Next Gen Stats research & analytics maven Mike Band crunches the numbers on seven crucial matchups for Super Bowl LVII. Who holds the advantage: the Kansas City Chiefs or Philadelphia Eagles? Check out the answers below.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Patrick Mahomes under pressure vs. Eagles' pass rush
The AP NFL Most Valuable Player award confirmed what fans already knew: Patrick Mahomes is the NFL's top quarterback, renowned for his wizardry in the pocket and rare arm talent. A high ankle sprain sustained in the Divisional Round against the Jaguars, however, could impact his mobility come Super Bowl Sunday, limiting the number of plays Andy Reid feels confident calling.
Will the Eagles' top-ranked pass rush take advantage?
The numbers suggest so. The unit's ability to create pressure has been nothing short of supreme for most of the season. On Sunday, the Eagles will trot out the NFL's top pass rush by team pressure rate -- 34.8 percent when factoring in the playoffs -- highlighted by eight straight games in which the unit exceeded 34 percent, the longest such streak in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). Their pass-rushing dominance is only magnified by the unit's ability to get to the quarterback without sacrificing defenders in coverage, evidenced by their 51 sacks recorded on non-blitzes during the regular season, eight more than any other unit in the past seven seasons.
The defense's elite numbers are a product of the personnel along the defensive front. Not only is the Eagles' defensive front deep -- to keep pass rushers fresh late in games -- it could be the most talented league-wide. The Eagles were the only unit to feature five players with at least 35 pressures against opposing quarterbacks during the regular season: Haason Reddick (62), Javon Hargrave (53), Josh Sweat (47), Brandon Graham (41) and Fletcher Cox (36).
In the Chiefs' last Super Bowl appearance, a loss to the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV, it was an elite pass rush that overwhelmed Mahomes' pass protection. The quarterback ran for his life while under constant duress, compiling nearly 500 scramble yards on his dropbacks. The blueprint that night from then-Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was not his typical blitz-heavy scheme, but rather, two-deep safeties and pressure packages without blitzing. In fact, it was the lowest blitz rate by a Bowles-led unit on record at the time. Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon could replicate Bowles' Super Bowl-winning game plan without having to change Philly's defensive philosophy: getting to the quarterback with a four-man rush.
This is a matchup of strengths. Any limitation to Mahomes' mobility, however, and the advantage falls in favor of the defense.
Chiefs' methodical passing game vs. Eagles' bend-but-don't-break defense
Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy will almost certainly rely on the quick passing game as their primary offensive strategy come Super Bowl Sunday. Even if Mahomes hadn't injured his ankle last month, the Eagles' talented defensive front still likely would have forced Reid and Bieniemy to adopt a similar game plan. No matter, the quick game has been the offense's strength all season long. Mahomes was far and away the standard on quick passes in 2022, generating +94.6 EPA when getting rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds. No other quarterback eclipsed +70 EPA on those passes.
After the Chiefs' Super Bowl LV loss, Mahomes made a concerted effort to take what the defense gives him and play more in structure. The results have been fruitful. He has scaled back his big-game hunting, as evidenced by his decreasing deep passing rate, and is instead breaking NGS season records, including throwing 31 touchdown passes when targeting receivers under 10 air yards in 2022, 12 more than the next-closest quarterback this season.
The main benefactor of this change has been Mahomes' most-trusted target: Travis Kelce. The eight-time Pro Bowler wins underneath and consistently creates positive plays with the ball in his hands. He led all tight ends in yards after catch (678) and yards after catch over expected (+155) during the regular season, finding soft spots against zone coverage between the 20-yard lines and beating man coverage in the red zone. And he does it while playing part-time wide receiver: This season, Kelce has lined up in the slot or out wide on 63 percent of his snaps, the fourth-highest rate of any tight end with at least 300 snaps.
The Eagles tend to play off coverage, which serves them well downfield but leaves them vulnerable underneath. Their defensive success rate drops from 57.1 percent over 10 air yards (fifth in the NFL) to 51.8 percent on passes under 10 air yards (15th). The Eagles have not allowed a deep completion (20-plus air yards) in their two playoff games.
Keeping Mahomes on script may prove beneficial for Kansas City come Sunday. The Chiefs have lost five of eight games in Mahomes' career when he has averaged 8.5-plus scramble yards per dropback. However, the Chiefs have won all 24 games in Mahomes' career when he has averaged less than 6 scramble yards per dropback.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Jalen Hurts vs. Chiefs' aggressive defense
Finishing second place in the MVP voting, Jalen Hurts had a career year in 2022, showing continued signs of development, especially in the dropback passing game. Despite the improvement, defenses have still been able to frustrate him with blitzes. Hurts recorded the sixth-lowest success rate against the blitz (39.2 percent) this season (including playoffs). Defenses have exploited this area, blitzing him at the fourth-highest rate of any quarterback (33.9%).
The third-year pro reverts back to some of his bad habits when defenses send extra pass rushers, holding the ball longer and bailing from the pocket. He was sacked 14 times outside the tackle box when blitzed this season (second-most in NFL) and completed just seven of 26 pass attempts for 73 yards when leaving the tackle box.
While Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has dialed back his blitzing this season, he still calls Cover 0 at one of the highest rates in the NFL. The Chiefs were effective on blitzes this season with the fifth-largest increase in pressure rate when sending at least five pass rushers (+12.7 percent). On Sunday, Spagnuolo could zero in on the specific types of blitzes that have given Hurts happy feet in 2022. Hurts left the tackle box at twice the rate against zone blitzes (31.7%) compared to man blitzes (15.9%).
Eagles' talented receiving corps vs. Chiefs' young cornerbacks
The Chiefs' young secondary has held up impressively well in this Super Bowl run. Rookies have accounted for 37.6 percent of defensive snaps in Kansas City's secondary this season (including the playoffs), the second-highest rate in the NFL. L'Jarius Sneed exited the AFC Championship Game after just four snaps, leaving the Chiefs with an all-rookie cornerback group of first-round pick Trent McDuffie, seventh-rounder Jaylen Watson and fourth-rounder Joshua Williams. The trio held their own in matchups against the Bengals' spectacular receiving corps of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The Chiefs get Sneed, a third-year corner, back for Super Sunday, as he cleared concussion protocol earlier this week.
The Chiefs' secondary has another big test Sunday when it faces another elite set of weapons. The trio of A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert have combined for +634 receiving yards over expected this season (including the playoffs), the most in the NFL by any current teammate trio. Contrasting styles make for great competition, and Brown's physicality and catching ability could overwhelm the Chiefs' corners.
The Chiefs have tasked their young cornerback group with pressing other big-bodied wide receivers, aligning in press on more than half of their routes against Chase, Mike Evans, DK Metcalf and Davante Adams. Spagnuolo certainly loves press coverage, but that's a dangerous game to play against Brown. The 6-1, 226-pound wide receiver averaged 4.5 yards per route against press coverage in 2022, the most by any receiver in a season in the Next Gen Stats era. When faced with press coverage, Brown specifically won on go routes, catching eight of 14 targets for 324 yards and two touchdowns. If Hurts can deliver an accurate ball down the sideline, Brown should be able to take advantage and create explosive plays that will be essential in helping the Eagles put up points.
Eagles' running game vs. Chiefs' light defensive personnel
With defenses playing more nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six DBs), teams like the Eagles have taken advantage of lighter personnel with a dominant running game. And what better way to wear down opponents -- both physically and psychologically -- than executing clock-draining drives when your team has the lead? The Eagles have won 20 straight games when entering the fourth quarter with a lead for a reason.
During the playoffs, the Chiefs' defense have used lighter boxes, helping the pass defense but at the expense of the run D. The Chiefs have used dime personnel on 35.1 percent of postseason snaps, up from 23.1 percent in regular season. The Eagles, who posted the second-highest success rate on designed runs (50.6 percent) since 2016 during the regular season, will welcome that trend if it continues Sunday.
Regardless of personnel, the Eagles use their formations to get defenders out of the box and create space. Philly has run the ball on a league-high 39.8 percent of plays when aligned in spread formations this season (including the playoffs) and has been extremely productive when doing so. Luckily for the Eagles, opposing offenses have also attacked the Chiefs in the run game out of spread formations this season. Including the playoffs, Kansas City has faced the most carries (101) and allowed the most rush yards (554) to spread runs.
THE STRATEGIC MATCHUP
For Super Bowl LVII, there are essentially two games being played by both coaching staffs that aptly can be compared to a game of chess on grass. The first starts long before kickoff, in staff meeting rooms, with the coaches coming together to build a game plan. They have two weeks to prepare and get their teams ready for the big stage. This extra time between Championship Sunday and the Super Bowl only amplifies the effect that experience has on preparation.
When it comes to experience, the Chiefs' coaching staff has the clear advantage. Head coach Andy Reid, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo have combined for 11 Super Bowl appearances. Their counterparts on the Eagles' sideline have none.
Beyond having been here before, Reid has proven again and again he is one of the best coaches in the league when given extra time to prepare. Reid-coached teams have won 28 of 32 games coming out of a bye week over the course of his 31-year career as an NFL coach (24 as head coach). Two of the four losses came in the Super Bowl (Eagles' loss in Super Bowl XXXIX and Chiefs' loss in Super Bowl LV).
Spagnuolo, a two-time Super Bowl champion himself (Super Bowl LIV with Chiefs, Super Bowl XLII with Giants), is known for his complicated defensive calls. Spagnuolo's system can take time to implement and requires smart players to execute all of the disguises he throws at the offense without missing assignments. While the Chiefs' defense has certainly had their early-season struggles under his watch, the unit is usually playing its best ball when it matters most. This year was no exception. The Chiefs have the third-highest defensive success rate (61.3 percent) since their Week 8 bye. During their first seven games, they ranked 28th.
The Eagles, on the other hand, haven't needed to adapt their strategy week to week -- a testament to the strength of this roster, a defense that can win on talent with a four-man rush and a lockdown secondary. The offense is impressive in its own right as a clock-managing machine with a creative run game that forces defenses to play 11-on-11. In the end, though, Philly's in-game adjustments and decision-making are where this staff really shines.
In-game management: Andy Reid vs. Nick Sirianni
One of the more progressive analytical organizations in the NFL takes on one of the more traditional outfits. The Eagles' front office and coaching staff are supported with a bridge of communication that connects them with a Major League Baseball-like analytics department led by assistant general manager Alec Halaby. Over the years, the Eagles have proven to be at the tip of the spear when it comes to analytical buy-in, with lagging indicators of their analytically-driven decision-making appearing when it comes to fourth down and on-field strategy, such as their historic 31 first downs gained on quarterback sneaks this season.
In a game that is projected to be a toss-up, every edge matters. When it comes to maximizing possessions, the Eagles have a clear cut advantage. Sirianni made the optimal decision to go for it on 21 of 27 fourth-down opportunities this season (77.8%), the highest rate in the NGS era, while Reid made the optimal decision to go for it on only seven of 26 fourth downs this season (26.9%), second-lowest in the NFL. On fourth-and-1 situations where "GO" was the optimal decision, Sirianni was a perfect 11-for-11.
Analytical influence has no doubt crept into the offensive and defensive philosophies, as well. The Eagles run to win; the Chiefs pass to win. The effectiveness of each correlate with the scoreboard.
If the Eagles take an early lead, the offense is built to drain the clock with a potent zone running game that has an explosive RPO threat coupled with a defense that loves to pin its ears back with the front four. Blessed with a roster that has answers for everything, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen has been able to poke and prod at opposing defenses before finding what works and spamming it.
If the Chiefs take an early lead, look for Mahomes to throw quick, short and safe passes -- an extension of the running game -- with the hopes of keeping the clock running and the ball in bounds. Entering Sunday, the Chiefs have run on just 40 percent of offensive plays when playing with a lead this season, the second-lowest mark of any team in the NFL.
Regardless of game flow, this should be a fascinating matchup to watch. Given that the Super Bowl is the last game these teams will play all season, be on the lookout for tendency-breakers as each coaching staff throws the kitchen sink at the other, leaving no stone left unturned.