The most significant on-field storyline between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII is rightfully at the line of scrimmage, in the trenches. The Chiefs’ offensive line will have their hands full with a talented, productive Philadelphia defensive front — but on the flip side, Kansas City’s pass rush will need to win against the stout Eagles’ pass protection and run blocking.
However, that’s just the surface of each side of the matchup. Both offenses have the coaching to work around pressure and get the ball to playmakers in space regardless. It will put heightened responsibility on each team’s linebackers and defensive backs in coverage — but in different ways.
I looked at that aspect of the game for both teams:
Chiefs’ defensive back end
When the Eagles drop back to pass, their style of offense will naturally give them an advantage on neutral downs. Eagles’ quarterback Jalen Hurts is a threat in the designed run game, which typically forces the defense to bring more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage — trying to overcome the numbers advantage the offense has when Hurts is the ball carrier.
A.J. Brown finished the 2022 regular season w/ the 4th most receiving yards on deep passes among all NFL pass catchers (PFF). 2nd in Deep TDs (7)— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 9, 2023
A lot of that is the Eagles' QB Run Game naturally forcing an extra defender up in the box, giving PHI favorable pass looks vs 1-high pic.twitter.com/uSp5dBvkNf
It has allowed the Eagles’ big offseason addition to flourish: wide receiver A.J. Brown. By seeing many looks with only one deep safety, he gets one-on-one opportunities with cornerbacks often — and his combination of size and athleticism give him a leg up in the majority of those scenarios.
In the regular season, Brown had the fourth-most receiving yards on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield in the NFL; he also had the second-most touchdowns (7) in that scenario. He leads the team in targets; he wins with more than just the deep ball — but it’s where Brown’s skillset is most dangerous.
A.J. Brown's size+athleticism combo makes sense for Sneed to primarily be on, we've seen that against bigger WRs like Metcalf— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 9, 2023
But DeVonta Smith's route running, ability to create separation may need mostly McDuffie to try & stick w/ him, especially after the play breaks down pic.twitter.com/L3O4X8Xee2
The reason defenses can’t sell out and blanket Brown is because the Eagles’ second leader in targets is wide receiver DeVonta Smith, someone that wins more with decisive route running and creating separation than Brown. Smith actually finished with more catches than Brown in the regular season but had 300 fewer yards.
The primary receiving duo will force the Chiefs to think through their matchups in the secondary. At times this season, cornerback L’Jarius Sneed has been assigned specifically to a bigger wide receiver (like A.J. Brown), but Sneed’s role as the slot defender — especially against a dynamic rushing attack — may force the Chiefs to trust rookie cornerback Jaylen Watson to match up on the outside.
As for Smith, I believe this is a great — but fitting — challenge for Chiefs’ rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie. He’ll give Kansas City the best shot of all their cornerbacks at sticking with Smith throughout the entirety of his route.
Since his return in Wk16, TE Dallas Goedert has been a constant presence in the pass game— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 9, 2023
He'll get a lot of simple, quick passes -- but on top of moving well in the open field, he can be handful to bring down. Safeties / LBs will have to bring it on tackle attempts pic.twitter.com/iHFCplBowx
When those two wide receivers aren’t catching a pass, the ball is usually being thrown to tight end Dallas Goedert. The former second-round pick takes advantage of the underneath space that gets opened up by Brown and Smith, using his smooth movement in the open field — but also utilizing his size and being a handful to bring down on any given tackle attempt.
Chiefs’ linebackers and safeties will have to be aggressive, strong when rallying to Goedert on shorter passes.
Eagles’ defensive back end
Philadelphia’s pass rush is absolutely the biggest factor in this matchup; Caleb James broke down how they’ll attack the Chiefs’ pass protection.
Behind them, Eagles’ off-ball defenders have benefitted by taking advantage of hurried throws and scrambling quarterbacks — but when the pass rush is slowed down for a snap, opposing offenses have found success over the middle.
When Philly's pass rush doesn't completely dominate a snap, opponents have found success throwing over the middle to TEs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 9, 2023
Eagles LBs get spread out let pre-snap motions manipulate them too much at times, something KC will work a ton of to give Kelce space pic.twitter.com/bBrwyvNc9N
In Week 16, the Dallas Cowboys scored 40 points on the Eagles’ defense — one of the few games the unit has looked exploitable in. In that game, the Cowboys found success targeting tight end Dalton Schultz over the middle for a few big gains, taking advantage of linebackers that seem to lack range and instincts in coverage. The linebackers were especially moved off their spot when they had to think through pre-snap motion.
The Chiefs will run as much pre-snap motion as any offense in the league, looking to do exactly what Dallas (and the Green Bay Packers) do in the above clips: open up the middle of the field. For Kansas City, that plays into the strengths of their best pass catcher: tight end Travis Kelce.
The Cowboys attacked Philly's LBs with TEs and passes to RB constantly. Tony Pollard racked up 61 yards on 6 catches— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 9, 2023
Screens, simple passes to the flat, angle routes, they were all finding success this game pic.twitter.com/35PkJdH7T1
However, it wasn’t just the tight ends that took advantage of the open middle; running back Tony Pollard was constantly used on screens, angle routes, or simply dump-offs to the flat. The Eagles’ tendency to play softer zones will allow those check-down opportunities — but when they do man up their linebackers, Chiefs’ running backs like Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire should have the upper hand in creating separation and winning their routes.
The bottom line
While the trenches are rightfully the talk of the Super Bowl, each team’s defensive backfield will be important in cleaning up the remnants of what each pass rush forces the offense into.
For the Chiefs, that means trusting rookie cornerbacks against a very good group of pass catchers — who get even more favorable looks because defenses have to account for the quarterback-run game. For the Eagles, it means relying on linebackers and safeties to cover up the middle of the field and take away easy completions to tight ends and running backs.