Super Bowl 2023: As great as Patrick Mahomes is, Eagles' defense isn't losing sight of Chiefs' sneak attack
PHOENIX — The Philadelphia Eagles understand the threat.
Patrick Mahomes, competing in his third Super Bowl at just 27 years old, can burn them deep and execute off-platform throws and scramble outside the pocket (even with that high ankle sprain) and even fire a left-handed pass whenever he chooses.
The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback threatens with his arm, legs and mind.
And yet — as coaches scheme for Mahomes and defenders prepare for the quarterback whom defensive end Brandon Graham says has earned his “GOAT” status — Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox warns that their eye discipline must go beyond simply sifting through the misdirection that Mahomes and company cause.
Eagles defenders must not lose sight of the Chiefs' run game. Or they risk succumbing to a sneak attack.
“We know he’s going to make some really good plays,” Cox said Tuesday afternoon from the Eagles’ team hotel. “[But] No. 1, we know they like to run the football.
“If we all get caught up in them passing the ball? If you really turn the tape on, they run the ball very well. And they do a really good job and have a couple good backs that run really hard.”
Big plays and run defense will make or break the game, Cox said.
A cursory look at Kansas City’s season seems to muddy this theory.
Fear the Chiefs’ run game? This is the Kansas City team that led the league in points and yards by leading the league in passing touchdowns and passing yards. The Chiefs ranked 20th, meanwhile, in rushing yards.
In fact, the Chiefs passed on 59.5% of plays during the regular season and accounted for 72% of their total yardage via the air.
But Cox’s point clarifies when considering not the Chiefs’ overall production but their run efficiency. Kansas City’s 4.7 yards per carry ranked eighth-best in the league. Their 18 rushing touchdowns were good for seventh — both rankings far superior to their volume production.
Rookie seventh-round running back Isiah Pacheco led Kansas City’s ground attack with 830 yards and five touchdowns on 170 regular-season carries. Of running backs in the league with at least 100 carries, Pacheco ranked No. 1 in efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ “success” rate that measures yardage gained compared to yardage needed for a first down.
Pacheco gashed the Jacksonville Jaguars for 95 yards in a 27-20 divisional round win before the Bengals held him to just 26 yards on 10 carries.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a 2020 first-round draft pick, was activated Monday after more than two months on injured reserve while battling a high-ankle sprain. He’d tracked 302 yards and three touchdowns in 10 active games, averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
And the escape artist Mahomes ripped off 5.9 yards per attempt during a regular season with 358 yards and four touchdowns by ground, 25 times earning a first down with his legs. He has moved the chains twice more on six playoff carries, also extending plays in which he ultimately dumped a ball or unfurled a pass to a teammate.
The Eagles' defensive front will aim to slow that ground game, alternating between four- and five-man rushes while never veering from the ultimate goal to each win their 1-on-1 matchups.
“We throw a lot of different looks at teams,” Cox said. “They’ve got a lot of special players. … So it’s going to be tough.”
As usual, Mahomes will be among those tough players. But he and the passing attack that he represents are not the only obstacles between the Eagles and their latest Lombardi Trophy.
“That’s what it’s going to come down to,” Cox said, “Stopping the run and trying to eliminate their big plays.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein