Entering Super Bowl LVII, all the talk nationally was about how the Philadelphia Eagles' bruising rushing attack would control the tempo of the football game. Doubters of the Kansas City Chiefs often cited how the defensive line and linebackers would not be up to the physical challenge Philadelphia presents.
And boy, were those doubters wrong. Sure, the defensive coaching staff led by Steve Spagnuolo put together a tremendous game plan for the Eagles' run game that limited their running backs to just 45 rushing yards total. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts added 70 rush yards of his own, but this still left Philadelphia with just 115 total rushing yards — well below their season average of 147.6 yards per game.
At the linebacker position, Nick Bolton had an MVP-worthy performance for Kansas City, while Willie Gay Jr. and Leo Chenal also contributed at critical moments.
Let's go to the film to see how these players helped the Chiefs get their third Lombardi Trophy.
Nick Bolton has developed a reputation as a downhill linebacker who makes his most significant plays within the tackle box. As it turned out, in 2022, he was at his best against offenses that try to win on the edges with speed.
Bolton takes tremendous angles to the football, possesses very good foot speed, and is as sure of a tackler as there is in the NFL right now. He diagnoses plays that flow from sideline to sideline very quickly and loves to avoid blocks rather than fight through them.
Bolton at his very best pic.twitter.com/mF5Z4PUmDl— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
Nick Bolton is officially an 'under the lights' guy. Was feeling himself and rightfully so. pic.twitter.com/aW1O3KFUeA— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
As previously mentioned, Spagnuolo and his staff did some things within their game plan to better prepare the defensive front to handle what the Eagles' elite offensive line presented. Aligning the defensive line in non-traditional ways was part of that. Doing things that helped the defensive line execute and play fast also put linebackers like Bolton in a spot to play freely.
The ability to make tackles can be underrated at times by analysts, but it certainly shouldn't be. At the core of football, it's still a game of blocking and tackling. Bolton provides a consistent presence as someone who very rarely allows opposing ball carriers to get more yardage than they should. 3-to-5-yard gains remain just that rather than a missed tackle turning it into a 10-plus yard explosive gain.
This tight 4-man front was a cool wrinkle from Spags; gives Bolton a clean square 1-v-1 and I'm taking him there every time. pic.twitter.com/xKQ5obAM9e— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
The 3rd-and-11 that put KC in position to take over the game -- 54 doesn't try to make the highlight tape but just stays under control and does the job that's asked pic.twitter.com/ZrZGuhoTPr— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
The cherry on top of Bolton's game is his playmaking capabilities; he's shown it all year. In gotta-have-it moments, he finds ways to get his hands on the football, which can be attributed to his pre-game study habits, instincts and hustle to be around where the ball ends up so often.
He does so much for the defense that doesn't show up on the screen — helping his teammates align in the proper positions and execute the play calls from Spagnuolo every single play. It's an added stress that not every player would handle as seemingly tremendous as Bolton does.
Bolton TD - 3rd and 5 QB Draw; Clark/Danna/Jones walling Hurts off makes this possible and then Bolton's body control and playmaking does the rest. pic.twitter.com/utK6Lm8Ufh— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
Bolton with the green dog here - sees his man is staying in to block and converts to blitz; his speed ensures this isn't a layup for Hurts pic.twitter.com/NpeEDEO92w— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
Then there's Gay — the perfect complement to Bolton's skill set on the field. Next to Bolton, Gay is set up to be his best self and play with near-reckless abandon. What Gay lacks in feel and pre-snap understanding at times, he more than makes up for with elite athleticism and top-notch physical power.
In Super Bowl LVII alone, there were a number of reps where Gay would attack full steam toward an Eagles blocker or ball carrier. If he didn't make the play himself, he assisted Bolton or another Chiefs defender in getting the job done by being able to make tackles unblocked.
Decisive Willie is the best Willie pic.twitter.com/cMLhSj6VjA— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
Some fans remain frustrated with Gay’s role overall, and that's somewhat understandable, but Sunday was a major boost for his status that should propel him toward a career year in 2023 with good health willing.
Lastly, there's the 2022 third-round draft pick, Chenal. His role remained relatively small all season as just a base formation player asked to perform mostly on special teams or when the Chiefs faced heavy, run-dominant offensive personnel. This meant Chenal's number would be called much greater in the Super Bowl when he played 24% of the defensive snaps. He didn't disappoint.
Chenal has the potential to become an outstanding player in a multitude of ways — he's fearless and a complete freak of an athlete. By the raw testing numbers, he's probably the most athletic and strongest linebacker on the team, with a couple of other dynamite linebackers already, as previously discussed.
On Sunday, playing in the base 4-3 defensive fronts, they needed Chenal to do one thing in particular. Be more aggressive and physical at the point of attack. Fight opposing offensive linemen and tight ends like his life depended on it — and that's what Chenal did because he has dating back to his college days. The scouting report proved itself valid on that one.
The outsiders often view the Chiefs as a soft, finesse-type team because of Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and their historically elite passing offense. Guys like Chenal ensure that doesn't hold true whenever Kansas City has to step up and out-hit the opponent.
High, high level play from Chenal. Cuts the TE off + sheds and tackles. pic.twitter.com/gTDbhVYhKc— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) February 16, 2023
This trio of heat-seeking missiles embodies the great team building done by Chiefs general manager Brett Veach in the past several years. All three were drafted in the past three years — one each April — and all were picked in either the second or third rounds, respectively.
It's no small investment, but it came with no small reward. The ferocity and speed with which they play prepared this team to meet the challenge of one of the most extraordinary rushing attacks the NFL has seen in recent memory.
The bottom line
Three of the Chiefs' five leading tacklers Sunday night were these linebackers. While that might not sound terribly surprising, it's a tribute to how good of a job they did not allow numerous ball carriers to get further downfield into the defensive secondary.
What's great about all this following the Super Bowl victory, as is the case for so many other key players on the Chiefs roster — is that these guys are only going to get better. Bolton and Chenal are only 22 years old. Gay is the elder statesman at just 25. None of these three are in their prime yet, and it could be argued that only Gay is close.
That'll be the storyline moving into Kansas City's title defense in 2023 — a defensive unit that appears on its way to getting better and better as very young players gather more experience in the system. Regardless of how that goes, another championship is in the bag, thanks partly to some dynamic, fierce linebackers.