We are back, and JUST in time for the end of football season (sad face). What a treat we had with the National Championship game between LSU and Clemson, which featured two Quarterbacks who will soon bring their talents to the NFL, hoping to land in the biggest single game in American sports – The Super Bowl. Last year, we had a defensive battle between the Patriots and the Rams, and if you recall we predicted both the winner AND total correctly, so hopefully some of you won a little lunch moneys. This year, the chess match may be even larger, as the defensive-minded, old school San Francisco 49ers will face off against the offensive juggernaut Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV (54 for those not who do not speak fluent in Roman Numerals). There is a lot to dive in here, and the intro is long enough already, so without further ado…
Kansas City Chiefs Vs. San Francisco 49ers
Sunday, February 2nd – 5:30 on FOX.
Game being played at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida
Kansas City -1.5, O/U 54.5 *Friday, January 31, 2020 8:15 AM*
When the 49ers have the ball:
The 49ers offense often gets overlooked by their personalities and effectiveness defensively, but this is an offense that was 7th in total DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) in the 2019 season. The name of the game is the committee of running backs down in the Bay, so let’s start by talking about their prized possession, Jimmy Garoppolo. In 2 playoff games, Jimmy has ATTEMPTED 27 passes. To put that into perspective, Jimmy threw for 27+ pass attempts 10 of the 16 regular season games. Because of this, Jimmy comes into the game as an afterthought, and this is compounded by the fact that the Chiefs actually had the 6th best pass defense throughout the regular season. This begins with 1st team all-pro do it all Safety Tyrann Mathieu, who is joined by Defensive Backs Charvarius Ward, Bashaud Breeland, and Daniel Sorensen. Now, keep in mind that this is inflated when the Chiefs are up on opponents, which allows defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to either bring exotic blitzes or play more coverage and allow their defensive ends to straight pass rush, highlighted by their offseason acquisition Frank Clark. I’m not sure that opportunity will present itself in this particular game, as Shanahan will put his young QB in spots to excel in the biggest game of both of their careers (it is important to note that BOTH have been to this game before – Shanahan as an OC with the Falcons, and Garoppolo as a back-up to Tom Brady). First and foremost, the 49ers have some real weapons on the outside. Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuels are both top 30 WR’s based on DVOA, and of course George Kittle is a top 3 tight end in the NFL. All three targets possess troubling speed and an incredible ability to pick up yards after the catch. Expect Shanahan to find 1-on-1 opportunities throughout the game, and let Jimmy try to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands.
Shanahan may look to attack this matchup to open up those one-on-one opportunities: 49ers rush offense vs. Chiefs rush defense. In the regular season, the 49ers ranked 13th in DVOA running the ball, and the Chiefs defense came in at 29. So on the surface, the 49ers were a little above average in the run game, and the Chiefs were one of the worst in the league. However, in the last 2 games against the Vikings and Packers – 2 rush defenses superior to the Chiefs – the 49ers ran the ball for 472 (!!) yards on 81 carries for a WHOPPING 5.8 YPC. I think it goes without saying: that’s pretty damn good. So you would expect the Chiefs to see this exact article with that specific stat and go, “oh no, time to stack the box.” A theme here is going to revolve around Kyle Shanahan, and the answers he has for what you throw at him. I think one thing the Chiefs may incorporate is going to a 5-1 front. Sound familiar? It’s the same defense the Patriots used on the Rams in last years Superbowl, successfully. Two problems can arise when implementing such a scheme. First and foremost, with everyone close to the line, if a lane is created by the big boys up front, it usually means a large gain for the Running Back due to the fact that your corners are focused on covering their man, so the second level in run support is weak. Second, Shanahan has seen this defense before, and has incorporated RPO’s (yes, they exist at the NFL level) into his offense. Take the following example:
This is a 5-2 front, with a safety rolled down in the box covering the second tight end on the offense’s left hand side, so in all, there are currently 8 men in the box to stop the run.
Pre snap, Garoppolo sees the stacked box, and knows he has Samuel running a slant as his pass option. The play is a outside zone left, so naturally the linebackers of the defense will flow with the moving linemen, allowing the passing window to open even more backside to Deebo.
Jimmy takes one step towards the zone play, plants, and delivers a strike to his receiver, who turns a 3 yard catch into a large gain, of which the 49ers receivers rank league’s best in Yards After Catch.
This is just one example of many that Shanahan is able to play the chess game, no matter what Spagnuolo and the Chiefs’ defense throws at him. Another obvious answer is the play action pass, which is something that Ryan Tannihill and the Titans had success doing early in the game against the Chiefs in the Conference Championship. I used the terms ‘early’ because the Titans totally abandoned the run game in the 2nd half against the Chiefs, running the ball a total of 3 times after halftime with Derrick Henry, who was arguably the best back in the league, averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the playoffs. I think this points back to the first point, which is that Shanahan has experience in this spot. If the Chiefs get up, don’t expect Shanahan to abandon the run. They have a two headed monster in the backfield in Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert (#1 running back in terms of DVOA in the 2019 season), both of whom excel at getting to the second level and making people miss. Furthermore, if the 49ers’ offense is on the field, pretty obviously their defense is resting, and the Chiefs’ defense is not. The Titans’ defense got worn down at the end of the last weeks game, as the Chiefs started to pound the ball and control the clock, something the Titans usually did to teams. Shanahan knows the importance of a fresh defense against Mahomes and Co., and will look help his defense anyway he can. I expect San Fran to come out looking to pound the rock, control the clock, and sprinkle in some play action shots in order to try to soften the box, and take advantage of 1 on 1 coverage for Samuel and Sanders.
When the Chiefs have the ball:
This unit does not get over looked by anyone, as they ranked 3rd (Mahomes missed basically 3 games) in total offense during the regular season. There is rarely a time when the Chiefs’ offense is on the field and they do not have the best player wearing the red and yellow. Patrick Mahomes alone means that no lead is safe, as both the Texans – leading by 24 – and the Titans – leading by 10 – have both found out in the first two games of the playoffs. While Mahomes deserves all the attention, and we will get back to him in a minute, it is a chess match between the big boys up front that will be fun to watch. San Fransisco blitzed on 20.9% of their snaps, good for 4th lowest in the league. Despite their lack of blitzing, they managed to create Quarterback hurries 14.7% of the time (tops in the league) and 48 sacks (5th in the league), and have 9 sacks in 2 playoff games. Led by Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner, the 49ers’ front allows Defensive Coordinator Robert Salah to bring just 4 and drop 7. This not only allows linebackers to focus on their keys and flow with the ball, but also gives defensive backs more help in defending the pass (which is needed against this KC offense). On the other side, the Kansas City offensive line has done a great job of keeping Mahomes upright, as they have given up the 4th least sacks throughout the year. It is interesting to note, however, that the Titans’ front early on in the conference championship was dominating the line of scrimmage. Enter Mahomes’ ability to scramble. The 49ers lost 3 games this year, and 2 of them were to Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson – 2 QBs who have the ability to scramble and extend plays. Now without taking into account QB runs, Lamar ran for 101 yards and Russell ran for 53 yards. Even Matt Ryan, in their only other loss, ran for 27 yards. I think this a huge key to the game, and something Mahomes has no problem doing – he has ran for 53 yards in both playoff games so far, and I think with the amount of pressure the 49ers are able to get with 4 linemen, and the amount of coverage needed for the Kansas City weapons, Mahomes should find lanes to make plays on his own throughout the game.
We may as well talk about those weapons the Chiefs have now: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardmin, Demarcus Robinson, Damien Williams, Travis Kelce. Not too shabby for the best quarterback in the game to have at his disposal. Tyreek is one of the most explosive players in the NFL, and there is no one on the 49er defense that can check him one on one – he came in 9th during the regular season in DVOA, and his highly regarded as the fastest receiver in the game. The 49ers are a large cover 3 team, but it will be something to note how they tweak that coverage towards Tyreek’s side. With as much attention will be on Tyreek, the same must be done with Tight End Travis Kelce. Kelce is Mahomes favorite target, bringing in 97 catches on the year, and in the playoffs he has hauled in 13 of 16 targets for 164 yards and 3 touchdowns. So while Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh is taking away the security blanket that is Travis Kelce, and the dynamite that is Tyreek Hill, you now have opportunities for guys like Mecole Hardmin – who averaged 20.7 (!!) YPC – and Sammy Watkins – 673 yards on 52 receptions – to make plays in open space. One strategy that could be employed is putting a guy like Watkins or Robinson over on the side that All-Pro Cornerback Richard Sherman plays on, and use him as a “sacrificial lamb.” Another thought is putting Hill to his side always, forcing San Francisco to not only use Sherman but another player to cover Hill, leaving only 5 defenders to cover the rest of the field. I don’t think the Chiefs will shy away from Sherman and think we could see some big shots and intermediate throws go his way throughout the night. I think this is going to come down to the front: can the 49ers get Mahomes off his spot only bringing 4 and can the Chiefs give Mahomes the time he needs to allow his playmakers to get down the field.
I love this game in the fact that I have not talked to or heard from one person who is adamant one way or the other. Mahomes has NEVER lost a game by more than 7 points in his entire career (you read that right), and the 49ers hasn’t been beaten by more than 5 points this year. Meaning: this should be an absolute doozy. A couple of bets that I am eyeing personally before I give my final predictions (These are props I like, by no means take ALL of them, but compare them to what YOU like, and make bets from there!):
Mahomes Over 32.5 rushing yards
2nd half/OT points Over 1st half points -160
1st half Under 27.5
Emmanuel Sanders over 3 receptions
Jimmy Garoppolo over 236.5 passing yards
Mecole Hardman Over 1.5 receptions/Over 23.5 yards
Missed Extra Point YES 3/1
I really do expect a great game, and I think it’s a one possession game either way. The 49ers should be able to get theirs, and I haven’t seen anyone stop Kansas City yet. However, I have seen Kansas City come out slow, and again, I think Shanahan knows the importance of ball control (1H under reasoning). With all that said, I’m going with the score of 28-24, and MVP Jimmy G brings The Bay a Super Bowl W. The best offense faces off against the best defense. Let’s play some football!!