greatly.
Get to Third Down, Get Off the Field
Baltimore's defense did a decent job against Kansas City on third down during close losses in 2018 and 2019, as the Chiefs converted on just 11 of 25 third-down situations. But last year when Kansas City raced to a 27-10 halftime lead and went on to a 34-20 victory, the Chiefs were 10 for 13 converting on third down.
Mahomes consistently found favorable matchups, whether it was running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire matched against a linebacker or All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce matched against virtually anyone.
Kelce is a matchup nightmare for any opponent, which is why he has five straight seasons of at least 1,000 yards receiving. But somehow, whether it requires double-teaming Kelce on third down or using a defensive back to shadow Helaire, the Ravens have to get the Chiefs into third-down situations, then make a play to get their defense off the field. Martindale knows it won't be easy.
"I think their offense is one of the best offenses, if not the best offense, in the league," Martindale said.
All-Pro corner Marlon Humphrey has seen other teams beat the Chiefs. He wants the Ravens to know that feeling. Mahomes does things that other quarterbacks can't, but he also takes chances that other quarterbacks won't. When Mahomes makes a mistake, or gives the Ravens' defense an opportunity to take the football, Humphrey says it will be crucial for the defense to capitalize.
"When you look at the teams that beat the Chiefs, there are a lot of plays that the Chiefs get away with that should be made," Humphrey said. "The teams that beat them just make those plays. They make so many big, crazy plays, but the biggest thing is you've got to tackle their skill and make the plays you're supposed to make."