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By: Nate Christensen
What offensive problems will Kansas City have to solve to defeat San Francisco in the championship game?
In the postseason, our normal “Question of the Week” has been a preview in which we have considered the biggest questions regarding each Kansas City Chiefs game. For the Super Bowl, we’ll ask three questions on both sides of the ball — starting with the offense.
1. Can the Chiefs control the 49ers’ pass rush?
The San Francisco 49ers have built their defense around its pass rush. Between Nick Bosa, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead and Chase Young, the team has a lot of firepower up front.
Still, I don’t see the same force in the defensive line that San Francisco has displayed in previous seasons. According to ESPN, the 49ers are 12th in pass rush win rate after ranking fifth in both 2021 and 2022. Bosa is still absolutely dominant — with 95 pressures and 14 sacks, per PFF — but outside of that, the team’s pass-rushing juice isn’t the same. Hargrave’s productivity was down in 2023, with only 52 pressures and seven sacks. Armstead is slightly below his peak productivity at only 42 pressures. Since arriving in San Francisco, Young has had only two games with more than four pressures.
San Francisco’s depth isn’t the same, either. The team used to hockey-substitute defensive linemen — but not any longer. Drake Jackson and Clelin Ferrell are both out, leaving the 49ers very thin at defensive end.
But one thing hasn’t changed: at their best, Bosa, Hargrave, Armstead and Young can create a swarming pass rush that can take over full quarters (or even halves) of games. Here’s the good news: in big games (like Super Bowl LVII), we’ve seen the Chiefs completely wipe out opposing defensive lines.
Can the Chiefs do it again? How much does Joe Thuney’s availability change the offensive lines’s effectiveness? Can Kansas City’s tackles hold their own against Bosa? What can head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes do to limit the 49ers’ defensive line?
I’m not as scared of the San Francisco defensive line as I used to be, but it’s still very good. The Chiefs must have a plan to deal with it.
2. Can the Chiefs take advantage of the 49ers’ poor run defense?
San Francisco has a bad run defense, ranking 26th in expected points added (EPA) per rushing play and 24th in success rate. (The Chiefs rank 28th in EPA, but 15th in success rate — meaning Kansas City gives up bigger running plays but has a more consistent run defense).
This is why the Detroit Lions were able to build such a big halftime lead over San Francisco in the NFC Championship: by destroying them on the ground. David Montgomery had 93 yards on 15 carries, Jahmyr Gibbs had 45 yards on 12 carries and Jameson Williams broke off a 42-yard touchdown run to start the game. While rushing the ball, the Lions had a staggering 58% success rate on early downs with a 38% first-down percentage.
The run defense plays poorly partially because it lacks a traditional nose tackle; the team likes to get its defensive linemen penetrating upfield. That is a very boom-or-bust approach. When Bosa gets a clean look at a tackle-for-loss, he can blow up a drive. But down-to-down, the 49ers’ defensive linemen are quite poor against the run. Young, in particular, is a poor run defender; teams exploit him with crack blocks to get the edge. And while linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are both very good, both thrive in space more than in the box.
There is no reason the Chiefs shouldn’t be successful running the ball on Sunday. Kansas City’s offensive line is better than San Francisco’s defensive line. The 49ers consistently play the same front, so it’s very easy to create good angles. And just as he did last year, Reid will be able to attack San Francisco’s defensive ends with motion.
Still, will they be able to pull it off? Can the Chiefs put together four straight quarters of good rushing offense? Will Reid stick with it for the entire game?
I don’t feel there’s a schematic reason the Chiefs won’t be able to run the ball — but to win this game, they will have to do it.
3. Can Travis Kelce continue his success outside the numbers?
The Chiefs’ tight end has once again turned up his productivity in the playoffs. In three games, he’s registered 29 catches for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
What’s most interesting about this postseason success is how Kansas City has been using him. Rather than making him a dominant middle-of-the-field monster, the Chiefs have also been aligning him in the slot more often, throwing him the ball outside the numbers. Here are his routes in the last two games.
The Chiefs are doing this because Kelce gets the most attention in the middle of the field — so Reid is using him elsewhere. Not only does this reduce the hits Kelce must take, it also gives him more room to find open areas.
In the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens, the only times Kelce got a catch in the middle of the field were on the back side of a sprint out (which is seldom called) and on Mahomes’ crazy third-and-4 scramble in the red zone. As much as they could, the Chiefs were avoiding getting Kelce into matchups against linebackers Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen.
This matters because the 49ers are also quite strong at linebacker. For years, Warner and Greenlaw have excelled at taking away space in the middle of the field — thereby forcing quarterbacks to throw outside the numbers. Regardless of defensive coordinator or scheme, this has been a staple of every 49ers’ defense.
So will the Chiefs stick with the same plan for Kelce? How much will they try to avoid San Francisco’s coverage linebackers? Can Kelce get easier matchups (and find more open space) by lining up in the slot? The 49ers could try adjusting to the latest version of Kelce, but their coverages are built around Warner and Greenlaw’s strengths.
How the Chiefs decide to utilize Kelce will tell us a lot about how much respect Reid has for those San Francisco linebackers.
Originally posted on Arrowhead Pride