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What the Chiefs will do on offense in Super Bowl 54

In the first part of our Super Bowl preview, retired defensive end Stephen White breaks down what Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City offense will do when they have the ball.

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes smiles at tight end Travis Kelce, superimposed on background with pink, teal, white lines
Patrick Mahomes and top target Travis Kelce are playing in their first Super Bowl.

This column is the first of a five-part Super Bowl 54 preview. Over the next few days, I will roll out the rest of the series, which will give you some key things to look out for when the Chiefs and 49ers play Sunday.

Here’s the entire schedule:

Jan. 28: Chiefs on offense; 49ers on defense
Jan. 29: 49ers on offense; Chiefs on defense
Jan. 30: Who will win the Super Bowl

Although I do pick a winner at the end of this series, what I pride myself on most is predicting the ways teams will try to attack each other, and the outcomes of some of those battles-within-a-battle. Anybody can flip a coin and have a 50/50 chance of being right about who will take the Lombardi Trophy home, but how many people can accurately describe how it will go down before it happens?

That’s what I’m really shooting for above all else. Let’s start with what the Chiefs will do on offense in the Super Bowl.

What will happen when the Chiefs run the ball

When you think of Kansas City, it’s so easy to focus on their passing game and their third-year phenom at quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Quietly, however, the Chiefs have rushed for over 100 yards in their last four games.

Don’t be surprised when Kansas City comes out and tries to establish the run early and often. The Chiefs know the strength of that 49ers’ defense is their front four, and a strong running game is the best way to both wear those defensive linemen down and also set up play-action pass later.

(Shut up, analytics nerds.)

The Chiefs like to use a lot of belly runs, with some zone-run plays mixed in. Every once in a while they will go with counters and Power Os if the situation calls for it, but they seemed to use those more earlier in the season. But hey, no time like the present to dust them off for the Super Bowl.

It just so happens that the 49ers had some problems trying to defend belly plays. That convergence should mean that when the Chiefs do try to run the ball, you will see them utilizing a lot of belly runs. In particular, I believe they will run a lot of split bellies. That’s where a tight end, fullback, or in some cases, a wide receiver, lines up at the wing position, then after the snap crosses behind the offensive line to block the end man on the line of scrimmage, while the offensive line blocks en masse in the opposite direction.

I also think it will help set up some things in the passing game, but I will get to that in a minute.

There’s also the chance that Mahomes can pull the ball and keep it, then follow that wing around as a sort of quarterback sweep run. It’s just a very versatile running play that I can see being a huge part of the Kansas City’s gameplan.

In addition to the plays they normally run well, Super Bowl teams usually adopt a few more they have seen other teams successfully run against their opponent. I didn’t see the Chiefs use many toss run plays, but somebody discovered that the 49ers don’t always fit up well on toss plays and everybody else seemed to follow suit. I expect the Chiefs will do the same at least a time or two, even if it isn’t their normal M.O.

But since I’m talking about the running game, I do have a question that I think is important: just how much of LeSean McCoy are we going to see in the Super Bowl?

I like Damien Williams and I think he will do just fine as the starter, but Shady did have almost 500 yards rushing on 4.6 yards per carry this season. However, McCoy hasn’t seen the field since Week 15. While I know he was sick before the AFC Championship Game, he will have had plenty of time to get healthy before the ball kicks off. And not only do I think the Chiefs could use him in this matchup, but I also believe they may ultimately need his contribution if they are to win this game.

There have been times when a backup played a key role in securing a Super Bowl victory for his team, and I think this could be McCoy’s time to shine in spot duty.

What will happen when the Chiefs pass

There are two things I expect to see out of the Chiefs’ passing offense. The first is a lot of screen plays. The 49ers had issues defending screens, and that is another way of trying to slow down their hellacious pass rush. Mind you, the San Francisco defense wasn’t necessarily giving up a lot of big plays, but rather, consistent moderate gains.

The offense could get to trips by motioning a wide receiver or tight end to the two receiver side, or even a running back swinging out. Because the 49ers play so much off coverage when they are in Cover 3, those screens will be an easy way for the Chiefs to pick up some yardage. With yards-after-catch monsters like Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Travis Kelce, and Williams at Mahomes’ disposal, some of those short passes may wind up turning into big gains. I wouldn’t sleep on the rookie Mecole Hardman making a play by popping a screen pass on Sunday, either.

This is another reason why I asked how much McCoy will play, because at the very least I feel like he could make a contribution as a third-down back with the screen game. And that isn’t to say he couldn’t also be a factor on early downs as well, but Shady in open space with blockers ahead of him is still a scary sight for most defenses.

Chiefs RB LeSean McCoy takes a screen pass for a short gain against the Raiders.

The second thing I expect to see from the Chiefs’ passing offense is quite a few bootlegs and half rolls to move the pocket for Mahomes. They already use both on a regular basis anyway, but several teams were able to make some hay with bootlegs against that normally stout 49ers’ defense.

If you go back and watch when the 49ers beat the Rams in Week 16, the Rams damn near bootlegged the 49ers to death in the first half. For whatever reason, the normally disciplined San Francisco defense was all discombobulated from the misdirection.

Rams QB Jared Goff throws to TE Tyler Higbee for a big gain against the 49ers defense.

The 49ers appeared to clean up some details at halftime, and they were much better against those same bootleg looks in the second half. But I would think the Chiefs are going to want to see for themselves if the issue is truly “fixed.”

With everything else they have to worry about as far as trying to cover those potent KC skill position players, bootlegs and half rolls are going to be yet another headache that the 49ers’ defense just doesn’t need.

And, as a bonus, those kinds of plays should also help keep Mahomes away from that ferocious San Francisco pass rush.

In theory, at least.

This is where running a lot of split belly can work in the Chiefs’ favor as well. You get that wing man coming across kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage a few times, and that end man starts to get frustrated. Then you have that wing man go hard at the end man on the line of scrimmage again, but instead of kicking him out, that wing man leaks into the flat instead on a bootleg. That guy will usually be wide open, and that wing man might end up being anybody from Kelce to a “big” wide receiver like Watkins or Demarcus Robinson. Getting the ball to one of those guys, in that situation, would give them a chance to make a guy miss and hit a wind sprint to the end zone.

Advantage, Chiefs.

The Chiefs try to feature Kelce a lot like the 49ers do with their tight end, George Kittle. For as cold as he is, Kelce seems to be floating under the radar leading up to this Super Bowl. Of the two, Kelce had more catches (97 to 85), more yards (1,229 to 1,053), and matched him in receiving touchdowns with five (Kelce also had a rushing touchdown) this season.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelce had a classic “remember me?” type of day in Miami. I am sure the Chiefs are going to try to feed him, and they will find creative ways to get him the ball. Regardless of what the talking heads are focused on, you can bet your ass the 49ers know Kelce is the real deal. I absolutely expect the 49ers to try to double Kelce in big spots throughout the game, but that’s where good play design can still win out.

I saw a play-action screen to the tight end that worked against the 49ers’ defense. I also think we may get some mesh route combinations from the Chiefs if the 49ers try to mix in a little more man coverage. Mesh is basically where eligible receivers are running crossing routes on different levels from both sides, trying to use that traffic to rub off a defender in coverage.

Look for them to try to use it in the red zone top free up Kelce on a shallow crosser, if nowhere else on the field.

I also believe we will see some Cover 3 “beaters” from Kansas City to try to take advantage of the 49ers’ tendency to play that zone coverage in most games. Either Kelce or one of the other tight ends may run a wheel route or two from the slot while the wideout to his side runs a deep post to attract the corner and safety.

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes connects with Travis Kelce for a huge gain down the left sideline vs. the Chargers.

Another play to watch out for is one I found all the way back in Week 1 against the Jaguars, who run a somewhat similar defense to the 49ers. The Chiefs had Watkins run a shallow crosser that eventually turned into somewhat of a wheel route on the other side. The wideout to that side ran a skinny post to attract the corner and safety, and the running back also ran a flat route to that side, which ended up attracting the linebacker who would normally be sinking and playing the flat.

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes hits a wide open Sammy Watkins for a long touchdown against the Jaguars.

Watkins has likely never been any more wide open than that in his life.

I wouldn’t be surprised if to see it happen again on Sunday.

I also have my fingers crossed that the Chiefs break out the oopty oop formation to run a screen, which is one of my favorite things in the world for an offense use. This is more wishful thinking than something that is likely to happen, though.

Be sure to check out what the 49ers will do on defense next.