LAS VEGAS — We are here! The Super Bowl! The Big Game!
And it’s a wonderful, fantastic, simply a super matchup between two strong contenders with star players and coaches on every single unit.
On this week’s edition of The Overhang, I will preview when both the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs have the ball this Sunday. (Sorry special teams, you might still be important!) There will be a few numbers to note, players I’m keeping an eye on outside of the typical stars, an important matchup that can swing the game, as well as props. Lots of props.
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All data via TruMedia unless otherwise noted. All betting odds via BetMGM.com at time of writing.
When the 49ers have the ball …
Numbers to know
That’s where the 2023 49ers offense ranks in combined success rate and explosive play (rushes of 12-plus yards, passes of 16-plus yards) rate among the 766 NFL offenses since the 2000 season. Their 64.9% combined rate trails only the 2011 New Orleans Saints (when Drew Brees finished with over 5,400 passing yards) and the 2004 Indianapolis Colts (when Peyton Manning delivered one of the best, if not the best, seasons from a quarterback).
Those Saints and Colts teams were more efficient, at least in terms of success rate, than this 49ers offense, but this 49ers offense is far more explosive, especially in the run game. It’s one of the best offenses we’ve seen since the turn of the millennium, no matter how you slice it up.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan has had several strong offenses before, but this season’s version feels like his magnum opus. A run game with the best running back in the game and several other All-Pro caliber skill players, plus a quarterback driving with his pedal to the metal. It can feel unguardable because …
That is the combined target and designed rush per snap rate of Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel on the 260 snaps the 49ers faced against Cover 2 and Cover 6, also known as “cloud coverages” that feature at least one Cover 2 side in the defensive structure. A “cloud” side will put two defenders over one outside wide receiver (like Brandon Aiyuk), with the cornerback underneath and a safety over the top for help. The “cloud” side also changes the angles in the run game, with the cornerback now part of the run support instead of the safety.
You know who loves running Cover 2? Blitz-happy defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, using Cover 2 as the natural yin to the chaotic yang of pressure-heavy looks. The Chiefs have used Cover 2 at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL and used it on a season-high 40% of their snaps against the Miami Dolphins in their wild-card matchup, another offense from the Shanahan tree.
Even in the first game against the Dolphins in Week 9, the Chiefs used Cover 2 variations to disrupt the timing of the outside wide receivers and flow of the entire offense, with the Chiefs’ cornerbacks constantly jamming outside wide receivers.
Shanahan is deliberate with how he attacks certain looks, and against cloud coverages, he uses McCaffrey and Samuel to do his point-hoarding bidding. No safeties in the box means that McCaffrey can get a matchup against a linebacker, where he is nearly going to be at an advantage every time, and it also creates space over the middle for Samuel to go to work underneath, putting Samuel on islands against those same linebackers and finding space to use his exceptional yards-after-catch ability.
Cover 2 defenses, at least against spread formation looks, will also put the slot defender in a bind, with that defender having responsibilities in the run game but also with inside leverage coverage on the slot. If Chiefs slot defender Trent McDuffie ever gets nosey against the 49ers’ run game and looks to play the run first or Spagnuolo uses the Cover 2 base shell to bring McDuffie on a blitz look, then also look for Samuel to get peppered with quick-hitting flats, bubbles and screens to attack the void created. With players like Aiyuk and George Kittle being used more on chunk opportunities outside and on play-action.
76 (but really, just pick a number)
This is the best defense Spagnuolo has had during his tenure in Kansas City. Period. Underlying statistics indicate this (success rate, EPA per play, yards per play) but also just straight-up eye test.
This defense is the dividends of a flurry of investments this Chiefs franchise made recently, which blossomed into an upper-echelon unit that has Spagnuolo showing off his bag of tricks. Defensive lineman Chris Jones is the key cog of the unit, but all three levels have filled out with stars and valuable role players. They can impact the opponents through the disruptive two-man game that George Karlaftis has developed with Jones; the world’s most interesting linebackers room; McDuffie on blitzes (he finished with 10 quarterback hits this season, the same amount as Jalen Carter, Arden Key and Daron Payne); or just the sound tackling from the entire Chiefs defensive backs room. Kansas City finished the regular season with 76 missed tackles, the fewest amount of missed tackles from a Chiefs defense under Spagnuolo and the sixth-best mark this season, according to Pro Football Reference.
I mean just look at this group erasing YAC opportunities and filling the run game time and again, particularly safety no. 20 Justin Reid:
Against any explosive offense, especially one with the sixth-highest explosive play rate in over two decades, tackling is the fundamental answer to limit big plays. With an aggressive defensive coordinator like Spagnuolo, where blitzes can create big plays for both sides, that sound tackling ability will be so important and well-tested by the 49ers throughout the game.
Key matchup: 49ers offense vs. Chiefs defense
Chris Jones and George Karlaftis vs. the right side of the 49ers’ offensive line
There are incredible matchups everywhere on this side of the ball. L’Jarius Sneed against Brandon Aiyuk, McDuffie against Samuel, Spags against Shanahan.
But before this historically efficient offense can get cooking, it has to block up front. The right side of the 49ers’ offensive line is a potential Achilles heel to be attacked by Jones and Karlaftis, who will invert their alignments, with Jones on the outside and Karlaftis on the inside, to pick at their biggest mismatches and create disruption with various twists or just simply beating the blocker across from them.
Right tackle Colton McKivitz in particular might need help throughout the night, especially if Jones is aligned across from him. But look to see how the 49ers plan to mitigate any damage from that side and keep their high-flying offense in the air. And keep Brock Purdy away from his chaotic adventures.
Player to watch: Leo Chenal, LB, Chiefs
The Chiefs have used four-defensive back personnel (i.e. base) at the highest rate ever since Spagnuolo’s arrival, with Chenal becoming an interesting chess piece that Spagnuolo has loved to use this season.
Chenal is a uniquely skilled player who is strong and explosive, but best going forward and not side to side. The Chiefs might trot out the same base personnel on back-to-back plays, but they will align Chenal (and other players) throughout the defense based on what they’re trying to accomplish.
There’s No. 54 Chenal, effectively as an interior defensive lineman, creating a “bear” front and de facto 3-4 look out of the same personnel:
Or he can be used as a simple off-ball linebacker in a typical 4-3 look:
Or in other five-down looks, there’s Chenal as an outside linebacker in a front, waiting to stonewall the wide receiver attempting to block him at the point of attack and blowing up the run play:
Chenal has limitations in coverage, which could lead to a mismatch against McCaffrey or Kittle, but his unique skills have been weaponized by Spagnuolo this season. Seeing where 54 aligns will be indicative of how the Chiefs want to attack.
Prop bets for 49ers offense vs. Chiefs defense
Brock Purdy over 20.5 pass completions (-135)
Brock Purdy over 31.5 pass attempts (+115)
Brock Purdy over 3.5 rush attempts (+110)
Brock Purdy over .5 interception throw (-120)
All of those quick-hitters on the bubbles and flats, plays packaged with runs to provide answers against box counts and blitzes, will lead to a pass-heavy game script from Purdy. The 49ers throw the ball over 70% of the time when facing Cover 2 as well, with the Chiefs punishing Purdy for one of his chaotic moments, something other teams weren’t able to fully take advantage of during the playoffs. (If you’re feeling particularly spicy, an anytime touchdown wager from the Chiefs’ defense and special teams is currently at +600. If one of those Purdy throws heads the wrong way …)
With the varying coverage looks that the Chiefs will use, too, I can see Purdy calling his own number and trying to make a play with his legs when all else fails. Also, the Chiefs used Cover 2-man more frequently than any other defense this season. A natural answer for quarterbacks against two-man? Scramble.
As for who will be catching those passes:
Samuel over 4.5 receptions (-150, would be comfortable bumping this to 5.5 for better odds)
McCaffrey over 34.5 receiving yards (-115)
McCaffrey under 90.5 rushing yards (-115)
George Kittle over 21.5 yards longest reception (-115)
George Kittle anytime TD (+175)
Whether it’s a soft coverage or blitz-heavy gameplan from the Chiefs, Samuel is going to get fed short throws again and again. I’m looking at touch props for Samuel and not just yards.
McCaffrey will have natural advantages through the air, too. But the Chiefs’ game plan is going to make the 49ers’ run game a bit more boom-or-bust, which might limit his yards on the ground, especially if it’s a wonky game script. So, I’ll also take the under on McCaffrey’s rush yards as well.
I don’t think Kittle will get a ton of touches, but he’ll get big ones. A possible red-zone or big-play touchdown, taking advantage of a dropping defensive lineman or simply sprinting by a linebacker. I think Kittle will have a big play in this game.
When the Chiefs have the ball …
Numbers to know
That’s the rate of explosive passes that the 49ers’ defense has allowed this season, tied for best in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.
San Francisco, particularly with linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw along with Deommodore Lenoir when he’s in the slot, thrive on squeezing underneath throws. Warner will quite literally run the routes for opposing players, forcing quarterbacks to get to a checkdown before the 49ers’ pass rush gets home. Then Warner and his friends come down and clean up the mess and create another long third-down situation for the opposition.
This continuously makes quarterbacks be patient and keep grinding away with singles throughout the day, something most quarterbacks don’t have the discipline (or ability) to do for dozens of snaps a game.
Patrick Mahomes, however, gets on base like the Splendid Splinter. Along with all of the exciting out-of-structure plays that litter his highlights, Mahomes is completely fine hanging in the pocket and peppering a defense, creating small profits on every single play before cashing it all in in the end zone, something the excellent Ravens defense saw firsthand in the first half of the AFC championship game.
The battle of wits between Mahomes and Warner is worthy of a rematch. Their first meeting in the Super Bowl brought out some cool moments between the two:
#Chiefs hit the Leak play (brilliant throw by Mahomes), but watch #54 Fred Warner communicate to the other #49ers after the motion. He has seen something on film and sniffs out that a PA shot is coming.
He doesn’t even come up on the fake, just confirms and gets into coverage. pic.twitter.com/uks2xE6jlp
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 4, 2020
That’s how many yards teams have averaged when using tosses and pin-pull run schemes against the 49ers. It’s something the Packers and Lions successfully leaned into this postseason:
The aggressive nature of the 49ers’ defensive ends can create plenty of havoc against offenses, but can also be used against them when teams attack with surprise and angles like the Packers did by pinning Nick Bosa and Chase Young with their wide receivers from the outside.
Look for the Chiefs, who have had a bottom-five run game this season but have had much better stretches in the postseason, to use their time off and pick at this weakness of the 49ers because …
27th, 28th, 29th
That is how the 49ers’ defense ranked this season in terms of explosive rush rate allowed, rush success rate allowed and first downs per rush allowed to running backs.
There is a trade-off for the ears-pinned-back style that the 49ers’ defensive line plays, as well as how much anticipation the highly intelligent Warner wields. Once in a while he can take one step too many against a jet motion or some moving piece. The defensive line gets its pressures and moves the quarterback off his launch point, especially when the QB is forced to progress, but that “quarterback-first” mindset can hinder some consistency in the run game. Does Bosa see his matchup against Jawaan Taylor, lick his chops, and decide that he’s going to take over? Perhaps negating some other responsibilities?
Offenses have had even more success when the 49ers are in their own version of base personnel, with linebacker Oren Burks on the field and Lenoir kicked back outside, something that is more pertinent because of Kansas City’s frequent usage of multi-tight end looks. The Chiefs have leaned into those even more in the postseason, using multiple tight ends on 27 of 47 snaps against the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round and 13 personnel (three tight ends) at their highest rate ever in a game since Mahomes took over as the starting quarterback against the Dolphins.
Again, the Chiefs have not had the solid and efficient run game that we typically see with an Andy Reid offense. In fact, it’s been downright bad at times this season. So this is kind of a stoppable force vs. movable object type of matchup. But there have been more flashes as the Chiefs tweaked which concepts they use (look for those outside hitters this week and perhaps some pullers), and Reid and offensive line coach Andy Heck have had a couple weeks to come up with a game plan. What they decide to poke at, outside of using the best quarterback in the game, will be interesting.
Whoever is guarding Travis Kelce when the 49ers are in man coverage
Mahomes vs. Warner is a championship-caliber matchup, but the “covering Travis Kelce” riddle is something I’m curious to see how the 49ers solve. The 49ers will mix in man coverage on passing downs (their 29.6% Cover 1 rate on third and fourth downs ranked 12th in the regular season). They often like to create a five-man blitz look and single blocks for their talented defensive line and (typically) Warner, hoping to create a mismatch and win before the quarterback can get rid of the ball.
But that man coverage, especially against a quarterback who is comfortable extending plays, can be a dicey proposition for this 49ers, even if they want to use it as a changeup. Not only is there Mahomes to contain, but who will play man-up on Kelce is the first answer to solve if defensive coordinator Steve Wilks still wants to sprinkle it in. Perhaps we see a double-Kelce variation, which would then open up a one-on-one for a Chiefs wide receiver to win. And, well, that can be a dicey proposition for the Chiefs, too!
Players to Watch: Rashee Rice, WR, Chiefs; Chase Young, DE, 49ers
Look for Rashee Rice to get plenty of action early. The 49ers predominantly like to play in zone coverage looks on early downs, especially starting out of quarters shells. Like the earlier discussion of Deebo Samuel against the Chiefs’ defense, this can make the slot defender the conflict defender, putting him in a bind to play the run or his coverage responsibilities. Offenses, like the Bengals earlier this season, loved using flats and bubbles throws to complement their run game. Look for the Chiefs to do the same with Rice.
Young is also an important X-factor for the 49ers’ defense. The Niners traded for Young after a solid stretch to start the year for Washington, but he has since been inconsistent. Young needs to play sound against the run and make an impact of some sort to help Bosa and Javon Hargrave help corral Mahomes.
Prop bets for Chiefs offense vs. 49ers defense
Patrick Mahomes over 26.5 rushing yards (-125)
Patrick Mahomes over 1.5 passing touchdowns (-155)
Game script matters so much for Mahomes’ end game stats, but I think there will be plenty of scrambling opportunities for him, whether it’s against the late-down man coverage looks, which are great for scrambling opportunities, or zone coverage. It’s worth noting that no quarterback scrambles more frequently against zone coverage than Mahomes.
Also think once the Chiefs get close, they’re letting Mahomes go to work in the red zone. Particularly to …
Travis Kelce over 69.5 receiving yards (-120)
Travis Kelce 2+ touchdowns scored (+550)
The plays go through the stars in the biggest moments. I think Kelce gets fed early and often and gets several opportunities to score once the Chiefs get inside the 20-yard line.
Rashee Rice 33+ receiving yards in the first half (-115)
Rashee Rice anytime touchdown scorer (+125)
I think that opening script for the Chiefs sees plenty of action going Rice’s way. If that sustains, or whether those touches to Rice turn into run plays once the box softens up, will depend on how the 49ers’ defense adjusts. So I’m going to keep this for the early portion of the game.
Super Bowl LVIII pick: Chiefs 27, 49ers 24
I think this game will start off with some back-and-forth haymakers when both offenses are in their opening script. Kansas City’s defense adjusts throughout the game to slow down the bleeding and even create an explosive play of its own, helping the Chiefs keep control of the game before a late drive helps them take the lead.
Either way, I expect this to be a barnburner. A super matchup worthy of the name. Enjoy!