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Establish The Fun: Defining keys to the big game

What do you need to watch for in the Super Bowl?

Welcome back to Establish the Fun, where football is fun and we’re establishing that with levels of enthusiasm unknown to mankind! We’ve reached the final stage of our journey; the last ETF of the football season. Before we get into the fun, however, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you to everyone who reads and gives feedback on the column. For this being my second year both in the industry and my second year actually having a column that goes around nationally, it’s been an amazing time. I’m only 23 so sometimes it is kind of overwhelming to be in this industry, but writing this almost every week has helped me find my way and my place in the sports world. We’re only getting better from here, so keep tuning in!

Alright, enough of the mushy stuff, let’s get to the big game. The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers are playing in a Super Bowl that feels four years in the making, and while most people have decided that this game would be the least fun of any possibilities over conference championship weekend, I actually think this game is going to be very fun from an on-field standpoint! So before you sit down with some wings and turn on the TV, here’s what you need to look for during the Super Bowl.

When Kansas City has the ball

Allow me to take you back to last year. Week 7 of last year, to be exact. The Chiefs traveled to Levi’s Stadium to take on the 49ers, in what was both RB Christian McCaffrey’s first game as a Niner, and QB Brock Purdy’s first appearance. However, I’m going to focus on when the Chiefs had the ball, because they went into San Francisco and did this:

And they also did this:

So much green it looks like Kansas City was playing at Augusta. I wrote about that game last year, and how the Chiefs used the 49ers’ aggression against them, and going into the Super Bowl, I think Kansas City is going to try and do the same thing. Even though then-DC DeMeco Ryans is now in Houston, the bones and foundation of that team and the structure they play with remain the same, so where I think the Chiefs are going to stress San Francisco is using motion and getting into bigger personnel. This season, the 49ers haven’t really been tested by teams that use motion to pass against them a lot—despite being 7th in the NFL in EPA/play allowed against any kind of motion, they have the 4th-lowest attempts in the NFL, and the lowest rushing attempts with any motion tagged on it.

Enter Kansas City, who per ESPN’s Seth Walder, had motion at the snap on 19.2% of their plays, 16th-highest in the NFL this year. Now, as I always say, putting motion on everything isn’t some magical ‘get out of bad offense free’ card. There has to be some intention behind the motion, and the last time Kansas City played San Francisco, they used motion with MAJOR success. Of Chiefs’ QB Patrick Mahomes’ 35 dropbacks that day, 24 used motion. On those 24 dropbacks: 17-23, 283 yards, 3 touchdowns, one pick and a total EPA of 14.40. For reference, Patrick Mahomes overall had the highest total EPA of any QB that week. Patrick Mahomes on only passing plays that used motion would’ve been third-highest of the week. In the run game, the Chiefs only used motion on five attempts. But of those five attempts, three went for TDs. Let’s look back at that game, to see how it can inform us about Sunday’s gameplan.

As I said before, motion without intent is just running players for no reason, but Kansas City’s intention behind their motion is to create space and winning leverage. TE Travis Kelce is a phenomenal tight end, but at his age he wins with more savvy and subtlety than flying past defenders. How the Chiefs beat the Niners in the passing game is by creating that space as a result of the 49ers’ aggression. Instead of trying to punch against the haymaker, power puncher, Kansas City used their force against them and knocked them out.

The Niners are in quarters coverage here, and with the Kelce motion to the backside the rules could change (depending on the coach). With the Chiefs initially lining up with four guys to the field side, the backside linebacker had the ability to roam or help on the backside receiver. However, with Kelce now in the picture, that backside coverage means Dre Greenlaw has to run with the backside number 2 receiver, which is now Kelce. Kelce has a two way go and a free release, and I’ll take Kelce nine times out of ten with those circumstances.

Kansas City loves motioning their guys into stacks or bunches, because the rules for stacks and bunches change in comparison to traditional spacing. You can’t play straight up the way you normally would because you’re putting the DBs in a bind. Motioning to this for an offense means the defense has less time to adjust or get into their formation, and puts the offense ahead of the 8-ball. Here, San Francisco blitzes the nickel, putting Fred Warner back in the coverage discussion. Looking at Warner’s body language, you can tell he’s looking specifically for a shallow, maybe a drive concept. However, that shallow never comes, and Kansas City runs a sick inside scissor concept with Kelce and WR Juju Smith-Schuster. S Talanoa Hufanga also triggers hard on the whip route, and with Kelce clearing the corner, Smith-Schuster is wide open.

In the run game, the Chiefs enabled the matador offense, with Nick Bosa being the bull. Often, instead of trying to block Bosa straight up, they would leave him unblocked in the run game, letting his own aggression take him out of the play. There were two such instances like that in their 2022 battle that could influence how the Chiefs run the ball on Sunday, both resulted in touchdowns.

This Mecole Hardman jet sweep touchdown was nifty in how they used the Niners’ aggression against them. San Francisco plays a downhill style of four-man front, opting for gap penetrators instead of gap holders. Kansas City decided to let them take themselves out the play, releasing guard Trey Smith and tackle Andrew Wylie up to the second level. This resulted in big guys blocking little guys, and a KC touchdown.

Oddly enough, this does seem very familiar...

Giving the Chiefs two weeks to prepare is already a daunting task, with Andy Reid sitting at home designing plays solely to break opponents in the biggest game of the year. The Niners’ motion and bunch rules will be tested a lot, and while Kansas City doesn’t have the same caliber of offensive line as Detroit (especially without Joe Thuney), if they can generate movement up front this game is going to get hairy for the 49ers.

When San Francisco has the ball

It’s well known that the spine is one of the most important parts of the body. Outside of keeping the body upright and stable, it connects everything together via a path of neural connections leading up to the brain. If the spine is broken, nothing else functions very well.

I say all that to say this: when San Francisco has the ball, the spine of both the offense and defense will be the biggest thing you need to watch. The “spine” of the defense being the guards and center for the offense and the defensive tackle, linebackers and safeties for the defense.

San Francisco is going to try and lean on their run game, especially out of 21 personnel. Not only does this allow the Niners to get their MonStars on the field, but it also is a weakness in the Chiefs’ defense (per Underdog Fantasy’s Hayden Winks):

In order to avoid turning this game into a passing shootout (which plays into what the Chiefs want), San Francisco is going to need to run the ball effectively. San Francisco is first in the NFL per Sports Information Solutions in EPA per attempt at 0.03, and third in the NFL in that same metric out of 21 personnel. A majority of their runs are outside zone, a Shanahan specialty. Specifically, they run a play named ‘Zorro’, an outside zone toss that sends someone in motion at the snap. On this rep, it’s fullback Kyle Juszczyk who goes in motion. Where the pivotal block comes is on the edge. Juszczyk and TE George Kittle have to pass off the block on the edge defender so RB Christian McCaffrey can find the cutback lane. WR Brandon Aiyuk gets a great block on the off-ball LB and it results in an eight-yard gain.

What’s notable about this play is that the Lions are in a five-man front, with LB Jack Campbell (who should be off ball) out on the edge. One of the changes in modern defense was the inclusion of five-man fronts to stop outside zone runs. This is because five-man fronts don’t allow the linemen to climb to the second level. However, with the Niners in 21 personnel, they add two more blockers to the LOS, giving them back the advantage.

How will the Chiefs counter this? Well, they might lean into a playbook from an old friend. In the 2018 Super Bowl, the New England Patriots stymied Rams HC Sean McVay and their outside zone offense en route to a 13-3 victory. How they did it was by implementing a front with six men on the line of scrimmage and one linebacker. Meaning that the defense would get the advantage up front and no offensive linemen could move to the second level. Because the Niners can get into gap scheme runs as well, I think Kansas City is going to lean into the illusion of a five or six-man front despite being a four-down team. Part of how they shut down the Ravens’ run game was using LBs Drue Tranquill and Leo Chenal as de facto defensive linemen, creating odd fronts with even spacing. This was the first play of the AFC Championship game, Baltimore coming out in 21 personnel and running outside zone. When TE Isaiah Likely goes in motion, Tranquill walks down to the line of scrimmage. When the ball is given to RB Justice Hill, you can see that there’s nowhere to cut back. The Chiefs created a new surface and with slanting the front they changed the picture up front.

One of my favorite things Chiefs DC Steve Spaguolo does in the run game is use LB Leo Chenal as his three-technique defensive tackle, but from a two-point stance. Again, creating a five-man surface from a four-man front. Against Miami, who has the same outside zone principles as San Francisco, this allowed for the Chiefs to stay in their base personnel while being solid against the run. That way, instead of being in an over front set to the tight end, when Miami shifts FB Alec Ingold into the backfield, Chenal moves to the line of scrimmage, and makes it into a five-man Bear front, with two defenders acting as three-techniques. Now, when Miami runs that zone toss, Nick Bolton is kept clean with Chenal on the guard and makes the stop.

When the Chiefs only have two linebackers on the field, DB Trent McDuffie becomes extremely important. Because they want to play with lighter bodies on the field, McDuffie has to stick his head in the run game. Here, he becomes the sixth man on the line of scrimmage, and watch him set the edge here. Pretty impressive for a slot corner.

In the passing game, what’ll be tested for San Francisco is QB Brock Purdy’s second reaction play. What I mean by that is when the defense changes the picture post-snap and forces Purdy to hold onto the ball. Kansas City has effectively de-fanged every passing game they’ve played in the playoffs, and forced opposing QBs to hold onto the ball.

The Spags Effect

Quarterback Time to Throw in Reg. Season Time to Throw vs. Kansas City in playoffs
Quarterback Time to Throw in Reg. Season Time to Throw vs. Kansas City in playoffs
Tua Tagovailoa 2.36 2.61
Josh Allen 2.88 2.72
Lamar Jackson 2.95 3.34

How they do this is by changing the picture post-snap and bringing pressure while remaining structurally intact. When the Chiefs get safety Mike Edwards on the field, they can become more versatile, dropping and adding defenders underneath like queens on chessboards. Everyone loved how Spags rotated from two-high, to one-high, then back to two-high, but this one was just as cool. All three safeties are at different levels, but this turns into Cover 2 with Edwards being the middle runner. Incredibly dope play.

Where Purdy can help the Niners offense in the Super Bowl is using his legs. The biggest difference between him and previous Shanahan QBs in San Francisco is his ability to lean into the chaos, and for the Niners to win in the passing game, he’s going to have to run a little bit. Against Detroit, Purdy added so much to the run game, and helped San Francisco get the win.

If Kansas City goes to man coverage, Purdy has to know that he can take off like he did here.

Overall, this has the makings of a phenomenal game, with both teams playing their absolute best. A perfectly fun ending to a perfectly fun year.