Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights the most imposing individuals in Super Bowl LVII.
January reiterated a self-evident truism about the NFL: The stars come out in the playoffs. The pressure of performing in the single-elimination tournament has once again brought out the best in the league's top players, with coaches leaning on these blue-chippers to carry the load with the season on the line.
And now, in the two weeks of build-up to Super Bowl LVII, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles are fully engrossed in creating game plans that will allow their respective stars to keep shining on the sport's biggest stage. On the flip side, both teams are also strategizing about how to limit the opposition's top talents, inherently forcing role players to take on more of the burden. With that in mind, I wanted to identify each team's individual standouts and provide some advance scouting on how to reduce their impact.
Below, I have ranked the top 10 game-planning nightmares in this year's showdown for the Lombardi Trophy. These are the players keeping opposing coaches up at night in the extended ramp-up to Super Bowl Sunday. How do you neutralize these game breakers and game wreckers? I put on my coaching hat, popped on the recent film and concocted my best mitigation ideas.
I'm not a doctor, and I'm not going to speculate on the current state of Mahomes' right ankle -- or what his health percentage could be by kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday.
Here's what I do know: Patrick Mahomes is the biggest nightmare to game plan against in the NFL today. Why? Well ...
The MVP front-runner is a unicorn at the position as an elite thrower with exceptional improvisational skills. Mahomes dazzles as a gunslinger from inside or outside of the pocket, displaying pinpoint accuracy on off-platform throws while releasing the ball from various arm angles.
As an elusive playmaker with A+ arm talent, the veteran is nearly impossible to defend with conventional tactics. Opponents must find a way to keep Mahomes confined to the pocket with a disciplined pass rush that requires defenders to stay on their tracks while avoiding running past the depth of the quarterback's drop. If Jonathan Gannon's defense can clog Mahomes' escape lanes while dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage, the five-star passer will be forced to play a dink-and-dunk game that will challenge his patience as a playmaker. Given how turnovers often coincide with poor decisions and uncertainty, Philadelphia needs to win with four and blanket Kansas City's aerial attack with seven defenders in coverage.
The future Hall of Famer is an unstoppable force on the perimeter as a crafty route runner in a power forward's body. Kelce whips opponents with subtle moves that enable him to create space utilizing power and finesse. In addition, the perennial Pro Bowler has a knack for finding open windows when Mahomes flees the pocket on improvisational plays.
The impact of Kelce's playmaking prowess, particularly in the red zone, should force the Eagles to utilize double coverage and bracket tactics designed to erase him from the progression. Although the Chiefs will move No. 87 around the formation or slip him out after he chips a pass rusher, every defender on the field must be privy to his whereabouts. As the No. 1 option in Kansas City's passing game, Kelce is the focal point of the game plan, and Philadelphia must do whatever it takes to limit the damage he can cause.
The rugged playmaker poses quite the challenge to defensive coordinators as a scoring threat with his arm and legs. Hurts accounted for 35 total touchdowns (22 passing, 13 rushing) during the regular season, adding another four scores (two passing, two rushing) in the playoffs. Moreover, the third-year pro is the centerpiece of an offense that utilizes various college-style option concepts, with the signal-caller executing RPOs and designed quarterback runs.
The dilemma created by Hurts' talents forces defensive coordinators to make hard decisions on whether to focus extensively on stopping the Eagles' rushing attack or their big-play passing game. In addition, coaches must determine whether to play man-to-man or zone coverage in order to best contain a quarterback who has repeatedly shown the ability to win games in different ways.
To slow down Hurts in Super Bowl LVII, the Chiefs need to drop an additional defender into the box with man coverage on the perimeter. Though manning up could expose K.C.'s young defensive backs on the island, Steve Spagnuolo must roll the dice to keep Philly from bludgeoning his defensive front with an assortment of power runs between the tackles.
As an all-star defender with super-sized physical dimensions (6-foot-6, 310 pounds), Jones is nearly unstoppable at the line of scrimmage -- and he seems to turn it up in key moments. The veteran routinely overwhelms opponents from his interior spot, displaying outstanding strength, power and explosion as a destructive force at the point of attack.
With 15.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery during the regular season, Jones commands special attention whenever he steps onto the field. The Eagles need to seriously respect his game-wrecking potential when crafting the plan to neutralize the first-team All-Pro DT at the line of scrimmage. If Jones is aligned on the interior, Eagles C Jason Kelce can work in unison with the offensive guard opposite Jones to keep four hands on him at all times. If the Chiefs kick Jones outside to rush off the edge, Philadelphia could utilize the tight end or running back to chip the hulking pass rusher in order to prevent an unobstructed run to the quarterback.
The ultra-quick pass rusher has amassed 39.5 sacks over the past three regular seasons as a "DPR" (designated pass rusher) operating in attack mode. Reddick's speed, quickness and burst terrorize blockers tasked with slowing him down from his wide-9 alignment. With the speedster incorporating a few counter moves to complement his upfield rushes, Reddick has become a handful in one-on-one matchups.
The Chiefs must prepare to help on the edges with Travis Kelce or a running back, forcing Reddick to take a longer route to the quarterback. Although the extra blocker does not guarantee Mahomes a clean pocket, a little extra time could enable the QB to work his magic from the pocket.
The big-bodied interior rusher quietly posted double-digit sacks this season for the first time in his underappreciated career, utilizing superior strength and power to bully blockers at the line of scrimmage. Hargrave's inside penetration balances out a pass rush that features a pair of speed rushers (Reddick and Josh Sweat) who command extra attention on the edges.
It is impossible to double team all of the pass-rushing threats Philadelphia positions on the front line, which helps explain why the Eagles had 15 more sacks than any other team during the regular season. Kansas City must offset this ferocious pass rush by utilizing a quick-rhythm passing game. In addition, the offensive line can deploy some quick-set tactics (O-linemen attack defenders quickly to neutralize the pass rush) to squash the Eagles' pass rush before it gets started.
On passing downs, K.C. must utilize various play-calling tactics and pass-protection adjustments to keep Hargrave and Co. off balance.
The marquee trade acquisition has played up to the standard as dominant WR1 on the perimeter. Brown amassed the fourth-most receiving yards (1,496) during the regular season, displaying outstanding physicality and toughness with the ball in his hands. Piling up 579 yards after the catch, per Next Gen Stats, the Eagles' top playmaker is a chain-mover with big-play potential in space.
As the Chiefs build their defensive plan with Brown in mind, the secondary must focus on limiting his space after the catch to prevent short passes from turning into long gains. With Kansas City likely opting to play more man-to-man to eliminate the quick passes and RPOs, the unit needs to tackle well to keep Brown from having a big day as Hurts' No. 1 target.
The fifth-year pro is the perfect complement to Reddick as a high-energy pass rusher with a nonstop motor and an explosive first step. Sweat outworks and outmaneuvers blockers to knock quarterbacks around in the pocket. As opponents focus their sights on slowing down Reddick and Hargrave, Philly's back-side rusher wreaks havoc on foes lacking the depth and talent to handle a front loaded with high-end rushers.
The Chiefs must mix up their pass-protection tactics to keep Sweat from settling into a winning plan. If he is uncertain about how Kansas City will protect the edges, the lively rusher could play slower due to hesitancy at the snap.
The third-down back is an underrated weapon in Andy Reid's offense as a designated pass catcher out of the backfield. McKinnon is slippery on screens and swings, with enough pitter-pat and stop-start quickness to elude defenders in space. With defenses attempting to throw a blanket over Kelce in the red zone, the pass-catching specialist has become a prolific point scorer for the Chiefs inside the 20-yard line, posting an RB-best nine touchdown grabs in the regular season.
Given McKinnon's scoring prowess in the red zone, the Eagles could utilize some double-double tactics with the running back and tight end bracketed by second-level defenders to force Kansas City to rely on the "others" (like Marquez Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Skyy Moore) to make plays in crucial situations.
The Eagles' co-WR1 has emerged as a big-play specialist on the outside in his sophomore campaign. Smith fell just shy of 1,200 receiving yards in the regular season, flashing the speed and quickness to blow past defenders on vertical routes. With the Eagles looking to push the ball down the field against single-high looks designed to slow down the running game, Smith is a chunk gain waiting to happen whenever he faces one-on-one coverage on the outside.
Kansas City will need to pay attention to Smith on early downs to prevent the slender speedster from chalking up an explosive play over the top. Although the safety cannot lean exclusively to Smith's side, due to Brown's presence on the field, the Chiefs must be aware of the threat of the deep ball to avoid giving up easy scores. Whether the cornerbacks play with a bigger cushion when in off coverage or utilize aggressive bump-and-run techniques at the line of scrimmage, K.C. must eliminate the explosives to Smith in order to keep Philly in check.