Every year, the Super Bowl crowns the champion of the NFL — even if that team wasn’t the best throughout the entirety of the season. I’m confident that that will not be the case after Sunday’s game.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles were the class of each conference, both earning postseason bye weeks and taking advantage of it to play in Super Bowl LVII. The venue is State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. According to DraftKings SportsBook, the Eagles are 1.5-point favorites — and have been for over a week.
While each team’s resume says they deserve to be here, the steps they took were drastically different. Not only did Kansas City play a much harder schedule by the strength of the opponent, but they also played tighter games — including this postseason.
That can only make a difference if the Chiefs execute and play well enough to make it a tight game. I have five things to watch in an objectively awesome Super Bowl:
1. Ways to neutralize Eagles’ pass rush
We all know it by now: the Eagles led the NFL with 70 sacks, the third-most in an NFL regular season all-time. They have explosive players off the edge and on the interior, forcing extra attention no matter how well an offensive line is playing.
It puts the responsibility on the scheme to help them out. On obvious pass downs, that means running back Jerick McKinnon staying in to help and possibly a tight end chipping. On neutral downs, the Chiefs could go even heavier than usual with multiple-tight end formations; whether they’re traditionally in a three-point stance or bunched to one side, they become natural speed bumps to edge rushers.
From a play-calling aspect, quick-hitting plays to the sideline, like jet sweeps and receiver screens, will keep the Eagles’ outside linebackers honest. They’re also easy ways for wide receivers/playmakers Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore to get the ball in space.
Of course, the home-run swing of beating a penetrating pass rush is the delayed screen to a running back — something Reid and offensive line coach Andy Heck has perfected in Kansas City. You can expect a few of those; each saved up for the perfect time to call it.
2. Challenging Jalen Hurts
The Eagles’ offense is very good because the unit is filled with outstanding players — including quarterback Jalen Hurts.
They can be an elite unit, creating big plays through both the run and the pass game. However, the explosive pass game has not quite been the same since Hurts’ shoulder injury forced him to miss two of the last three regular-season games. In the playoffs, Hurts has completed only two of his seven attempts thrown 20 or yards further and not for scores, after a season where Hurts finished third in the NFL with 11 deep touchdowns.
From first down on, the Chiefs need to be sending either linebacker Willie Gay Jr., Nick Bolton or cornerback L’Jarius Sneed on blitzes; run blitzes can create tackles for loss, or turn into blowing up a play-action pass for even more yards lost. Either way, it forces obvious pass downs.
On those pass downs, the Chiefs need to constantly threaten blitz — even if they don’t send an off-ball defender a majority of the time. Even when they do, they can still rush just four by dropping defensive linemen like Mike Danna, Frank Clark or George Karlaftis into short zones — taking away the quick solutions Hurts may think he has against a traditional blitz.
3. Attention on Travis Kelce
With wide receiver Mecole Hardman on injured reserve and Juju Smith-Schuster and Kadarius Toney recovering from injuries, there is all the more reason for Philadelphia’s defense to sell out and disrupt the connection between quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce.
The question is this: do they have the personnel to do it? The Eagles’ coverage strengths are primarily on the perimeter in cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry. In the middle of the field, the Eagles’ linebackers leave much to be desired in terms of playmaking — and can be manipulated if left in basic zone coverage.
Philadelphia may man up Kelce with safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson — then use an additional defender to bracket him. Most of the time, that sort of strategy will leave only one safety deep — or force the rest of the defense into man coverage.
That can be advantageous for wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling as he tries to win deep, and may also be a positive factor for Toney creating separation.
4. Cornerback matchups
I am very intrigued by the individual matchups between the Chiefs’ cornerbacks and Eagles’ wide receivers. Philadelphia’s offensive attack will naturally leave the two positions in one-on-one matchups at times.
- Chiefs’ cornerback L’Jarius Sneed is the most physical of the group, having the build to match up with strong, but athletic wide receivers like A.J. Brown.
- At the same time, Sneed is an integral part of run defense — meaning he may be left in the slot. That would naturally have cornerback Jaylen Watson on the outside, using his length and size as a natural matchup for Brown.
- That leaves cornerback Trent McDuffie, whose elite coverage skills match up with a former first-round pick, wide receiver DeVonta Smith; Smith’s route running and ability to create separation will be a worthwhile challenge for McDuffie.
5. Creativity in running back usage
Another way to slow down the Eagles’ pass rush is to have an efficient, respectable run attack. That hasn’t necessarily happened in this postseason.
#Chiefs RBs have combined for 37 rushes this postseason. They've turned that into 141 yards total, 3.8 YPC— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 8, 2023
It's been even worse on 1st & 10, where they've averaged 2.8 YPC on 23 carries.
1 factor was JAX/CIN moving to 3-4 fronts, daring the banged up Mahomes to drop back pic.twitter.com/YcAsIxLjpI
One of the most significant factors in the low rushing average this postseason has been the defense’s willingness to play from heavier fronts, like having five defensive linemen on the ball rather than four. It makes it much harder for the Chiefs’ traditional zone runs to create running lanes.
It’s why Kansas City needs to mix in more gap-scheme runs to their play calling; it only called three among the 37 handoffs to running backs this postseason. Down-blocking plays like Power and Counter are more suited to open up a hole against heavier fronts.
Outside of the run game, the Chiefs just need to be more creative with their running backs as receivers — and that could mean a package of plays for running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in his first game activated from the Injured Reserve. Watch for Edwards-Helaire to be a pass-catching weapon in the red zone and other short-area situations.