Perhaps the most intriguing game of Wild Card Weekend is the early Sunday afternoon showdown (1 p.m., CBS) between the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers. The game represents a fascinating contrast in styles, with the Ravens playing a throwback brand of football on both offense and defense, and the Chargers employing a modern scheme on both sides of the ball.
That's not all there is to contrast these two squads, either. Baltimore has a rookie quarterback in Lamar Jackson, as well as several inexperienced contributions in the running game (Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon) and portions of the passing game (pretty much all of their tight ends). The Chargers are led on offense by 13-year starter Philip Rivers, fourth-year starting running back Melvin Gordon, and sixth-year wideout Keenan Allen.
The teams' defenses are similar strong and balanced against both the run and pass, but where the Ravens use a hybrid 2-4-5 defense for many of their snaps and send rushers from almost everywhere, the Chargers are in a more standard 4-2-5 alignment most of the time and play things straight up more often than not, even while they are built to stop modern pass offenses.
Which of these two styles prevails will go a long way toward determining who advances in the AFC postseason, and could set the stage for the rest of the playoff run. Let's break it down.
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Chargers defensive front vs. the Lamar Jackson-led Ravens run game
You've probably already heard this elsewhere, but it bears noting once again that since Lamar Jackson took over at quarterback the Ravens have been running a style of offense not seen anywhere in professional football since the mid-1970s. According to Sharp Football Stats, Baltimore has called for a run on an astronomical 64 percent of its plays since Week 11. The league average during that time was just 42 percent. In a league where passes are far more successful than runs, this style of play is basically unheard of.
Of course, the Ravens are not like any other team in football: they are quarterbacked by Jackson, who just may be the most dynamic running threat in the league right now. With Jackson under center, Baltimore's success rate on running plays was 55 percent, up four percent from their 51 percent success rate with deposed former starter Joe Flacco at the helm. Though their rate of pass plays has plummeted from 64 percent with Flacco to just 36 percent with Jackson, their pass success has not dropped off nearly as much as one might think, and that's why the boost in their run game has proven so meaningful.
The biggest difference in the Ravens' run game, apart from the sheer volume of runs they now call, is their rate of explosive plays.
Excluding runs by Jackson himself, Baltimore had just five rushes of 15 yards or more while Flacco was the starter. That's five out of 178 non-Jackson carries, a rate of only 2.80 percent. Since Jackson took over, three different players have more than five rushes of 15 yards or more. (Jackson has eight, Gus Edwards nine, and Kenneth Dixon six.) The Ravens as a team have 24 such runs, on 316 carries. That's a rate of 7.59 percent, a massive leap from where they were with Flacco under center.
If you take out Jackson's rush attempts, the rate is even higher, as 16 of 197 carries by Baltimore running backs since Week 11 have gained 15 yards or more. That's a rate of 8.12 percent, nearly three times as high as their 2.80 percent rate prior to Jackson's ascension to the starting lineup. It will be fascinating to see whether the Ravens can create explosive runs against this Chargers defense, which allowed only 20 carries of 15 yards or more all season. (Again, the Ravens had 24 such carries just from Week 11 on.) Their rate of 5.06 percent of carries gaining 15 yards or more was 13th-best in the NFL.
Those long-gaining runs have been fueled by two things: excellent blocking and the ability to make defenders miss and create yards after contact. The Ravens ranked ninth in the NFL this season in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards, which assigns credit to the offensive line in the run game based on a percentage of yards gained. Perhaps more indicative of the offensive line's success is the team's stuff rate, which measures the percentage of their rush attempts that were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Baltimore excelled here, getting stuffed on just 14.6 percent of rush attempts, the third-lowest rate in the league.
Since Jackson took over, the rate was even lower. Excluding Jackson's 14 kneel-downs, the Ravens had only 24 runs that were stopped either at or behind the line of scrimmage. Out of 302 non-kneel running plays, that's a truly remarkable rate of only 7.9 percent. The Chargers' defense ranked only 18th in stuff rate during the regular season, and it seems likely they will not be the first defense to truly muck up the Ravens' dynamic rush offense come Sunday.
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Additionally fascinating in this game will be whether the Ravens' ball-carriers can create yards after contact, an area where they excel. Gus Edwards had 324 rushing yards after first contact from Week 11 through 17, the seventh-most in the NFL, per Sports Info Solutions. Jackson, meanwhile, ranked fourth in broken-tackle rate out of 36 players with 50 carries or more during that time, breaking at least one tackle on 21 percent of his carries. The Chargers, though, allowed only 1.87 yards after contact per attempt during that same time period, which just so happened to coincide with Joey Bosa's return to the lineup. That figure was the single stingiest in the league.
Baltimore's zone-heavy running scheme forms the basis of its offense, but they might want to incorporate more power runs in this particular matchup. The Chargers allowed 3.97 yards per carry on zone running plays this year, per Sports Info Solutions, a figure that ranked 11th in the NFL. They allowed 5.71 yards per carry on power plays, though, a figure that ranked just 26th in the league. (They were even less effective against power runs after Bosa came back, allowing 3.72 yards per carry on zone runs and 6.67 per carry on power runs.) Edwards is Baltimore's best option on power plays, having carried 20 times for 118 yards and a score on those plays. That's a healthy 5.9 yards per carry, even better than the figure the Chargers allowed.
And all of this is just about the Ravens' designed run offense. Jackson is also a threat to take off with the ball when his protection breaks down or the coverage doesn't allow anybody to get open in the passing game. He had 17 scrambles for 120 yards down the stretch of the season, an average of 7.1 yards per scramble. The Chargers did a pretty good job of limiting scrambles throughout the year, including against Jackson in Week 16, but there's no guarantee they can keep him contained again.
Ravens pass defense vs. Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen and company
Were it not for the existence of the Chicago Bears, the Ravens would likely be seen as having the best defense in the NFL. Baltimore finished the season having allowed the fewest yards in the league and the second-fewest points (just four more points than the Bears), while ranking third in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. Along with the Bears, they were one of only two NFL teams that ranked inside the top six in both run and pass defense DVOA. By some measurements, this unit was even , which is one of the best in NFL history.
With Melvin Gordon returning from his injury-related absence to carry 22 times for just 83 yards in the Chargers' final two games of the season and with the Chargers unlikely to rely on Austin Ekeler or Justin Jackson as the basis of their game-plan against this Baltimore defense, it will instead likely be the responsibility of Philip Rivers and the perimeter weapons on hand to figure out how to move the ball against the Ravens. Baltimore has very few weaknesses in the air: the Ravens ranked third overall in pass defense DVOA, eighth against No. 1 receivers, second against No. 2s, eighth against the slot, and first against running backs. They ranked second against short passes and a respectable 16th against the deep ball, as well as second on passes to the left, fourth on passes over the middle, and 10th in passes to the right.
The one soft spot they had was against tight ends, where they ranked 22nd in DVOA. The possible return of Hunter Henry this weekend could be key there, as he provides a far more explosive option at tight end than Antonio Gates or Virgil Green. Henry was set to finally take over the full-time role as the Chargers' No. 1 tight end this season, but was sidelined by a torn ACL suffered during OTAs. He's been on the physically unable to perform list all season, but could be activated for Sunday.
Whether Henry's in the lineup or not, the Chargers can't count on him alone to carry the aerial attack. They're going to need Keenan Allen, the Williamses (Tyrell and Mike), Travis Benjamin, as well as Gordon, Ekeler, and Jackson to chip in. Allen is obviously Rivers' No. 1 target, and was the intended receiver on 26.8 percent of Rivers' throws this year. Allen's 136 targets were more than the next two closest players on the team combined (Gordon and Mike Williams, who had 66 apiece).
Allen primarily lines up in the slot these days, aligning there on 55 percent of his routes, per Pro Football Focus. That'll match him up most often with Brandon Carr, who moves around but is most comfortable in the slot among the Ravens' three primary corners. Carr ended up playing 135 snaps in the slot this year, allowing 13 catches for 180 yards on the inside. (Allen had a 47-528-2 line when in the slot.) Overall this season, he allowed the fourth-lowest passer rating among 76 corners who were on the field for 350 snaps or more. Marlon Humphrey ranked 14th on that same list, while Jimmy Smith ranked 40th. Combined, the trio allowed just six touchdowns while picking off six passes. Humphrey (left) and Smith (right) tend to stick to their sides more often than not, which means they'll each see a fair amount of Mike and Tyrell Williams, plus Benjamin and Allen on occasion.
The Williamses are Rivers' primary targets when he wants to throw downfield. He threw 54 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air this season, per PFF, and 28 of those 54 went to one of the Williamses, as did 13 of his 23 completions and five of his seven touchdowns on those throws. The Ravens have Eric Weddle patrolling the back end of the defense, and he was absolutely fantastic this season. On throws 20 or more yards downfield, the Ravens allowed just 26 completions on 71 attempts, for 834 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions. That's a passer rating of just 86.2, which would rank 21st among the 33 quarterbacks who threw at least 25 deep passes this season.
And the Ravens aren't just tough to throw on because of their cover guys; they're also one of the best pressure teams in the league. Baltimore created pressure on 38.5 percent of its opponents' pass attempts this season, per PFF, a considerably above-average rate. They also blitzed far more often than the average team, sending extra pressure on 42.5 percent of opponent pass attempts, way above the 27.7 percent league average. When sending an extra rusher, the Ravens' pressure rate spiked to 41 percent, which was considerably higher than Rivers' average pressure rate of 35.3 percent.
Rivers, like pretty much all quarterbacks, is considerably more effective when throwing from a clean pocket than he is when under pressure. His passer rating dropped from 115.1 to 83.3 when defenders were in his face, while he threw 24 touchdowns and six picks from a clean pocket and just eight touchdowns and six picks when pressured. The best way for him to neutralize the Ravens' rush is simply to get the ball out quickly, and lucky for the Chargers, that's where he excels.
In order for Rivers to get the ball out early, however, his guys have to get open quickly. And again, that's easier said than done against this Baltimore defense.
Line: Ravens (-3)
Prediction: Ravens 23, Chargers 17