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The Four Keys to Super Bowl LVIII

The matchup is set between the 49ers and Chiefs. But how will Kyle Shanahan’s and Andy Reid’s game plans—as well as the ever-important Patrick Mahomes factor—dictate the outcome in Las Vegas?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The football gods must love a good narrative. How else can you explain this Super Bowl matchup following a pair of deeply weird championship games that saw the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers advance? It was as if these teams were destined to meet in Las Vegas, and it’s easy to see why the matchup is appealing: On one side, you have a team that is stretching the limits of its elite quarterback’s powers; on the other, you have a quarterback who was selected with the very last pick in the draft and is surrounded by all-world talents. Of course, Brock Purdy’s $1 million salary cap hit is part of what has made the collection of all-world talent possible, while Patrick Mahomes’s $450 million deal has forced his front office to cut costs elsewhere. We’ve got two teams on opposite sides of the roster construction spectrum. Which approach is better? You’ll just have to tune in to the Super Bowl to find out!

The larger narratives surrounding this matchup will be fun to discuss (and possibly yell at one another about) over the coming weeks, but the actual football battle should be just as compelling. We’ll see San Francisco’s powerhouse offense, led by the league’s best offensive play caller in Kyle Shanahan, go up against a rugged Chiefs defense led by Steve Spagnuolo, who is putting together a compelling case for being the best defensive coordinator in modern league history. Then there’s the game’s best player in Mahomes … who’s working with very little. The Chiefs are holding their offense together with duct tape and some timely quarterback scrambles. And the 49ers defense hasn’t looked much better of late. The run defense has been a problem all year, and the pass rush, outside of Nick Bosa, isn’t what it used to be. These teams couldn’t be more different, but they also couldn’t be more equally matched.

This figures to be a close game decided by a critical matchup here or a key tactical adjustment there. So let’s take an early look at what those deciding factors could be when the 49ers and Chiefs play for the Lombardi Trophy.

Kyle Shanahan’s Plan to Protect Brock Purdy From Steve Spagnuolo

Lamar Jackson has nothing to be ashamed of after being held to 10 points by Kansas City on Sunday. Sometimes, you get Spagsed. Yes, I’m using Spagnuolo’s name as a verb. It’s the least he deserves after putting on another postseason master class in Kansas City’s 17-10 win over Baltimore in the AFC championship. We typically attribute the enduring success of this Chiefs team to Mahomes and Andy Reid, but this year, Spags’s defense has carried the team to success. It happened again on Sunday. Scoring 17 points typically isn’t enough to bring down a team quarterbacked by Jackson—and Kansas City’s offense scored zero of those in the second half—but, again, Spagnuolo found a way to make the opposing quarterback’s life miserable. Lamar isn’t the first great QB to be put in a blender by the veteran coordinator. He won’t be the last.

If the 49ers are going to win the Super Bowl, Purdy can’t be next on that list. San Francisco doesn’t have the defense to withstand an uneven night from the offense—not against Mahomes—and the pressure will fall on Shanahan to prevent his unit from falling flat. Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken wasn’t able to ease the mental burden on his quarterback on Sunday. Baltimore’s run game was nonexistent outside of a handful of chunk plays and Jackson scrambles, so the offense consistently found itself in passing situations—which is when Spagnuolo’s defense is at its trickiest. Even when the Ravens moved the ball with relative ease in the second half, it was only a matter of time before they made a mistake. The most costly was Jackson’s lone interception, which came on a well-designed coverage disguise that baited the Ravens QB to throw into what looked like triple coverage.

That mistake doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though. It’s the product of Spagnuolo’s constant pestering of the quarterback throughout a game. The offenses that have had the most success against his defenses have been able to consistently gain 4 or 5 yards on first down. All those funky disguises and complicated coverage rotations aren’t useful when the offense needs only a few yards to move the sticks. Fortunately for the 49ers, they have Shanahan, who is better than any play caller at keeping his quarterback ahead of the chains. And that shows up in the numbers when looking at the history of Shanahan-Spagnuolo matchups.

A History of Shanahan’s Offenses Vs. Spags

Year Week Team Opponent Result Yards/play EPA/snap
Year Week Team Opponent Result Yards/play EPA/snap
2009 15 Texans Rams W 16 - 13 6.6 0.08
2010 3 Commanders Rams L 16 - 30 8.9 0.09
2011 4 Commanders Rams W 17 - 10 5.2 -0.06
2012 1 Commanders Saints W 40 - 32 5.8 0.30
2015 2 Falcons Giants W 24 - 20 5.7 0.16
2017 10 49ers Giants W 31 - 21 6.4 -0.20
2019 SB 49ers Chiefs L 20 - 31 7.6 0.28
2022 7 49ers Chiefs L 23 - 44 5.1 -0.23

It’s kind of one-sided, with Shanahan holding a significant edge, but Spagnuolo won the most important matchup of them all: their first Super Bowl showdown, in 2020. Both teams have changed a lot in the four years since then, so there’s not a ton we can learn from that game. But Shanahan was largely able to keep an aggressive Chiefs defense off Jimmy Garoppolo’s case. The 49ers used a lot of pre-snap motion and short passes early on, Garoppolo got in a nice rhythm (finishing with a success rate of over 70 percent), and the Chiefs defense was in catch-up mode for most of the night. If Mahomes hadn’t done this, we’d probably remember the game as a Shanahan masterpiece.

The script flipped in last season’s Week 7 meeting between the two play callers. Mahomes was in god mode from the very start against a banged-up Niners defense, and the 49ers were awkwardly trying to fit Christian McCaffrey into the game plan after he’d been traded to the team earlier that week. The Chiefs sacked Jimmy G five times, picked him off once, and won the game by three scores. In fact, things got so out of hand in the fourth quarter that a young backup by the name of Purdy got some run—and even threw his first career interception.

Obviously, Purdy won’t be starting this game with a three-score deficit, but the point remains: Shanahan’s offense is at its best with a lead and a manageable down and distance. It’s a front-running offense by design. The game will be won or lost on first and second down. Second- and third-and-long are Spags’s time, and that’s not typically an enjoyable experience for quarterbacks.

San Francisco’s Containment of Mahomes

I don’t need to remind 49ers fans what can happen when Mahomes extends plays—I’m sure they remember Super Bowl LIV. But during the rest of the 2019 season, when the Chiefs still had Tyreek Hill, the passing game wasn’t so reliant on that particular Mahomes skill. These days, Kansas City’s roster is in a much different place—with an inexperienced and unreliable receiving core—so those extended plays have been more of a necessity than a luxury. Mahomes’s mobility was the deciding factor in Sunday’s win in Baltimore.

Many of his scrambles came against two-high coverages when Baltimore deployed extra defenders deep. With no spy keeping an eye on Mahomes in the middle of the field, he was free to take off as soon as possible.

It was as if Mahomes was hunting that extra defender. If it was a deep safety, he’d scramble. If it was an extra blitzer, he’d stay within structure and get the ball out quickly. If the extra defender was in more of a spy role, he’d work through his progressions. Mahomes was whatever style of quarterback he needed to be in each situation. He looked like Lamar on one play, Tom Brady on the next, and Peyton Manning on others. That combination was good enough for only 17 points against Baltimore’s league-leading defense, but if he plays like that against an inconsistent 49ers unit, the Chiefs could double that number.

Mahomes has been impressive doing this all season, but no offense should be this reliant on its quarterback. It’s a flaw in the system, and one that makes the matchup between Kansas City’s pass game and San Francisco’s pass defense a straightforward one. If the 49ers can keep Mahomes in the pocket, and cut off the supply of explosive plays he creates in scramble mode, San Francisco’s path to winning gets a lot clearer.

During the regular season, the 49ers ranked 23rd in defensive success rate on extended pass plays, according to Next Gen Stats. The Ravens defense, which ranked first in that metric, had trouble keeping Mahomes in the pocket, so this will be quite the test for Steve Wilks’s group. The typical approach for this unit against mobile quarterbacks has been to put the pass rush in contain mode. Bosa explained the strategy after the 49ers took down Jalen Hurts’s Eagles in December.

The 49ers tried something similar against Lamar on Christmas, and it wasn’t nearly as effective. As Bosa explained after that game, that was more about Jackson’s otherworldly ability to feel the rush than anything else.

ahomes shares that ability—and probably has an even better feel for when to go into scramble mode—so if the 49ers enter the game thinking a mush rush will work, we should expect similar results for the defense. San Francisco needs several plans of attack, as Baltimore had. If Mahomes gets a feel for what the defense is doing, he will adjust—just like he did four years ago when these teams last met with a championship at stake.

Kansas City’s Plan(s) for When Kyle Juszczyk Is on the Field

One of the more interesting chess matches in this game will be played before the teams even huddle up: How the Chiefs defense will match up with San Francisco’s personnel, and specifically fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Juszczyk may seem like a bit player in this game full of stars, but he’ll be the key figure in how Kansas City’s defense lines up against the 49ers offense.

Knowing how Spagnuolo operates, he’ll have a thorough plan for this aspect of the game. In last season’s showdown between these teams, Spags matched San Francisco’s two-back sets with base defense on about half of the snaps and played nickel on the other half. The split was almost entirely based on the down and distance. On early downs, when the run threat was higher, Spags played base. On passing downs, he put the extra defensive back out there. And that’s how he’s generally operated throughout 2023.

If Kansas City employs a similar plan in the Super Bowl, expect the 49ers to take their shots in the passing game on early downs rather than running McCaffrey into a brick wall. Or is that what Spagnuolo wants? We should have a good idea after the very first snap, assuming Juszczyk is on the field for it.

Juszczyk blurs the lines between a tight end and a fullback. He spends a lot of time lined up in traditional tight end spots, attached to the offensive line rather than in the backfield where fullbacks are typically stationed. With that extra receiving threat on the line of scrimmage, the downhill-run-focused defense gets strained. But if the Chiefs throw an extra defensive back out there, the 49ers can line up in a traditional two-back set and pound the rock with McCaffrey.

It is a tactic that has confounded defenses all season—and one that only three teams have really leaned into this year: the Dolphins, Ravens, and 49ers. The Chiefs have already taken those first two teams out during this postseason run. Doing it against Shanahan’s Niners would be a fitting way to cap this run for Kansas City’s defense.

The Isiah Pacheco Problem

Run defense has been an issue for the 49ers all season. They rank in the bottom 10 in just about every defensive efficiency metric against the run, and against the Lions it nearly cost the Niners a trip to the Super Bowl. The issue is quite clear: San Francisco’s defensive line is weak up the middle, and the scheme doesn’t offer any extra help to mitigate that weakness. Per Next Gen Stats, the 49ers were one of three teams to allow a positive EPA on runs up the middle this season. The Panthers and Giants were the other two. That isn’t good company.

And while the Chiefs run game does not pose the threat(s) Detroit’s does, the AFC champs do have the perfect running back to exploit a defense that’s weak up the middle. Isiah Pacheco is essentially a wrecking ball in football pads. He’s Wile E. Coyote running through the painted tunnel, only he actually gets through.

“The funniest one that I thought was they said that I run like I bite people,” Pacheco said last week when asked about comparisons for his running style. “I ain’t no zombie. That was crazy. That was one of the funniest ones … [but] it’s a great opinion. For me, it’s just being determined and that I have a goal to achieve.”

I don’t really have any smart analysis to add here. The Chiefs have a running back who seeks out collisions, and the 49ers have a run defense that has ended up on the losing end of said collisions more often than not this season. As much as we want to talk about Mahomes, Reid, Shanahan, Purdy, and McCaffrey, this game could come down to one simple question: Can the 49ers tackle Pacheco, who averaged over 3 rushing yards after contact this season? Sometimes, even the most glamorous matchups still come back to running the damn ball.