The crown jewel of Week 5 will be Sunday’s game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
In the best matchup on one side of the ball we’ve seen this season, the NFL’s stingiest scoring D (14.0 points per game) will try to slow down Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid’s top-scoring unit (36.2). Mahomes has already torn up the Chargers’ and 49ers’ defenses — which branch from the same Cover-3-heavy tree as Jacksonville’s scheme — but the Jags offer more schematic complexity and an entirely different level of talent.
How Jalen Ramsey matches up to Tyreek Hill will steal headlines, but let’s start with what should be the most critical battleground: the trenches.
1. Showtime Mahomes meets Sacksonville
Between the Chiefs’ endless weapons and Reid’s scheming, it’s easy to overlook a front five that has been the NFL’s best in pass protection. Kansas City ranks second in sack rate (3.6 percent) and first in sacks allowed (five) after holding the Broncos’ fearsome rush to one sack on 47 dropbacks Monday night.
Mahomes’ escapability helps — he routinely slithered out of trouble in Denver — but scrambling QBs (Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers to name a few) usually inflate sack totals. That has yet to bear out in K.C., where the Chiefs’ front has been excellent at sustaining blocks initially and then fighting to the whistle once a rusher gains a step.
With former Browns first-round bust Cameron Erving emerging at left guard, there are no weak links in the bunch. Left tackle Eric Fisher and center Mitch Morse are steady veterans who almost never whiff blocks. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, M.D., is less consistent, but he works effectively in tandem with Mitchell Schwartz, who remains a premier right tackle.
That chemistry will be tested heavily on Sunday.
Rather than relying solely on the ample talent up front, defensive coordinator Todd Wash — who was the team’s D-line coach from 2013-15 — employs a litany of stunts and twists to further exacerbate opposing protections. Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson are superb at setting up such ploys with crushing power, and Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. have the lateral burst to loop and finish.
When rushing head on, Campbell’s power and hands make him a threat from any position along the line. Ngakoue looks even scarier in his third season after supplementing exceptional burst and bendability with an improved bull rush and hand-fighting techniques. Jackson, Fowler and Marcell Dareus are each dangerous enough to win on a given play as well.
Mahomes showed in Denver he can beat great coverage when the rush doesn’t get home. It’s up to the Jaguars’ front to make sure he doesn’t get many chances.
2. Hill presents unique challenge for Ramsey
No defense creates pressure on every play, of course, and you can be sure Mahomes won’t be too shy to test the game’s top cornerback. Hill doesn’t seem timid about the matchup, either.
“He think high of himself,” Hill told reporters of Ramsey. “He’s alright, I guess. I can’t wait to line up against him. I hope he presses me.”
Careful what you wish for: When Ramsey jams, receivers rarely escape his 33 3/8-inch tentacles cleanly. Then again, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Hill presents an awfully small target, and his world-class speed makes for a devastating punishment if the press whiffs.
But that won’t scare Ramsey, who is not only the NFL’s most gifted corner (and he knows it) but also one of its most technically sound. The third-year pro has the timing, feel and burst to squeeze deep routes into the sideline. Likewise, his lower-body fluidity is astonishing for his size, allowing him to pivot or break downhill at the top of routes with ease.
With how often the Chiefs move Hill around, he and Ramsey might meet on less than half of the game’s snaps, and Ramsey should win most battles at the line of scrimmage. But Hill could swing the matchup by getting loose for a home run, especially given Reid’s proclivity for exploiting Cover-3 and Cover-4 with downfield designs.
3. Josh Rosen needs someone, anyone, to co-star
You’ll probably read something Sunday evening or Monday morning declaring Rosen’s second start a “breakout” game, citing a tidy stat line. Don’t fall for the false narrative.
The most NFL-ready passer of the 2018 class — and the fourth QB taken because some coaches can’t stand a know-it-all — looked like exactly that against the Seahawks in his starting debut. But you’d never know it from the box score (15 of 27, 180 yards, one TD), in large part because he got little help.
Rosen’s second and fourth attempts clanged off the hands of Larry Fitzgerald (of all people!) and rookie Christian Kirk, respectively, voiding gains of 17 and 30 yards. His seventh attempt was a 27-yard touchdown — threaded through the needle of Tre Flowers and a shaded Earl Thomas — until replay showed Chad Williams got only one foot inbounds. All three were surgically accurate throws despite Seahawks pressure.
It didn’t end there. Rosen’s ninth throw went off (I kid you not) Fitzgerald’s hands, preventing an 11-yard TD, albeit against tight coverage. His 12th was dropped 51 yards downfield by wide-open speedster J.J. Nelson. Six plays later, an 18-yard would-be TD to Kirk was disrupted by defensive pass interference, setting up David Johnson’s 1-yard score. It’s not unrealistic to say Rosen could have been 21 of 28 for 354 yards and four scores.
Beyond missed opportunities, Rosen looked and played like a seasoned vet.
He audibled to a tunnel screen to beat an overload blitz, used a shoulder roll to fool Bobby Wagner and open a void in his zone, and routinely stepped up calmly through muddy pockets with his eyes downfield. He was hit seven times but sacked only once, and led drives at the end of both halves that ended Phil Dawson misses.
Rosen’s ability should shine through more easily in Santa Clara this week. Despite DeForest Buckner’s strong start, the 49ers rank 27th in sack rate, and coordinator Robert Saleh’s Cover-3-heavy defense has been regularly exploited by flood concepts and seam throws.
If Rosen can get more than a modicum of help from his teammates, the once moribund Cardinals offense should look much more lively.
4. These Rams are built to bully the Seahawks
Favored by seven on Sunday, L.A. is the largest favorite at CenturyLink Field since the Saints (favored by 10) lost the “Beastquake” game in January of 2011. As strange as it sounds, the spread should probably be larger.
Even overlooking Sean McVay’s scorching offense — which gets to pick on an Earl Thomas-less secondary — the Rams’ front seven vs. the Seahawks’ O-line is a more overwhelming mismatch than usual. Aaron Donald & Co. have gone through Russell Wilson’s protection like wet toilet paper for years now, but Ndamukong Suh’s arrival should make Seattle’s front five more like melting whipped cream.
The Rams’ modest total of eight sacks belies an NFL-high 41.4 percent pressure rate (per Pro Football Focus), and Suh is a major reason why. He gets there himself — two sacks (T-most on team), six QB hits (most) — but also pushes pockets with raw power, setting up teammates by keeping quarterbacks from stepping up. He hounds opposing centers but has also been shockingly dangerous on the edge, picking up both of his sacks from there, including one through a chip block vs. the Chargers.
Between Suh’s forays outside and flashes from intriguing fourth-round rookie John Franklin-Myers, concerns about L.A.’s edge pressure have been soothed. Inside, Donald and Suh can only be slowed, not stopped. Wilson has taken four sacks per game. You get the picture.
The Rams left Seattle last December with a 35-point win, and the rivals have gone in opposite directions since. It might get ugly again on Sunday.
5. Fan the Falcons aTakk Big Ben?
Stopping Ben Roethlisberger with yet another key defender out (Grady Jarrett, ankle) seems nearly impossible, but the job might fall to blossoming second-year defensive end Takk McKinley.
McKinley isn’t yet a down-to-down force, especially in the run game, but his explosiveness could produce the splash play Atlanta’s defense needs.
Unlike one-dimensional teammate Vic Beasley, McKinley’s game has enough power to complement his tremendous speed and burst. The 250-pounder used excellent leverage and drive on bull rushes for two of his three sacks against the Bengals last week, including one after lining up at 3-technique against guard Alex Redmond.
McKinley’s third takedown was initially ruled a strip-sack that he recovered for a critical turnover midway through the fourth quarter, before being overturned on review. In a likely shootout between two teams that can’t afford to lose, that’s exactly the sort of play Atlanta’s defense must make on Sunday to swing the outcome.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media