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Kansas City’s Defense Rose to the Challenge of Containing Lamar Jackson

Patrick Mahomes was great, but the Chiefs showed they have more than one way to win a big game with an impressive defensive effort against the reigning NFL MVP

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Frank Clark stepped in front of the video conference screen late Monday night and asked a hypothetical question: “Who wants to see the winners win?”

The Chiefs defensive end was contending that the defending Super Bowl champions, who beat the Ravens 34-20 on Monday Night Football, might have been considered underdogs in the game because of the sports-consuming public’s general thirst for the next big thing.

“You go down the history of sports, the Patriots, the Chicago Bulls, different teams in their own rights, when they were winning, you talk about how they used to win, and did people cheer for them? No, not necessarily,” Clark said. “Everybody wants to see the top dog get knocked off.”

Clark probably has a point. The Lamar Jackson–led Ravens are winless against the Patrick Mahomes–led Chiefs, and part of the excitement surrounding their Week 3 matchup was the possibility that that could change. There’s another reason Baltimore had been favored to win, however, and it’s that the Ravens are, um, really good, which makes Kansas City’s defensive performance on Monday night even more impressive.

Baltimore entered the game with the third-best scoring offense in the NFL, but if you take away Devin Duvernay’s kickoff return for a touchdown, it scored only 13 points. The Chiefs gave up just 228 yards—only 97 in the first half—and held Jackson, who had been the NFL’s second-most accurate quarterback, to 15-of-28 passing for 97 yards and a touchdown, plus 83 rushing yards. The Chiefs’ offense gave Baltimore two extra possessions on turnovers in the second half to let the Ravens back into the game, but their defense shut the door.

“Defense was bearing down against what I consider one of the best offenses in this league,” Kansas City coach Andy Reid said after the game.

To prepare for Jackson, the Chiefs brought in free-agent quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, who most recently played for the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks, to mimic him on the scout team. It’s an exercise often undertaken by Ravens opponents that usually only reinforces the fact that there are very few Lamar Jacksons. At the very least, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had a clear plan: He wanted to cover the middle of the field and force Jackson to make throws to the outside without losing containment. It would require discipline from the Chiefs’ defensive linemen—let Jackson get beyond the first level of defense, and there’s no guarantee players in the secondary will be able to catch him.

“You want naturally to charge the quarterback, but you do that with him, it’s over,” Reid said. “So to keep contain ends up being a huge thing.”

The Chiefs were effective at taking away Jackson’s throws over the middle of the field. His threat as a runner typically opens up that area when the Ravens are clicking, but Jackson’s passing chart shows he didn’t have a lot of success there. Most of his deep passing attempts, especially, were toward either sideline.

Some early plays that didn’t go well may have made Jackson hesitant going back to that area. An early pass down the seam on a third down to tight end Mark Andrews looked like an easy completion until two Chiefs defenders converged on Andrews just as the ball arrived, forcing an incompletion and delivering a big hit.

Kansas City’s cornerbacks defended well. Rashad Fenton, Charvarius Ward, and L’Jarius Sneed, who left the game after a collarbone injury in the first half, allowed a combined 10 yards receiving when targeted as the nearest defender. They had help: According to Next Gen Stats, safety Tyrann Mathieu played 60 percent of his snaps at slot corner, keeping him close to the line of scrimmage and available to help cover the middle of the field. Mathieu gave up two receptions on four targets for 8 yards.

Spagnuolo blitzed frequently, and the defensive line got plenty of pressure on Jackson without getting burned by open running lanes too often. Defensive end Chris Jones had two of the Chiefs’ four sacks on Jackson plus two quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. After the Ravens came within a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Chiefs responded with a touchdown drive. On the Ravens’ ensuing drive, the Chiefs sacked Jackson on two consecutive snaps, creating a fourth-and-24 that Baltimore, needing a touchdown, went for but did not convert.

“Anytime I’ve played the Ravens since I’ve been in the league, whether it’s [with] Seattle or down here the last two years, every game has been won up front,” Clark said.

Clark said that defending Jackson requires patience above all else. He refused to give up any more intel, though, since he figures he’ll probably be playing big games against Jackson for a long time and “we’ll probably see him again this year.”

It’s hard to argue with Clark on that point. Jackson will be fine. Based on their ability to limit him Monday, so will the Chiefs defense.

Clark might have sounded a bit hyperbolic comparing the Chiefs to the Patriots or the Michael Jordan–era Bulls, but that comparison does say something about Kansas City’s status this season. The Chiefs are not up-and-comers anymore—most weeks, they’re the biggest game of the year for whoever they’re facing. Mahomes alone can help them overcome so much, but it’s good for Kansas City to know he isn’t all it has.