In-Season NFL

Super Bowl X-Factors

This Super Bowl will be a chess match between two of the smartest coaching staffs in the league. The wunderkind Sean McVay and defensive mastermind Wade Phillips square off against the GOAT Bill Belichick and offensive guru Josh McDaniels. Undoubtedly, each team will have a game plan designed to exploit a factor that they believe the other team is ill prepared for. Obviously the performances of Tom Brady and Aaron Donald will have massive implications on the game, but which under-the-radar players will each team ask to step up to outmaneuver their opponent?

1. Tyler Higbee / Gerald Everett 

The two Rams tight ends are by no means household names, but both men could be primed for a meaningful performance this Super Bowl. Defensively, it is probable that New England will double team Brandin Cooks and have Stephon Gilmore cover Robert Woods, which will effectively shut both of them down. This means the Rams will be largely reliant on their running backs and tight ends to get yards through the air. Of the two, Belichick is far more likely to decide that the defense needs to stop Gurley, and will surely have some creative scheme to stop him. This means it is up to Higbee and Everett to create separation and move the chains. The Patriots have struggled against tight ends all year. Last game they had some success in shutting down Kelce by covering him with undrafted rookie cornerback J.C Jackson. This may work on 6′ 3” Everett, but is a huge mismatch for 6′ 6” Higbee. If the Patriots look to go a similar route as last game by placing a cornerback or saftey on the tight ends, watch out for Tyler Higbee. If they go with a more traditional coverage of a linebacker on him, watch for some big plays by Everett, who is one of the more athletic tight ends in the league.

2. Lawrence Guy

One of New England’s defensive ends, Guy has quietly put up one of his best seasons yet. Paramount to New England’s success will be stopping the run game, whether it comes in the form of Todd Gurley or C.J Anderson. Guy is the PFF 7th ranked run-stopper defensive lineman. He always stays in his gap, a trait which “do your job” Belichick greatly appreciates. Guy won’t make any flashy plays (he only had one sack all year), but will do his job and force running backs to go to the outside. Even a few plays by Guy where he forces a negative yardage could be huge for the Patriots, as the Rams, a young team with a young coach, could feel pressured into making things happen early. Guy can force the Rams to give up on the run early, which would set the Pats up nicely for their second ring in 3 years.

3. Michael Brockers

Another important defensive lineman, Brockers is overshadowed by the big names of Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. He’ll be facing off against a Patriots offensive line which has been one of the best in the league, not surrendering a single sack to the potent duos of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa or Dee Ford and Chris Jones. The game plan to beat Brady has always been interior pressure and getting that pressure without blitzing. Brockers will be huge in this regard, as there is no way Belichick leaves Donald in a 1 v 1 for much of the game and Suh will actually be pretty evenly matched with the stout interior linemen of New England. It will be up to Brockers to exploit his matchup and hit Brady a few times. We saw a similar story play out in Super Bowl 51, where Grady Jarrett, a previously unknown player, sacked Brady three times, and very well could have won the MVP if the Falcons had continued to dominate.

4. Rex Burkhead

The Patriots backfield is in the best shape it’s been in during the Brady era. They have a true workhorse in Sony Michel and one of the best receiving backs in league history in James White. The Rams will do everything in their power to stop these two and force Brady to work the ball to his receivers, who are in maybe the worst shape they have been in in the Brady era. Look for Belichick to realize that the Rams will extensively game plan to stop Michel and White and therefore give them a steady dose of Rex. Burkhead is a swiss army knife in the backfield, with the ability to run, block, or catch. He could be in store for a massive game if the score stays close and the Patriots run game is stopped early on (which is highly probable).

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