The first step to stopping Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes is to have a little faith in failure. The quarterbacks, set to face off in Sunday’s AFC championship game, are perhaps the NFL’s two most talented players, but skill alone cannot help the Ravens make every block or the Chiefs catch every pass. The superstars’ 2023 struggles, when they happened, more often highlighted the fallibility of their supporting casts than they did their own limitations.

But, after vintage performances in last weekend’s divisional round, the challenges for the Ravens and Kansas City at M&T Bank Stadium seem immense. Can their defense turn a great quarterback into a merely good one? In a blowout win Saturday over the Houston Texans, Jackson became the first player in NFL history to record two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns, rush for at least 100 yards and register at least a 100.0 passer rating. Mahomes, playing in his first career road playoff game, went 17-for-23 for 215 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-24 comeback win over the Buffalo Bills.

Standing in their way of a trip to Super Bowl LVIII are two of the NFL’s best defenses — and most creative play-callers. The Ravens’ Mike Macdonald and Chiefs’ Steve Spagnuolo want to create pressure in the pocket without inviting trouble downfield. How they strike that balance against two of the league’s best improvisers could decide Sunday’s matchup.

When the Ravens have the ball

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson gets sacked against the Rams. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Jackson has faced Spagnuolo three times in his career. Kansas City’s blitz rate in that short span has varied widely. So has Jackson’s success against it, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats:

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Jackson should expect to see more heat Sunday. The Chiefs finished fifth in the NFL in blitz rate during the regular season, sending at least five pass rushers on 37.6% of opponents’ drop-backs. Of Kansas City’s 57 sacks — second most in the NFL, behind only the Ravens (60) — 28 came on blitzes.

The Chiefs’ pressure packages are far from ordinary. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday that Spagnuolo, who spent two years on his defensive staff about a decade ago, “contributed to our system ... and I can see that we’ve contributed to his system, too.” Kansas City, like the Ravens, sends blitzes from every level. Cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson and safety Justin Reid all finished with at least two sacks this season.

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“Very smart system, very well organized,” Harbaugh said. “They play really hard. It’s a challenge to game plan against. Honestly, I don’t understand why I don’t see Steve’s name for [a] head coach [opportunity]. I’m scratching my head on that one. He’s very deserving of an opportunity.”

Flattery won’t keep Spagnuolo from harassing Jackson, but the Ravens might welcome the challenge. Since returning from the team’s bye in Week 14, Jackson has been one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks against the blitz, ranking fourth in both EPA per drop-back and success rate among qualifying quarterbacks, according to NGS.

Pass rushes with defensive backs haven’t been a bother, either. He’s 14-for-17 for 232 yards and two touchdowns — a near-perfect 158.0 passer rating — with one sack taken in that span, according to TruMedia.

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When the Chiefs have the ball

There’s a two-pronged problem to pressuring Mahomes.

The first is that it’s hard to pressure him. Despite holding the ball for longer than the league-average time to throw, Mahomes was presured on 41.6% of his drop-backs, below the league-average rate (44.3%), according to NGS. He also faced quick pressures (2.5 seconds or less) on just 14.6% of his drop-backs, well under the NFL average (24.6%).

The second problem is that it’s even harder to sack him. Mahomes was taken down 27 times in 2023 — about once every 25 drop-backs (4%), one of the NFL’s best marks — and eluded countless others. According to Pro Football Focus, only 10.2% of his pressures were converted into sacks, the NFL’s No. 2 rate among qualifying quarterbacks, behind only the Bills’ Josh Allen. (Jackson, despite his considerable elusiveness, finished 17th at 18.6%.)

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“He just has great pocket presence,” Harbaugh said. “He sees the field, and he feels the pocket. He must have [an] antenna that he just senses all that, like your car has all those sensors that start beeping when guys get close. It must be that way for him, because he kind of senses the pressure, and he’s able to just move around and get away but keep his eyes downfield, slip out, all those kinds of things. That’s what he does. Everybody that watches football knows it. It’s one of his gifts, so we’re going to have to really study it, be good at defending it.”

The Ravens’ best help might’ve already arrived. Chiefs All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney, who allowed just two sacks and 33 pressures over his 740 pass-blocking snaps this season, according to PFF, reportedly suffered a pectoral strain against Buffalo that could sideline or significantly limit him Sunday. With the season-long struggles of left tackle Donovan Smith and the presnap difficulties posed by the Ravens’ crowd noise, Mahomes’ blind side could be vulnerable Sunday in his first game against a Macdonald-coordinated defense.

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If the Ravens can reliably get to Mahomes with a four-man pass rush, Kansas City’s passing game could be in trouble. When passing under pressure this season, according to NGS, Mahomes threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six), completed 48.1% of his passes and averaged 5.6 yards per attempt. He also ranked 22nd in overall success rate when pressured — 21 spots behind the first-place Jackson.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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