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How Josh Allen helped Chiefs prepare for ‘3D’ threat in Ravens' Lamar Jackson

Three plays into the Kansas City Chiefs’ divisional game at the Buffalo Bills, Josh Allen dropped back and then slipped up the pocket, evading the grasp of defensive linemen.

The Bills faced third-and-17, so their quarterback's scramble was risky: How much ground would he actually cover?

Chiefs defensive backs Trent McDuffie and Justin Reid began closing in before he could advance five yards past the line of scrimmage — far short of the 17 the Bills needed.

But Allen lateraled to running back Ty Johnson, who set up fourth-and-1. The next play, Allen blustered six yards up field for the first down. The Bills, who would end the drive with a field goal to score first, were in business.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s mind was churning.

“I was over there praying like heck he would make a mistake,” Spagnuolo told reporters this week. “The first third down still kills me. I don’t know how you defend that. [He] breaks out of there, everybody’s trying to go get the scrambling quarterback, but then he flicks it to the running back. And then they get the fourth-and-1.

“We certainly need to defend this quarterback better than we did last week to make this go the way we want.”

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In the AFC championship game this weekend against the Baltimore Ravens, the Chiefs won’t encounter an identical running style to Allen's. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is at least as lethal if not more. And the Chiefs’ margin for error against the Ravens will likely be slimmer than the missed-field-goal victory they scrapped together last Sunday. They’ll need to slow expected MVP Jackson earlier than they did Allen.

But as the Chiefs prepare for Jackson, they don’t need a totally new practice and game plan. Preparing for Allen last week set the wheels in motion.

Breaking down how Allen, Jackson threaten Chiefs

Jackson and Allen were arguably the two most dominant dual-threat quarterbacks this season.

Jackson regularly escaped upfield, leading all quarterbacks with 821 rushing yards while relying less heavily on his feet to reach the end zone. His five ground touchdowns tied for fourth among quarterbacks.

Allen, meanwhile, looked to his feet less often than Jackson — 6.5 attempts per game to Jackson’s 8.7 — but scored a whopping 15 rushing touchdowns, tied with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts for most among quarterbacks (Allen was less reliant than Hurts on the “Brotherly Shove”).

Their motion also wasn’t confined to registered rushes. Among quarterbacks who attempted at least 50 passes on the move, Jackson’s 113.1 passer rating ranked first, while Allen’s 96.2 ranked fourth, per Sports Info Solutions. Allen led the league with 10 touchdowns thrown on the move, and Jackson ranked third with seven.

The Chiefs are preparing for a second straight game against a “3D” quarterback.

“The challenge is the same: quarterbacks who can throw it, who can run it, who can scramble,” Spagnuolo said. “It’s like three dimensions instead of two. And some dimensions we would normally put in a game plan for that type of quarterback were in there last week [and] will carry over this week.

“So hopefully practicing two weeks in that [will help].”

Tackling angles must change from what slows Allen’s 237-pound, brute-strength running style to what will catch Jackson’s 215-pound frame that relies more on shiftiness and a combination of acceleration and deceleration that are so hard to fathom they almost look easy.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs during an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the Houston Texans on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)
The Chiefs will have their hands full in Sunday's AFC championship game trying to contain the elusive and creative Lamar Jackson. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But the Chiefs’ need to finish tackles against quarterbacks adept at forcing misses carries over. Their need to eye cautiously the open field and outside-the-pocket potential continues. They’ll need to “plaster,” or hold secondary coverages and line blocks beyond the 2.3-second mark that many NFL coaches consider the “first” play.

“You always have to be aware of Lamar running out of the B-gap,” Ravens nose tackle Michael Pierce said. “When guys tend to come open, that is when your secondary has to plaster. D-line has to make sure we are on our keys, make sure as much as we can to keep him in the pocket.

“We definitely have our work cut out for us every day in practice.”

But Spagnuolo sees a common thread in what ultimately worked as the Chiefs rallied to improve from their third-and-17 whiff early.

A week after the Bills exploded for plays of 52, 34, 29 and 20 yards, the Chiefs allowed no plays of 20-plus yards and only two of more than 15. The Ravens ripped off five plays beyond 15 yards last week in addition to three 15-yard plays, two of which were Jackson scrambles. Two of those plays — one Jackson run, one pass — were touchdowns in the divisional win over the Houston Texans.

“To me the best thing we did last week, if we could do this again, is limit the explosive passes,” Spagnuolo said. “I think that helped us. That makes them kind of matriculate down the field, and then hopefully we can make a play somewhere along the way.”

Will that work?

“If you put on the film, it’s like, how do you defend that,” Spagnuolo said. “There are some things [Jackson] does that nobody else does. The best thing we can do is try to contain him the best we can.”