AFC Wild Card Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens
By Ha Kung Wong
Los Angeles Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens
1:05 PM ET – Sunday, January 6, 2019
M&T Bank Stadium
Spread: Ravens @ -2.5
Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)
Offense: 3rd Overall per DVOA / 2nd Passing / 6th Rushing
Defense: 8th Overall per DVOA / 10th vs. Pass / 10th vs. Run
Philip Rivers is an interesting guy. He’s known as one of the biggest trash talkers in the NFL, yet he never curses. He looks like that frat guy who’s ready to do keg stands all night, but he actually has 9 kids and goes to church every week. And he’s also that guy that has the 5th highest passer rating in the regular season (105.5) who could light it up on the field one week for 313 yards and 2 TDs coming off a game where he had just 181 yards and 2 INTs. He’s a real enigma, but the bad news is that 181 yard and 2 INT game, arguably his worst of the season, was against his opponent this Wild Card weekend, the Ravens. And that ended in a 22-10 shellacking at home, just two weeks prior to this playoff rematch in Baltimore. So how will it turn out this time?
Well, this is the quintessential top offense meets top defense scenario. Last time, the Ravens put a strangle hold on the Chargers offense. Most importantly, they limited the Chargers to just 51 rush yards, also limiting Rivers with tight coverage on Keenan Allen and Mike Williams outside leading to 2 INTs. But perhaps the most interesting underlying stat was the number of penalties incurred, as the Chargers had a whopping 8 while the Ravens had only 4. Interestingly, although this loss was at home, and the upcoming playoff game is in Baltimore, the Chargers are actually one of the best road teams in the NFL, being 7-1 in road games this season. So don’t write them off just because they’ve been beaten before and now go to Baltimore.
Other than limiting self inflicted injury though excessive penalties, key for the Chargers will be two sides of the same coin:
- Establish the run on offense
- Stop the run on defense
It’s clear that when Melvin Gordon is rolling, the Chargers are unstoppable. The Ravens allow the 4th least rush yards per game (82.9), but Gordon has the 5th most yards from scrimmage per game (114.6) of any player in the NFL due to his ability to run between the tackles and catch passes out of the backfield. Establishing Gordon has the added benefit of opening the RPO for Rivers and giving his receivers space against a stout pass defense. And this may sound strange, but Austin Ekeler, who was not available for that Week 16 game and should be back for the playoff game, makes a difference. Ekeler provides more run support and another quick option for Rivers to dump the ball when facing pressure. [UPDATE: Austin Ekeler is ACTIVE for the game.]
Keenan Allen is always a threat downfield, but involving Mike Williams, who had a huge game when Allen was sidelined with a hip pointer, will be critical for Rivers to maintain his 3rd highest yards per pass attempt (8.48) from the regular season. In total, the Chargers average the 3rd most yards per play (6.3) of any team in the NFL, but only had the 9th least yards per play (4.9) over the last three games of the season, which includes the loss to the Ravens. Bottom line, though, is that the Chargers need go more ground focused this week and avoid placing the game on Rivers and his receivers.
However, if there’s one weakness in the Ravens defense, it’s against the TE, as they are only 22nd defending against opposing TEs. Hunter Henry should return for this game, and although expectations should be held in check, his athleticism on short routes will be helpful at beating the Ravens pass rush and taking advantage of this weakness, along with Antonio Gates. [UPDATE: Hunter Henry will NOT be activated from the PUP list this week, so it will be up to a combination of Gates and Virgil Green to take advantage of this weakness.]
The injury to Hunter Henry has cost the Chargers the chance to have one of the top tight ends in the NFL in 2018. pic.twitter.com/NNFu3YnzMq
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 14, 2018
On defense, the Chargers had one of their best games in Week 17 against the Broncos, and they now have more takeaways (20) than the top ranked Ravens defense. The Ravens don’t turn the ball over much (20 total), but it only takes one to shift momentum in a game. Critical to the Chargers success on defense will be a now fully healthy DE Joey Bosa, who since coming back in Week 11 has tallied 5.5 total sacks. Bosa and DE Melvin Ingram, who paces the team with 7 sacks this season, will be charged with containing Jackson and forcing mistakes, which will be important for the Chargers’ chances as Jackson is responsible for almost half the Ravens rush yards since taking over under center. Having seen what Jackson brings to the table first hand, the Chargers should stack the box and force Jackson to beat them over the air, where he’s more vulnerable.
Baltimore Ravens (10-4)
Offense: 15th Overall per DVOA / 14th Passing / 10th Rushing
Defense: 3rd Overall per DVOA / 3rd vs. Pass / 6th vs. Run
The formula for the Ravens is simple. All they have to do is maintain they’re dominance on the ground with Lamar Jackson and whoever is healthy in the backfield among Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon, collectively with the second most rush yards per game (152.6) in the NFL, which in turn allowed for the longest average time of possession per game (32:27) and the most plays per game (70.9) during the regular season. In addition, they need to repeat their Week 16 performance and clamp down on the Chargers with their top ranked defense, which incidentally has allowed the 2nd least points per game in the NFL (17.9).
The Ravens really tried to hold on to Joe Flacco as their QB, but after an injury that opened the door for Jackson to take the reigns, and a disappointing 4-5 start, there’s been no going back. The Ravens morphed from a team that loved going downfield to newly acquired John Brown and Michael Crabtree, to a team that chewed up tons of yards on the ground. And that was exactly how the Ravens did it the last time, chewing up 159 yards on the ground and winning time of possession. As noted above, the Raven average the most plays per game of any team this season, and average a whopping 11 plays per game more than the Chargers. I’d be shocked if we don’t see exactly the same ball control approach this week as it’s been an incredibly successful formula for the Ravens.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 3, 2019
Clearly, the Ravens defense is solid against the run and pass. The defensive front, let by NT Brandon Williams, and backed by the likes of LB C.J. Mosley, have helped the Ravens allow the least yards per carry and the 4th least rush yards per game this season. They also rank near the top of the league in second-level yards per carry (5th), open-field yards per carry (2nd), and yards after contact per attempt (3rd).
The pass rush has also been impressive, led by veteran Terrell Suggs, resulting in the 6th most sacks in the NFL, as well as the 5th most QB pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries). And to round it out, the secondary has also been one of the most consistent in the NFL, led by CBs Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Tavon Young and S Eric Weddle (who by the way was promised an ice cream truck by a fan if they won the division — now that’s motivation). They’ve made the Ravens 1st in limiting opposing completion percentage and yards per attempt and 2nd in opponent’s passer rating and TD rate. [UPDATE: Tavon Young is INACTIVE due to a groin injury, which will move Brandon Carr into the slot.]
And to top it off, they have Justin Tucker, one of the best kickers in the business, with an 89.7% FG percentage, being 100% from 39 yards and closer this season.
So you’d think that with all this defense, the Chargers wouldn’t have a chance on the road. But I think the Chargers have learned their lesson and will go smash mouth football with Melvin Gordon this time, getting them into manageable 3rd down situations. I also think the Chargers will stack the box to force Jackson to throw the ball.
Also, keep in mind that although the Chargers lost that Week 16 meeting against the Ravens 22 to 10, it was a one score game up until 2:40 left in the 4th quarter and only broke open due to a fumble-six as the Chargers were driving. With all that ball control and rushing yards from the Ravens, being ahead by just 5 with 2:40 left and the Chargers driving isn’t a sustainable plan. As long as the Chargers don’t have 3 turnovers again, I don’t even see this scenario repeating itself.
The wild cards for me in this Wild Card game are the TEs on both sides. Will Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry be able to take advantage of the Ravens’ defense (and will Gates avoid that game killing fumble like he did late in Week 16)? Will Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and others help provide big plays for the Ravens against a stacked box like they did in Week 16?
Ultimately, I think the Chargers go run heavy, and RPO with TEs, avoiding too many contested balls with the solid Ravens secondary and force Jackson to take to the air. If that happens, I think Jackson’s inexperience will show and the Chargers pull out a close, low scoring game on the road.