We’re getting quite the treat this Saturday night, with two AFC contenders with distinct offensive and defensive styles squaring off in primetime.
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Philip Rivers and the Chargers now have the NFL’s second-best record and a legitimate chance at winning both the AFC West and the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. Rivers is playing at as high a level as he’s ever played in his career, and last week’s win against the Chiefs was his crowning achievement, as he made a series of completely absurd throws down the stretch while working without his three best options in the passing game.
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Meanwhile, the Ravens are back in the mix and currently in possession of the No. 6 seed in the AFC, thanks to having won four of their past five games with Lamar Jackson under center. They’re running an anachronistic offense … and it’s working, thanks to the combination of ball-control and elite defense they’re able to employ. And it’s fun!
This should be quite the interesting clash of styles, so let’s dig into what to watch out for.
When the Chargers have the ball
According to the most recent reports, the Chargers will finally be back at full strength for this game, with Keenan Allen likely to play despite suffering an injury last week, and Melvin Gordon on track to return from an absence caused by the MCL injury he suffered several weeks ago. The timing is excellent for L.A., because the Ravens once again have one of the NFL’s toughest defenses, so they’ll need all the playmakers on the field that they can get.
Baltimore is one of just four defenses in the NFL ranked in the top 10 in both run and pass defense DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, and their No. 2 pass defense and No. 6 run defense combine into a No. 2 overall ranking. Baltimore’s pass defense has been elite against No. 1 receivers (sixth in DVOA), No. 2 receivers (third), slot receivers (seventh), and running backs (first). They rank fifth in passes to the left side of the field, fifth on passes to the middle, and 12th on passes to the right, plus fourth against short passes and 11th against deep passes.
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The only area of weakness has been against tight ends, where they rank 27th. If this were 2008 and not 2018, that would be a major concern against the Chargers, due to the presence of Antonio Gates. Nowadays, while Gates is still capable of making the occasional play, he’s more of a supplementary option, playing just 35.3 percent of the Chargers’ offensive snaps and drawing just 8.7 percent of the targets from Philip Rivers.
Instead, the Chargers will almost surely have to attack the strengths of the Baltimore pass defense, because that’s where the Chargers’ own strengths lie. The Ravens almost always play sides with their perimeter corners, Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey, with Smith playing 86 percent of his snaps on the right side of the field and Humphrey playing on the left 70 percent of the time. That will presumably be the case against the Chargers as well, because neither of the Williamses (Tyrell and Mike) necessarily merits shadow coverage, while Keenan Allen has been operating in the slot on more than half his snaps, which means he’ll be matched up with Brandon Carr more often than not. (Smith does also bump down inside on occasion, and this game could be a case where he does so more often.) Carr is not a natural slot corner, having played on the outside for the significant majority of his career, so it would make sense for the Chargers to focus on that matchup — which is nice because they generally prefer to get the ball to Allen anyway. He has more targets (121) than the Williamses (117) combined.
The Ravens are one of the NFL’s best teams at getting pressure on the opposing quarterback, ranking sixth in overall pressures, per Sports Info Solutions, as well as sixth in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate. Importantly, Rivers has actually been the NFL’s best quarterback when under pressure this season, with a passer rating that ranks five points better than the next-closest QB (Russell Wilson). Rivers has been under pressure about an average amount this season, but he’s been extraordinarily accurate with those throws and has a two-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio.
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Where Rivers is actually at his best, though, is on play-action throws. He has a completely absurd 137.9 passer rating on 84 play-action throws, having completed 65 of them for 959 yards, six scores, and no picks, per Pro Football Focus. The return of Melvin Gordon should aid the play-action game, as it will be less obvious whether the Chargers plan to run or pass based on which running back is on the field. Gordon had been a spectacularly inefficient runner prior to this season, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry during his first three NFL seasons, but he’s up at 5.2 yards per carry this year and has been Rivers’ second-most reliable target in the passing game behind Allen. Among 51 running backs who have been targeted at least 20 times this season, Gordon ranks fourth in yards per route run. (Austin Ekeler is third.)
When the Ravens have the ball
The current version of the Ravens’ offense is unlike any other offense in the NFL. Lamar Jackson has 83 designed rushing attempts this season, per Pro Football Focus, which is more rush attempts than any non-Cam Newton quarterback in the NFL has, even if you include both designed attempts and scrambles.
The majority of his runs go to the edges of the formation, and he’s been remarkable efficient with those designed rushes that test the defense’s ability to maintain gap discipline and work scrape concepts. He’s run to the left end of the formation 32 times, gaining 187 yards (5.8 per carry), 13 first downs, and a touchdown. When running to the right edge, he’s taken 25 carries for 168 yards (6.7 per carry), while gaining six first downs and another score. Nine of those 57 combined edge runs have gained 10 yards or more, which is an incredible rate.
But unlike many other mobile quarterbacks (especially those with Jackson’s body type), he’s also been efficient when running up the middle on zone-reads and power plays. On 25 rush attempts between the tackles, Jackson has gained 120 yards — an average of 4.8 a pop. That’s better than almost every running back in the league with a similar number of attempts. He’s even broken three of those 25 carries for 10 yards or more, which is again better than most running backs with a similar number of carries up the middle.
The Ravens have not been quite as Jackson run-dependent in his more recent starts as they were in his first, but he is still running far more often than any other quarterback in the league.
Again, this is a challenge unlike that posed by any quarterback in the league. Even the Chargers seem to think so. “I think between Lamar and (Patrick) Mahomes, they’re equally dangerous,” Chargers safety Adrian Phillips said this week, per the L.A. Times. “Mahomes, OK, he can throw it a mile. Lamar can throw it like crazy, too, but he can blink and he’s running 70 yards. So throughout the week we’ll have drills that focus on keeping the quarterback in the pocket and not letting him get out. But he’s a great athlete. He’s gonna get out. We just have to make sure that when he does, we get him on the ground quick.”
The Chargers’ run defense has easily been the easier unit to attack this season, as they rank 18th in DVOA, 19th in Adjusted Line Yards, and 23rd in both the percentage of runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage and opponents’ conversion rate on third or fourth down runs with two or fewer yards to go. All of those figures play in Jackson and the Ravens’ favor, but the Chargers also have two dynamite edge rushers and underrated interior pressure players, which means they could box Jackson into the pocket more often than it might seem like they can.
And if Jackson has to win the game from the pocket, he just might not be equipped to do so just yet — especially against a secondary as well-equipped to deal with his receiving targets as any in football. Casey Hayward figures to shadow one of John Brown or Michael Crabtree on the outside, and he’s as good a shutdown corner as any in the league. Desmond King has been the NFL’s best slot corner this season and should be more than able to handle Willie Snead. Safeties Derwin James, Adrian Phillips, and Jahleel Addae have a major advantage over Baltimore’s right ends.
Given those circumstances, the Ravens seem likely to have to lean heavily on Jackson and Gus Edwards running the ball as often as possible so they can control the clock, keep Rivers and company off the field, and grind the game to a halt. It just doesn’t seem all that likely to work well enough for them to win, given how many different ways the Chargers can challenge you on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: Chargers 26, Ravens 17