Last year it was clear the Super Bowl matchup would hinge on one thing. The Bengals' porous offensive line's ability to slow down the Rams' lethal pass rush, led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller. It was a matchup of the team that allowed the most sacks versus the defense that amassed the most in 2021. It doesn't always work out like Super Bowl LVI, but this pivotal matchup turned out to be the deciding factor in the game, coming down to the very last play, when Donald slammed down Joe Burrow on a fourth-down incompletion.
Super Bowl LVII gives us several pivotal matchups to watch. Will it be a vintage 'Showtime' Mahomes escape, an Eagles strip-sack, Philadelphia's zone-read option or a Jalen Hurts deep ball that decides the game? Let's break it down:
Patrick Mahomes vs. Eagles pressure
This is the most pivotal matchup in the game in my opinion. Mahomes says his ankle will be in a better spot than the AFC Championship Game, but it definitely puts him at a disadvantage against an Eagles historic pass rush. The 49ers couldn't even escape the NFC Championship Game with a healthy quarterback after Brock Purdy (torn UCL) and Josh Johnson (concussion) both suffered injuries at the hands of Philadelphia's pass rush. San Francisco was under pressure on a staggering two-thirds of its dropbacks in the blowout loss.
We also know from the Chiefs' 31-9 Super Bowl LV loss to the Buccaneers how an effective pass rush can neutralize Mahomes and Kansas City's explosive offense. Mahomes set a Super Bowl record for times pressured in that matchup, while playing on an injured toe, and Tampa rarely had to blitz in the victory. Unlike that game, though, the Chiefs will have a healthy offensive line in Super Bowl LVII. Still, if Mahomes has had kryptonite in his Super Bowl career, it's been pressure. Mahomes has been pressured on nearly half his dropbacks, including Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers. His passer rating is 32.4 when pressured in the Super Bowl, and 109.8 in all other playoff rounds.
|Patrick Mahomes vs. Pressure in Playoff Career||Super Bowl||All Other Games|
The Eagles are probably more equipped to pressure Mahomes than any pass rush he's ever faced. They have 78 sacks this season, the third-most in a season in NFL history, including playoffs. Their pressure rate this postseason (54%) is by far the highest in the NFL. They have the deepest pass rush in football, so there will be no shortage of options to fluster Mahomes. The key number for the Eagles pass rush to hit is 42%. Mahomes is 5-6 in his career when pressured 42% of the time, and 69-13 when pressured less than that.
If Mahomes is going to neutralize Philadelphia's pass rush, it'll be with a quick-passing game predicated on motion to create space and allow the Chiefs playmakers to get YAC. I detailed on Tuesday how Mahomes' evolution this season will be put to the test on Sunday. He led the NFL in efficiency on quick passes and short throws this year, areas the Eagles didn't defend particularly well.
Travis Kelce vs. Eagles linebackers/defensive backs
Another big matchup on everyone's mind is Travis Kelce against the Eagles linebackers and defensive backs.
Kelce has only added to his legacy as one of the best tight ends in NFL history this postseason and has been on an absolute tear in the last few postseasons. He had at least 75 receiving yards in eight straight postseason games, the longest streak in NFL history. The only player in postseason history with more catches, yards and touchdowns is Jerry Rice! Needless to say, he'll draw significant attention from the Eagles' top-ranked pass defense, which has allowed the fifth-lowest passer rating and fifth-fewest touchdown catches to tight ends this season.
Philadelphia hasn't been exploited by tight ends this year, but also hasn't faced anything like Kelce, who is used in so many different ways by Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy to get open.
He nearly doubles up the next-closest tight end in receiving yards this year in the following categories
- Bunch formations: which creates openings based on chaos with multiple defenders following multiple receivers in a close area
- Split out wide: Kelce can isolate vs. single defender on outside
- In motion: Chiefs put Kelce in motion to create space and see if defense is in man or zone coverage
- Crossing routes: Kelce can use his speed to beat man coverage or spatial awareness to find room vs. zone
|Travis Kelce This Season Including Playoffs||Rec Yards||Next-Closest Tight End|
In bunch formation
Split out wide
On crossing routes
Two of these elements were there on a game-winning touchdown catch vs. Derwin James earlier this year. Kelce was split out wide and simply outraced James on a crossing route. If James can't slow him down in these situations, I'm not sure anyone can.
The Eagles play predominantly zone coverage so it won't be one defender charged to slow down Kelce. The likely defenders assigned to him – LB T.J. Edwards, S C.J. Gardner-Johnson and nickel corner Avonte Maddox – are all capable in coverage, but it'll take a village (and some double teams) to do what no team has done against Kelce in the postseason: slow him down.
Chances are you'll be watching one of the Kelce brothers no matter who has the ball. When the Eagles offense is on the field, the strength-versus-strength matchup in the trenches is center Jason Kelce against defensive tackle Chris Jones, who were both All-Pro selections this season. Both shared high praise for each on Super Bowl opening night.
Both players were more than deserving of their accolades this season. Jason Kelce has not allowed a sack since Week 6 of last season. He has the second-lowest pressure rate allowed (1.2%) in 2022. Jones ranks in the top three in QB pressures, hits and sacks this year and he was a game-wrecker against the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game, posting one of the best lines of any player all season: 10 pressures, five QB hits and 2.0 sacks.
If Jones isn't breaking through against Kelce, look for the Chiefs to line him up over the right tackle Lane Johnson, who also hasn't allowed a sack this season. Ten of Jones' 17.5 sacks this season (including playoffs) have come when lined up over the right tackle. He showed just how dangerous he could be lined up on the edge when he sacked Joe Burrow on the Bengals' final offensive play in the AFC title game.
Eagles zone read option vs. Chiefs run defense
The Kelce vs. Jones matchup will also carry over to the Eagles ground game against the Chiefs run defense, where Philadelphia has an edge. The Eagles have an NFL-record 39 touchdown runs this season, and led the NFL in EPA per rush.
Jalen Hurts is the engine that makes this run game so dangerous, as the Eagles use zone-read options more than any other team in the NFL this season (10 rushes per game). The threat of Hurts' running puts defenders in conflict, like on this Miles Sanders 13-yard touchdown run, where he went untouched, against the 49ers. Dre Greenlaw, Fred Warner and Nick Bosa all had eyes on Hurts long enough for a gaping hole to open for Sanders.
The Chiefs run defense isn't as much of a pushover as recent years, posting their best numbers in the Mahomes era, but they are still middle of the pack in the league. They have held their own against option plays though, ranking second-best in the NFL in success rate against those rushes.
Hurts deep ball vs. Chiefs secondary
The Eagles have hardly had to pass this postseason thanks to the success from their run game and defense, but that figures to change in the Super Bowl. One of the biggest leaps in Jalen Hurts' game this year has been his deep ball with the arrival of A.J. Brown. Hurts led the NFL with 10 touchdown passes thrown 25-plus yards downfield this season, with seven going to Brown. He can exploit a Chiefs defense that ranks bottom 10 in the league in completions, completion rate and touchdown passes allowed on those throws.
NFL Ranks Passing 25+ Yards Downfield This Season Including Playoffs
Hurts' deep ball has not been as sharp since suffering an injury to his throwing shoulder. He's 3 of 10 in three games since returning from injury, with five off-target throws. It'll be interesting to see if he can get the ball to Brown and DeVonta Smith against a Chiefs secondary that will start two rookies (Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson) and rotate another pair in (Joshua Williams and Bryan Cook).
The deep ball Hurts has connected with Brown on time-and-time again this year looked a lot like one Burrow connected with Higgins on for a touchdown with Watson defending last week.
Of course, Kansas City wouldn't be here if not for the play of its rookie defensive backs in the AFC Championship Game. Case in point: Cook later deflected a deep ball intended for Higgins, intercepted by Williams. The Chiefs have also defended deep balls much better during their seven-game win streak, allowing opponents to complete 5 of 17 passes while intercepting two balls.
And it all comes full circle, back to the premier matchup of Super Bowl LVII between Mahomes and the Eagles pass rush. Mahomes' chances of avoiding and handling pressure will hinge on the Chiefs containing the Eagles top pass rusher, Haason Reddick. Reddick's 19.5 sacks this season (including playoffs) lead the NFL and are the most by any player entering the Super Bowl since Donald in 2018 (20.5).
It'll be a long night for Mahomes if Reddick runs wild like he did against the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. He had two sacks, including a strip-sack in the first half, injuring Purdy's elbow in the process. He was blocked by a tight end on one of those sacks, and unblocked on another. Things won't come that easy in Super Bowl LVII, but Reddick does have a very favorable matchup against Chiefs right tackle Andrew Wylie, who ranks as a below-average pass blocker by PFF. The numbers would agree. He's allowed 10 sacks and 45 pressures this year, both bottom-10 ranks in the NFL, including playoffs.
Wylie's two toughest assignments this season were against Von Miller and Maxx Crosby, and he came out on the losing end of both, allowing 5.0 sacks in three games. Wylie also was exploited in Super Bowl LV against the Buccaneers, allowing a game-high nine pressures against Shaquil Barrett, Jason-Pierre Paul and Co.
For Wylie, this is a chance at redemption, but Reddick figures to do similar damage unless the Chiefs slow him down with double teams and chips running backs and tight ends.