NFL Super Bowl 57 WR/CB Matchups
In Super Bowl 57, the Kansas City Chiefs will face the Philadelphia Eagles for an opportunity to win the championship. In this article, I’ll take a look at the crucial matchups that will help decide the game between wide receivers and cornerbacks. Look out for more Super Bowl content hitting the Lineups site and YouTube channel as we’ll have you covered on every aspect of the big game. Let’s get to work.
Chiefs Wide Receivers vs. Eagles Cornerbacks
The Chiefs’ passing offense often flows through elite tight end Travis Kelce, but with how much Patrick Mahomes can be expected to pass the ball, the wide receivers are important as well. Prior to this season, the loss of Tyreek Hill was expected to be a significant limiting factor for this offense, but Kansas City has found contributions from a handful of different wide receivers.
Injuries to the Chiefs’ wide receivers were a big part of the story in the AFC Championship, and we have to monitor the practice reports leading up to the Super Bowl. As of now, JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee), Kadarius Toney (ankle), and Mecole Hardman (pelvis) are all listed as questionable.
Injuries have been a major part of Toney’s first two seasons in the NFL, and they have limited him to just 17 total games played thus far. He was only on the field for three snaps last week before picking up another lower body injury, and his season-high in snaps with the Chiefs was just 20 in the divisional round.
Mecole Hardman, meanwhile, caught two passes in the AFC Championship but was held to just nine snaps. Prior to that, he hadn’t caught a pass since November 6th against the Titans, and he’s not expected to be able to return in time for the Super Bowl. JuJu Smith-Schuster played 22 snaps but only caught one pass for 7 yards.
With that trio of receivers dealing with injuries, Marquez Valdes-Scantling stepped up in a big way. Valdes-Scantling caught six passes on eight targets for 116 yards and a touchdown. That was his season-high in yards for the Chiefs and just his second 100-yard effort of the season.
Marcus Kemp (one catch for 13 yards) and Skyy Moore (three catches for 13 yards) also stepped up in the wake of the injuries, but the Chiefs would likely prefer not to rely on either one in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles also dealt with some injuries recently in their secondary as both Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Avonte Maddox missed time down the stretch of the season. However, both are off the injury report now, leaving the secondary in good shape entering the Super Bowl.
Chiefs’ Slot Receivers vs Avonte Maddox
Avonte Maddox is the Eagles’ primary cornerback in the slot and he had a decent season in that role. Among 47 cornerbacks with 100+ coverage snaps in the slot, he ranked 21st with a 90.2 passer rating allowed and 17th in with 1.08 yards per snap allowed.
Avonte Maddox has no injury designation and will play against the 49ers. pic.twitter.com/SctfN3o1g7
— Brenden Deeg (@BrendenDeeg_) January 27, 2023
With the Chiefs dealing with injuries to their wide receivers last week, Valdes-Scantling played 41.5% of his snaps out of the slot. However, if Smith-Schuster is good to go, he’ll be the primary slot receiver. He leads the team with 39 targets out of the slot and has a 76.9% catch rate on those for 402 yards and a touchdown.
Kansas City will also use Toney and Mecole Hardman in the slot some if they’re able to play, and they don’t typically have a very static formation. Their pre-snap movement and varied formations will be a big part of their offensive game plan.
It’s worth noting here that the Chiefs may not always have a slot receiver per se. We’ve seen them run a lot more heavy personnel packages in the wake of the departure of Tyreek Hill, particularly against teams like the Eagles with an elite pass rush. As such, don’t count on there always being a receiver matched up with Maddox. Maddox may even be asked to spend some time covering the elite Travis Kelce.
Chiefs’ Outside Receivers vs Darius Slay and James Bradberry
When the Chiefs’ receivers aren’t playing in the slot, they’ll be seeing significantly tougher coverage on the perimeter. The Eagles signed James Bradberry over the offseason and paired him with Darius Slay, forming a stout tandem.
Bradberry was one of the best corners in the league this season. Among cornerbacks with 150+ coverage snaps, he ranked 11th in PFF’s coverage grades. He also allowed just a 46% catch rate (5th) and a 54.2 passer rating (3rd)
Darius Slay wasn’t quite as productive, but was still solid. In the same sample size, he ranked 17th in coverage grade, 23rd in catch rate allowed (54.7%), and 28th in passer rating allowed (76.8). He also made his fifth Pro Bowl roster.
Will the Eagles Use Zone Defense?
A big question of mine for this game is how often the Eagles will play zone defense. The Chiefs’ offense thrives on Patrick Mahomes sitting back and waiting for his receivers to find open space in opposing zone defenses, and Philly would be no different.
Both Bradberry and Slay were outside of the top 30 graded cornerbacks on PFF in zone coverage grades (min. 150 coverage snaps). Maddox ranks 66th in the same metric. In the playoffs, they’ve operated in zone on 61.5% of snaps.
We’ve seen that coverage be torched previously, most notably when Dak Prescott completed 24 of 24 passes for 300 yards against Philly’s zone defense. When the Chiefs and Eagles played in Week 4 of the 2021 season, Patrick Mahomes carved up their defense with an 80% completion rate for 278 yards and five touchdowns.
The addition of Bradberry helps, but Jonathan Gannon’s scheme will need to be altered to avoid that type of performance from the MVP quarterback. If not, look for JuJu Smith-Schuster to excel – he leads the Chiefs with 2.22 yards per route run against zone and has an 83.1% catch rate against it.
Eagles Wide Receivers vs. Chiefs Cornerbacks
The Eagles are primarily a run-first team, but they have a handful of dynamic pass-catchers at their disposal. A.J. Brown was their prized offseason acquisition and he joined former Heisman winner DeVonta Smith in one of the best wide receiver tandems in the NFL. The Chiefs’ pass defense will have their hands full with those two, and they’ll be relying on a group of young cornerbacks featuring some rookie starters.
Disaster struck early for the Chiefs last week as cornerback L’Jarius Sneed suffered a concussion that limited him to just three snaps in the game. However, Kansas City had a next man up mentality that served them well in the game.
Rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie and Jaylen Watson have been full-time players for most of the season, but they were joined by fellow rookie Joshua Williams who played 47 snaps. Williams, a fourth-round pick out of Fayetteville State, allowed just 16 yards on five targets and had an interception.
Having three rookie corners out there against the likes of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd could have proven catastrophic, but the pass defense held up surprisingly well. They’ll need to do it again this week against a healthy, dynamic receiving corps in Philadelphia, although Sneed should return.
The only injury to note for the Eagles would be to A.J. Brown as he played through a lower body injury in the NFC Championship that he suffered against the Giants. However, he’s in no real danger of missing this game and he’s not listed on the Eagles’ injury report.
A.J. Brown Breakout Game?
Prior to the AFC Championship game, I wrote about the Chiefs’ struggles in pass defense, specifically in regards to Ja’Marr Chase. Kansas City ranks 31st in DVOA against WR1s this season, and they’ve allowed some huge performances to wide receivers. Mike Williams, Mike Evans, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Josh Palmer are among the wideouts with 100+ games against them.
While he’s been very quiet lately, A.J. Brown could be the next to join that list. He out-targeted DeVonta Smith eight to three last week, which was significant as Smith had out-targeted him in seven of the Eagle’s prior ten games. With the 49ers’ preference for zone defense as an added factor, I expected Smith to lead the way.
Brown has been significantly better against man coverage than zone this year – he averages 3.25 yards per route run against man versus 1.86 yards per route run against zone. The 49ers entered the NFC Championship playing zone at the fifth-highest rate in the NFL.
This matchup is different. The Chiefs’ defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is known for running a high rate of man coverage with varied blitz concepts. McDuffie, Sneed, Watson, and Williams, the Chiefs’ four most used corners, were all in zone on 29+% of snaps.
Brown was electric against man coverage this season. He ranked fifth among qualified receivers with 3.25 yards per route run against man and a 131.6 passer rating when targeted. The Chiefs won’t be reliably able to put their young corners in one-on-one situations with Brown and expect to succeed in this game.
Brown has been quiet lately with under 30 receiving yards in both playoff games. He had 90+ yards in four straight games to close the regular season, however, and this could be his breakthrough postseason game, particularly since we shouldn’t expect the game script to be nearly as out of hand as it was during the Eagles’ first two playoff games.
Will the Chiefs Keep Running Dime?
One option the Chiefs might look to utilize is what they’ve been doing much more frequently as of late – running dime packages. Dime personnel is defined as 6+ defensive backs. Per Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs have used dime personnel on 30+% of plays in four of their last five games after doing so in just three of their first 14.
As a result of their increased use of dime packages, the Chiefs’ postseason pass defense success rate is up to 63.2% – that ranks second among all playoff teams. In the regular season, they ranked just 16th with a 56.6% pass defense success rate. Rookies Joshua Williams and Bryan Cook have seen increased snaps in this time.
The issue with dime personnel is that it leaves you more vulnerable up front. The Chiefs were an okay run defense in the regular season – they ranked 16th in EPA and 10th in success rate allowed. However, that has changed in the playoffs.
In the postseason, they rank 12th of 14 teams with a 54.8% success rate and 13th with an 0.286 EPA/play rate allowed against the run. That EPA would have ranked dead last in the NFL during the regular season, and it won’t be functional against the Eagles’ elite rushing offense. Philadelphia’s offensive line ranked sixth in adjusted line yards and third in PFF’s run-blocking grades.
Steve Spagnuolo has his work cut out for him over the next two weeks. Does he prioritize loading the box, leaving his young corners in one-on-one coverage against Brown and Smith? Or does he allow the Eagles their typical run game production while limiting explosive plays over the top with dime personnel? Regardless of the personnel packages, expect the Chiefs to move their defensive backs all over the formation and vary their pre-snap alignments to give Jalen Hurts plenty to think about.