After the 2021 season, the Chiefs parted ways with Hill and moved him to the Dolphins. However, they did not obtain a straight replacement for Hill. During the summer of 2023, they made the decision to prioritize quantity over quality by acquiring Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore, Justin Watson, and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Subsequently, they traded the former wideout for Rashee Rice, who made a second-round pick. Over the course of his first season, Rice has demonstrated some promise; nevertheless, none of those players has even come close to matching Hill’s productivity.
Given that the Chiefs are on the verge of winning their second Super Bowl in the past two seasons following the Hill trade, it is evident that they have been able to overcome his absence. They have accomplished this in a number of ways, one of which is by adopting larger formations on attack.
During Hill’s final season with the team, which was 2021, they utilized a total of 27.6% of their snaps with a total of 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends), 13 personnel (one running back and three tight ends), and 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends).
By the year 2022, that percentage had increased to 40.5%, thanks to the fact that Travis Kelce, Noah Gray, and Kansas City had found a role for Watson as the designated wideout in thirteen different personnel packages.
The Chiefs took a step backward in 2023 for a number of reasons, including the fact that Kelce injured himself throughout stretches and sat for longer periods of time than he ever has before. Over the course of the previous two seasons, they were able to split the difference and utilized one of those heavy personnel groupings on 35.7% of their offensive snaps.
A portion of this was due to the fact that they were successful, as they achieved a success rate that was greater than 47% when they utilized any of those three groupings in 2022, which was far higher than the average for the league. By 2023, their success rate in those same groups had decreased to 41.5% from the previous year.
Nevertheless, ever since the beginning of the postseason, the Chiefs have performed exceptionally well with a number that is both fortunate and coincidental. The thirteen-person bunch has, without a doubt, been full. During the postseason, they have gone from employing 13 personnel approximately 7% of the time during the regular season to using it 19% of the time during the playoffs.
This is an almost threefold increase to their previous usage rate. During the regular season, they were only successful on 39% of their plays out of 13 personnel, but over the past three games, they have been successful on 43% of their plays. This postseason, they are using two or more tight ends on more than forty-five percent of their possessions, which represents a combined total of twelve personnel.
It should come as no surprise that playing 12 and 13 personnel has a number of advantages. When teams want to run the football, there is more heaviness because there are more big bodies on the field where they are playing.
Nate Tice, a buddy of mine, has observed that over the course of the previous few years, the Chiefs have shifted away from the more extensive run-pass choices that they utilized when Hill was on the team and have instead adopted more uncomplicated gap run methodologies.
During their game versus the Ravens, they ran at least 14 different variations of power, which is one of the oldest run concepts in the literature. There were a number of plays in which there were two or more tight ends present on the field.
The play-action game has the potential to flourish with those larger setups as well. When Kansas City has Kelce as a viable target, then 13 personnel can generate mismatches. This is because teams that are not prepared for longer passes might not have their top pass defenders on the field.
Over the course of the last two postseasons, Mahomes has completed 15 of 19 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns out of 13 personnel. No other quarterback has completed more than four passes out of 13 personnel over this same length of time.
When Kansas City uses that formation on the field, it tends to produce some amount of personnel certainty for the defense, which is another important factor for the team. The appearance of three tight ends is so severe and unusual that opposition defenses often respond to it with only one set of players by utilizing only one set of players. In the wild-card round, the Dolphins reacted with their base defense (which consisted of four defensive backs) on 14 out of 15 snaps.
Other than plays that occurred inside the 5-yard line or on fourth down, they did not use their base defense. On ten out of ten snaps, the Bills used their nickel defense, which consists of five defensive backs, since they were too thin at linebacker. The Baltimore Ravens went in the opposite direction and played their base defense on all eight of the thirteen personnel snaps they were required to take during the championship game of the conference.
Regarding the 49ers, there won’t be a great deal of uncertainty. Approximately twenty-five percent of the time, the league as a whole utilized nickel defenses with thirteen personnel, but the coordinator Steve Wilks’ team did not use nickel defensive this way.
Throughout the course of the regular season, it played its base defense on each and every one of the 23 snaps that occurred outside the 5-yard line or on fourth down. Each and every one of those snaps involved 13 personnel. During every single snap, San Francisco was the only club to play its standard defense against a total of thirteen personnel.
While the league played its base defense approximately forty percent of the time when it saw two-TE sets, the 49ers played their base defense against twelve personnel more than eighty-three percent of the time throughout the regular season.
The 49ers were also one of the most consistent units in the league when it came to playing against twelve personnel throughout the season. Once more, no team played their base defense more frequently against these sets than any other team. When playing against 12 players, the Niners had an eighth-place EPA per play allowed, but when playing against 13 players, they became 27th.
If an offense is aware of how a defense is going to react in advance when it sends out a grouping, then the offense has already gained a vital piece of information before the game has even begun. In order to take advantage of the limitations imposed by a particular defense, the offense can devise a game plan to attack particular defensive players or target specific defensive players.
Despite the fact that the 49ers have excellent players at each of the three levels of their defense, they do not have stars at every position. You should anticipate that the Chiefs will attempt to assault two players by utilizing these 12 and 13 personnel packages.
Oren Burks, a third-linebacker, is an example of a player that San Francisco does not look for in coverage because he is more of a run defender. Whoever ends up starting at safety next to Tashaun Gipson should be considered the other option.
Talanoa Hufanga sustained a damaged anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in November, and the 49ers initially replaced him with Ji’Ayir Brown, a rookie who was selected in the third round. However, Brown suffered a sprained knee in December, and the 49ers replaced him with Logan Ryan, a veteran.
The 49ers decided to remain with Ryan despite the fact that Brown was well enough to return for the divisional round game against the Packers. They stated that they did not want Brown’s first game back to be in the playoffs after an absence of four weeks.
Brown did not participate in any of the snaps. Despite the fact that Ryan conceded a touchdown pass and failed to make a handful of tackles on significant run plays, the 49ers decided to change their minds and put Brown back into the lineup for all 72 defensive snaps against the Lions.
Therefore, there is no assurance that they will continue to use him on Sunday because he had some problems against the run and did not perform well on a completion that led to a touchdown.
Although Gray and Blake Bell deserve all the respect in the world, Kelce is the player who is responsible for making the huge formations work. The fact that Kelce has made it all the way back into the playoffs is a testament to the fact that there were concerns about him falling off toward the end of the regular season.
While the future Hall of Famer ran for an average of 2.6 yards per route run throughout the first half of the regular season, that number dropped to a more modest 1.6 yards per route run beginning in Week 10 and continuing through the postseason.
This is since the beginning of the postseason. He has returned to the game and is currently averaging 3.0 yards per route ran, which is an outstanding figure and even better than what we witnessed from him during the 2022 season, when he established a record.
Kelce is not the same player that we saw the last time these two teams competed for a championship. He is a completely different player. It was during that time that he was more of a physical force. The Chiefs were able to achieve success by lining up in three-by-one arrangements, with three receivers on one side of the field and Kelce alone on the other side.
This allowed them to dare defenders to pick their poison. Should opponents lean toward the three-wideout configuration, he would have the opportunity to engage in a one-on-one confrontation with a defensive back and bully him with slants. If they attempted to assist him, the Chiefs would exhaust their defensive backs with bunches and picks, which would result in Hill facing a cornerback, one-on-one, in a speed mismatch if they were successful.
Kelce’s physical presence is still intimidating, but his behavior has evolved over the years. When it comes to understanding what the other is thinking, Mahomes and Kelce have a connection that is almost supernatural. The Chiefs allow Kelce the leeway to abandon the called route in order to attack any space he finds, which is a testament to Kelce’s great vision for spacing and picking apart zone coverages.
However, Mahomes and Kelce nearly always wind up having the same idea, which makes that game a hazardous one to play if the quarterback does not know where his receivers will go. In spite of the fact that he is currently in his mid-30s, Kelce is nevertheless unquestionably discoverable at times.
Because Kelce employs it so frequently, the Chiefs use a motion that could just as easily be named the Kelce motion. The manner in which Kansas City intends to manipulate leverage will determine whether he will line up next to a wide receiver and then take a few gradual steps either inside or outside of that receiver on the field. He virtually invariably receives a release without any conditions.
Fred Warner is the only defender who can match Kelce’s brilliance in attacking zones in the middle of the field by instead guarding that space. Kelce is a genius in this area. The linebacker position is now vacant in Warner’s league, despite the fact that Dre Greenlaw has been performing at his highest level. Last year, Warner’s coverage on a CeeDee Lamb seam route was one of the plays of the 2022 postseason. However, his exceptional physical characteristics are not the only thing that makes him stand out.
He possesses unique instincts for where to move as plays progress, as well as the ability to pinch dig routes, which are something that teams (unfortunately, including the 49ers) love to do in order to target linebackers who are in coverage. A Hall of Famer will be competing against another Hall of Famer in this battle.
The Chiefs have the advantage of being able to choose where Kelce lines up and where he stays after the snap. This gives them a significant advantage. Ben Johnson, the offensive coordinator for the Lions, was able to cycle numerous receivers through the center of the field and run Warner out of plays, which allowed the Lions to have success throwing to Sam LaPorta and working the middle of the field last week.
On the other hand, Jared Goff completed 19 of 26 passes for 213 yards and a score, while LaPorta contributed nine receptions for 97 yards, which was the most on the team. It was Josh Reynolds who was responsible for two of the seven missed opportunities.
Despite this, the 49ers have been very successful in their defense of the middle of the field during the whole season. This score was supported by a staggering 17 interceptions on throws in that space, which contributed to their ranking as the fourth best in terms of QBR allowed on passes between the numbers.
This mark was the best in the league. Greenlaw was able to make a vital interception on a throw that was tipped into his hands by a receiver, which allowed them to turn the tide of the game against the Packers. Overthrows and tips have been the cause of the Chiefs’ failures on multiple occasions this season, the most notable of which was their loss against the Lions in Week 1.
Despite the fact that Kansas City wide receivers have only dropped one pass in this postseason, they have posted the greatest drop rate of any group of wide receivers in any season over the previous decade. However, they cannot afford to be sloppy once more.
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