Nguyen: Ravens’ offensive game plan vs. Chiefs remains baffling after closer review

Nguyen: Ravens’ offensive game plan vs. Chiefs remains baffling after closer review


The Ravens decided last offseason to move on from offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replace him with Todd Monken. The intent was to modernize their offense and help Lamar Jackson take the next step as a passer. To that end, they were successful. It took some time for Jackson to get acclimated to the offense, but from Week 9 to 17 (the Ravens rested their starters in Week 18), they ranked fifth in EPA per dropback. And they weren’t just scorching bad teams through the air. Jackson had five touchdown passes against the Dolphins, a top-10 pass defense, in Week 17.

Against the Chiefs’ elite pass defense and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the best postseason defensive coordinator in recent memory, the answer was clear. Everything from the film to numbers screamed for the Ravens to run the ball in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

Chiefs are 22nd in defensive success rate against the run.
• Chiefs are fourth-best in defensive EPA against the pass.
• Since 2022 (regular and playoffs), the Chiefs are the fifth-worst team in defensive EPA against designed quarterback runs and scrambles.

The Ravens needed to put big bodies on the field, they needed to run between the tackles, and they had to make Jackson a high-volume runner again. Instead, they used 11 personnel on 63.2 percent of snaps, their second-highest rate of the season. They only used 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) on six snaps (four in the first half). The Ravens running backs only carried the ball six times and Jackson only had two rushes on designed rushes. The rest of his carries were scrambles and he had one kneel-down.


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The approach played right into the Chiefs’ strengths. The Bills had an effective game plan against the Chiefs in the divisional round. Buffalo scored 24 points and left points on the field. They rushed for 182 yards — quarterback Josh Allen had 72 of those yards. Tight end Dalton Kincaid was their leading receiver and in their regular season win against the Chiefs, running back James Cook was their leading receiver.

Collectively, the Chiefs have the best group of defensive backs in football. In the regular season, they allowed the fourth-fewest yards to wide receivers. The Ravens targeted their receivers 20 times on Sunday and because they used so much 11 personnel, the Chiefs were able to stay in nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) on 79 percent of snaps. On the six snaps that the Ravens used 12 personnel, the Chiefs matched with base (four defensive backs) four times.

• nine-yard pass to Mark Andrews.
Justice Hill run for no gain.
• 30-yard touchdown pass to Zay Flowers.
• Jackson five-yard run.


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Jackson completed two passes for 17 yards on the two snaps the Chiefs matched 12 personnel with nickel. Their success rate on their six snaps of 12 personnel was 66 percent. The Ravens got into 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers) on five snaps (not including the kneel-down). On all five snaps, the Chiefs loaded the box, which seemed to scare the Ravens out of handing the ball off. Baltimore only handed the ball off to running backs three times out of this personnel grouping. One went for 15 yards and the other two were stopped for one-yard gains.

6:18 remaining in the first quarter, first-and-10

Here, the Ravens got into an I-formation and ran old-school power.

Baltimore got excellent down blocks at the point of attack, guard John Simpson pulled into the hole, and Patrick Ricard kicked out the end.

The extra defender overran the play, leaving an inside gap for Edwards to run through for 15 yards.

Having a mobile quarterback is supposed to solve the problem of an extra defender in the gap. In the example above, the Ravens ran the ball from under center, so Jackson wasn’t a threat to keep the ball on an option.

Understandably, the Ravens had decreased their usage of run option plays in the regular season. The approach has helped keep Jackson healthy but this was the AFC Championship Game. Against this defense, if you aren’t going to use one of Jackson’s best traits, you’re just handcuffing your offense.

Monken did call a couple of run/pass options (RPOs) in which Jackson made the wrong decision to throw instead of handing the ball off.

10:41 remaining in the second quarter, second-and-1

Here, the Ravens had a counter concept called against the Chiefs’ penny front (5-1).

The Ravens would have the play blocked perfectly with tackle Morgan Moses leading up on a safety, but Jackson didn’t hand the ball off.

Instead, he tried to throw a bubble screen to Flowers outside where the Chiefs had a numbers advantage.

The Chiefs did stuff a couple of runs early but this shouldn’t have dissuaded Monken from running more. Maybe the Chiefs jumping out to an early lead caused Monken to panic but the Chiefs only had a 10-point lead for most of the game. There was no reason to abandon the run.

5:14 remaining in the third quarter, first-and-10

On this play, the Ravens were in 12 personnel on first-and-10. The Chiefs had two deep safeties but the Ravens had a play-action shot play called.

The Chiefs had seven blockers for the seven defenders in the box but the Ravens passed the ball instead. There were numerous snaps in which the Ravens had juicy run looks on first down but decided to pass instead. Monken called plays like they were down by three possessions for the entire game.

Last week, Allen scrambled for 42 yards (he had 30 yards and two touchdowns on designed runs) on the Chiefs. As mentioned, the Chiefs have been one of the worst teams at defending scrambles. Spagnuolo calls a lot of man and match coverages in which defensive backs have their backs turned to the quarterback. The Ravens have improved their receiving corps but they aren’t on the same level as the Chiefs defensive backs.

Odell Beckham Jr. has been a disappointment as injuries have taken a toll on his body. Andrews wasn’t playing at 100 percent. Flowers will be a star, but he’s still a rookie and needs refinement. There were some opportunities downfield but the Chiefs secondary was mostly suffocating. There were several instances in which Jackson should have scrambled for yardage but decided not to.

12:37 remaining in the third quarter, third-and-6

Early in the third quarter, on third-and-6, it appeared the Ravens had a 989 concept called.

The Chiefs were in a cover 2 zone. Usually against 2-deep, the quarterback will first look to the Z running a vertical first before looking to the slot running a “middle read” route. Jackson made the correct read and looked to Rashod Bateman to his right but he was shoved out of bounds by corner Jaylen Watson. Flowers was Jackson’s second read. Usually on this concept, Flowers is supposed to keep running down the middle of the field against two-deep coverage but he flattened his route out.

Jackson had to sidestep defensive tackle Chris Jones, who quickly penetrated, but he had an ocean of space to pick up the first down and more if he ran.

Jackson is an aggressive downfield passer and he was hunting for opportunities downfield. He hit a 30-yard bomb to Flowers, buying time and throwing downfield, but against this pass defense, they just needed to keep moving the chains.

That seemed to be the overarching philosophy against the Chiefs. The Ravens wanted big plays instead of eating their vegetables and methodically moving the ball. It’s why they decided to play Hill over Gus Edwards for a majority of the game when Edwards was their primary back for most of the season. They opted for Hill’s explosiveness as a runner and receiver over Edwards’ size. But against the Chiefs’ blitzing defense, they needed a solid pass blocker and Hill was bad in protection.

3:53 remaining in the third quarter, third-and-9

On third-and-9, the Chiefs lined up in an odd front which prompted the Ravens to call a man protection.

Perhaps Monken thought they might have been able to get Hill out in a route but because the Chiefs blitzed, he had to stay in and protect. Hill was quickly beaten by safety Justin Reid for the sack.

If Jackson had an extra second in the pocket, he would have Flowers streaking down the middle of the field with no safety help.

Most thought correctly that the AFC Championship would be a defensive game. After the Chiefs’ first-quarter outburst, the Ravens’ defense clamped down and shut out Kansas City in the second half, but Baltimore’s offense couldn’t sustain drives and turned the ball over. Part of what was supposed to make this Ravens offense special is adaptability. They didn’t adapt against the Chiefs and it cost them a shot at the Super Bowl against a 49ers team that they blew out earlier in the season.

One game doesn’t mean moving on from Roman to Monken was a mistake. Monken has helped Jackson progress as a passer and Jackson should be even better with a year in the system under his belt. For both Monken and Jackson, this has to be a learning experience. The AFC goes through the Kansas City Chiefs and their defense is young, they’ll be a menacing group for at least a few years. The Ravens should continue to improve on offense and they’ll put up numbers in the regular season but they’ll inevitably meet the Chiefs on the path to the Super Bowl. When they do, will they have the right answers?

(Top photo: Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)


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