If the Kansas City Chiefs want to win their second straight Lombardi Trophy by beating the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas, shutting down the 49ers’ versatile running back Christian McCaffrey is job No. 1.
“He can run that football,” declared Kansas City linebacker Willie Gay Jr. while speaking to reporters on Wednesday. “He can catch it out [of] the backfield as well. So when you get guys like that, you’ve got to stop him through the air and on the ground — and he’s a big challenge.“
McCaffrey amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2023 — but led the league with 1,459 yards on the ground.
“He’s the weapon over there,” said Gay. “So if you can slow him down, that definitely limits the offense.”
That, however, is easier said than done. The heavy lifting will come from Gay and his second-level teammates, who will have to work together to get the job done.
“You just got to know what the guy in front of you is doing,” explained Gay. “If he has this B-gap, make sure when the swapper comes, I’m swapping back to this gap — or downhill in the A-gap.”
It’s about knowing your job so well that you can move past being a reactionary player.
“You’ve just got to almost anticipate things happening,” said Gay. “When you can do that — and like I said, anticipate it — you play a lot faster. When you’ve seen plays — just different runs and things of that nature — you’re gone before the ball [is] even snapped, because you know what’s going on and you know your assignment.”
But that’s not the only thing linebackers will have to be ready to do against the San Francisco running game.
“You’ve got to be able to come downhill and get off blocks,” added Gay. “You know, you’ve got big 300-pounders trying to stop you from getting to the ball. And that’s not easy at all. Every play is literally a dogfight.”
But even if the Chiefs’ second level can successfully limit the 49ers’ rushing attack, Gay also said they’ll still have to deal with covering guys out of the backfield — some of whom possess 4.3 and 4.4 speed.
“You have to be an athlete,” he said simply.
Now in his fourth season, Gay is set to be a free agent in 2024 — and with teammates like cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and defensive tackle Chris Jones also coming to the end of their Kansas City contracts, there is no guarantee the Chiefs will be able to retain Gay.
Still, Gay believes he is blessed to be in Kansas City — and preparing to play in his third Super Bowl.
“You hate to think of it this way,” he reflected, “but I might not ever make it this far again, you know? So I’m going to cherish it.”