It was a heavyweight prizefight.
The Baltimore Ravens’ top-ranked defense and coordinator Wink Martindale threw everything they had at quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and landed several heavy blows. The youngster staggered but somehow stayed off the mat long enough to win the decision and lift the Kansas City Chiefs to an overtime win.
Martindale’s repertoire is as diverse as any, and he broke out all the tricks, changing up coverages and pass-rush looks almost constantly. He included many of Baltimore’s traditional amoeba fronts and fire zone blitzes, but deployed them at both traditional and untraditional moments, basically on any down at any time. Always well coached, the Ravens held their disguises with excellent discipline despite Mahomes’ hard count, and their post-snap rotations often made him a beat late.
At times, Baltimore showed man coverage pre-snap, by traveling with a man in motion, but then played zone after the snap. One such example froze Mahomes as Matt Judon won inside Mitchell Schwartz for a 9-yard sack.
The Ravens also routinely brought multiple second-level defenders as part of the rush, breaking down the Chiefs’ protection for huge hits. Judon came clean for one early, and C.J. Mosley and Patrick Onwuasor each hammered Mahomes as well. Mosley’s hit produced an intentional-grounding flag, while Onwuasor forced a fluttering duck as Mahomes heaved downfield, a likely interception if Eric Weddle had turned around. (To be fair, he was frantically chasing Tyreek Hill, not knowing Mahomes had been hit.)
When they didn’t get there, the Ravens’ combination of coverage change-ups and exotic rushes forced Mahomes to hold the ball, creating takeaway opportunities. His interception was a wild, ill-advised lob while getting hit after dancing in the pocket. The QB nearly gave the game away with a self-forced fumble while scrambling in the red zone in overtime. (The loose ball somehow evaded the grasp of Terrell Suggs, who early dropped a pick on a screen pass.)
Of course, forcing Mahomes to extend plays is a dangerous game. What he lacked in coverage recognition and ball security on Sunday he made up for with pure playmaking.
A few came outside the pocket late, but early on, Mahomes created from inside the pocket, waiting for the Ravens’ zones to break down over time. On an incredible third-and-19 conversion to Hill, Mahomes calmly stepped up and inside to avoid Judon and flung it to Hill’s deep crosser, which needed time to develop and come open. Mahomes did this several other times, most notably on his no-look throw to Demarcus Robinson, an unbelievably pinpoint flick left while he froze safety Chuck Clark by looking right.
Of course, the arm talent did its part. Mahomes dazzled with a slew of gorgeous touch throws to Travis Kelce, including one over terrific coverage from cornerback Brandon Carr and another (the 15-yard TD) after Mahomes looked off Clark, the deep-half safety.
The off-schedule playmaking ultimately saved Kansas City, as Baltimore’s coverage won on a would-be game-clinching fourth-and-9 until Mahomes broke contain and chucked to Hill for 48 yards.
As usual, Andy Reid helped his QB with brilliant scheming. He manufactured easy yards throughout the game with misdirection on runs, screens and bootlegs. But the most notable design might have been the game-tying TD, a creative yet gutsy call.
On fourth-and-3 from the 5 with 57 seconds left, Reid called for a bunch formation to set picks for running back Damien Williams. But instead of having Williams align right (to the bunch side) of Mahomes — which could alert the defense to the design — Reid had him align left and work THROUGH the line after the snap, moving across to the right to get behind the bunch releases.
This wrinkle was risky. It takes longer to develop, and if any of the Ravens’ six rushers got in Williams’ way, an unblocked Weddle would have sacked Mahomes, ending the game. But it worked brilliantly — the Chiefs surely drilled the O-line to block just so, clearing a lane for Williams’ route — and produced a walk-in tying TD.
Much like K.C.’s Week 4 comeback in Denver, Mahomes gutted through this one with talent far more than polish… which, frankly, is what we expected in his first year as a starter before he lit the league on fire. The Ravens’ designs and execution did enough to win, but Mahomes conjured a few rabbits from hats and (narrowly) avoided a backbreaking turnover.
That’s perfectly OK.
The 23-year-old has already shown mental acuity well beyond his years, and he’s proven he can compensate with physical gifts when needed. Mahomes traded haymakers with the NFL’s most complex defense and emerged standing, and he’ll learn a ton from Sunday’s film.
Meanwhile, Martindale and the Ravens will be sick about this one. They let the Chiefs escape several long down and distances, narrowly missed a few sacks and takeaways, and came away with nothing despite throwing the kitchen sink at Mahomes.
That’s tough to swallow. Then again, I suppose that’s how every fighter feels when watching his opponent leave the ring with the belt.
-Shanahan pulls all the right strings
Kyle Shanahan said this week he was glad the Denver Broncos didn’t hire him after he interviewed for their head-coaching job in January of 2016, but he must have taken some enjoyment in sticking it to Denver on Sunday.
He cruelly toyed with a short-handed defense as the San Francisco 49ers pulled the upset and pushed the Broncos to the brink of elimination.
Shanahan is as good as any offensive coach at deciphering a defense’s rules and, in turn, blurring defenders’ responsibilities. With the Broncos missing two of their top three cornerbacks — including Swiss Army knife Chris Harris Jr. — and dime linebacker Brandon Marshall, Shanahan preyed on inexperienced fill-ins with a series of route concepts, intertwined releases, pick routes and double moves.
Blossoming star tight end George Kittle was central to many designs, scorching Denver for seven catches and 210 yards — 4 yards shy of the single-game tight-end record — all before halftime. (Kittle also drew three holding penalties, including one nullifying a Broncos fumble recovery.)
Shanahan and Kittle exploited Denver’s Cover-3 on the first drive with a flood concept (three routes — shallow, intermediate and deep — to the same side of the field, perfect for attacking zone). With Marquise Goodwin releasing in front of him and drawing rookie cornerback Isaac Yiadom, Kittle faked inside and broke out into the void Yiadom vacated. With linebacker Todd Davis fooled by Kittle’s route, the tight end was so open he picked up 31 yards despite the throw being behind him.
Kittle’s next big play also came from a stacked release, this time featuring a double move and a rub element to foil man coverage. Shanahan had wideout Kendrick Bourne release vertically in front of Kittle, who broke outside just 4 yards downfield. Kittle’s man, Darian Stewart, recognized Bourne’s pick and fought over it and outside, only to realize Kittle’s route was a double move as the tight end broke back inside. The pass was again behind, but Kittle — a menace after the catch — broke three tackles and picked up 52 yards.
Kittle’s 85-yard touchdown highlighted Shanahan’s ability to dress up the same plays to look different (which we covered in Week 3), as Shanahan disguised his signature Yankee concept: a deep post from one side and deep crosser from the other, off play-action. This time, he used a pistol formation with a jet-sweep fake and Kittle aligned as a wing tight end — off the line of scrimmage but inside tight end Garrett Celek, an uncommon spot for a vertical route to release from.
At the snap, Kittle started forward and inside like he was double-teaming the 5-technique defensive end, while Celek blocked out to the edge defender. This action, along with the pistol play-fake and jet sweep, made Davis, linebacker Josey Jewell and safety Justin Simmons bite hard downhill to stop the run. Kittle blew right on his deep crosser completely unmarked. With Dante Pettis’ post route clearing out Yiadom and Stewart, Kittle caught the ball with no one within 10 yards and needed one block from Pettis to coast 70 yards to paydirt.
Based on the defensive alignment, Kittle appeared to be Davis’ man, but Davis was left pointing at Simmons as the tight end released behind him. That’s exactly the sort of confusion Shanahan creates by stressing a defense’s weak points, and it wasn’t the last such example.
Kittle picked up 18 more yards later in the half as dime safety Su’a Cravens tried to pass off a route to Yiadom, who wasn’t prepared or in position to do so. The same mistake happened between Denver’s other dime safety, Will Parks, and Yiadom on the game’s most critical play, this time with Pettis as the beneficiary.
On third-and-7 with 3:41 remaining and the Niners up six, Shanahan called for a pick route from an empty formation with running back Jeff Wilson Jr. split wide. Having already used an almost identical look to get Kyle Juszczyk 17 yards, Shanahan added another wrinkle this time. Wilson ran the same slant Juszczyk did, but Pettis — who simply got in the way the first time — ran a stick-nod (a double move faking a short out route before turning upfield to the post) from the inside slot.
Yiadom (aligned over Wilson) and Parks (aligned over Pettis) both took Wilson’s slant, leaving Pettis uncovered for a 31-yard gain to all but seal the game. Had either player taken Pettis, Denver likely would have gotten the ball back, as Von Miller came free on a stunt and clobbered Mullens as he threw.
The offense wasn’t pretty all day — it basically took most of the second half off before the key conversion to Pettis — but the bells and whistles were enough to stymie a defense that had quietly been playing like one of the NFL’s best over the last nine weeks.
Perhaps most impressive is that Shanahan can manufacture so many big plays with a mostly bare cupboard. Kittle is incredible and hasn’t missed a game, but Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon have barely played, and Goodwin has also missed time. Get everyone healthy and add a receiver or two, and this machine should be whirring week in and week out.
–Mayfield keeps silencing doubters
Once pegged as the lower-ceiling option among the top 2018 quarterback prospects, Baker Mayfield has proven that label flatly wrong. Week in and week out, he’s delivered more “wow” throws than any of his draft classmates, including a number of doozies on Sunday.
On the first play from scrimmage against the Panthers, Mayfield whistled a deep ball 64 yards in the air perfectly to the hands of Breshad Perriman, who couldn’t quite keep his feet, settling for a 66-yard gain instead of a 75-yard touchdown.
Mayfield dropped jaws again on third-and-17 midway through the second, as he escaped the pocket left and unleashed a 55-yard rope to Jarvis Landry, who had been covered by two safeties (Mike Adams fell down) and also had cornerback Donte Jackson closing in. Mayfield’s throw was absolutely flawless, threading between Jackson and safety Eric Reid and nestling right into Landry’s chest.
Mayfield’s next attempt was another inch-perfect strike, a firm throw with just enough touch to beat linebacker Thomas Davis’ excellent coverage on David Njoku’s corner route for a 28-yard gain. Three plays later, Mayfield whipped a bullet — despite pressure in the six-footer’s face — to Rashard Higgins’ 7-stop route (stem toward the corner before turning around for a deep curl) in a void in Carolina’s zone for 15 yards on third-and-9.
There is so much more to get into with Mayfield — who has been playing terrific, despite his three interceptions last week — but for now, suffice it to say he’s put concerns about his arm talent to bed.
We’ll take a deeper look later this season at just how great he’s been in other areas.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media