The way the two teams in this year’s Super Bowl made it this far couldn’t be any more different. The Chiefs are only one year removed from an overtime loss in the AFC Championship, and rode one of the league’s most explosive passing attacks to the Super Bowl. The 49ers are only one year removed from drafting second overall, and feature a historically good defense and an offense centered around the run game.
There are always interesting matchups to dig into when two of the league’s best are facing off, but the juxtaposition of these two rosters in particular results in a number of fascinating matchups at a more micro level.
Can Andy Reid create mismatches against the 49ers defense?
Tyreek Hill is arguably the most dangerous receiver in the NFL, but the Chiefs passing attack flows through tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce’s 136 targets paced the Chiefs and also led all tight ends in the league. His 56 Total Points trailed only George Kittle for the league lead among all pass-catchers.
At a glance, the 49ers defense seems well equipped to deal with Kelce; as a team, the 49ers ranked as the second-best defense at stopping tight ends in terms of EPA. Star linebacker Fred Warner ranks as the second-best cover linebacker in all of the NFL by Total Points, and number one against tight ends.
What makes Kelce so important to the Chiefs offense is that he is a matchup nightmare, and Andy Reid is incredible at exploiting that to create mismatches all over the field. Kelce lined up in non-traditional tight end alignments (Slot, Wide or H-Back) on 63% of his snaps during the regular season, the seventh-highest rate among all tight ends in the league. Kelce also spent 41% of his snaps lined up as the lone receiver on one side of the field.
Kelce’s Splits When Lined Up as the Single-Side Receiver (Pass plays, 2019 regular season)
Kelce draws more targets when playing as the single-side receiver, but on a per-play basis isn’t any more effective. In fact, on a per-target basis, Kelce is more dangerous when he isn’t running his routes from the single-side. Though when looking at the splits of the Chiefs offense as a whole when Kelce is lined up on his own, the difference is stark.
Chiefs Offense Splits With Kelce as Single-Side Receiver (All Plays, 2019 regular season)
With Kelce isolated, the Chiefs are averaging 2.2 yards more per play, and an additional 0.22 EPA/P. Beyond this, the Chiefs are able to generate explosive plays with more frequency when Kelce is the single receiver on one side. Their Boom% (plays with an EPA greater than one) when Kelce is isolated is 27%, an eight-percentage point increase from all other plays. In the passing game alone, the Chiefs EPA/P doubles from 0.18 to 0.36 when Kelce is lined up as the single-side receiver.
The Chiefs finished fifth in terms of Mismatches Created during the regular season. On average the Chiefs were able to create situations with either a receiver or running back lined up on a linebacker about five times per game. It’s not much of a leap to assume that Kelce’s ability as a pass-catcher and Reid’s creative deployment have a lot to do with that.
If the Chiefs opt to use Kelce as the single receiver away from Richard Sherman, he may see a lot of 49ers second corner Emmanuel Moseley. During the regular season, Moseley allowed a completion percentage of 46%, 6.3 Y/A, and tallied 38 Total Points (T-14th) on a little over 300 coverage snaps. His ability to handle Kelce without the 49ers rolling additional help to his side could be a crucial part of the matchup between two of the league’s best units.
Can the 49ers slow down the KC offense with only a 4-man rush?
Staying on the same side of the ball, the 49ers’ pass rush will have to continue to be dominant. Part of what has made the 49ers pass rush unique this season is that they do almost all of their damage with only four rushers. San Francisco rushed only four on 78% of pass snaps, the third-highest clip in the league. Powered by four first-round picks, they were able to generate pressure on about 34% of those plays, the seventh-best mark in the league. Their defense as a whole allowed minus-0.16 EPA/P when bringing four, which was the fourth-best in the league.
The problem for the 49ers is that the Kansas City offense has been the best at exploiting defenses only bringing four rushers. During the regular season, the Chiefs averaged 0.25 EPA/P and 8.2 Y/P on dropbacks where the defense rushed four, which were first and tied for first respectively.
Best Offenses Against 4-Man Rush (2019 regular season)
The other problem for the 49ers is that even if they are able to generate pressure quickly with only four rushers, Patrick Mahomes has proven to be one of the best at handling pressure. On the season, Mahomes was the second-best quarterback when under pressure in terms of EPA per Dropback, and when looking only at attempts under pressure Mahomes ranks third with an EPA/A of 0.12.
What makes these numbers scarier for the 49ers is that Mahomes’s numbers from the regular season are likely skewed down. He battled ankle and knee injuries for a significant portion of the season which hindered his mobility. But as he proved last week, Mahomes is very dangerous as a runner when he breaks out of the pocket.
Kyle Shanahan’s Use of Pre-Snap Motion
While most of the attention has been paid to the matchup between the 49ers defense and the Chiefs offense, it is also important to examine what’s happening on the other side of the ball. It’s hard to imagine a world where the 49ers defense is able to completely slow down the Chiefs, so the 49ers offense will also need to have a strong outing. While there are questions about Jimmy Garoppolo as a quarterback, the 49ers still have found plenty of offensive success, and a lot of it can be attributed to Kyle Shanahan’s creative run-game and devastating use of pre-snap motion.
During the regular season, the 49ers led the league in pre-snap motion usage, using some form of motion on more than 70% of their offensive plays. And where the effects of this show up the most is the run game.
49ers Pre-Snap Motion Splits (Run plays, 2019 regular season)
San Francisco averaged 0.7 more yards per attempt on plays with pre-snap motion, and also increased their EPA/A by 0.07 and their Positive% by six percentage points. The league as a whole sees similar effects when using motion, but the 49ers take advantage of it more than anybody. And this may be a large problem for the Chiefs run defense.
On plays with pre-snap motion, the Chiefs defense is allowing 0.05 EPA per rush attempt and an average of 5.3 yards, both ranking fourth-worst in the league. The Chiefs run defense has also been susceptible to big plays, particularly on plays involving motion. On the season, the Chiefs allowed a run of ten or more yards on 14% of plays that used motion, the fifth-worst mark in the league.
Sunday’s matchup includes two of the best coaching minds in all of football, and the game should be a tightly contested chess match from start to finish. There is very little to separate the two teams on paper, and when the margins are so slim, it is possible that matchups like these could swing the game one way or another.