National Football League

The Kansas City Chiefs' offensive line will decide Super Bowl LV

February 7

By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL analyst

As the Kansas City Chiefs prepare to defend their Super Bowl crown this weekend in Tampa, Florida, against the hometown Buccaneers, they will do so without four of their five starting offensive linemen.

There’s no parallel in Super Bowl history, and if the Chiefs lose this weekend, it will be because of the Buccaneers' ability to rush the passer and affect the K.C. quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.

The Chiefs' penciled in starting lineup for the offensive line took a hit before the season, when right guard – and the only medical professional who wears a helmet on game day – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out to stay in Montreal to help the hospital system deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Right before training camp, the Chiefs signed Kelechi Osemele – a powerful, tone-setting offensive guard – to play left guard, and he was playing well until he got injured in a Week 5 loss to the Raiders.

The Chiefs' right tackle, Mitchell Schwartz – a less handsome version of myself – has not seen action since Week 6 because of a back injury. Finally, last weekend, Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher tore his Achilles late in Kansas City's win over Buffalo.

The Chiefs enter the Super Bowl with Mike Remmers at left tackle after he played right tackle for three months. They moved Andrew Wylie from right guard to right tackle to replace Remmers.

At right guard, the Chiefs inserted Stefen Wisniewski, a reliable backup who was their starting left guard against San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV. He was signed as a free agent before the playoffs after being released by Pittsburgh.

At left guard is Nick Allegretti, who replaced Osemele in Week 6. The only Week 1 starter remaining on the unit is center Austin Reiter, who was benched for two weeks in the middle of the season.

These five big men – Remmers, Allegretti, Reiter, Wisniewski and Wylie – will stand between the fierce Tampa Bay pass rush and Mahomes.

It goes without saying that the Chiefs' line — and any offensive line with multiple injuries — is at a physical disadvantage. I'll discuss that in more detail below. But there's also a mental disadvantage that can happen from a communication perspective.

Offensive linemen who play next to each other for a while develop their own language, especially as they become more grizzled with game experience. While new or young players might need something spelled out at the line of scrimmage — "Hey, we have this guy, and watch out for this to happen" — offensive linemen who have played together for a while might just say, "you good?" or "hey, it's that look" or "he's coming," and understand what is happening.

When the quarterback changes a play, the linemen know exactly why he's doing it and can adjust quickly. Newer players have issues with these transitions when plays change.

Crisp communication impacts play speed. When you know your job and everyone around you, and when you can anticipate what might happen on a given play, everyone plays faster. When you don't, it can be a struggle to get the timing down — not to mention the physical beating you might receive for playing a tad slowly without confidence in your assignment.  

If you're a Chiefs fan, you're probably scared after reading this. But you shouldn't be.

Even with the shuffling of the offensive line, these guys have all played significant time in this offense and in the NFL. They will have had two weeks to prepare for this game, and they are coached in a detailed-oriented system. The line will over-communicate in practice, and the coaching staff will prepare a game plan to help communication.

Also, when you have Mahomes at quarterback, he can make things right before the snap. He has full control of the offense and can direct linemen in pass protection to help with any communication issues. I'd be far more worried about the physical limitations of the backups than the communication.

Can something be a cliché if it’s true?

Hitting the quarterback is the best way to stop a high-powered passing attack. It’s the only way to slow down the Chiefs' offense when it's focused, like it will be Sunday. The Chiefs are too talented at the skill positions, too talented at quarterback and too crafty with their scheme to be held down if Mahomes doesn’t feel the pressure in the pocket.

Just rewind to the Super Bowl last season. The best player on the field was 49ers pass-rusher Nick Bosa. He hounded Mahomes, and with seven minutes left in the game, the Chiefs had 10 points, and Mahomes had two turnovers.

This is the path for the Bucs, and they know it.

Like all quarterbacks, Mahomes is worse when the pressure is on. He completes 71.5% of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt and 37 touchdowns this season when not pressured. That completion rate drops to 49% when pressured, his yards per attempt dips to 6.3, and he has only five touchdowns when feeling the heat.

This is typical for a quarterback in the NFL, but because of how easily the Chiefs can score, anything that slows the offense is critical in a game of this magnitude.

The Bucs enter the Super Bowl fourth in the NFL in the number of snaps on which they pressure the quarterback, with 32 pressures and seven sacks in their three playoff games. Against Green Bay, the Bucs' defensive line had its best game of the season, pressuring Aaron Rodgers 13 times, hitting him eight times and sacking him five times.

The edge rushers – Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett – had six pressures each and all five of the sacks.

The Bucs had a game plan that took advantage of a backup left tackle for the Packers, and it allowed for one-on-one rushes for the whole unit, including Vita Vea, back off injured reserve. This is how I expect them to attack the Chiefs, and remember, it’s not just about sacks.

If the Bucs can get pressure and force inaccurate throws from Mahomes, it’s a victory.

Pierre-Paul has lined up over the left tackle – the defensive right side – on 702 of 1,074 defensive snaps this season. He will get the primary role of facing the Chiefs' backup left tackle, Remmers.

The Bucs attempted to isolate JPP against Billy Turner, the Packers' backup left tackle, last weekend, using the alignment of their defense. They wanted JPP to attack quickly inside and force Rodgers to step back in the pocket, right into Barrett rushing wide. This happened multiple times, including some twisting action upfront.

The goal was to keep Rodgers from stepping up in the pocket and scanning the field so he could make a play late in the down. If you force Rodgers to sit still in the pocket, the outside rush will get there.

Here are a few examples from the NFC Championship Game. On this one, JPP rushes inside while Barrett rushes outside. They meet in the middle for a sack.

Also worth noting is the outstanding coverage on these pressures. As you can see, no one was open. The coverage must work in tandem with the pass rush.

On this next play, the Bucs used a line game – an end-tackle stunt – to force Rodgers back out of the pocket, again for Barrett. The pass rush works in tandem to get a sack, just like it was drawn up.

Worth noting again: No one is open.

Moving along, when JPP wasn’t rushing inside, he was able to avoid inside help with an awesome inside-out move. He appeared to attack down the middle of Turner, got him to stop his feet and then went around with a club rip.

The Bucs welcomed back Vea, a large man who can move like a cat. He is hugely important to the production of this unit because he’s able to push the pocket backward while winning one-on-one matchups, and the Bucs will attempt to get him in as many one-on-ones as possible.

A defense does this by having a defender line up over every offensive lineman or by moving the linebacker the offensive line is working toward to a spot where no offensive lineman can help anyone else.

Combating a pass rush such as the Buccaneers' is two-fold.

First, staying out of clear pass-rushing situations is helpful. If you’re in third-and-3, the ball should be out more quickly than on third-and-9, so the wide receivers don’t have to traverse as much ground to get a first down. Conventional wisdom would say if you rush the ball decently enough, third down should be manageable. However, the Bucs have a clear advantage in this contest.

When the entire Chiefs offensive line is healthy, they can run-block just fine. When they are missing four of five starters, they are not as good. That isn't difficult logic to follow.  

Second, it will be tough to rush the ball this weekend against the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL. The Bucs have led the NFL in rushing defensive efficiency in two straight seasons, and that will play a huge role in this game. If the Chiefs can’t rush the football, they will face longer than usual third downs, which should give the Bucs rush time to get home.

The Chiefs can supplement the rush game with jet sweeps and quick passes to the edge, which is something they are sure to do. The Chiefs have been awful this season when needing to gain a yard rushing the ball, and I would expect them to either bring out some trick plays or just pass in those situations.

Their backup offensive line will not fare well rushing the football.

If the Chiefs can’t run the ball successfully to protect their pass protection, they will need to rely on Mahomes to get rid of the ball quickly. Contrary to popular belief, when facing an excellent pass rush, it’s easier to spread out the defense in empty formations than keep extra defenders in to help the offensive line pass protect.

In other words, when you have four or five receivers out for a pass, there’s a higher chance that someone gets open soon than if you have three or four receivers out at the snap of the ball.

Helping both tackles with only three receivers out to start the play means far fewer spots for Mahomes to find quick passes, and it doesn’t help anything inside.

But spreading out the defense gives more quick options for the Chiefs.

Mahomes, like Rodgers last weekend, will have success if the ball is out quickly. The Bucs know this, and I’m curious to see if they will adjust their coverage to sit on underneath routes like we saw them do against the Packers two weekends ago.

Here’s an example in which the Bucs brought pressure, it was blocked up, and Rodgers made them pay.

To recap:

The Chiefs' offensive line is the most beat-up unit in Super Bowl history.

The Bucs have an outstanding pass rush.

The Chiefs have to answer, namely by throwing the ball quickly to avoid the pressure.

In the end, if K.C. can't protect Mahomes, the Tampa Bay pass rush might be the Super Bowl MVU – Most Valuable Unit.

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