By Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)
The Kansas City Chiefs have one of the most stacked offences in the league, if not the most stacked.
Asking someone to name off their weapons would be like asking the Army to name all of theirs; they’d get half-way through and you’d already know that you were going to lose.
Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, Damien Williams; the list goes on and they really do seem as dangerous on paper as on the grass of the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami where they will face up against the equally impressive San Francisco 49ers for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy.
But despite all the big names on their roster, and despite all the first-round picks on the 49ers defence, there is a certain name you should be looking out for as soon as that ball is kicked off on the 2nd February.
A second round pick out of Georgia this last year, Hardman’s explosive rookie season has seen him go to the pro-bowl as a returner, and as I’ll explain, may take him to Super Bowl MVP.
–Return to sender–
Hardman’s impact as a return specialist has been incredibly impressive in just his rookie season.
You can expect the Pro-Bowler to attempt to affect field position and even cause some danger to the end-zone in Miami as Hardman has a serious chance to be the first player since Devin Hester to return the opening kick-off of a Super Bowl for a touchdown.
The Chiefs not only lead the post season in return yards with 247, but also post the highest average return of any team that featured in the Championship round.
The 49ers gave up 148 kick return yards to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round, so the possibility of breaking a big runback is there for Hardman who ranked highly in all returning statistics this season.
–A helpful alternative–
Mecole Hardman’s fairly lowkey status may also be of huge assistance as he shoots to become the Chiefs main Super Bowl weapon.
With Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce likely to be doubled by the 49ers defence, there is space for an alternative threat to emerge for Andy Reid’s offence.
Hill will be in crosshairs come game time after his performance in the AFC Championship meaning that he may see coverage rolled his way by Niners DC, Robert Saleh.
And as for Kelce, well you can expect to see him struggle in Florida as well, as the 49ers gave up just 552 receiving yards to Tight Ends in the regular season, the fewest of any team.
Kelce suffered a similar fate vs the Tennessee Titans as he saw chips and bracketing galore in an attempt to slow him down, which worked.
These techniques used by opposing DC’s to prevent the Chief’s main weapons often give up some space to players like Hardman to make a name for themselves, or indeed Sammy Watkins who ended up over 100 receiving yards last time out.
–Slotting into place–
Both at the University of Georgia and indeed as a Chief, Hardman has done much of his business from the inside the hashes.
37% of his season has been spent trying to take advantage of the slot and the people who defend it, and it has been fairly successful as Hardman collated 6 receiving touchdowns in his debut campaign.
This week he is likely to face up against Slot Cornerback K’Waun Williams who had a good game against the Green Bay Packers and specifically Allen Lazard.
The challenge for Williams this week is the incredibly rapid Hardman, who times in over a quarter of a second faster over 40 yards (4.33 to 4.58) than Williams and posts far higher agility and speed scores, per PlayerProfiler.
The 2019 49ers defence for all its dominance, have given up 50+ yard and one touchdown receiving games to both Tyler Lockett of the Seattle Seahawks and Pharaoh Cooper of the Arizona Cardinals.
Of all the players to have returned against the Niners, interestingly these two post the hights snap share in the slot, 50% and 67% respectively, all of which could be pointing to an area of small weakness for Andy Reid to try and use.
–Rushing to conclude–
If I hadn’t already convinced you to back Hardman at the Hard Rock, then just give me one last chance.
Any college football fans will probably recall, the 2017 National Championship between Alabama and Georgia, but what you might not remember is Mecole Hardman having over 130 all purpose yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Apart from preventing concerns that Hardman struggles to perform when the lights are bright and the pressure is on, his rushing touchdown in that game on a Jet Sweep leads me to my bravest prediction.
Andy Reid often takes advantage of trick plays like Jet Sweeps and motions from his receivers like Tyreek Hill’s first touchdown of the Championship game.
He has only rushed Hardman four times this season, preferring Hill for this duty, which if I’m not mistaken, is setting us up for an attempt or two in the big game for number 17.
Hardman may just end up with a rushing touchdown to match the 150 all purpose yards and a receiving touchdown that i’ll be betting on him to have.