Can 49ers Beat Chiefs with Sheer Talent?

Can 49ers Beat Chiefs with Sheer Talent?

The closest comparison for these 49ers could be the Legion of Boom-era Seahawks. Those Seattle teams didn’t hide anything since there was no need. You knew where they would line up. Most of the time, you knew what they were going to run: their Cover 3 defense, which quarterbacks had been familiar with since junior high. They were simply so clever, intelligent, and skilled that knowing everything didn’t matter.

This San Francisco defense has two potential future Hall of Famers (Bosa and Warner) and a few Pro Bowl starters (Greenlaw, Javon Hargrave, Arik Armstead, and Charvarius Ward). The 49ers have six defensive players who should outperform their peers in one-on-one situations and have the ability to make a game-changing play on nearly every snap.

Most weeks, that’s sufficient. They’re built differently and don’t necessarily play the same defensive style as the Seahawks, but they flourish because they’re more physical and talented than the teams they compete with.

Cody Alexander of MatchQuarters used the word “static” to characterize the 49ers’ defense, which is arguably the most accurate. They will make exceptions, as we saw when they displayed man coverage pre-snap and then zone on the Lions’ second failed fourth-down attempt, but they are normally consistent. What an offense sees before the snap is what it receives after the snap. And the offense will face the same thing this week as it did last.

I said that San Francisco has the league’s greatest rate of matching 12 and 13 personnel with its base defense. The 49ers also do not move their cornerbacks. Ward spends nearly every snap on the left side of the defense, facing the right side of the attack.

Deommodore Lenoir starts on the right side of the defense and confronts the left side of the offense. When the 49ers use their nickel package, Lenoir slides into the slot and Ambry Thomas comes off the bench to fill the right cornerback position.

Knowing where the cornerbacks will line up assists opposing coordinators to properly position their receivers. Looking to avoid Ward, San Francisco’s greatest cover corner? Do not line up your greatest wideout on that side of the field. Do you want to attack Thomas, the weakest link in the group?

Send 11 players out onto the field and position the best wideout on the left side of the formation. When the Commanders faced the 49ers in December and Washington offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy needed a touchdown, what did he do?

He put Terry McLaurin out with two other wideouts, set him up on the left side of the formation, and paired his finest wideout against Thomas. Sam Howell delivered a back-shoulder throw to McLaurin for a score.

According to recent stats, Thomas has allowed six catches on eight targets for 86 yards this postseason as the closest defender in coverage. He has also committed two pass interference penalties, totaling 54 yards. He won’t be on the field when the 49ers play their base defense, so the Chiefs won’t see him in the 12 and 13 personnel groups. They still play 11 personnel more than half of the time, so he’ll get his fair number of snaps Sunday.

In a league where more and more teams strive to give quarterbacks one pre-snap look before switching to something else soon after the snap, the 49ers haven’t seen the need to change things up. There is a metric called disguised dropback rate, which is when a defense shows one sort of coverage before the snap and then switches to another.

The 49ers had the third-lowest rate of disguised coverages in the league. Only the Giants and Jets were less likely to hide their post-snap coverage. The Jets and 49ers are examples of defenses that can prosper without many disguises, but Mahomes had one of his greatest performances of the season against the Jets in Week 4. The Chiefs gained 401 yards and 24 first downs, and they would have scored 30 points if Mahomes hadn’t slipped down to finish the game 2 yards short of the end zone after the two-minute warning.

The Jets had spells where they controlled the Chiefs up front, forcing Mahomes to make mistakes. The 49ers have the personnel to do it at the line of scrimmage, especially if Chiefs star guard Joe Thuney is sidelined. The All-Pro departed the win over the Bills with a pectoral injury and missed the conference championship game.

Nick Allegretti stepped in and held his own, but the career backup fell short on a number of runs against the Ravens, including a third-and-2 situation and a play in which Kansas City was unable to run against what amounted to a four-man Baltimore defense. The 49ers thrive on exploiting mismatches like Hargrave vs. Allegretti.

Bosa will spend the majority of his day paired up against right tackle Jawaan Taylor. Bosa has already tried to get his preferred message through to the officials; when asked what he thought of Taylor and left tackle Donovan Smith, Bosa simply replied, “They hold a lot,” and moved on to the next topic. I won’t disagree with his assessment, but the tackles have been better in the postseason than in the regular season. Returning Smith for the overmatched Wanya Morris has been very beneficial.

The 49ers might contemplate replacing Bosa. Chase Young has been at the top of the rotation since joining the Commanders in October, but the Packers and Lions have dominated him in the run game. Young was surrounded by wide receivers and appeared to loaf on the backside of Jahmyr Gibbs’ 15-yard touchdown run. The 49ers will be without Clelin Ferrell (knee) for the Super Bowl, but they may move the rotation even more toward Randy Gregory or give Armstead more snaps outside on early downs, as they have in prior years.

The 49ers may then offer Javon Kinlaw or late-season newcomer Sebastian Joseph-Day, who formerly played for the Rams and Chargers, more opportunities. They often use the wide-nine fronts recommended by defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, which challenge opposition teams to run the ball with positive box counts. If they can restrict the Chiefs’ rushing attack with five- or six-man boxes, it will be a tremendous schematic opportunity.

The Chiefs will put the defensive ends to work, both on the rush and chasing down receivers near the line of scrimmage. Reid has been a screen genius for over 20 years, and the 49ers finished the regular season ranked 26th in EPA per play against screen passes. The Chiefs continue to use RPOs and/or have run plays that include the option of throwing a bubble or tunnel screen to the outside if the numbers are favorable.

If all else fails, the 49ers can hang on by winning in the red zone. The Chiefs’ offensive has improved considerably in the postseason, going from a league-average 0.00 EPA per play outside the red zone during the regular season to 0.15 EPA per play in the playoffs. This would have made them the league’s greatest offense outside of the red zone during the regular season.

Everything has gone wrong in the red zone. Mahomes and company have converted only six of their 13 trips into scores, with five field goals and two fails on Mecole Hardman’s fumble through the end zone against the Bills and the Ravens’ fourth-and-1 stuff last week.

Red zone performance typically correlates with how a team performs outside of the red zone, so if the Chiefs continue to move the ball well, I expect their red zone performance to increase. During their Super Bowl victories over the 49ers and Eagles, they went 7-for-9 on red zone trips to the end zone.

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