The following preview of Super Bowl LV does not talk about Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes. It also does not talk about Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Shaq Barrett, Chris Jones, Frank Clark, or Tyrann Mathieu. That’s right — this NFL Recap, “Ten Players to Watch” countdown, is 100% free of hype and all about Super Bowl sleepers!
Time to pay attention to the “little guys”
Actually, we will be talking quite a bit about Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and the other stars of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs. However, only indirectly — no slobbering over guys you already know a lot about, no “legacy” jibber-jabber.
This NFL Recap countdown is all about the unsung heroes, the guys who stepped up in the playoffs, and some players who quietly stood out during the 2020 regular season.
Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes will get the glory; the big names will produce the touchdowns, sacks, and highlights. Yet, these are the guys who will be doing most of the dirty work and many of the little things that can turn a conference champion into a Super Bowl champion.
Super Bowl sleepers to know for Super Bowl 55
Carlton Davis, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There weren’t enough aloe plants in the world to soothe Davis’ fourth-degree burns after he bore the brunt of Tyreek Hill’s 13-catch, 269-yard explosion in Week 12.
Buccaneers’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would be forgiven for relegating Davis to backup tight end coverage duty after that experience. However, Davis is the best man for the thankless/hopeless task of shutting down Hill in Super Bowl LV.
Davis often shadows the opponent’s best receiver, though his playoff results were mixed. He held Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints without a catch in the Divisional Round but struggled against Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Davis will need more help from his safeties and pass rush than he got in Week 12. The Buccaneers can win if Davis gets singed a bit by Hill, but not if he bursts into flames again.
Mike Remmers, OL, Kansas City Chiefs
Remmers began the season on the Chiefs’ bench, then started at right guard in Week 3 and left guard in Week 5. Ultimately, he’d take over for injured right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in Week 6. He then moved to left tackle in the final minutes of the AFC Championship Game when Eric Fisher suffered an Achilles injury. Fisher is expected to start at left tackle in the Super Bowl, with Andrew Wylie moving to right tackle and Stefen Wisniewski replacing Wylie at right guard.
Got all that? Center Austin Reiter is the only Week 1 starter left on the Chiefs’ offensive line. He also missed a few midseason games. The 31-year-old Remmers has started at left tackle in the past — he has lots of experience in past NFL stops at every position except center — but the fact remains that the Chiefs face the blitz-heavy, star-studded Buccaneers defensive front with a patchwork offensive line.
What the Chiefs have done offensively behind a bunch of super-subs has been remarkable all season long. Remmers must prove that the loss of Fisher wasn’t the final straw. A Herculean effort from Remmers will go a long way in being one of the Super Bowl sleepers.
Mecole Hardman, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Hardman represents the best and the worst of the mighty Kansas City offense. He’s faster than just about anyone on Earth except Barry Allen and Tyreek Hill. He can turn every shovel pass or kick return into a touchdown.
He also dropped eight passes in the regular season and muffed a punt return near the goal line in the AFC Championship Game against the Bills. Hardman is a boom-or-bust player, and the Chiefs are hoping he got all the bust out of his system last week.
Hardman caught 5 passes for 89 yards on jet-sweep shovel passes during the regular season and playoffs (splits courtesy of Sports Info Solutions) and 16 screen passes for 176 yards and 3 touchdowns. Look for the Chiefs to use Hardman as a quick-hitting blitz breaker against a Buccaneers defense forced to devote most of its attention to Hill and Travis Kelce. One big play or big mistake by Hardman could turn the tide of the game.
Devin White, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
White may be the most explosive downhill blitzer in the NFL right now. Not even Jamal Adams of the Seattle Seahawks has a more sudden burst when he’s within a few steps of the quarterback. White may also be the NFL’s most lethal delayed blitzer.
If the running back he’s covering stays in to pass protect, White shifts gears on the fly and sifts through traffic to find the quarterback like a savvy eighth-year pro, not a second-year defender coming off a breakout nine-sack season. Oh, and White is starting to figure things out in coverage, too. The Saints learned the hard way when they tried to attack him in the NFC Championship Game.
As one of the few defenders athletic enough to chase Patrick Mahomes down in the open field, he’ll be on the prowl all evening during Super Bowl LV. White could change the course of the game with a sack — or with a whiff in coverage.
Tyler Johnson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Antonio Brown (foot) likely to be available, Johnson might not even suit up in Super Bowl LV. If he does, he has every chance of being one of the Super Bowl sleepers. Even if he does, Johnson could be the fifth receiver and ninth or tenth option in the Buccaneers’ offense. Even if the rookie from Minnesota only makes one catch, it’s likely to be a big one.
Johnson converted three third downs on just 12 total receptions in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. He converted two touchdowns near the goal line in the regular season. And he’s the guy who drew the pass interference call in the final moments against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game after the referees spent 58 minutes acting like their whistles were too cold to blow into.
Johnson has a knack for hauling in contested catches and has earned Tom Brady’s trust in critical situations. If he gets any offensive snaps, he’s likely to have an impact.
L’Jarius Sneed, DB, Kansas City Chiefs
It’s SAT analogy time! Mecole Hardman:Tyreek Hill::L’Jarius Sneed:Tyrann Mathieu.
You figured that easy one out, right? Sneed has grown into Honey Badger Jr., making a name for himself with a pair of sacks in the playoffs (including one where he forced Josh Allen to backpedal for 15 yards) as a slot blitzer. A fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech, Sneed is also a speedy opportunist in zone coverage when not attacking off the edge, with interceptions against Drew Brees, Justin Herbert, and Deshaun Watson in the regular season.
Sneed is currently in concussion protocol but was a limited participant in Chiefs’ practices last week. He will play in Super Bowl LV. When he and Mathieu line up on opposite edges of the defensive front, even Brady will have difficulty figuring out where the pressure will come from.
Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Speaking of young defensive backs making names for themselves in the playoffs, Murphy-Bunting recorded interceptions in three straight playoff games for the Buccaneers.
To give you some perspective on how rare it is for a defender to notch three postseason interceptions, if Murphy-Bunting intercepts a fourth pass in the Super Bowl, he will tie Richard Sherman, Hall of Famers Brian Dawkins, Mel Blount, and Johnny “Blood” Robinson, and many others on the all-time playoff interception list!
Here’s the thing — Murphy-Bunting may have been the weakest link in the Tampa Bay secondary for much of the regular season. Did he come into his own in the playoffs or just end up in the right place at the right time? The Buccaneers are hoping it’s the latter. Murphy-Bunting may be drawing lots of Travis Kelce coverage duties in the Super Bowl and could be one of the sleepers if he can handle that awesome responsibility.
Darrel Williams, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
It’s impossible to keep the Chiefs’ running backs straight even if you have a game program because so many of them are named D. Williams.
Last year, Damien Williams saved the day in Super Bowl LIV with 133 total yards and 2 touchdowns when the San Francisco 49ers’ pass rush had Patrick Mahomes flustered. Damien Williams opted out this season, but Darrel Williams has stepped up with 26 carries for 130 yards and one touchdown in two playoff games with Le’Veon Bell hurt and Clyde Edwards-Helaire banging his head into the rookie wall.
Could history repeat itself in the Super Bowl? The Chiefs need a counterpunch to help their beat-up offensive line keep the Buccaneers’ pass rush off Patrick Mahomes. A few timely runs and broken tackles by Williams could be just the ticket.
Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David has been the heart and soul of the Tampa Bay defense since the days when Greg Schiano was their head coach and Josh Freeman their quarterback. He earned some All-Pro and Pro Bowl notice earlier in his career but then began losing those accolades to linebackers with flashier stats on better teams.
It’s only natural for David to pale in comparison to Tom Brady and a host of other big names now that he finally reached the Super Bowl. Heck, he’s having a hard time getting top billing on his own linebacking corps. After all, we have already talked about Devin White.
David has been one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers for years. He may not be a match for Travis Kelce, but he can blanket any running backs the Chiefs send his way. More importantly when facing the Chiefs, David is outstanding at sniffing out screens and misdirection plays and flowing to the football.
David is more likely to turn a would-be big play by Darrel Williams or Mecole Hardman into a modest four-yard gain than blow up the stat sheet with sacks or interceptions. However, preventing big plays is the key to beating the Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City offense — even if doing so doesn’t attract all that much attention.
Steve Spagnuolo, Defensive Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs
If you don’t know the story now, it will be beaten into you by the end of the week. Spagnuolo was the architect of the New York Giants defense that stunned Tom Brady’s 2007 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, sacking Tom Brady five times and holding one of the greatest offenses in NFL history to just 14 points.
No one really watches a defensive coordinator, of course. Yet, Spagnuolo’s chess match against Tom Brady, Bruce Arians, and Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will be the game within the game of Super Bowl LV, and hence his status as one of the Super Bowl sleepers to keep an eye on.
Spagnuolo has Matthieu, Sneed, Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and a few other pieces to work with. That might not be enough against Brady’s latest fully armed and operational Death Star. But the Chiefs defense forced a pair of Tom Brady interceptions in Week 12.
If Spagnuolo can turn Tom Brady into the guy we saw on that fateful day 13 years ago — or even the guy we saw in the second half against the Packers — then he can be almost as pivotal as Patrick Mahomes in helping the Chiefs repeat as Super Bowl champions.
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