Legacies, not just the opportunity to spend a week in Las Vegas, are in play during this NFL conference championship weekend, and no one feels that pressure more than Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.
He would have an impeccable list of accolades with a Super Bowl win. Before he can get to that point, Jackson has an AFC championship game date on Sunday afternoon with one of the better coordinators in the league, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Steve Spagnuolo, who pulls the strings on an immensely talented defense.
For the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, the Chiefs’ defense arguably was the reason why they made it to the playoffs in the first place. According to RBSDM.com, the Chiefs were sixth in expected points allowed per play (-0.076) and fourth in success rate (39.8%). Beyond their personnel, Spagnuolo’s willingness to run a diverse brand of defense has allowed KC to flourish. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Chiefs saw the sixth most passing attempts in blitzing situations (178) and ranked fifth in expected points allowed (-0.25) per passing attempt where they blitzed.
"Whatever you're going to run, you better have the answers for what they're going to give you," Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken told reporters on Thursday.
Changing the looks from week to week has allowed the Chiefs to be a difficult defense to play against, but Jackson is a tough test as well. He is arguably playing the best football of his career and just solved the puzzle of the blitz-happy Texans last week, completing 13 of his 18 passing attempts for 120 yards and two touchdowns, a whopping 75% of his dropbacks for the game. Don’t expect the Chiefs to blitz at that rate — the Chiefs' highest blitz percentage in a game this season was 48.6% against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 12, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Jackson isn’t always the cleanest player against the blitz, but the recent sample size may suggest he’s started to figure out how to be a productive player in these high-pressure circumstances.
While the Chiefs excel in situations where they blitz, they’re also strong against the pass when they don’t blitz as well. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Kansas City ranks eighth in expected points allowed per dropback (-0.13) when it doesn't blitz. The Chiefs have one of the best cornerback duos in the league with L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie, and a talented defensive line that can get after the passer. All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones headlines their front four, but defensive ends George Karlaftis and Charles Omenihu are plus defenders in their own right.
This is a tougher test than the Texans last week, no doubt. Scoring against the Chiefs is far easier said than done, but if there is ever going to be a player up for this task (not named Mahomes), it’s Jackson. He has the supporting cast, scheme and individual talent to counter some of the punches the Chiefs will throw. They probably will need to get off to a faster start than the 10 points they scored in the first half last week. Even Monken admitted as much, saying Thursday, "I don't know where we rank, but we've been pretty good at starting [fast]. We've had some games not so much, but [we were] trying to get Lamar off to a fast start and us off to a fast start."
But the second half of the Ravens' win over the Texans showed they have answers for a defense that’s throwing the kitchen sink. It’ll take a fully operational program this week from start to finish.
If the Ravens can keep Jackson upright and Jackson himself can avoid some of the bad fumbles that he’s prone to in compressed pockets, they’ll have a good chance to put points on the board. This is still an offense that’s run by a likely two-time MVP, so the Ravens should feel good about their chances to score against anybody. There’s one more step for Jackson to reach his first Super Bowl — and it’s a big one.