Brock Purdy tosses left to Christian McCaffrey running behind a wedge of blockers for a potential explosive play. A Kansas City defender knifes through and could make a tackle for loss. This Super Bowl will be decided by who wins the individual matchups in space.
Kansas City safety Justin Reid says making a solo tackle or slowing the ball carrier is one of the highest priorities of the Chiefs defense. “It’ll be critical for us on the edge on these dump-off passes, screens, or whatever they’re doing that the first guy there make the tackle and really slow that momentum down. Don’t allow them to catch in stride or catch in rhythm.”
When McCaffrey isn’t touched behind the line, he gains 8.1 yards per carry. One of McCaffrey's subtle talents is he’s the league’s best at setting up his blockers to take defenders out of the play. Kyle Shanahan is one of the league’s best at scheming defenders out of the play or putting blockers in front of them.
Scheme and Running Game
Like the 49ers, if Kansas City plays their base defense the Niners can run on them all day. Across most stats, the Niners are top-three in the run game and the Chiefs are bottom-six defending it, particularly wide. Steve Spagnuolo likes to open in base and then adjust, I wonder if he’s going to be so accommodating in the Super Bowl.
Against Baltimore, Spagnuolo used Reid as a rover, who diagnosed the play as the tip of the spear of the defense. Reid may have been talking about himself needing to make the tackle in space.
Spagnuolo knows Baltimore succeeded with that scheme against the Niners, as he plugs Reid into Kyle Hamilton’s role. Like the Ravens, he uses DB blitzes and simulated pressure that confused the Niners' offensive line and Brock Purdy.
For Shanahan, he’s seen the defense Spagnuolo may well choose to play. Coming out of the Baltimore game Shanahan knew the Niners needed to run more with two backs and use the quick short passing game against the blitz. That should be the game plan for Sunday.
Against Baltimore, Shanahan had one touchdown drive that was nearly all McCaffrey. 67 yards in six plays taking three-and-a-half minutes. Two yards were a Purdy quarterback sneak, the rest was McCaffrey. They can do the same thing to Kansas City, particularly out of 21 personnel. The Chiefs' run defense is weakened by the injury to Charles Omenihu.
For a year and a half Shanahan has heard defenses all say the same thing, our top priority is stopping Christian McCaffrey. Then no one does. Shanahan has had 18 months to perfect the art of freeing McCaffrey on the ground, in the air, and as a decoy.
The Niners will need to identify Reid and block him with Jauan Jennings or Kyle Juszczyk at the line, or occupy him in a route. They will need to run McCaffrey out of 21, and use a package of screens to free Deebo Samuel.
With the Baltimore game to learn from, Shanahan knows what works and what doesn’t against this defensive scheme Spagnuolo used in the AFC Championship.
Kansas City has the best trio of defensive backs in the league, they’re tough to beat downfield. Shanahan may decide the best way to attack this defense and circumvent Spagnuolo’s blitz pressure is the horizontal passing game. Quick throws where the ball is out before the pressure arrives. This plays into the strengths of McCaffrey and Samuel, allows Purdy to get into a rhythm, and avoids the mistakes of the Baltimore game.
Knowing this, Spagnuolo will have to play tight man coverage. The Chiefs play man at the 5th highest rate in the league. The downside of that, Purdy is at his best against man, particularly against the blitz. However, Purdy drops to 19th against zone blitzes, so Spagnuolo will need to get creative.
Kansas City is fond of cover zero and sending six, but the Niners are the best in the league at beating it.
Purdy's scrambling can also be a key in picking up third downs. The Chiefs are vulnerable to it. Purdy is getting a better feel for timing and his confidence keeps growing with more success.
The Chiefs should have a matchup advantage upfront with their best two pass rushers Chris Jones and George Karlaftis against the Niners' weakest pass blockers Jon Feliciano and Colton McKivitz. If the Chiefs win that battle, Shanahan may need to deploy left rollouts.
Jones had key plays in the 2020 Super Bowl batting passes down at the line. One tactic Purdy could utilize is pump fakes. He’s rarely used them, Kansas City won’t be expecting it at all, and it may get Jones in the air.
Pump fakes may also be a way of using Kansas City's aggressiveness against them. Purdy used a pump fake for a touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk against Tampa Bay, that may be a way to free Aiyuk against L’Jarius Sneed.
With the league’s top trio at corner, the Chiefs are elite at limiting passing yards by receivers, but the Niners have McCaffrey and George Kittle as reliable targets and may involve Juszczyk as well.
Prediction (My playoff record 10-2)
If not for the Baltimore game, Kansas City may have blown the Niners out in the Super Bowl. Instead, Shanahan had the chance to go to school on this defensive scheme.
Now it’s on him to adapt that to Sunday’s game plan as he takes his second swing at simulated pressure, DB blitzes, and safety as rover schemes. DBs cannot come in unblocked, Baltimore generated a pick and sacks off that tactic. That's Kansas City's checkmate move for sacks and incompletions.
Shanahan knows it's coming, he will need to have an answer ready to identify blitzes and counter them. The Niners' versatility in blocking by the skill players will be critical.
The mistakes Shanahan made against the Baltimore scheme - he now knows not to do. He gets a do-over as Kansas City runs the same concepts. That should make this game more efficient and successful.
21 personnel run game, the horizontal passing game, beating the blitz, and McCaffrey-heavy drives should all result in the Niners moving the ball consistently on offense. What they will need to avoid is back-to-back low yardage in the early downs to avoid third and long where Kansas City can pressure Purdy to get off the field.
Defensively, the Niners will need to utilize five-man fronts, stacked boxes, and calculated risk pass coverage on Kelce and Rice to get 3rd down stops, potentially assisted by holding calls from the Kansas City tackles. Mahomes rarely throws picks and is historically good at avoiding sacks, the Niners need to focus on speeding him up and forcing throwaway incompletions. Sacks aren’t essential. Stops are.
The bookends of the game will be key. If both teams open in base and stay there in the first series, the game will be tied 7-7 after the first possessions. I expect a slow-motion shootout as both offenses execute time-consuming drives and it’s who gets touchdowns in the red zone and who kicks field goals. Then the game is decided by who has the ball with five minutes left.
To avoid that, the Niners need to run and keep running. Shanahan says the key to the game is defensive line stamina. True enough. But the person who can do the most to help that is Kyle Shanahan. He must run the ball relentlessly, particularly late, to give his defense the rest they need.
Both teams excel in second-half defense. The Chiefs have been weak offensively in the second half as teams figure out their three-pronged attack. But it’s still Mahomes.
The Niners are going to need that time-eating back-breaking touchdown drive to win a championship. And this time I think Kyle Shanahan gets that done. He’s seen this movie and this defense before. Christian McCaffrey wins the MVP.
49ers 27 Chiefs 24