The Ravens’ strategies for stopping Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs haven’t worked. The alternatives are just as grim. | ANALYSIS

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Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was speaking from experience Thursday when he described what lay ahead Sunday night: “one of the best offenses, if not the best offense, in the league.”

Of course, the Kansas City Chiefs take a torch to most defensive game plans. But even Martindale, one of the NFL’s most creative coordinators, hasn’t kept his defense away from coach Andy Reid’s towering inferno. The Ravens have faced quarterback Patrick Mahomes every season since he took over as a full-time starter in 2018. The results: three losses, 31.3 points and 487.3 yards allowed per game, and a combined 116.2 passer rating for Mahomes.

Nothing about Kansas City is easy to prepare for. The Chiefs have a quarterback-coach pairing that Martindale compared to the San Francisco 49ers’ legendary Bill Walsh-Joe Montana partnership. They have two first-team All-Pro talents in wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce. They have a rebuilt, well-regarded offensive line, with former Raven Orlando Brown Jr. protecting Mahomes’ blind side.

And Mahomes, as former Kansas City and current Ravens wide receiver Sammy Watkins said Thursday, is “special.” Before the play, the Chiefs’ presnap motion and daunting speed help the 2018 NFL Most Valuable Player get a read on defenses, which he’s come to understand like a second language. And during the play, he can slip pressure and throw pinpoint deep shots off his back foot, almost wherever he wants. “I just think he’s one of the best there is,” Martindale said.

The challenge for the banged-up Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium is to turn a great quarterback into a merely good one. Martindale’s prevailing strategy — blitz Mahomes, rely on man-to-man coverage and play with one deep safety — hasn’t worked. But the alternatives are no more appealing.

What if they don’t blitz Mahomes?

Martindale hasn’t been shy about testing Mahomes’ prodigious arm or photographic memory with a wave of blitzers. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Ravens have come for Mahomes at a pretty consistent clip over the past three seasons, sending five or more pass rushers on 37% to 39% of his drop-backs — not quite up to Martindale’s typical rate, but still more than Mahomes usually sees.

It hasn’t worked. The Ravens have sacked the elusive Mahomes just once on a blitz, and their 26 combined pressures haven’t amounted to much in coverage. In 2018, he went 15-for-21 for 149 yards and a touchdown against the blitz. In 2019, he was 9-for-14 for 88 yards and two touchdowns. In 2020, he was 14-for-17 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. That works out to a 123.0 passer rating overall.

So just take your chances in coverage, right? If you can rely on a three- or four-man front to bother Mahomes, maybe. But the Ravens have done that only once. In 2018, they registered a pressure on 21 of 35 of Mahomes’ non-blitzed drop-backs — a higher pressure rate, surprisingly, than on his blitzed drop-backs — and got to him for their only three sacks. They also forced Mahomes’ only interception in series history with a four-man rush.

Mahomes still put up big numbers that afternoon, and at big moments. He went 20-for-32 for 228 yards and a touchdown when throwing into seven- or eight-man coverages, with no play bigger than his fourth-down, across-his-body, 40-yard bomb to Hill to keep alive an overtime-forcing touchdown drive.

In the Ravens’ next two meetings, playing it safe with Mahomes meant playing with fire. In 2019, he went 18-for-23 for 286 yards and a touchdown when he wasn’t blitzed. Last year, he was 17-for-25 for 186 yards and two touchdowns. Blitz or no blitz, there are just no easy outs.

“I think Sunday night will be good timing for that,” Martindale said of his strategy. “I think Andy, he knows how much we pressure, and it’s going to be a fun chess match.”

What if they don’t play as much man-to-man coverage?

This goes hand-in-hand with the Ravens’ blitz tendencies. Martindale typically pairs man coverage with his pressure packages, which limits his use of zone coverages. Against Kansas City, he’s also occasionally used two safeties to help patrol the secondary while five other defenders match up in man-to-man coverage. (Mahomes is 4-for-6 overall against the coverage, known as Cover 2 Man, for 45 yards.)

Of course, Martindale has tried to fluster Mahomes with zone coverage, too. He’s seen more of it than he has man-to-man looks. And with each passing year, Mahomes’ accuracy against the Ravens has improved. From 2018 to 2020, he went from 13-for-23 (56.5%) to 15-for-20 (75%) to 17-for-20 (85%). After taking two sacks in 2018 and one in 2019 against zone, Mahomes also got out clean last season.

“I think when you’re going against a quarterback at his level, which I think is elite … you have to defend the first play, his second play and sometimes his third play, all in that one play,” Martindale said. “I think that’s what makes him so special.”

The rest of the NFL hasn’t had much better luck. Last season, Mahomes finished with 16 touchdowns, four interceptions, 8 yards per attempt and 65.2% accuracy when facing zone coverage. That might’ve been a bad year, all things considered; in 2019, he finished with 16 touchdowns, three interceptions, 9.5 yards per attempt and 68.3% accuracy.

What if they don’t play as much single-high looks?

According to Sharp Football, the Ravens played with two deep safeties against the Chiefs on just 21.4% of Mahomes’ drop-backs last season, among the lowest rates by a Kansas City opponent in 2020. That was another byproduct of the Ravens’ blitz-happy approach: If you send five or six pass rushers after Mahomes, you don’t have the numbers in the back end to limit big plays.

If Martindale adopts a more conservative approach, he’ll have more flexibility in his secondary alignments. Because of the gaps a run defense must account for, coordinators have only two options for how they can deploy a safety presnap. With one high safety, defenses can commit up to eight players to the box but lose a deep-lying presence in coverage. With two high safeties, defenses can get just seven players in the box but are better protected deep.

That’s how it works in theory, at least. Mahomes has a habit of defying conventions. Entering Week 15 last season, Sharp Football found that not only had Mahomes been more accurate against two-high looks (68.8%) than single-high looks (65.3%), but he’d been more accurate on deep shots, too. Against two deep safeties, he was 13-for-27 on 20-plus-yard attempts; against just one, he was 7-for-22.

With Mahomes’ two biggest weapons, defensive coordinators have to pick their poison. Hill’s elite speed makes him difficult to stop on sideline routes downfield, especially when the lone deep safety is manning the middle of the field. And Kelce cleans up against linebackers and cornerbacks when safeties can’t drop down and help in intermediate areas.

“Let’s face it, 10 and 87′s who we have to stop,” Martindale said, referring to Hill and Kelce, respectively. “And then the others, you’ve just got to hold on to. If they make a play, then so be it.”

Week 2


Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM