Throughout the regular season, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers were two of the league’s most dangerous teams. They both game into their respective Conference Championship Game as a big favorite. Both opponents, the Tennessee Titans and Green Bay Packers, needed to have nearly perfect games to score an upset Super Bowl berth. Instead of that happening, both the Titans and Packers employed questionable game plans on defense that the offenses of Kansas City and San Francisco were too good to not take advantage.
Tennessee’s Three Man Rush
The Titans had the better rushing offense coming into the AFC Championship Game, but they were in no mood to rush Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs offense while on defense. It’s hard to defend Mahomes in general and blitzing him had been a mistake for defenses in 2019. During the regular season, Mahomes had seven touchdowns and no interceptions against the blitz, along with higher yards per attempt and Adjusted Yards per Attempt than against a normal rush, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Tennessee saw Mahomes and the Chiefs score at will last week against the Houston Texans in the Divisional Round, so they came into the AFC title game with a plan to put as many defensive resources into stopping the pass. The Titans did that on the backend. It was unlikely Tennessee was going to be ultra-aggressive, they were just 21st in blitz rate during the regular season, but often on Sunday the Titans only rushed three and dropped eight into coverage.
Dropping eight was Tennessee’s way of trying to stop the big play. The problem is, that didn’t exactly work. With that many players in coverage, the hope is to tighten windows and force the quarterback into uncomfortable throws. Mahomes couldn’t have looked more comfortable for most of the game. Per Next Gen Stats, Mahomes threw into a tight window (defined as a yard or fewer of separation) on just 2.9% of his attempts against the Titans. The Titans were throwing extra resources into coverage and it didn’t matter.
Some of Kansas City’s biggest plays of the game came against just a three-man rush. It started with Tyreek Hill’s 20-yard touchdown catch with just over four minutes left in the second quarter.
The Chiefs came out in a 3×1 set with Demarcus Robinson, Hill, and Mecole Hardman on the trips side and Travis Kelce as the iso receiver. Running back Damien Williams was in the shotgun to Kelce’s side. Kansas City used the formation and pre-snap motion to manipulate the Tennessee defense. Just before the snap, Hardman motioned from the middle of the trips side to the inside slot, which pulled Adoree Jackson over. Hardman’s deep crosser from the slot also occupied the single-high safety. Tennessee also had three players split coverage responsibilities for Kelce and Williams on the other side of the field. All that left Hill one-one-one with only a need to get behind his defender. He did.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were up 28-17 and faced a 3rd and 6 with the ball on their own 40. Again, the Titans only rushed three, which gave Mahomes enough time to adjust in the pocket and find Sammy Watkins deep for a 60-yard touchdown.
Throughout the game, the Titans tried to disguise coverages but with just the three-man rush in front of it, Mahomes typically had enough time to wait for a window to open. That’s what happened on the Watkins touchdown. Tennessee started with a two-high look but at the snap, Kevin Byard (31) came down to take away a shallow crosser for Hill, Amani Hooker (37) stayed to double Kelce with Kenny Vaccarro (24), and Logan Ryan (26) was supposed to drop deep to replace Byard but that transitioned happened way too slow for him to catch Watkins.
Mahomes was able to pick apart the Tennessee defense without needing to unleash the deep ball. He had two attempts that went deeper than 20 yards in the air. They just happened to be the Watkins touchdown and a 26-yard pass to Hill in the first quarter that helped set up the first Kansas City touchdown.
As a passer, Mahomes was nearly unstoppable. He finished the game with 0.59 EPA per play, a 61% success rate, and a 46% first down rate per nflscrapR data via the Baldwin Boxscore. That includes Mahomes’s big runs, which are considered passing plays since they were scrambles on drop backs. Another reason Mahomes didn’t force anything into tight windows was his willingness to run when there was a free rushing lane. The biggest came on the 26-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half. It was another three-man rush with a spy but the angles weren’t enough to take the quarterback down before the end zone.
Tennesee knew the threat Kansas City posed in the passing game and the Titans wanted as much coverage they could get. But at every turn, the Chiefs had a counter that opened up throwing and running lanes in their path to Miami.
Packers Play Light
Green Bay’s defense took a big leap from last season to 2019. Much of that was done against the pass, where the Packers ranked 10th in DVOA. They did that by often relying on their defensive backs in nickel and dime personnel. That left them a little susceptible to the run, where they ranked 23rd during the regular season.
Against the 49ers, the Packers stuck with what got them to the NFC Championship Game, but the strategy was also what sent them home. Green Bay consistently came out in nickel despite San Francisco’s preference for heavier personnel packages on offense. During the regular season, the 29ers used 11 personnel on just 41% of snaps, which was the third-lowest rate in the league (really the second-lowest because the Arizona Cardinals, who were the second-lowest used a lot of 10, which has four receivers).
The 49ers are known as a running team, though throughout the seasons, their passing game was a big reason for the offensive success. Green Bay prepared to stop the pass hoping they could hold up just enough on the ground to stop that from killing them. Instead, the 49ers’ ground game killed them.
Raheem Mostert ran 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns while Jimmy Garoppolo threw just eight passes for 77 yards. Green Bay compounded its light defensive personnel with neutral to light boxes against the run. The Packers basically dared the 49ers to beat them on the ground and San Francisco gladly obliged.
Given the personnel and formation matchups, the 49ers were consistently able to get the numbers and angle advantage in the run game. Only 13.8% of Mostert’s carries came against a box of 8 or more defenders. So many of his big runs were created by massive rushing lanes at the line of scrimmage. San Francisco’s offensive line dominated, as did tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Jusczyzk, who were used often as blockers.
There’s a misunderstanding of analytics that makes people believe the goal is to throw the ball all the time, but that’s not the case. The reason passing is preferred is because it’s more efficient than running and over a period of time, passing will lead to more points.
That’s not exactly the case when a team is ripping off runs as efficient as passes, or more. It’s just that those types of rushing performances are rare. But Mostert and the 49ers had one in the NFC title game.
Mostert finished the game with 0.50 EPA per attempt, which just slightly below Patrick Mahomes’s performance against the Titans. It was also the most impressive high volume rushing performance of the season. Let’s compare Mostert with the two top regular season rushing performances from a per play level.
|Player||Week||Plays||Yards-TD||EPA/Play||Success Rate||First Down Rate|
Running just to establish the threat of the run is bad. If any team can run at a clip that exceeds a really good passing performance, go for it. But again, those performances don’t come often. Even Derrick Henry only averaged 0.07 and 0.11 EPA per attempt in the previous two playoff games. In the third quarter, Mostert had averaged nearly a full expected point per rush before the 49ers started to run it for the sake of draining the clock instead of running aggressively like they did at the start of the game.
Super Bowl matchup
Two great offenses took advantage of questionable defensive game plans in the conference championship games. The crazy thing is, this won’t be what the Super Bowl looks like at all. The 49ers never blitz but have one of the best defensive lines for creating pressure with four and an elite secondary behind it. The Chiefs just slowed down the Titans’ running game without really putting an extra effort into it.