Patrick Mahomes. Nick Bosa. Travis Kelce. George Kittle. These men are superstars — they are among the first names that come to mind for the Super Bowl-bound Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.
But this is the NFL, not the NBA. Stars cannot carry a franchise in the league on their own. Finding success in the NFL requires a collective effort that most other sports do not come close to matching. Sixty-three players took the field for Kansas City this season; 66 players played for San Francisco. Naturally, on rosters that large, there are bound to be contributors whose efforts are unheralded. Here are six unsung players in Super Bowl LIV (Fox, 6:30 ET):
Damien Williams, Running back
Standout skill: Creating yardage after contact
The NFL became increasingly pass-heavy throughout the 2010s, but 2019 closed the decade with an antithetical chapter in that story. Many teams found success with a run-heavy approach. Of the eight teams to reach the divisional round, seven ranked in the top half of the league in rush attempts, yards and yards per attempt. Kansas City was the exception, leading all playoff teams by passing on 61.4 percent of plays in 2019.
Andy Reid's Chiefs may not run the ball much, but when they do, the results tend to be positive. Kansas City ranked seventh in rush offense EPA, eighth in rushing first-down rate (25.9 percent) and 14th in rush offense DVOA during the regular season. In the playoffs, Kansas City has rushed for 4.8 yards per attempt (league average 4.3). Having a quality run game is crucial for the Chiefs. It buys them extra space to throw downfield, as they consistently keep opponents honest with productive runs in short-yardage situations.
Lead back Williams is largely responsible for Kansas City's solid rushing efficiency. The Chiefs are not a great run-blocking team, ranking 23rd in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grade and 28th in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards per carry in the regular season. Williams has been able to bail out the offensive front with elite elusiveness. He led qualified running backs with an average of 3.2 yards after contact per rush attempt, and ranked third in rush attempts per broken tackle (7.4).
Williams, who's 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, has terrific speed (4.45 seconds in the 40). That special combination of size and speed is on display below, as Williams bounces off 309-pound defensive tackle Justin Jones of the Chargers before dashing up the sideline for an 84-yard touchdown.
Mitchell Schwartz, right tackle
Standout skill: Pass protection
Patrick Mahomes is a quarterbacking phenom who enjoys the luxury of throwing from some of the cleanest pockets in football. He was pressured on just 28.3 percent of dropbacks in the regular season, second lowest in the NFL (New Orleans' Drew Brees was No. 1.) Kansas City has done an excellent job in pass protection up front, ranking second in pass-blocking efficiency (per-snap pressure rate with greater weight to sacks) and ninth in pass-blocking grade during the regular season, per Pro Football Focus.
The most consistent performer on Kansas City's elite pass-protecting front is easily Schwartz, who has started all 134 possible games in his career with the Browns and Chiefs. In 2019, Schwartz allowed only 20 pressures (zero sacks) over 622 protection snaps, earning a pass-blocking efficiency rate of 98.4 that ranked second-best among tackles. It was Schwartz's second consecutive season ranking top 10. (He was sixth in 2018.)
Schwartz's pass protection has been a key part of many big plays by Mahomes. He is an excellent technician, showing off great hand usage to regularly stifle rushers. Here, Schwartz (#71) uses a jump set against Broncos outside linebacker Malik Reed (#59). Schwartz gets his hands into Reed's chest, and at that point, it's over. Reed creates zero pressure, and Mahomes gets a pristine window to find Tyreek Hill for a 41-yard touchdown.
Mike Pennel, defensive tackle
Standout skill: Run defense
Kansas City's high-flying offense earns many headlines, but the vast improvement of Steve Spagnuolo's defense has vaulted the Chiefs to Miami. During Kansas City's 6-4 start, its defense allowed 23.3 points per game and averaged a minus-6.4 defensive EPA (would rank 22nd in 2019 over full season). Since then, the Chiefs have allowed 14.6 points and averaged a defensive EPA of 0.5 (would rank seventh in 2019 over full season).
Spagnuolo's group has been transformed against the run. In the regular season, the Chiefs ranked 29th in run defense DVOA and 30th in run defense EPA, allowing the fifth-most yards per rush attempt (4.9). Those numbers are flipped in the playoffs; the Chiefs have allowed 4.1 yards per rush (would rank eighth in regular season) and averaged a rush defense EPA of 1.5 (would rank 11th). In the AFC Championship Game, Kansas City held Tennessee's Derrick Henry to 3.7 yards per carry, snapping his 11-game streak with an average of 4.0 or higher.
Pennel is a sneaky contributor on the improved run defense. Picked up prior to Week 8, the Chiefs have defended the run noticeably better with him on the field, allowing 5.7 yards per rush in games without him and 4.3 in games with him. Pennel, who weighs 330 pounds, makes the most of his size to create penetration and stuff plays in the backfield. The former Jet is not relegated to playing nose tackle, as he is capable of making plays from any point on the interior. Here, Pennel (#64) lines up over the right guard's outside shoulder, plowing him into the backfield and peeling off to stop the Chargers' Melvin Gordon for no gain.
Kyle Juszczyk, Fullback
Standout skill: Run blocking
Fullback was once considered a key spot, but more than half of the league's 32 teams do not even employ a full-time player at the position. Perhaps Super Bowl LIV will prompt some teams to reconsider.
In Miami, we will see Pro Football Focus' top-two graded fullbacks — second-ranked Anthony Sherman of Kansas City and top-ranked Kyle Juszczyk of San Francisco. Juszczyk is the NFL's most-used fullback by far, leading the position with 21.3 snaps per game. The former Raven is head coach Kyle Shanahan's ultimate Swiss army knife, taking on a wide array of roles and excelling in all of them. As a pass-catcher, Juszczyk is involved and efficient. He has hauled in 11 first downs on 24 targets, an exceptional rate of 45.8 percent (league average: 34.7 percent).
Juszczyk makes his most profound impact doing the dirty work as a blocker. He is strong in pass protection, allowing just one hurry over 33 snaps, but the run game is where he shines brightest. Juszczyk is an integral piece of San Francisco's rushing offense, averaging 18.8 run-block snaps a game in the regular season and a whopping 36 in the playoffs. Shanahan consistently deploys him as a lead blocker, and Juszczyk has delivered with numerous blocks paving the way for huge gains. He had an outstanding performance in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, clearing the road for many big runs -- including this 34-yard pickup by Raheem Mostert. Watch Juszczyk (#44) hit his spot with authority and plow Ibraheim Campbell out of the lane.
Joe Staley, left tackle
Standout skill: Run blocking
With a terrific scheme coordinated by head coach Kyle Shanahan and many solid blockers to execute it, the 49ers consistently produce big lanes for their backs. In the regular season, San Francisco ranked second in yards before contact per carry (3.2). Niners running backs Raheem Mostert (3.5) and Matt Breida (3.3) ranked first and second, respectively, in yards before contact per attempt among qualifiers at the position. Tevin Coleman (2.5) was not too far behind, placing ninth.
Juszczyk is a key piece, as is tight end George Kittle, but it all starts with the 49ers' offensive line. That unit has saved its best football for the postseason, earning its best run-blocking grades of the season from Pro Football Focus in the divisional round and NFC title game.
Staley, in his 13th season with the Niners, has been a huge catalyst for San Francisco's late-season rushing dominance. He battled injuries throughout 2019, missing nine games, but he has been healthy since Week 14 and played great over that time. From Weeks 14-17, the 49ers averaged 7.5 yards per attempt on rushes to the left side, best in the NFL. That success has carried into the playoffs, where the Niners have averaged 5.9 yards per rush to Staley's side and scored four touchdowns.
Just like the rest of the offense, Staley is peaking at the right time, earning his top two run-blocking grades of the season in San Francisco's two playoff games. On this play in the 49ers' divisional-round win, Staley (#74) pancakes Vikings star edge defender Everson Griffen, paving the way for a Coleman touchdown. Juszczyk (#44) and Levine Toilolo (#83) also throw crucial blocks.
Jaquiski Tartt, safety
Standout skill: Big play prevention
A hallmark trait of any elite defense is the ability to prevent big plays. San Francisco allowed only 34 passing plays of 20-plus yards in the regular season, tied with Buffalo for the fewest. Over two playoff games, the 49ers have yielded just five passing plays of 20-plus yards. Only two of those came over the first three quarters. Three came in the fourth quarter with the 49ers leading by at least three scores.
Cornerback Richard Sherman highlights San Francisco's dominant secondary, but fifth-year safety Tartt deserves more credit for his role in the team's elite level of big-play prevention. Tartt allowed 3.9 yards per target in the regular season, best among the 56 safeties with at least 25 targets in their direction. He rarely busts a coverage and frequently prevents any extra yardage after a catch.
Tartt yielded just 3.2 yards after catch per reception, seventh best among qualified safeties. He is a solid tackler, ranking 18th of 64 qualifiers at his position in tackling efficiency (one missed tackle every 10.2 attempts). Here, Tartt shows his ability to close and finish, sniffing out the screen to the Browns' Demetrius Harris and holding him to zero extra yardage after contact with a well-executed tackle down low.
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