In Super Bowl LIV, we have two dynamically different teams with contrasting strengths and philosophies. Representing the AFC are the Kansas City Chiefs, who have one of the best passing attacks of the last decade, led by their Quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Representing the NFC are the San Francisco 49ers, a defensive juggernaught and run-first Offense. What should we expect from each team? The Chiefs are trying to earn Head Coach Andy Reid’s first ever Super Bowl ring, while 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan wants to get one early in his young career.
Kansas City Chiefs
QB Mahomes was the league MVP in 2018, and is arguably the best passer over the last two seasons. He has excelled over the past few weeks scrambling and adding yards on the ground, making him dangerous in more ways than one. But his best asset is being able to make every throw, leading an attack that can score very quickly and from every point on the field.
Of course, Mahomes is able to succeed in part because of the players around him. Wide Receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Tight End Travis Kelce are all exceptional players who get open with speed, size and strength. Having so many dangerous options makes it almost impossible for Defences to shut them down, as leaving any one in single coverage will give them too much space, while Mahomes’ ability to escape and extend plays provides risks with blitzing.
The Chiefs’ Defence is also starting to improve as the season progresses. Defensive Linemen Chris Jones and Frank Clark have made bigger impacts in games recently, including 6 sacks for Clark over his past four games. Defensive Backs Bashaud Breeland and Tyrann Mathieu have also begun to impact games in different ways, while Safety Daniel Sorensen has made some key plays in the playoffs to keep the Chiefs rolling. Although the Chiefs lack a landmark strength on Defence, individuals such as these can change games.
While their rushing attack has improved since their Week 12 bye, the Chiefs struggled running the football for much of this season. In their two playoff games, they have averaged 115 yards, which would put them 14th in the league. Running Backs Damien Williams, LeSean McCoy and Darwin Thompson can all support the passing attack as receivers, but not being able to chew up the clock could be problematic for Kansas City.
Although there are playmakers emerging on the Chiefs’ Defence, it is still having problems stopping good Offenses. In the playoffs, the Chiefs notably went behind by over 20 points but managed to pull the game back with their Offense. However, against the 49ers, who can run the ball successfully and take time away, the Chiefs may not get those same chances to score. If San Francisco can get a lead, the Chiefs’ Defence may not be able to come up with the stops it needs. Likewise, the 49ers have a very good Offensive Line, and despite the improvements by players like Frank Clark, this will be a much tougher matchup.
Kansas City will be leaning heavily on Mahomes, and hoping their exceptional Offense is enough to win. Kelce is likely to be targeted frequently, as the 49ers have had more difficulty covering TEs this season, with Green Bay Packers having some success passing to TEs Mercedes Lewis, Jimmy Graham and Jace Sternberger in the NFC Championship. Kelce’s size and speed are tougher matchups for the 49ers secondary, while Hill and Hardman’s speed will be another advantage for them in getting behind the 49ers’ Cornerbacks. With a lack of depth at CB and vulnerability to TEs, the Chiefs will get opportunities to move the ball through the air.
That said, Kelce may be required to block more than usual. While the Chiefs OL is above average, it isn’t overly dominant, and will struggle against the 49ers elite DL. Kansas City also need to continue trying to run the football a little, as allowing the 49ers to drop extra players in coverage will break up some passing lanes. Mahomes will need to run a few times as well, possibly on designed runs to force the Defence from teeing off on him. To also avoid the speed of the DL, the Chiefs will have short options, including RBs on swing routes and in the flats as check-downs for Mahomes to hit when he’s under pressure.
Defensively, the Chiefs need to find a way to stop the 49ers’ run game. Recognising the extra blockers and shifts within the same formations are hard to do, but it’s the secret to the 49ers’ Offense. The Chiefs have had a relatively good pass Defence this season, and they should use players like Mathieu to defend against the run, leaving a single safety in coverage. Scoring quickly and often, with some success against the run, will force the 49ers to consider having QB Jimmy Garoppolo passing more. If the Chiefs can get this to happen, they should win a shootout.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have mauled teams with their rushing attack this season, finishing with the second best in terms of yards per game and best in the league for rushing Touchdowns. With Fullback Kyle Jusczyk and TE George Kittle able to be used as blockers, as well as receivers, the 49ers can have the same formation but run multiple plays, making it difficult for Defences to adjust their alignments. The rotation of RBs used has also not mattered to the 49ers, with different players having success at different times. What really makes the rushing game work though, is the OL, which pulls and slides to create big holes.
The biggest strength of the 49ers though, is their front 7 on Defence. The DL each has at least one sack in the playoffs, with 7 over the two games. The Linebackers are good at defending the pass and the run, with Dre Greenlaw used against the Packers’ RB Aaron Jones, shadowing him and limiting his impact in the passing game to just 27 yards. LB Fred Warner was the team’s leading tackler this season, and he has a nose for the football, diagnosing plays quickly.
San Francisco also have a secondary that has played well for most of the season. CB Richard Sherman has made an Interception in each of the two playoff games, allowing only 9 yards per completion and 1 TD this season. Safeties Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore are used against the run and pass, supporting the key playmakers up front by giving extra time to get sacks and pressure, or limiting receiving options. With complementary Defence, the 49ers have a clear recipe for success.
Despite not being an out-and-out weakness, the 49ers will try to limit Garoppolo from having to pass too much. While he has held his own in a few shootouts this season, he is unlikely to keep up with Mahomes. Additionally, with a 27:13 TD:INT ratio, the 49ers won’t want to risk turning the ball over. And without the WRs that can consistently beat tight coverage, especially against a CB like Breeland, San Francisco know that their aerial attack may not be enough.
Moreover, despite having such a strong Defence, the 49ers struggled to defend the run for much of the season. While they have allowed a combined 83 rushing yards in the playoffs, they had just 4 games all season where they allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards. If Kansas City can have success on the ground, the Defence could struggle to get a stop and may not get to play from in front.
Control the clock and play from in front is exactly how the 49ers will want to win. Reducing Mahomes’ and the Chiefs opportunities to score will be essential for San Francisco to win. Jusczyk, Kittle and WR Deebo Samuel will all be used to create rushing lanes, while the OL will also prioritise stopping Clark. If the 49ers get a lead and are running the ball well, they will do everything they can take as much time off the clock as possible.
Furthermore, the 49ers will also give Garoppolo a few completions early on. They will be reluctant to lean on him to move the ball all game, but also won’t want him finding a rhythm late in the game if he has to. Some slants, screens and out routes to Kittle, Samuel and WR Emmanuel Sanders will ensure Garoppolo is comfortable, while also reducing the chances of him turning the ball over. San Francisco may also want to take a shot downfield early if they can to get in scoring position early.
On Defence, the 49ers have the luxury of being able to rush 4 players most snaps. Although they will bring an extra blitzer at times, such as Greenlaw, Tartt or Warner, they won’t want Mahomes to escape and have space to run. Warner and Greenlaw will be tasked with limiting Williams, McCoy, Thompson and Mahomes from getting too many yards. San Francisco will be counting on forcing Mahomes to throw the ball quickly before Hill or anyone else can get open deep downfield.
The 49ers will also play most of the game with an extra DB. Jamming Hill at the line of scrimmage, and doubling Kelce, will take away the big play targets for the Chiefs. San Francisco will also want a Safety to play deep most of the game, so that none of the Chiefs get behind the 49ers secondary for a big gain. It’s unlikely the 49ers will get many coverage sacks, so the DL needs to collapse the pocket as quickly as it can.