In a scheduling oddity, Week 3’s slate only has one game featuring two 2-0 teams - the Baltimore Ravens at the Kansas City Chiefs — but that game shouldn’t disappoint.
Lamar Jackson is off to a roaring start in Year 2, but we’re going to focus on the other side of the ball, where megastar Patrick Mahomes will face Ravens coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s unit for the second time.
1. Mahomes vs. Ravens’ D, Round 2
Last season’s Week 13 heavyweight bout between the Kansas City offense and Baltimore defense was the best unit vs. unit clash all year.
Martindale won the schematic battle against Andy Reid, putting Mahomes off-balance. Known for amoeba fronts and fire-zone blitzes on passing downs, the Ravens unleashed those designs at random — basically any down, any time - to keep Reid and Mahomes guessing.
Baltimore slowed Mahomes’ processing with disciplined disguises and late coverage rotations, and sprung free rushers on blitzes to disrupt timing. The first-year starter forced an ugly interception, had a few other near-picks and a self-forced fumble while scrambling in overtime.
But Mahomes countered with deadly off-schedule playmaking, epitomized by a 48-yard heave to Tyreek Hill on fourth-and-9, en route to forcing overtime. He created just enough with pure talent to thwart the Ravens’ brilliant game plan.
So what will Martindale do in the rematch? How about the exact same thing?
Yes, the Ravens lost, but they held the Chiefs to 27 points, one shy of the lowest output of Mahomes’ starting tenure. And while replicating a game plan against the same opponent sounds predictable, the sheer randomness and chaos of this plan eases concerns. Surely Martindale will tweak and tinker, but expect the same core plan.
The challenge is getting new faces up to speed enough to execute sharply. Earl Thomas has been terrific, but he’s not yet the orchestrator Eric Weddle was. Likewise, new pieces up front must be comfortable dropping, blitzing or stunting on any given play.
Reid doesn’t have Tyreek Hill or left tackle Eric Fisher, absences that will be felt more vs. Baltimore than last week in Oakland. Like always, he’ll create some splash plays purely through scheme, but the burden will again fall on Mahomes’ legs and arm.
2. What to expect from Daniel Jones
Jones’ preseason numbers (29 of 34, 416 yards, two TDs) weren’t a mirage, even if he benefited from some contested downfield catches. He showed excellent mechanics, diligence with pre-snap reads and eye discipline like at Duke, and his ball placement was consistently sharper than in college. He also ran Pat Shurmur’s scheme effectively, though he didn’t face much pressure.
Expect Shurmur to employ plenty of half-field reads Sunday at Tampa, including flood concepts (three-level route combinations, putting zone defenders in conflict), rub routes against man coverage and deep play-action “shot” plays. Shurmur will also break out some double-moves, likely with 7- or 8-man protections to provide time.
Todd Bowles’ defense tends to be static pre-snap, uncommon for a blitz-heavy scheme. He doesn’t draw up many exotic disguises or late coverage rotations, but he might consider some against a rookie starter.
Either way, Jones will face blitzes, especially up the A-gaps (either side of the center). If the Giants want Saquon Barkley receiving more than blocking (that’s an emphatic yes), they must plan other counters to A-gap blitzes, including slides and 6-man protections.
Any extra attention should slide toward Shaquil Barrett (three sacks last week), whose shorter stature (6-foot-2) is a weapon, giving him leverage on bull rushes and helping him dip around the edge.
3. Rams’ new wrinkles could trouble Browns
Despite their efficiency, neither Sean McVay’s nor Wade Phillips’ schemes are particularly complicated. That said, the Rams have added schematic diversity on both sides this season.
On offense, McVay has made the crack toss — a tight end or wideout “cracks” a defensive end’s outside shoulder while an O-lineman pulls outside to lead a toss — a staple. He ran it eight times last week, producing 58 yards and a TD. Because it attacks the perimeter, it exploits the 6-1 fronts defenses have used to stop the Rams’ outside-zone runs since late last season.
Toss plays could be especially effective against the Browns, stressing cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams in run support. Ward is willing but undersized, while Williams earned a reputation at LSU for avoiding contact.
On defense, Phillips introduced more pre-snap complexity with the arrival of safety Eric Weddle, the defensive playcaller and a master disguiser.
Phillips could continue or even ramp up the complexity this week, as Baker Mayfield was slow to process the Titans’ and Jets’ coverage rotations in Weeks 1 and 2. That’s hardly uncommon for a second-year signal-caller, but it’s one reason Cleveland’s offense has been spotty.
4. Rodgers and Fangio meet again, with a twist
In seven games against Vic Fangio’s Bears defense, Aaron Rodgers totaled 1,708 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions (99.2 rating). He diced Fangio’s best version of the unit in Week 1 last year, famously hobbling through a knee injury with 286 yards and three TDs in a 20-point comeback win.
But Fangio won the last battle — limiting Rodgers to 274 yards and a pick on 42 attempts in Week 15 — and Rodgers’ new offense has been touch-and-go under Matt LaFleur. The scheme happens to be a cousin of McVay’s, which Fangio dominated in Week 14 last year.
The Packers’ run game might make the difference Sunday when the Broncos visit. The offensive line ground down a tough Vikings front and now faces a vulnerable Denver group. Once a rock against double teams, defensive end Derek Wolfe has wobbled early in his eighth season, and nose tackle Shelby Harris isn’t the plugger Domata Peko was.
One other thing to watch: Fangio uncharacteristically tweaked his approach last week to have Chris Harris Jr. shadow Allen Robinson (four catches 41 yards). Given the Packers’ lack of other weapons, Harris could shadow Davante Adams on Sunday.
5. Chargers will expose Texans’ interior
As it turns out, one player cannot fix a team’s pass protection by himself. Deshaun Watson has taken 10 sacks and 18 QB hits through two games despite the addition of Laremy Tunsil, who has been as advertised aside from a few ugly plays.
Watson’s style inherently invites more pressure, but Houston’s line still has weak links, too, especially at guard. Right guard Zach Fulton is limited athletically, and first-rounder Tytus Howard played like a rookie in his first start Sunday at left guard.
That’s a problem against the Chargers, who love isolating Joey Bosa and especially Melvin Ingram against guards in obvious passing situations. If the Texans fall behind early or are repeatedly behind the chains, Watson will be battered again.
—David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media