OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ahead of the Ravens and Chiefs game this Sunday, NBC Sports Washington reached out to Sam Mellinger, a columnist for The Kansas City Star.
Here’s what Mellinger and the Chiefs are saying about this week’s game between two 2-0 opponents in a rematch of last year’s thrilling 27-24 overtime finish.
Note: Mellinger’s answers were over email.
Q: The Ravens have mentioned that last year's wild overtime finish has been somewhat of a learning experience for them. Have the Chiefs said the same? Or is there no carryover from year-to-year?
A: That game has been talked about a lot here. It's still Patrick Mahomes' only game under 26 points in regulation. There are a dozen different moments that had to go the Chiefs' way to win that one, even beyond the 4th and 9 that everyone talks about. The carryover is probably less of a thing for the defense than offense, just because that side of the ball has been almost completely overhauled.
Q: Lamar Jackson has been one of the league's most impressive quarterbacks so far this season — what have the Chiefs and their coaches said about his progression from year 1 to year 2?
A: The Chiefs are always complimentary of their opponents. They could play the Dolphins this year and Andy Reid would talk about being excited for the challenge of playing a good football team with good players and good coaches. That's just how they go. But we all have b.s. detecters, right? And the talk is more sincere this week. Jackson and the Ravens do a lot of things well that match up against what the Chiefs don't do well. Jackson is a problem for everyone, but particularly for the Chiefs. Their improved speed at linebacker and rookie safety Juan Thornhill will be especially tested this weekend.
Q: There's been a lot made of Mahomes' progression in his second year, has that been discussed by the Chiefs in what to expect from Jackson this week?
A: The connection with Mahomes hasn't come up specifically, unless I've missed something, but yeah they've talked about Jackson looking more comfortable and advanced this year than last, which I believe was just his fourth start.
Q: In terms of defending the run and pass from Jackson, what have the Chiefs stressed as difficulties in defending both? What are the keys to that?
A: They don't reveal a lot beyond cliches, but basically the Chiefs are going to need to set the edge, stay disciplined, and perhaps even put one of their faster linebackers or even a safety as a spy against Jackson. The Chiefs have been pretty terrible defending the run for some time now. The Ravens could have a lot of success there.
Q: The Ravens have one of the better secondaries in the NFL, how do you see the matchup between all of the Chiefs weapons and the Ravens secondary playing out?
A: The Chiefs have enough weapons and the right quarterback and a scheme that once allowed Alex Smith to lead the league in passer rating, so the stock answer is that this offense is too much of a problem for any secondary. But the answer this week is a little different, I think, because the Chiefs won't have Tyreek Hill and the Ravens signed Earl Thomas. That matters. A lot. Thomas is a Hall of Famer still relatively close to his peak, and his ability as a sort of center fielder — both his range and mind — could cut the top off some of what the Chiefs want to do. The combination of Mahomes' arm strength and Hill's speed often stretches defenses past the point of recognition, but that part of the game will be in closer balance now.
Q: What's a particular matchup (position or individual) that you're interested in seeing on Sunday?
A: I think we all tend to think of these things through the lens of the team we follow the closest, but the two that come first to mind are Cam Irving and Juan Thornhill. Irving will start at left tackle for the injured Eric Fisher. Irving is a representative lineman — they're not pushing a practice squad guy out there — but he got trucked in the run game last week against the Raiders. The Ravens are tough and physical and disguise their blitzes really well, so that could be a particular problem for a Chiefs team without their starting left tackle and (likely) at least one of their two top running backs.
Thornhill is sort of the Chiefs' version of what we were just talking about with Earl Thomas. Thornhill is obviously not in Thomas' class, I'm not saying that, but he's a similar profile: center fielder type of a safety with length and athleticism. Hollywood Brown with more comfort from Jackson in the pass game will stretch the field more than the last time these teams played. The Chiefs' corners are inconsistent, and can be had. Thornhill will be relied upon.
Q: If you had to put a prediction on the game, what would that be?
A: I did picks before the season, and this is one of three games I had the Chiefs losing. I'll stick with that. The Ravens look like the best team the Chiefs will play this season other than the Patriots, and like I mentioned before, a lot of the things they do well are particular problems for the Chiefs. I know the line is close to a touchdown, and I guess I can understand why, but I'm expecting this to be a really hard game for the Chiefs. The Ravens beat Mahomes up last year more than anyone else has been able to, and now the Chiefs are down a lineman and short on running backs for pass protection. No outcome would be surprising other than a blowout either way, but I think the Ravens can get this one.