NFL

Super Bowl LVII: Avonte Maddox and Travis Kelce set for battle of the slot machines

By Sports Desk February 09, 2023

"Oh that's nice."

Avonte Maddox's reaction was one of polite surprise when he was told he was the premier corner in the NFL by Stats Perform's matchup data.

No corner in the NFL can claim to be superior to Maddox in terms of open percentage allowed across both man and zone coverage in 2022.

Maddox allowed opposing receivers to get open on just 18.1 per cent of his matchups this season for the Philadelphia Eagles, excelling for a defense that boasts the premier defensive front in the NFL. With Philadelphia's starting nickel corner playing alongside the likes of Darius Slay and James Bradberry, they also have a strong claim for possessing one of the top secondaries in the league.

His reward for establishing himself as a top-tier slot corner at the highest level in 2022 could come on Sunday, when he will have an integral role to play as the Eagles battle the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII.

So why has it all clicked this season for the fifth-year defender?

Maddox is quick to credit defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.

"A good coach, he coaches us hard to be the best we can be," Maddox told Stats Perform. 

"I've learned a lot of things about offenses and just put myself in the best position to win, just making sure I do everything right from a technique point, detail point, watching film to the point of making sure I be where I have to be at the right time on the field to be the best."

Maddox will be going against the best at State Farm Stadium, where he is sure to spend much of the game lined up across from All-Pro and future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce.

In the 2022 season, Kelce ran 300 routes from the slot, compared to 173 as an outside receiver and 139 from the traditional tight end. Those numbers foreshadow a duel between Kelce and Maddox that will likely be a defining one in what promises to be a captivating contest of two number one seeds.

Kelce has developed a reputation for being "always open". While the numbers – his open percentage across man and zone is 46.73 per cent, well above the 28.16 per cent average for tight ends – suggest there are, in fact, plenty of times when he isn't, but his mind meld with Patrick Mahomes that is often most prevalent on broken plays and scramble drills makes Kelce a formidable challenge for any defender.

Explaining Kelce's remarkable prowess for finding free space, Chiefs coach Andy Reid told Thursday's press conference: "Travis has a good feel for the game, in particular for space, teams have doubled him and banged him around in man coverage, put defensive backs on him, corners and safeties, linebackers – they’ve tried a lot of different things throughout his career.

"Now he’s seen about everything you can put on him, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.

"He has a great relationship with our QB, those two are on the same page, they see the defenses the same way, they're best friends off the field and on the field, that helps too. If you're a receiver you want to be friendly with the quarterback for sure.

"Travis studies, he comes off like a nice funny guy and happy-go-lucky, but he studies like crazy and he knows defenses and he can see and react to them quickly during the game."

Maddox sees the apparent telepathic understanding between Mahomes and Kelce as the biggest challenge to stopping the latter.

"Him and Mahomes work really well together. Whatever Mahomes is thinking in his mind, Travis hears it, whenever he starts scrambling he starts scrambling, and it's like they're right on the same page," Maddox said.

"It's definitely a good challenge, but you've just got to make sure you plaster, trusting our D-Line to get him [Mahomes] down, if he doesn't then make sure I don't have bad eyes to the point where I'm going to take my eyes off him [Kelce] when he's running to get open, so just have good eyes and be violent and attack.

"Your eyes won't lie to you, if you see him [Kelce] go left and right you're gonna go left and right. You just gotta keep your eyes on him." 

Misdirected vision has hardly been a problem for Maddox as he has set the standard for inside and outside cornerbacks in 2022 and, for the Eagles to have a hope of disrupting one of the most prolific quarterback-pass-catcher connections in NFL history, that clarity must be maintained.

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