We have finally arrived. After a postseason that was filled with upsets and comeback victories, I think the two best teams in the league will meet in the Super Bowl. This game features the NFL’s best defense going up against the premier quarterback we have today. We also have Andy Reid returning to the biggest stage 15 years after being there with the Eagles and Kyle Shanahan with his shot at redemption after being part of that 28-3 collapse with the Falcons a few years back. There are so many storylines surrounding this matchup and a lot of things are just unfolding, but most importantly – we have two extremely well-matched teams and the game could go several different ways.
Therefore, I wanted to look at how the 49ers and Chiefs will counter each other and how they can create problems for the opposition. What they have been successful at, can it continue to work in this matchup and which wrinkles can be used to stay ahead of the other team. Finally, I will present my X-factors for both teams on either side of the ball and then I will give my best sense for what is going to happen and who will take home the Lombardi trophy.
The road here:
First of all, I wanted to take a look at how these two squads made it here however, starting with the NFC champs. San Francisco was coming off a 4-12 campaign in 2018 and went into the season as the clear third option to win their division when you look at preseason odds. However, now with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo and some help through the draft, it was only a question of time until people started to recognize them as one of the elite teams in the league, as they won their first eight games with some dominant showings. They lost a weird game to the Seahawks the following week due to a missed field goal in overtime and went through a stretch where injuries on the defensive side of the ball cost them, as they lost at Baltimore and versus the Falcons on the final play respectively. Still, they managed to get revenge at Seattle with a goal-line stop and entered the playoff as the NFC’s number one seed. Through these last two games they have been dominant, completely shutting down the Vikings rushing attack with Dalvin Cook and running all over the Packers defense. The 49ers have averaged 235.5 rushing yards and allowed opposing offenses to convert on just 24 percent of their third down attempts. Through the last six quarters they have needed to throw the ball just 13 times and they are +6 in turnover differential.
The Chiefs on the other hand were coming off an overtime loss to the Patriots and entered 2019 as the second-biggest favorite to come out of the AFC right behind the reigning Super Bowl champs. Expectations were high with league MVP Patrick Mahomes and all those explosive weapons around him to go with a defense that have made some important additions via free agency and with new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. After a 4-0 start, KC lost consecutive home games to the Colts and Texans, but potentially the biggest loss came in a 30-6 domination of the Broncos, as their quarterback appeared to suffered a severe knee injury. After going 1-1 with Matt Moore at the helm, Mahomes returned and after losing in Tennessee on a blocked field goal to send the game to overtime, the Chiefs have never looked back. Over the final six weeks of the regular season, they outscored their opponents by an average of 16.3 points and with some help from the Dolphins defeating the Patriots in season finale, they entered the playoff as the AFC’s number two seed thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker over New England. After their bye week, Kansas City came out completely flat, as they quickly found themselves in a 24-0 hole against the Texans, but from that point on they outscored Houston 51-7. In the championship game, the Titans were also up 17-7 and were kind of having their way, but Mahomes made some explosive plays and the Chiefs scored 28 consecutive points to get control back.
While the 49ers certainly had a more dominant playoff run by never trailing and leading both games by comfortable margins for the majority of playing time, you could argue that the Chiefs’ ability to take over control at some point has been even more impressive. This is certainly a clash of offensive philosophy on paper, as San Francisco has run the ball on 76.7 percent of their snaps while Mahomes has accounted for more 86 percent of Kansas City’s total yardage. With the way the Niners have harassed opposing quarterbacks and put them behind the sticks constantly you would think that they have the clear advantage, but KC defense really wasn’t responsible for the deficits they have been in over their two games. Outside of one bust in coverage on the first possession of the Texans game, they only allowed one touchdown when the opposing team wasn’t set up with goal-to-go after a muffed punt. And then against the Titans they held the league’s leading rusher and playoff hero Derrick Henry to SEVEN yards In the second half of the game. So this really is a game with two more balanced teams than some might think.
There are so many storylines that will be talked about throughout the week. Whether it’s the obvious ones like Andy Reid finally returning to the big game with a different team, Joe Montana having played for both teams and Dee Ford facing his forming team after they traded him to San Francisco in offseason, or the lesser known ones such as both starting running backs Damien Williams and Raheem Mostert once being cut by the Dolphins and now returning to Miami. And then of course there is the fact that Jimmy G tore his ACL last year against the Chiefs, which put them on a completely different path, as they were able to draft Nick Bosa with that second overall pick and everything that followed. There are veterans on both sides that have won titles and there are those who are separately craving one, but mostly these are two young teams that are looking to start a championship run and have to start right here.
The Xs and Os:
49ers offense vs. Chiefs defense:
I have said all year that I think Kyle Shanahan as the best offensive play-caller in the league today, because of his understanding for defensive principles and the resulting weaknesses. It may look like the 49ers just have a great blocking and a trio of talented running backs, so they can smash it down the defense’s throat, but a lot of their success has to do with the way their head coach draws up plays and uses tendencies against them – largely displayed by their league-leading 75 percent pre-snap motion. When it comes to their run game, they might be zone-oriented in their base scheme, but they use all different skill players on secure the backside of those with sift blocks or motioning somebody in and cutting the edge defender off. They like to create extra gaps with fullback Kyle Juszczyk and keep defenses honest with some jet sweeps as well as a few RPOs with a guy like Deebo Samuel running the slant behind it to bind the according linebacker. San Francisco does use plenty of gap schemes however, such as counter or toss plays. In the NFC Championship game the Packers used a lot of bear fronts with a lineman over everybody on the interior three, buy what the Niners did with switching responsibilities between fullbacks, tight-ends and tackles still allowed them to open up space, such as pinning the edge defender to the inside with the fullback and getting George Kittle out in front against a safety. They also easily picked up two first downs on drive against Green Bay on end-around to Deebo Samuel, where they have plenty of space and big guys out in front against some of those DBs, who wanted none of that business.
What differentiates the Chiefs from the Packers however is the size and depth they have on the defensive line, which keeps those guys fresh and allows them control their gap as they are shading that way and gives them the energy to disengage and chase from behind. I already mentioned how the KC defense held Derrick Henry to under 70 yards after he was averaging 188 through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They did so by really corralling him from all sides and not giving him a chance to really get going. Against the zone rushing attack they set a hard edge on the front-side and had Frank Clark for the most part crash from the opposite end, while the linebackers on the interior really shot through the gaps that started to open up to attack the lead-blockers before they could create an additional gap. What I thought really changed that Titans game was two consecutive snaps when they were up 17-14, when Chris Jones made a couple of disruptive plays, where he wrapped up the 250-pound back for no gain, which marked a turning point, as the Chiefs offense went on a 92-yard drive to take the halftime lead, finished up with that incredible 27-yard scramble by Mahomes.
If Clark, or whoever is coming off the backside, crashes down as hard as they did versus Tennessee, Shanahan’s naked bootleg will be a huge factor in this matchup. Because even if you have those deeper routes across the field covered pretty well and that backside linebacker doesn’t get caught flowing with the run-fake too much, he not has a decision to make. The Niners mostly have somebody slipping into the flats to where they are rolling and while Jimmy G isn’t a world-class athlete he has enough speed to just pick up some of that free yardage, if that check-down option is picked up. I also saw the Titans run one of those “Yankee” concepts in Kansas City, where they had a post-corner coming from one side and a deep crosser coming from the opposite one to make that defender in the deep middle of the field commit. But that free safety was in perfect position to stay over the top of the post while Bashaud Breeland carried the crosser all the way and came up with the pick, which was later reversed. What Shanahan does differently is that he will have an additional throwback route towards the original side of the crossing receiver, where they have a TE or FB turning up the field on like a drag-and-wheel or whatever. I wouldn’t be shocked if they got a big play out of one of them.
With that being said, I think the Chiefs have show excellent discipline over the second half of the season specifically in terms of not being drawn in by play-fakes or end-arounds too much or guys coming off their responsibility as they decide to run with somebody going across the field. One of those plays stood in the AFC Championship game, where the Titans fakes a split zone run out of 13 personnel and brought Jonnu Smith across the formation to secure the backside, while the other two tight-ends crossed and they were looking for Anthony Firkser as he turned his route upfield towards the original play-fake side. At the same time, if the Chiefs roll into a single-high look and open as much space between that guy and the linebackers, the Niners receivers will eat it up and YAC their opponents to death. The question for me is – when you have single receivers in a reduced split and you are in some type of cover-three, do you tell those corners to trail their man and have the linebacker to that side to be alert for somebody coming into the flats to match them? In general, I don’t think you want to be chasing guys coming across the field or slipping into the flats against all these boots and waggles. That’s why I loved when Tyrann Mathieu blew up Corey Davis in their last game, after he faked a sift block and slipped into flats.
The bottom line for any defense facing the 49ers is that you can not allow Shanahan to take advantage of your tendencies and rules facing certain formations or in certain areas of the field / down & distances. We saw that two weeks ago against the Packers with how they exposed their gap responsibilities, but also in the passing game in multiple games, when they force the opposition into man-coverage routinely and mess with the leverage advantages they had created with mesh concepts or against split safeties on the two-receiver side, where they run a bang eight (post) on the inside and a square in with the flanker, which forces the underneath linebacker to make a decision to carry or sit. Steve Spagnuolo does a really good job teaching his defense the weaknesses of the coverages they are and how they trigger when they see quarterbacks looking to attack those areas. The Chiefs defense truly wants to force their opponents to beat them outside the numbers with having those safeties around the hashes in two-high looks and that is something the Niners really haven’t done much of all year long. I’d also like to see them show blitz their inside backers and then have them drop back already looking for any in-breaking routes to force Garoppolo to pull the ball down, which allows the pass rush to get home. However, we have seen that San Fran doesn’t mind handing the ball off if you have the D-line too wide and present easy run looks, just like what happened on a Mostert touchdown on third-and-long against Packers.
Chiefs offense vs. 49ers defense:
For the Chiefs offense on the other hand it all starts the speed they have across the formation and how they can stress you with the vertical passing game. We have seen Patrick Mahomes chip away with underneath completions and check-downs as defenses forced him to, but a lot of that has to do with how focused opposing teams are to not get burnt over the top and most of the KC passing concepts have some type of vertical stretch integrated. One of Chiefs’ favorite plays is when they come out in a trio set with Travis Kelce lined up at tight-end as the single receiver and then spread the field with vertical concepts from their three receivers, while Kelce crosses the field underneath. As teams tell their DBs to stay over the top no matter, KC eats them up with deep curls or some type of shallow cross concept. That can be particularly dangerous when defenders are asked to follow those speedsters across the field and even if you think you know the answer by having your linebackers sit on those routes and allow the trailing defenders to catch up as the receivers have to work their way around traffic, the Chiefs seem to have a solution. Whether that is clearing out space by leaking one the running back out in the flats or when the linebackers are asked to carry the crossers underneath them in more of a zone look, you have Travis Kelce or Sammy Watkins exploiting that voided space with somebody sitting down over the middle.
The most important part for the Niners in that regard is having that free safety stay balanced and not allow windows horizontally, especially against those trio verticals. Because even though the Niners run a lot of single-high safety and that number three receiver coming across about half the field is the weakness for that kind of defense, I would much rather see them have the backside corner ready to pick up it and Jimmie Ward be ready in-between the hashes, as those seam routes are carried towards him. Asking a 31-year old Richard Sherman to play in-between vertical routes in deep-third responsibility might be a big problem, because as good as he still is those guys across from him will just be flat-out faster. We saw Jimmy Graham streak wide open downfield against them in the later parts of the NFC Championship game, as Aaron Rodgers moved the safety with eyes, and Davante Adams also got past Sherman for a 65-yard grab. Obviously that is only part of the solution, as the Niners will need their D-line to wreak havoc once again, not giving Mahomes the time to let someone create separation eventually and it will be up to them layer their pass rush as well as staying disciplined with their lanes to not allow the QB to extend plays. The Chiefs have one of the best screen games in the entire league to slow down the rush, but usually the Niners shut that down with how quicker a trigger the linebackers when they see it. So KC will once again have to find creative ways to catch them off guard.
Kansas City will need to move the pocket every once in a while for some easy target to stay ahead of the sticks on first downs or convert on third-and-short, but more importantly they have to find ways to keep that D-line from coming upfield as quick as they usually do by at least keeping the run a threat. I like how creative Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy have been with their run schemes recently, like running power with a pulling guard and having a wing-man from the back-side leading up the hole to go with it, or keeping defenses off balance with great timing off the jet sweep fake and the inside zone right behind it going the opposite direction. You also saw Tyreek Hill score on a touch pass against the Titans and maybe the Chiefs counter that by faking that action to one of their speedy receivers and getting the ball to Kelce lined up off the line or as an H-back on a shovel pass the other way. The Packers had some success throwing those quick outside screens off light run-fakes and they were most productive in the run game by getting to the edge on toss plays as well as forcing the edge defender on the backside of zone plays to stay home with Davante Adams coming across the formation on jet sweeps, which created a big cutback lane Aaron Jones. Well, nobody scares defenses more on those types of plays than Tyreek Hill – so that should work out pretty well
If I’m the Niners, I am telling my edge guys to not come upfield at all when left unblocked, but instead be ready for Kelce coming across the formation as he slips into the flats or maybe they are throwing a screen right over that defender’s head. San Francisco has very trustworthy corners in run support and their linebackers can cover a lot of ground quickly. That’s also why the secondary may give up some easy completions on five-outs and hitch routes, but those guys actually make the receivers pay for catching them. And with Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw, they also have the type of linebackers, who can carry some of those fast receivers as they cross their face. As scary as it may sound with all those fast guys I have been talking about, Robert Saleh’s DBs need to have that internal clock after like three seconds to stay with whoever is in their zone at that point, because Mahomes is just so great at extending plays and moving around to create space in-between the zones as the play progresses. Oh, and if those deep guys see Mahomes scrambling around, they better turn and run if they are already 30 yards deep, because there is probably somebody streaking down the field and that QB can put it 60-70 yards through the air.
For a defense that mostly revolves around the old Seattle single-high cover-three press-bail scheme, you just can’t give Mahomes the same looks all the time. You need to make him re-scan the field after the snap by rolling coverages and bringing some six-man pressures in certain situations and versus certain formation, where you have a good feel for what they will run. You also have to be deceptive when doing it and use defenders to replace the areas those blitzers were originally responsible for, so the Chiefs can’t have one of their receivers sitting down in open space and make people miss after the catch. One of those wrinkles you could use is blitzing the nickel and having somebody race out there a couple of times and then switch it up with a fake blitz off the slot to avoid hot-reads, just like Tennessee did and almost had Tyreek reverse field for a 15-yard loss. Another question is – How do you spy Mahomes? I think you maybe mix it up, like using one of the interior D-linemen when having your D-ends in a wide nine and have him ready to disengage either way or have Fred Warner reading the back other time and coming on greendog blitzes if a lane opens up. As much as I love the way Shanahan and the 49ers take advantage of defensive weaknesses with superb game-planning, you know Andy Reid off a bye will have a few crazy plays ready for Miami. I can’t way to say those.
Before I get into this, you know how good this information is when you see that I had Raheem Mostert and Emmanuel Moseley as my X-factors for the 49ers in the NFC Championship game and not only did Mostert almost break the single-game postseason rushing record while scoring four touchdowns, but Moseley also had the pick just before halftime that kind of already sealed the deal, as San Francisco went into the locker-room up 28-0.
For my X-factors I don’t want to give you guys who everybody knows really well anyway, such as Dee Ford looking to take it out his former team or Honeybadger making a difference on a snap where he disguises coverage and forces a bad decision by Jimmy G. I want to talk about guys nobody else is really doing and how their role in this game can be a decisive factor for who ends up hoisting the Lombardi trophy.
49ers – Kendrick Bourne and K’Waun Williams
Like I talked about already, the Chiefs keep their deep safeties pretty close to the hashes at all times and don’t want anybody to straight down the field or have one of them ready to break on any type of shallow post or dig route. That means where you have to attack them is on the perimeter. Whether it’s press man and you need to win off the line or throw over the top of them when they do jump on some type of deeper in-breaking route, just like they did on the Anthony Firkser touchdown in the Titans game. The Niners will need to make some plays out wide and Bourne is one of the true flankers on that roster Whether that is binding working the corners with curls while binding the safety on that side of the field with a seam route or taking advantage of the space behind them when they come down against a crossing Deebo Samuel.
Defensively, I am looking specifically at the nickel position. With the heavy amount of 11 personnel the Chiefs have been playing, San Francisco should rarely be in base sets and that makes this guy a big piece. Williams will not only be matched up with Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman in the slot quite a bit in general when the Niners run cover-three, where they will mostly shade the deep safety over whoever is the biggest threat from the according formation, but he also needs to carry those speedsters down the seams to limit the big plays over the top, because otherwise you will see Jimmie Ward having to chase after somebody streaking down the field. Williams could be used as a blitzer a few times too, like I described earlier.
Chiefs – Darwin Thompson and Tanoh Kpassagnon
For the Chiefs it was a little tougher to find a real X-factors, because pretty much all of their skill-players have gone off in some game. So I looked at the running back position and while LeSean McCoy has been kept on shelf for this playoff run and I wouldn’t be shocked if Andy Reid decides to give him some touches all of a sudden, Thompson to me is the more interesting one. Since December pretty much he has clearly been the second option out of the backfield for Kansas City. As a runner, he brings excellent contact balance and physicality to the table. But even more important could be his involvement as a receiver. The Chiefs like to send him on wheel routes as they clear out to the opposite side of the field or he catch a few balls angling back inside underneath Kelce, if he is bracketed.
As far as defense goes for KC, I have my eye on the guy who has mostly played across from Frank Clark as the strong-side defensive end. Kpassagnon’s snap count has continually grown as the Chiefs have dealt with some injuries at the position and he has been on the field for about 83 percent of the plays this postseason. Just like he did against Tennessee, when they finally slowed down Derrick Henry, the third-year man will need to set a hard edge and not allow the 49ers running-backs to get to the outside on him. The Chiefs might also swap him Chris Jones on passing situations and he will try to use his enormous length against the opposing guards. Versus Tennessee they even had him drop back and make a play on the ball 15 yards downfield.
As much as I have talked about offensive and defensive schemes and what they teams will/should try to do to make things difficult for the opposition, special teams and the return game could play a big role in this game. Richie James Jr. on the 49ers’ side and Mecole Hardman for Chiefs are threats to rip off a big one at any point of the game and we have already seen them both swing momentum with some nice returns during these playoffs. Also for two kickers in Robbie Gould and Harrison Butker that are both above 90 percent on their field goal attempts from under 50 yards out, could one missed kick be the difference? What I really love about this matchup as well is how healthy both of these teams are at this time without a single player on either final injury report to affect the outcome.
For me what it comes down to is the Niners’ ability to control games from the start and not allow their opponents to play a style they are not comfortable with. They probably won’t be able to win this game with Garoppolo throwing the ball eight times like he did in the NFC Championship, but I think Shanahan will put the pressure on himself to take the ball out of his hands quickly or present him with easy completion, and then when the Kansas City defense gets too aggressive with the way they jump on crossers or flat-routes, he draws up the kill-shot.
It is horrifying to bet against Mahomes because of the way he can make plays off schedule and force defenses to be wrong even if they do everything right, but with all that depth and talent on the D-line, I don’t think you will see those guys get tired the way the Texans and Titans did, as he the superstar QB created magic against them. And even with two weeks to prepare for it, that San Francisco rushing attack is so diverse and complicated that if you just slip up once and lose gap integrity, there is Mostert or one of the other guys one-on-one with a DB in the open field.