The Kansas City Chiefs lost a key member of their offense in their AFC championship victory against the Buffalo Bills. Unfortunately for the defending Super Bowl champions, they recently suffered a season-ending injury blow on the other side of the ball, too.
Will that result in a big night for Tom Brady and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense teeming with talented weapons? Or can Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo patch up a hole and ensure Patrick Mahomes and his teammates leave Raymond James Stadium as winners of Super Bowl 55?
The Chiefs have a number of players on the mend
Although the Chiefs defeated the Bills to claim the AFC crown, their victory came at a price. Left tackle Eric Fisher tore his Achilles in Kansas City’s 38-24 win against Buffalo. Without his blindside protector in place, Mahomes could be in trouble against a Buccaneers front seven that features Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, and Shaq Barrett.
The Chiefs also have several players working their way back to full strength heading into the Super Bowl.
Running back Le’Veon Bell did not practice on Friday due to a knee ailment. Sammy Watkins, who did not play against Buffalo, also missed Friday’s practice. The talented wideout was limited on Wednesday and Thursday with a calf injury.
On defense, cornerback Rashad Fenton was a full participant on Friday. A foot injury had limited him the prior two days. Fellow defensive back L’Jarius Sneed was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report due to a concussion he suffered in the AFC title game.
While Watkins and Sneed are expected to play in Super Bowl 55, one of their teammates will not suit up due to a devastating injury.
Kansas City suffers season-ending injury blow ahead of Super Bowl 55
Already dealing with an ankle injury, Willie Gay suffered a brutal setback to his rookie season. On Friday, the athletic linebacker had to undergo emergency surgery to repair his meniscus.
He will miss Super Bowl 55 and now faces a four-month recovery, according to Ian Rapoport. However, Gay should be good to go for the 2021 season.
Still, his loss represents a tough blow for a Chiefs defense that lacks depth at linebacker. Selected 63rd overall in the 2020 NFL draft, Gay played in all 16 games (eight starts) and recorded 39 total tackles (three for loss), one sack, three passes defended, and one forced fumble. Overall, he played 25% of the team’s defensive snaps. The former Mississippi State star played 55% of Kansas City’s special-teams snaps as a rookie.
Gay’s best performance came in Week 16. He played a season-high 49 defensive snaps and totaled nine tackles and one forced fumble in the Chiefs’ 17-14 win against the Atlanta Falcons.
His injury setback, however, ends his promising campaign right before he had a chance to take on Tom Brady and the Bucs.
And Gay’s absence could open the door for Tampa’s deep arsenal of running backs and tight ends to take over Super Bowl 55.
Can the Buccaneers take advantage of a linebacker unit that won’t have Willie Gay available?
Tom Brady excels at getting the ball out quickly and allowing his receivers to gain yards after the catch.
That represents bad news for whoever lines up at linebacker for the Chiefs.
Starter Damien Wilson allowed 23 completions on 30 targets for 239 yards and one touchdown. Fellow veteran Anthony Hitchens allowed quarterbacks to complete 24-of-31 attempts against him for 218 yards and a touchdown.
With Willie Gay out for Super Bowl 55, former undrafted free agent Darius Harris should play a more prominent role in the biggest game of the season. The 6-foot-2, 238-pound linebacker only played 12% of the team’s defensive snaps and appeared in just four games overall.
Like the rest of Kansas City’s linebackers, Harris struggled mightily in coverage this season. The 25-year-old allowed 11 completions for 157 yards and one touchdown on 13 targets. If he’s on the field, expect Brady to go after him and exploit a major mismatch.
After all, the Bucs boast plenty of capable pass catchers at tight end and running back. Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate combined for 73 catches for 905 yards and six touchdowns, and neither missed a single game.
Meanwhile, Leonard Fournette has emerged as an every-down threat. Ronald Jones provides a more-than-capable No. 2 option who can also catch the ball out of the backfield.
If the Buccaneers’ running backs and tight ends can take advantage of an underwhelming linebacker group, that could swing the game heavily in their favor. Brady can dink and dunk his way down the field, keep the chains moving, and tire out a defense that lost a key contributor on Friday.
Of course, Kansas City will assuredly use Tyrann Mathieu in a variety of ways to counteract Tampa’s high-powered offense.
Then again, maybe Willie Gay’s injury and worrying about Brady’s weapons won’t even matter.
Because when Patrick Mahomes is your quarterback, who needs defense anyways?
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.