Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday. Here at 300 Level Media we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming championship game and the teams involved, and what each squad might do to emerge victorious.
The 54th edition of the NFL’s biggest game will take place at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami as the Kansas City Chiefs will face the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s what to watch for:
CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS EXPLOSIVE
Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken many forms over the years. While in Philadelphia, the Eagles’ passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick was based on the vertical game to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Kevin Kolb and Alex Smith it became more conservative and horizontal.
Now with Patrick Mahomes under center, the scheme has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated college concepts in recent years, and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.
“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”
The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. His weapons in the passing game play to those strengths as well. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the slot and in the backfield. He is joined by the similarly speedy but injury-prone Sammy Watkins and rookie burner Mecole Hardman to give the Chiefs a lethal trio who can beat anyone deep. Tight end Travis Kelce is versatile and can align in different ways along the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch formations – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on many different routes, especially corners and stick routes.
Running backs Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy are good receivers out of the backfield, and McCoy still has some of the quickness and burst that made him a perennial All-Pro for most of his career, even at 31 years old. They run behind an offensive line that is made up of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz at the tackle positions, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Andre Wylie at guard and Austin Reiter at center, and their lead blocker in base formations, Anthony Sherman, is one of football’s better fullbacks.
KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE IS RED HOT
From 2013 through last year the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City, the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit. However from 2016-18 it took a nosedive. Last year it bottomed out, finishing the regular season second-last in the NFL in total and passing yards allowed, 24th in points allowed and 27th against the run.
Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his former assistants in Philadephia, Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man blitzes and coverages involving mainly quarters/Cover Four schemes with safeties rotating before the snap. It took about half the season for the Chiefs’ defenders to get used to Spagnuolo’s playbook, but they have played lights-out since Week 11 – allowing just 11.5 points-per-game, notching 10 interceptions and finishing the regular season eighth in the NFL against the pass. They also racked up 45 sacks which was 11th-best among all defenses, and also held the NFL’s rushing leader in Derrick Henry to just 69 yards on the ground in the AFC title game two weeks ago.
A big key to Kansas City’s turnaround has been the importation of former Texans and Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his 1,080 snaps – 483 at slot cornerback, 315 at box safety and nickel/dime linebacker, 173 at free safety, 82 near the defensive line and 27 at outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence has been very valuable for the Chiefs.
Unfortunately for Kansas City the safety opposite Mathieu, rookie Juan Thornhill, is out for the season due a torn ACL. He is also a versatile playmaker and his absence may force Spagnuolo to use Mathieu differently. Daniel Sorenson will take his place, and the Chiefs’ other starting defensive backs are the rising Kendall Fuller, journeyman Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward.
The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. Pro Bowler Chris Jones may be the most unsung defensive tackle in the league and has accumulated 24.5 sacks over the last two years thanks to his combination of burst and power off the line of scrimmage. Former Seahawk Frank Clark boats elite quickness, future Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs brings leadership, excellent technique and strength at the point of attack and Derrick Nnadi is an up-and-coming name to watch too. At linebacker Kansas City employs two former Dallas Cowboys in Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson and are backed up by speedy cover specialist Darron Lee and thumper Reggie Ragland.
SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A DESCENDANT OF SEATTLE’S
When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley, of course, was one of the original architects (along with Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three defensive scheme (deep zone coverage on the outside with one safety in the box and another deep safety patrolling centerfield), which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.
Saleh is passing on wisdom of the scheme to his charges along with former Seahawk Richard Sherman. The signing of Sherman last season has done wonders for the rest of the 49ers’ defensive backs and Sherman’s leadership, intelligence and ability to still perform at a high level at the age of 31 has made him an important contributor to this defense.
Sherman’s length and ability to excel in press coverage has made him the prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years – so much so that the 49ers made sure that two other corners on their roster (Ahkello Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson) are also at least 6’2”. K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley and D.J. Reed Jr. are behind them on the depth chart, and safeties Jimmie Ward (who has found a home at free safety after changing positions many times in his earlier years) and Jaquiski Tartt are the starters on the back end.
The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Kwon Alexander and the rising Fred Warner. In front of them is one of the NFL’s deepest defensive lines made up of rookie Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Sheldon Day and Earl Mitchell. All of these players are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Saleh will – like Carroll before him – use one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates the amount of potential holes for opposing running backs to go through.
The ability of the 49ers’ defensive line to come at other teams in waves (and their impressive depth) has led to the team consistently utilizing fresh bodies and wearing opposing offenses down. That and Saleh’s propensity for having his front four use stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities has resulted in San Francisco finishing the regular season first in passing yards allowed and tying for fifth in sacks.
49ERS’ OFFENSE A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is, like Reid, one of the top offensive-minded coaches in football. His philosophies about the game were directly influenced by his father – former 49ers offensive coordinator and head coach of the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins, Mike Shanahan – and by his assistants, most notably Gary Kubiak, Rick Dennison, Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur. Having observed their work in San Francisco and Denver and being colleagues with them in Houston, Washington and Atlanta, Shanahan’s taken bits and pieces from all of them to create his own attack by the Bay.
The 49ers’ offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone running plays while leaving cutback lanes for ballcarriers. Executing these blocks are former All-Pro Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland (who has done an admirable job filling in for injured center Weston Richburg), Mike Person, Mike McGlinchey and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Countless tailbacks have had success in it over the years and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end). Additionally, while the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use power, traps and counters as changeup tactics and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well.
Nearly two years ago San Francisco signed former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon to be an important cog in the Niners’ running game, but he has dealt with a knee injury that has kept him off the field throughout that timeframe. Nevertheless, other backs like Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida each recorded 500 or more rushing yards in his absence and combined for 1,939 yards on the ground in 2019 – second in the NFL only to Baltimore.
The 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time in order to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time, and it also takes advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass. According to Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”
Handing the ball off to them has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. The investment in him has been worth it – when he’s been on the field (he missed most of last season with a knee injury), Garoppolo has been decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him), is intelligent and possesses a quick release, solid arm strength and good mobility. His one bugaboo this year has been ball security – he’s fumbled 10 times and lost five of them.
Garoppolo’s weapons in the passing game have been stellar. Two-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Midseason pickup Emmanuel Sanders is still a crafty route runner at 32 years old and has fit into Shanahan’s system like a glove due to his playing for Kubiak and Dennison in Denver. His knowledge of the system has been valuable for youngsters like speedster Deebo Samuel and Dante Pettis, who has taken on burner Marquise Goodwin’s duties in the wake of Goodwin’s season-ending knee injury.
Passing-wise, the 49er are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of shifts and motions, and the receivers typically execute intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
- One of Spagnuolo’s favorite types of blitzes is a “Mike-Star” blitz where the middle linebacker and slot cornerback both rush the passer. This can be defeated via three-by-one trips formations, which the 49ers use quite a bit – will “Spags” move away from this type of scheme on Sunday?
- Recently the 49ers have been eschewing zone coverages on third down and have upped their usage of coverage with two deep safeties – mostly two-man under and Cover Four to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns (which can beat Cover Three). Will this trend continue on Sunday?
- Will the 49ers use more dime personnel (six defensive backs) to counter the Chiefs’ speed?
- Kansas City likes to have their receivers run curl routes underneath to influence mid-level defenders to open up space downfield for Hill and Hardman. Conversely, great speed down the field can also influence two-deep safety looks to open up opportunities underneath.
- Could the Chiefs also use post-wheel combinations against San Francisco? They’re good routes to use against Cover Three and quarters coverage because it sends two receivers through a zone.
- Speaking of wheel routes, the Chiefs have a concept in their playbook called All-Go Special Halfback Seam, where Hill goes in motion across the formation, Kelce works the middle, Watkins runs downfield on a go route and Williams or McCoy comes out of the backfield on a wheel route. This could probably work against San Francisco’s favored defensive coverages.
- Three-by-one trips and bunch formations – which Kansas City loves to use – can exploit the 49ers’ foundational Cover Three coverage because of a mathematical advantage against the defense’s alignment at the line of scrimmage.
- Not only is Kelce great on corner routes, but he can execute those extremely well out of flood concepts with potential targets attacking the deep, intermediate and short areas of the field. The corner route, which normally goes towards the intermediate area out of floods, can beat Cover Three because the coverage is naturally geared towards stopping deep and short pass patterns, but not intermediate.
- Like the 49ers, the Chiefs also use plenty of presnap motion. One such play of theirs is called “Weezy Right Lollipop” in an ode to rapper Lil’ Wayne. Hill motions across the formation three times to misdirect defenders before Mahomes will dump the ball off to a running back in the opposite side of the third motion. Could we see this utilized on Sunday?
- Throughout his career, Reid’s teams have struggled in the areas of clock management, timeout usage, situational awareness and penalties. Those type of mental errors have cost Reid’s teams multiple games in the past, and they also showed up in this year’s playoffs with a blocked punt and muffing two returns against Houston in the divisional round and failing to stop an obvious fake punt against Tennessee in the AFC Championship Game. For Reid to finally win his long sought-after Super Bowl title, his team will need to clean up these areas.