The Secret Superstars of Super Bowl LV

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Mark Schofield
·11 min read
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It happens every so often in the Super Bowl. Hours are spent discussing and analyzing the top-line players. The quarterbacks, the star wide receivers, the standout defenders. But then an under-the-radar player turns in the game of his life, and lives on in football lore.

Take Super Bowl XLIX. Tom Brady. Russell Wilson. The Legion of Boom. In the end an undrafted defensive back from a Division II school makes an interception at the goal line that will stand the test of football time. Malcolm Butler’s name will forever be linked with greatness.

Or Super Bowl XXXVII, which saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat the Oakland Raiders. Forget Brad Johnson or Jerry Rice or Rich Gannon or Keyshawn Johnson or any of the other players in that game such as Hall of Famers Warren Sapp or Derrick Brooks. It was Dexter Jackson who took home MVP honors.

Could we see something similar in Super Bowl LV? Could someone other than Brady, or Patrick Mahomes, or Tyreek Hill, or Travis Kelce, or Mike Evans, or any of the other stars be the player to change the course of football history?

Here are the secret superstars of Super Bowl LV.

Ronald Jones II, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The respective running games have been something of an afterthought as Super Bowl LV approaches, with so much of the focus being on the Kansas City Chiefs' weapons in the passing game, and what Tom Brady and company have done throwing the football since their bye week. From the Kansas City perspective, they might want to avoid the ground game altogether, given how well the Buccaneers are at stopping the run. While many teams play light boxes against Tampa Bay to try and force Patrick Mahomes to be a spectator, the Chiefs did not take that bait in Week 12, running the football just 17 times while Mahomes had 49 passing attempts. On the other hand, when the Buccaneers have the football the ground game might be a factor. Not because of the idea that you have to keep Mahomes on the sidelines and work the clock, but because of how the Chiefs played back in Week 12, and throughout this season. Kansas City has played a lot of dime defense this season, and as pointed out by Doug Farrar, only the Carolina Panthers and the Green Bay Packers have played more snaps this season in dime than Kansas City, who aligned this way on 316 snaps. Furthermore, the Chiefs had 92 dime snaps against the run, again third-most in the league (behind Carolina and the New England Patriots). Back in that Week 12 meeting, running back Ronald Jones II gained 66 yards on just nine carries, including this 34-yard run late in the third quarter which came again, you guessed it, the Chiefs' dime package:

If the Buccaneers look to run the football to try and exploit this dime personnel group, Jones could be in for a big night.

Chris Jones, DL, Kansas City Chiefs

(Photo by Jamie quire/Getty Images)

By now you probably know the "blueprint" for beating Tom Brady. Sure, people like me can argue that you need to borrow from Rex Ryan and take away throws between the numbers, and force Brady to challenge along the boundaries. But the real game plan against him has been forged over the years, and perhaps perfected by Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in Super Bowl XLII. Get interior pressure. If that is the goal, then having a player like Chris Jones on the interior of your defensive line is a great start. Jones battled with injuries a season ago, but in 15 games this season Jones racked up 7.5 sacks and 44 quarterback pressures. This sack of Drew Lock, working through the center, is a good example of what he can do: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/JonesSackVideo.mp4">[/video] Of course what brings a little extra spice to this is the fact that Jones and the quarterback he's looking to sack Sunday night are not exactly best of friends. When Brady was with the New England Patriots their was this moment between the two players: https://twitter.com/Tucker_TnL/status/1203808251529322496 Then they were seen renewing acquaintances during the Week 12 meeting between these two teams: https://twitter.com/sportsrapport/status/1333188047102414848 Jones was actually asked about this on the Pardon My Take podcast, and had this to say about Brady: “That’s part of the game, man,” Jones said. “You know, quarterbacks and D-line, those are two different types of class. So when you’re able to clash up, you talk your (smack). You say how you feel to him. If he on the ground, you call him an old-ass mother ... Or, ‘Get your old ass up.’ [Or], ‘You need to ... retire.’" You better believe that if Jones gets a chance to provide that interior pressure for Spagnuolo on Brady, he will make the most of the opportunity.

Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Coming up with a way to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs offense has probably led to some sleepless nights for many a defensive coordinator. But that is the task in front of Todd Bowles this week, as he looks to hold that prolific offense out of the end zone and force as many three-and-outs as possible. When you take to the whiteboard, the task looks daunting. With weapons like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and more in place, you start running out of options on the defensive side of the football. But if you have a coverage player that can matchup in a one-on-one situation against at least one of those players and hold his own, that gives you the chance to play some matchups elsewhere on the field. That leads us to cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who could serve in such a role Sunday night perhaps against Kelce. Teams have used cornerbacks at times against the talented tight end, or safeties with cornerback-like coverage skills such as Devin McCourty, which Bill Belichick has done from time-to-time. In fact, while they were not matched up often, there were a few occasions when Murphy-Bunting locked horns with Kelce back in Week 12. On such play was this sack of Mahomes by Jason Pierre-Paul, but Murphy-Bunting draws Kelce in Cover-4 on this play, which plays out like man coverage when the receiver releases vertically: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/SMBKelceVideo1.mp4">[/video] The defensive back does a good job at sticking with Kelce and almost running the route for the tight end, and when Kelce tries to out-physical him at the top of the stem, Murphy-Bunting holds his own and that helps lead to the sack. Kelce did get a completion against Murphy-Bunting on an in-breaking route in this game, but Murphy-Bunting did the next best thing against the athletic tight end when you cannot prevent the completion: He prevented yardage after the catch: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/SMBKelceVideo2.mp4">[/video] Kelce is so dangerous with the football in his hands, if you limit the YAC you have done a decent job. Whether tasked with man coverage against him, or if he is just aligned over him when the Chiefs use their Y-Iso formations with Kelce as the single receiver, if Murphy-Bunting can hold his own against the talented tight end, that could go a long way towards slowing down this prolific offense.

L'Jarius Sneed, CB, Kansas City Chiefs

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

The traditional approach to slowing down Tom Brady was crafted to perfection by Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in Super Bowl XLII. Get interior pressure on Brady, move him off the spot in the pocket, and frustrate the timing and rhythm that he relies upon as a passer. Brady can handle pressure off the edges due to his feel in the pocket and his footwork. But that interior pressure remains his Achilles' heel. Thankfully for the veteran passer, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a stout interior to their offensive line. Ryan Jensen and Ali Marpet are a tremendous center and guard combination, and while the team lost Alex Cappa to a fractured ankle, Aaron Stinnie has performed well in his place. That means that Spagnuolo might revert to a Plan B, which could be what Rex Ryan used to do against Brady years ago. Clog the middle of the field and the underneath throwing lanes, and force Brady to attack the Chiefs secondary on the outside. That is where rookie L'Jarius Sneed could come into play. Sneed has been critical to the Kansas City defense this season, as chronicled all season long by Doug Farrar. Studying how Spagnuolo utilized him back in Week 12 against Brady highlights how Sneed could be critical in eliminating some of the underneath throws that the veteran quarterback could look to make Sunday night. Take this play in the red zone from late in the fourth quarter. Brady is masterful at throwing the slant route and on this play he tries to hit rookie Tyler Johnson on such a patter. Sneed is isolated on Johnson with no help to the inside, as the Chiefs use a bracket on Antonio Brown on the opposite side of the field. But Sneed is in perfect position, forcing Brady to put the pass high, and the rookie defender makes a play to break up the throw: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/SneedVideo1.mp4">[/video] Johnson looked around for a flag, but none would arrive. Then there was this play, made against a smoke screen play to Chris Godwin: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/02/SneedVideo2.mp4">[/video] Sneed clicks and drives perfectly on this play, and forces the Buccaneers to punt on fourth down. If Spagnuolo focuses on taking away the underneath areas that Brady likes to target in the passing game, Sneed could play a critical role in that effort. Remember, while this is a more vertical passing offense, since the bye week - and the loss to Kansas City in Week 12 - we have seen more horizontal elements in the Buccaneers' passing game. That could put Sneed in a big spot Sunday night.

Scotty Miller, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

The final two secret superstars have one thing in common: They might benefit from all the attention paid to their teammates. Let's start by putting yourself in Steve Spagnuolo's shoes. This is an exercise I often employ when analyzing and studying games. If you are Spagnuolo, what are you worried about this week? Obviously Tom Brady. Beyond that you have to contend with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Cameron Brate and Rob Gronkowski, who has caught a big throw or two from Brady in Super Bowls past. It might take you a while to get to Scotty Miller on your list of concerns, which might make him the most dangerous player on the field when the Buccaneers have the football. After all, if there was one play that changed the course of the NFC Championship game more than any other, it was Miller's stunning touchdown before halftime when he used his blazing speed to get behind Kevin King and the rest of the Green Bay Packers secondary. Brady has been willing to target him in the passing game all year long, and if he finds himself open on Sunday night, #12 is going to look his way.

Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

(Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

The logic that was applied to Scotty Miller can also be linked with Mecole Hardman. If you are Todd Bowles this week, you're worried about Patrick Mahomes, you're worried about Tyreek Hill, you're worried about Travis Kelce, you might be worried about the Kansas City Chiefs coming out and running the football, and you're also worried about what Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy are going to pull from their bag of tricks. Given those fears, you might dedicate resources to both Kelce and Hill in the form of bracket coverages, cone coverages and maybe a true double-team or two. That might leave you in a one-on-one situation against Hardman. The young receiver has made some huge plays this season, including in the AFC Championship game. His touchdown catch gave the Chiefs their first points of the game, and his huge run on an end-around gave Kansas City a shot at scoring their second touchdown, which gave them their first lead of the game. They would never look back. So as Kelce, Hill and the rest garner the attention, Hardman could benefit in a huge way yet again.