During every Super Bowl, there always seems to be a narrative that everyone zeroes in on before the game of the year. In 2017, it was “Could Nick Foles outlast the greatest QB of all time?”, and last season, it was “What’s going on with Todd Gurley?”. Before Super Bowl LIV, the storyline that everyone is discussing is whether or not Jimmy Garoppolo can be trusted to keep up with Patrick Mahomes.
All the statheads will bring up how poor Jimmy G’s passing statistics have been, along with how he’s looked very shaky through 2 playoff games. While that narrative is complete nonsense due to a minuscule sample size, what does matter is the impact players whose names people don’t know, even until Super Bowl Sunday. Guys like former Seahawks WR Chris Matthews, former Patriots CB Malcolm Butler, and current Patriots RB James White all come to mind.
Even though these are the two best teams that pro football has to offer this season, both the Chiefs and the 49ers have plenty of impact players who don’t necessarily get the spotlight. Without further ado, here are the top 5 X-Factors for the Super Bowl showdown between the 49ers and the Chiefs. Disclaimer: Superstars like Patrick Mahomes II, Nick Bosa, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu, and George Kittle will not be on here.
5. Daniel Sorenson
One among many of Kansas City’s fan favorites, Sorensen has done an admirable job filling in for rookie S Juan Thornhill, who tore his ACL in the final stretch of the regular season. Not only has Sorensen been one of the Chiefs’ most valuable special teams players, but his impact as a deep safety who can still attack the line of scrimmage on running downs complements First-Team All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu, who lives as a hybrid slot defender who can match up with receivers in the slot and make impact plays against both the pass and the run.
However, Sorensen can make an impact in this game mainly because he’ll be the one eyeing All-Pro tight end George Kittle, not just against the pass, but especially against the run. The 49ers live and die by running the football, so Sorensen needs to maintain his leverage and gap discipline during running downs in order for the Chiefs to keep the 49ers’ ball control-oriented offense off the field.
Furthermore, keeping Kyle Shanahan’s run game in check is how Kansas City wins the game, and a safety who can anchor against the run is definitely a player to watch in a game of this magnitude.
4. K’Waun Williams
One of the most underrated players on this 49ers defense by far. Everyone talks about how good Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner are, but no one gives credit to the best man coverage player on this 49ers team. The slot corner has become one of the most important positions in football because those who play need to keep up with the best receivers in the league because guys like Odell Beckham Jr and Tyreek Hill love to work in the slot.
Pound for pound, this guy plays a huge factor because he is the 49ers’ best man coverage matchup against Hill, Watkins, and DeMarcus Robinson. Furthermore, San Francisco’s lack of blitz-heavy packages allows for unique disguises, especially when the linebackers bluff and K’Waun has a free release against the quarterback.
Against an offense like the Chiefs, mixing up defensive coverages is extremely important, and Williams is the hybrid player to do just that. The Bay Area needs a huge game from him to emerge as champions.
3. Mecole Hardman
The speedy Georgia receiver drafted in the 2nd Round as Tyreek Hill insurance arguably plays an equally important role in the biggest game of his young career. Hardman possesses a similar skillset to Hill, and that becomes incredibly important in this game because he’s already one of the best kick returners in the entire game. He may not be the route runner that Hill is, but he’s so dynamic that he’s equally as dangerous.
Imagine a Patrick Mahomes-led offense with not just 1 receiver who can run 4.2, but with 3 receivers!!! Hardman can spark a dormant offense with his incredible kick return ability, while serving as a dynamic gadget player who could see an extended role on Sunday, especially against a team led by an elite pass rush.
2. Jimmie Ward
Another underrated player on this 49ers defense. The best way to describe Ward is a guy who quietly does his job. Drafted in 2014 as a nickel corner out of Northern Illinois, Ward’s transition to free safety has made him one of the staples in this 49ers’ secondary. In other words, he’s the reason San Francisco just doesn’t get beaten deep. The issue is, he’s playing against an offense that takes shots whenever they can.
Especially with the shaky play of corners Emmanuel Moseley and now-benched Ahkello Witherspoon, Ward needs to stay poised in the 49ers’ zone defense so he can be the last line of defense in case those inexperienced corners get beat, which very well may happen. All in all, San Fran does not win this game if Ward has a bad one, and with the way Chiefs have been throwing deep, that is certainly a legitimate possibility.
1. Laken Tomlinson
The 49ers’ run game is the way they’ve won 2 straight playoff games, make no mistake about it. It is also number 1 on the Chiefs’ preparation list, as their chances of winning this game depend on their ability, or lack thereof, to stop the run. Tomlinson, a former 1st-round pick who fizzled out of Detroit, has the potential to etch himself as a core piece of the 49ers’ future with a big-time performance.
Tomlinson has had incredible success mauling the Vikings and the Packers, but Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is one of the best defensive linemen Tomlinson’s had to block all year. Especially with the Chiefs containing the Titans’ rushing attack, led by the best running back in the league, Tomlinson needs to play the best game of his season in order for this 49ers’ run game to work.
If Chris Jones lives in San Francisco’s backfield on both running and passing downs, Kansas City wins, regardless of how well their offense plays. He needs to be blocked.