Welcome to Chalk Wars! The premise is simple: Steven Ruiz and Ben Solak are cosplaying as the two coaching staffs for the 2024 Super Bowl, predicting and illustrating how they’ll scheme up the big game. Ruiz has the Kansas City Chiefs; Solak has the San Francisco 49ers.
Each section will start with a key question that will define the game, asked by the offense. For example: How do you stop Christian McCaffrey? Who is the bigger threat: Travis Kelce or Rashee Rice? After the question is posed, the defense will have a chance to respond, detailing how that unit will try to account for those offensive challenges. These conversations should mirror the interplay we see on Sunday: the schemes, the adjustments, and the counterpunches.
We’ll start with Solak and the 49ers offense.
The 49ers’ Offensive Scheme Question: Can Kansas City Account for All of San Francisco’s Looks?
Solak: Let’s discuss the simple, fundamental issue of the 49ers offense: It is too good to stop, so San Francisco will win, and the opposing team will lose.
Ruiz: Well … crap.
Solak: The 49ers probably have the best collection of offensive players in football. McCaffrey is the league’s best running back. George Kittle is one of the four or five best tight ends. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are both top-15 receivers, and I’d personally argue that Deebo belongs in the top 10. What other team has that level of premier talent at every position—even before Trent Williams is added to the equation? This year, with McCaffrey, Aiyuk, Deebo, Kittle, and Williams all on the field—491 of San Francisco’s 1,154 plays—the Niners are averaging 7.2 yards per play. They have a success rate of 51.7 percent and an expected points added per play of 0.21.
For perspective: The league-leading numbers in those metrics are 6.5 yards per play, a success rate of 48.6 percent, and an EPA per play of 0.15. And they’re all held by the 49ers.
This is a superteam, and all the major offensive players are healthy for its final game.
But it isn’t just about these players: It is about how they are deployed. Kyle Shanahan is the NFL’s best designer of offensive football. He is both the man who acquired and developed these league-defining skill players and the sort of coach who can maximize them on the field.
Here’s a fun nugget from Next Gen Stats: No team runs more condensed formations than the 49ers. Their average formation width this season was 19.9 yards, which is the lowest of any offense and the lowest ever from a Shanahan-led 49ers team. The 49ers’ commitment to condensed formations is a by-product of their long-standing offensive philosophy: Look like you’re going to run the football at all times (and heck, run it pretty often), put an extra back in the backfield (no team runs more two-back personnel than the 49ers), put tight ends in the core of the formation, pull wide receivers close to the line so that they can contribute as blockers, and get under center and pound the daggum ball, sonny.
Consider this formation below. What will the 49ers do out of it? If you said spring a 72-yard run, you’d be correct!
Defenses look at this formation and these personnel (21 personnel, with fullback-slash-noted-wife-guy Kyle Juszczyk on the field) and think: Run, respect run, defend run. That’s what the Lions did in the NFC championship game when they put four down defensive linemen and three linebackers on the field (base 4-3 personnel, which the Chiefs defense loves to use). And look at how the 49ers responded.
When you put only four defensive backs on the field, you’ll really struggle to play zone coverage. ALL of your linebackers will have to be aggressive against the run threat, which means that play-action will really hurt them. And even if they do get to their zones, they’re linebackers. They are not equipped to run with the sort of athletes the 49ers have at tight end and running back.
So the Lions ended up playing man coverage, and Shanahan had all the room in the world for Samuel over the middle of the field. This is incredibly easy to see on the chalkboard—but it’s somehow made even easier on the field by the 49ers personnel. Watch Deebo win the ball in the dig window against a sinking linebacker …
… and watch the threat of this Deebo dig route pull the safety away from the quick post to Aiyuk on the other side of the field …
… and see the dip on Brock Purdy’s chip when he finds Kittle on the seam between split safeties …
… and then watch all of these explosive McCaffrey runs, which are just, like, runs. Runs that are supposed to be easier to stop. Less scary. They aren’t!
All of this has come from a condensed set. The 49ers get all of their skill position players involved in the run, and then on the very next play, from the same tight formation, they drop back and hit an explosive pass. You are well and truly danged if you do and well and truly danged if you don’t.
And then—and yes, I mean “and then” as in there’s more, this isn’t the end, that wasn’t enough, Shanahan isn’t done beating the love of football out of you—they get into an empty set, with all eligible receivers lined up outside the backfield.
This is very silly. The team that runs the most condensed sets in the league also runs the sixth-most empty sets in the league. And nobody runs more empty on third-and-long than the 49ers. They average 10 yards per play out of empty. They are one type of offense the majority of the time, and then when they want to be, they become a WHOLE OTHER TYPE OF OFFENSE, with the exact same personnel!
Ruiz: To quote a 49ers great, this sounds like conservative trickery. What happened to lining up and the best man wins?
Solak: I couldn’t agree more. If you tried to do this back in my day, men in black sunglasses would come and take you away. The league needs to ban this before it bans hip-drop tackles and fumble-out-of-the-end-zone touchbacks.
Here’s a sequence San Francisco ran against the Chiefs last season that shows just how twisted and horrible this is. On the first play, the 49ers are in 21 personnel—two backs, a tight end, two wideouts—and use a nice, tight formation to run a play-action pass. Classic Shanahan nonsense.
But on the very next play, with the same personnel on the field, they’ve spread the Chiefs into an empty set. Linebacker Willie Gay (50), who defended the run well just one play ago, is now a liability in the zone coverage that’s demanded by this spread set. The 49ers offense morphed, and he could not morph in return.
So, Steven. I pose to you the same question that has flummoxed almost every defensive coordinator that played the 49ers this season: What do you do in the face of this? What will Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs defense try to take away—and what will they inevitably suffer losses to? What can you hope to do against this 49ers offense?
The Chiefs’ Defensive Response
Ruiz: Ben, are you familiar with this man?
Solak: That is my local heating and cooling expert.
Ruiz: You should know better than to doubt this man—or to assume that his plan for last season’s game, a 44-23 Chiefs win, will have any bearing on Sunday’s matchup. Besides, despite Shanahan’s mismatch creation in that game, the 49ers averaged just 0.02 EPA per play in a three-score loss. It was a win for Spags.
As you mentioned, though, San Francisco has been more willing and able this season to spread things out when defenses load up with run defenders. Because of that, I don’t think we’ll see Spagnuolo use a lot of base personnel on Sunday. In last year’s game, the Chiefs DC matched Shanahan’s heavier personnel groupings with nickel (five defensive backs) on about half of the snaps, per Next Gen Stats. I expect that number to go up for the Super Bowl now that the 49ers pose more of a passing threat with a fully formed offense.
Ahead of last season’s matchup, which came on the heels of a Chiefs loss to the Bills’ pass-first attack, Spagnuolo admitted that his primary focus would be stopping San Francisco’s run game. “We played last week a certain way,” the 64-year-old coordinator said of the Bills game. “We actually knew [Buffalo running the ball well] was probably going to happen. With this team coming up, though, we gotta get back to playing the run and forcing them into longer third downs.”
So, yeah, you’re going to concede the Gay vs. Kittle matchup if it means better run defense. But last season, Shanahan didn’t have the ability to toggle between spread and condensed sets as freely as he does now. That’s where Purdy has made his biggest contribution to the team. His ability to slither out of the pocket and through stretched-out defenses—as Spags noted in a press conference last Friday—gives the 49ers a plan B if the coverage wins out. Well-covered plays are turning into modest gains for San Francisco rather than sacks or interceptions, which gives Shanahan more confidence in those calls and makes it difficult for opponents to put a bunch of linebackers on the field.
Spags will have to have a different approach. If he loads the box and plays single-high, he’ll fail just like all the DCs who tried that before him. That’s the trap Shanahan wants defenses to fall in. If I were in Spagnuolo’s shoes, I’d opt to play more two-high with a decent amount of blitzing to try to create negative plays in the run game or speed up Purdy’s clock. Purdy has been the NFL’s best quarterback against the blitz this season, by total EPA and yards per dropback, but Spagnuolo’s blitzing style is unique across the league. Kansas City paired a five-man rush with two-high zone coverage on 90 snaps this season. That’s 45 more than the next-closest team.
They’ll do it against condensed formations, with two corners flying off the edge.
And they’ll do it when teams get into empty sets.
Spagnuolo has so many creative ways to present his two-zone coverages, whether it’s with a four- or five-man rush.
This style works particularly well against empty formations, and Kansas City defended those formations about as well as any team this season, averaging 0.22 defensive EPA per dropback with a 70 percent success rate. Both were top-five marks against empty during the regular season, per TruMedia.
My biggest concern for Kansas City would be the loss of Charles Omenihu, who tore his ACL in the AFC championship win over Baltimore. Omenihu provided a constant supply of pressure and a solid presence in the run game. His absence will hurt, as will losses suffered earlier in the season, including defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and safety Bryan Cook. Overall, though, I’d say this version of the defense is more talented than the one San Francisco saw last season. Trent McDuffie, who’s emerged as one of the best slot defenders in the NFL, didn’t play in the 2022 game; George Karlaftis wasn’t the contributor he’s become; L’Jarius Sneed has taken another step forward (and might be the best player on the defense now); Leo Chenal has carved out a role; and Drue Tranquill has provided some useful reps. That’s not a list of household names—Kansas City’s kicker might be the fourth-most famous player on the team—but this defense has a lot of dudes who can carry out a job. It reminds me of Bill Belichick’s defenses in New England. After the win against the Ravens, Spagnuolo said this defense had “the highest number of cerebral, passionate players” he’s ever been around. “They take a game plan, and they work it,” he said.
The 49ers offense is the best in the NFL. It’s a nightmare for defensive coordinators. But Kansas City has one of the few coordinators, and defenses, that’s up for the challenge.
The 49ers’ Personnel Question: Can Christian McCaffrey Win This One on His Own?
Solak: I think this sounds great. I also think that, if you go two-high and blitz happy with no Omenihu and no Nnadi, McCaffrey’s gonna run for a buck-fifty and two scores.
Ruiz: If it’s more like 95 yards and one touchdown, Kansas City can live with that. If McCaffrey has a big day on the ground, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it helps the Chiefs limit explosive plays through the air.
Solak: While the 2022 matchup between these teams was remarkably different from this one because of the presence of Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback, it’s also worth noting that it was McCaffrey’s first game in San Francisco. He played only 22 snaps—Jeff Wilson had 26, and Tyrion Davis-Price had another 13. Seven of his nine touches came in the first two quarters, and he wasn’t used much in the passing game as the 49ers trailed for much of the second half. There is no chance that McCaffrey will have such a small role on Sunday.
Here’s a Next Gen Stat for you: McCaffrey led the league in both rushing yards before contact and rushing yards after contact this season. He’s the first player to do that since 2017. That isn’t just a testament to McCaffrey’s vision and the 49ers front or to McCaffrey’s quickness and toughness and power. It’s also a testament to the sort of volume McCaffrey can handle. Only Derrick Henry had more carries this year; no skill position player had more touches.
And it isn’t just about the running game, where Shanahan’s offenses have always been dangerous. What McCaffrey brings in the passing game is truly special. He is the real fulcrum of the 49ers’ recent schematic change—and without him, San Francisco never could have become the spread-happy team it is today. McCaffrey is one of two, maybe three running backs in the league who are legitimate threats to run a route from a wide receiver alignment. And the 49ers have a ton of goofy ways to get him into that space.
Remember this Aiyuk catch that we saw at the top? Watch McCaffrey in motion.
Yeah, this isn’t the only time the 49ers have done this. They love lining up in a traditional formation—one with one back and one tight end and receivers and all that jazz—and then suddenly motioning McCaffrey out of the backfield. They’ll do it from the gun or from under center and send him to the slot or out wide.
That creates an empty formation, but one that doesn’t have the traditional empty presentation. The quarterback isn’t always in the gun; he can be under center. The formation isn’t always a spread formation; it can still be fairly condensed. And the receivers aren’t all up near the line of scrimmage; McCaffrey can be 6 yards deep.
Here’s Shanahan talking about one of those goofy McCaffrey motions earlier this season:
Had a patron share this w/ me. In the first part, Kyle talks about my favorite motion: Bumper. His explanation makes more sense than anything else I've heard. In short, it's empty, but nobody treats it like empty, ie, no empty checks. I can dig that.https://t.co/tgWuW4syuh— The QB School (@theqbschool) December 11, 2023
On the play Shanahan is referencing, McCaffrey has an option route. He can break in or out … or up?! Yeah, the typical option route releases either left or right, but if you really like your receiver, you can let him option up the field as well. And the 49ers have a back who can change his routes on the field relative to coverage and create explosive passing gains. We take it for granted, but it’s worth remembering: That’s incredibly rare.
Steven, your vaunted Spags defense gives up more yards after contact per carry than any other defense in the league, and it’s facing the guy who gets more yards after contact per carry than any back in the league. The Chiefs defense is 22nd in success rate against running back targets this season. It doesn’t have a player equipped to match up with McCaffrey in space, and I know that because no defense does. So let me ask you this: What’s to stop McCaffrey from winning this game all on his own?
The Chiefs’ Defensive Response
Ruiz: Because he’s a running back, and those guys don’t matter, right? No, my real answer is to not do anything. We won’t give in and play Shanahan’s sick games and sell out to stop McCaffrey. We’ll let McCaffrey get his—whether it’s in the run game or on those option routes out of the backfield—within reason, and focus more of our attention on clogging up the over-the-middle windows that pop up when teams do sell out to stop the 49ers’ star back.
The two-high coverages will leave open lanes on the ground, but they should also allow Kansas City to flood the middle of the field with linebackers and safeties, creating tight windows for Purdy. We know he likes to hit those windows with anticipatory throws, and a bad read here or a floated pass there will lead to a turnover (or two) eventually. And unlike Detroit’s secondary—or Green Bay’s in the divisional round—our guys will catch the ball. They just have to.
The Chiefs have to create a chaotic environment that knocks Shanahan and his offense out of rhythm. Maybe he’ll just forget to use McCaffrey, as he did against the Packers two weeks ago. If Spags can’t get San Francisco out of that rhythm, this Super Bowl will play out like last year’s Super Bowl game against the Eagles, and Patrick Mahomes will have to play a perfect game.
The Chiefs’ Offensive Scheme Question: Has the Unstoppable Version of Mahomes-to-Kelce Returned?
Ruiz: It’s been nearly a decade since a Super Bowl–winning team finished the regular season outside the top 10 in EPA per play. The 2015 Broncos, led by a thoroughly washed Peyton Manning and a historically dominant defense, were the last team to accomplish this feat. But after finishing the regular season 11th in EPA per play, the Chiefs can join them with a win on Sunday.
Based on recent standards, the 2023 Kansas City offense was not exactly championship caliber.
Solak: Oh, what’s that? Not first in every offensive metric there is? Couldn’t be me, frankly!
Ruiz: But I’m using the past tense there for a reason. The offense, and the passing game in particular, has looked more like a title-worthy unit over the past few weeks—just pretend the second half of the Baltimore game didn’t happen—and Mahomes’s postseason numbers are up across the board compared to those from the regular season:
Mahomes Has Turned It On in the Playoffs
The same can be said for Kelce, who’s averaging nearly 90 receiving yards per game in the playoffs after averaging about 65 per game during the regular season. The Mahomes-Kelce connection had been productive enough for the Kansas City offense to scrape by and win a bad AFC West, but in the playoffs, it’s back to being the unit’s driving force—and it should be the focus of San Francisco’s defensive plan.
The simplest explanation for the turnaround is that Kelce is focused on playing tight end now. No, this won’t turn into a rant about Taylor Swift. I mean that the Chiefs have started deploying him like a tight end, and it’s made Kelce’s job a hell of a lot easier. During the playoffs, Kelce has lined up in traditional tight end spots—connected to the offensive line—more often than in the regular season, and he’s lined up less in the slot and out wide. He’s playing more often on early downs after running routes on just 66 percent of Kansas City’s first-down dropbacks during the regular season. And those two tweaks have given the offense more balance when no. 87 is in the mix. During the regular season, Kansas City’s pass rate was 72.7 percent with Kelce on the field. It’s down to 62.7 percent during the postseason. Kelce’s presence on the field is no longer the pass tell it had been when Kansas City was limiting his snaps on early downs, so he’s running more routes against the basic coverages that are typically called on run downs.
Whether the Chiefs were trying to protect the 34-year-old from grueling blocking assignments or the team put him on a snap count after he suffered a couple of early-season injuries, the staff’s restraint during the regular season has helped keep Kelce healthy for the most important part of the campaign. He doesn’t look any faster or spryer (Solak: That’s not a word, dude, you can’t just make up words) than he did during the fall—his max speeds in the three playoff games have been 15.3, 16.8, and 15.8 mph, respectively, which are Mac Jones–level numbers—but his fresh(er) legs have more than enough juice to beat a linebacker downfield. And now that he’s playing on early downs more often, he’s seeing more of those matchups.
Mahomes has also played a role in Kelce’s postseason revival. The quarterback’s ability to extend plays went from a nice luxury for the offense in past years to a vital feature of this season. During the playoffs, extended dropbacks that end with Kelce targets have powered the offense. Mahomes’s average time to throw on Kelce’s explosive plays (more than 1.0 EPA) has been 3.4 seconds. He’s averaging 2.8 seconds per throw overall during the postseason. Andy Reid is setting Kelce up with better matchups, and Mahomes is giving him extra time to get open.
Kelce is getting more downfield targets in the postseason, but Reid has also dialed up his usage of tight-end screens now that he has a playmaker in those spots. And this “new” layer to the early-down offense has made Kansas City’s multi–tight end groupings a lot more imposing. When Noah Gray and Blake Bell are out there as the lone tight ends, defensive coordinators aren’t stressing about matchups in the passing game. Swap one of them out for Kelce, though, and the math changes.
That new math has given opposing pass defenses some issues, but they’ve found more success against Kansas City’s ground game. Before you get all excited about that, Ben, I’ll remind you that styles make fights, and there is one key difference between how teams like Baltimore and Miami defend the run and how your San Francisco team does it. The Dolphins and Ravens are odd-front defenses. When in base defense, they play with three down linemen all aligned in between the tackles. Against these looks, the Chiefs prefer to trot out three tight ends and go under center on base downs. Their usage of 13 personnel has spiked in the postseason thanks largely to the defenses they’ve faced. But in the divisional round against Buffalo, a four-down defense, Reid mostly preferred 12-personnel and shotgun formations. And that’s the sort of scheme I’d expect him to deploy on Sunday, as the 49ers play four-down fronts at the second-highest rate in the league, per Next Gen Stats.
Kansas City’s run game may not be very good overall, but it has been productive against four-man defensive lines. On those occasions, the Chiefs condense their formations and feed Isiah Pacheco. Typically, teams that run out of the gun don’t have a large menu of calls because you can really run in only one direction. If the back aligns to the quarterback’s left, the run goes to the right 90 percent of the time—and vice versa. So defenses that play four-down lines will set their front based on where the back aligns.
To counteract that, Reid will hunt whatever bubble he can, even calling “same-side” runs if defenses try to hide a gap on the side that the back aligns with. For instance, this run play, which looks like a misdirection or counter concept, is just an inside zone with the back starting on the opposite side from where he typically would.
Here’s what a typical inside zone run looks like from the gun.
After the handoff is completed, it’s essentially the same picture:
Based on the overall numbers, the Chiefs run game—and their early-down offense as a whole—doesn’t pose too much of a threat to the 49ers defense. But I’d say that those numbers don’t matter too much for this game and that these 12-personnel looks will be a pain in the ass for Steve Wilks and his staff to deal with. San Francisco’s run defense has been an issue all season and could be a problem once again on Sunday. So, Ben, my question to you is how they will mitigate that issue while not leaving themselves vulnerable to a rejuvenated Kelce.
The 49ers’ Defensive Response
Solak: Run defense, schmun defense. Let’s watch some cool Fred Warner coverage plays.
In all seriousness, the 49ers run defense is chalked. They added Javon Hargrave at defensive tackle in free agency in the hope that improved defensive tackle play would strengthen their interior, but structurally, the 49ers will lose to well-designed running games because they’re just too predictable in their front.
When you reliably present four-down looks and free up your defensive line to fly upfield, you give up two things in the running game: easy double-teams on the interior and misdirection plays that get outside of your defensive ends.
For the first, watch this David Montgomery run from the Lions’ first drive of the NFC championship game:
The double-teams create easy vertical displacement, while the slide block from the tight end creates confusion in the second level. Warner bumps over a gap; Oren Burks, that third linebacker the 49ers put on the field in base defense, doesn’t bump. Montgomery runs untouched through the first level, and it’s an explosive gain.
That’s the problem with free double-teams—they put your linebackers in impossible binds. Linebackers have to flow quickly to gaps to beat the combo blocks, and when they do, offenses can take advantage of their aggression. Watch Dre Greenlaw on this run two plays later, which initially looks like another Montgomery interior run, before Jared Goff flips an end around to Jameson Williams for a 42-yard score.
As Nick Bosa and Chase Young both crash into the core of the play, there is no containment for Williams, who is following two blockers into open space. The 49ers secondary, which is as tough and physical as they come, has no chance.
So I don’t really think the 49ers have a structural answer to the 12-personnel problem. They’ll play base defense—that’s four defensive linemen, three linebackers—and try to win in the running game with penetration and fast-flowing backers. They’ll lose more reps than they’ll win, but when they win, they’ll create second-and-10 or worse. A Bosa tackle for loss could put the Chiefs into second-and-12 and then into third-and-7—and that’s when these edge rushers get to tee off against Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor. It isn’t really about stopping the run: It’s about surviving it.
Should the Chiefs go 12 personnel to pass the football, I think they’ll be playing into the 49ers’ hands. The weak link in coverage for the 49ers is Ambry Thomas, their third corner. When Thomas comes on the field, he plays along the outside and starter Deommodore Lenoir bumps to the slot—but since Week 9, which was when Thomas first became part of the rotation, he’s surrendered 5.4 receptions over expectation to outside receivers, which is fourth most in the league. He’s the guy that the Packers picked on in the divisional round: four targets for four receptions on 26 coverage snaps.
But remember: Thomas comes on the field only in nickel sets, when the 49ers want a fifth defensive back. If the Chiefs live in 12 and 13 personnel, then Thomas will stay on the sideline, and Lenoir will stay on the outside opposite star cornerback Charvarius Ward. The 49ers still get Warner and Greenlaw patrolling the middle in either man or zone coverage against Kelce. To really activate Kelce, the Chiefs should use him as a quasi–slot receiver in lighter personnel, hiding him from the linebackers and getting him matchups against safeties and nickel corners.
The Chiefs’ Offensive Personnel Question: Oh No, There Are Two of Them Now?
Ruiz: As you all have probably heard, Kelce has a new partner, and their newfound involvement has become a source of frustration for a lot of people. I know that if I were on the 49ers, I’d be very annoyed by the attention this person will command on Sunday. I don’t want to name names, but you know exactly who I’m talking about, don’t you?
Solak: To keep the Star Wars references running: It’s a trap!
Ruiz: I’m talking about Chiefs rookie Rashee Rice, of course. Over the past few weeks, the 23-year-old has emerged as the clear Robin to Kelce’s Batman. Rice is lagging behind Kelce in the touchdown department, but he’s keeping pace with the veteran tight end in every other statistical category.
Rice Has Kept Up With Kelce in the Playoffs (TruMedia)
When throwing to Rice and Kelce during the postseason, Mahomes has completed 82.7 percent of his passes, with a success rate of 71.2 percent. He’s averaging 9.3 yards and 0.78 EPA per dropback, with an average depth of throw of just 6.0 yards. The duo has provided Mahomes with a source of productive layups, which has made up for the lack of a downfield passing game. Those deeper passes are still being left to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who can’t catch, Justin Watson, who can’t separate, and Mecole Hardman, who doesn’t even try to catch the ball sometimes. And with the run game also lagging behind, Kelce and Rice (plus some timely scrambles by Mahomes) have completely powered the offense.
In that way, Kansas City’s offense is a bit one-dimensional. Kelce and Rice tend to work in the same areas of the field. Kelce finished third in yards gained on throws to the middle third during the regular season, per Next Gen Stats. But during the playoffs, Rice has led all receivers in that stat, giving defenses another intermediate threat to contend with. The rookie has filled the void created by JuJu Smith-Schuster’s departure in the offseason. Defenses can no longer sell out to stop Kelce in passing situations. If they do, Rice can exploit the space created by that attention.
To work Rice and Kelce off each other, Reid likes to use “4-strong” formations that isolate a receiver to one side of the field and put the remaining four eligible receivers to the strong side. This is typically done by aligning the running back to the three-receiver side of a three-by-one formation.
This creates an overload that the defense has to account for. Typically, defenses will play one-on-one on the single-receiver side, which allows them to flood the strong side with zone defenders. If the isolated receiver poses a matchup problem, as Kelce does, that isn’t always a viable strategy and defenses will keep an extra defender there to create a two-on-one—but now they’re a player short on the overloaded side of the field. Fewer bodies in zone coverage create bigger throwing windows for Mahomes to attack. Or he can just flip a screen pass out to Rice, who’s an explosive runner after the catch and led the NFL in receiving yards on wide receiver screens, per Next Gen Stats.
When these teams met in the 2022 regular season, Kansas City used these 4-strong formations to great effect and dropped 44 points on the 49ers defense. San Francisco had a different defensive coordinator in that game, but it appears the bones of this unit haven’t changed much under Wilks. So here’s my question: What will be the answer for these formations this time around, and will Kelce or Rice be getting any extra attention from the 49ers unit?
The 49ers’ Defensive Response
Solak: Gosh, so many scheme and structure questions. “Oh, who are you giving help to? What are you going to do with these 4-strong formations?” I’m just gonna mash the pass rush button and eventually sack Mahomes. He’s not notoriously difficult to sack or anything, right?
Ruiz: He’s taken a sack on 6.1 percent of his pressured dropbacks in the postseason, per Next Gen Stats. Mahomes takes a sack at a lower rate than Stephen Curry misses a free throw, so good luck with that.
Solak: As hard as it is to sack Mahomes, pressure and disruption are still the answer. The 49ers defense isn’t particularly inventive. If the offense goes 4 strong, it usually weakens its ability to get a chip block on a pass rusher—the one lined up to the single side. With Bosa and Young against these two offensive tackles, I expect the 49ers to win consistently.
You’re also limiting the sorts of concepts you can run. It’s hard to run a quick game out of 4 strong because there are way too many bodies to the four-receiver side for the offense to create immediate space on quick-breaking routes. Sure, you can run it to the single-receiver side—but there I’ll have Ward or Lenoir (they don’t really travel, so you can pick which one you want: Ward lines up on the right, and Lenoir on the left). I like either one of those guys in press coverage against Rice.
So I think I can make you hold on to the ball for a beat before passing it, and I believe that my coverage will hold up long enough for my pass rush to disrupt the throw. If the pass rush can’t win early, I can still take away your outside receivers with Ward and Lenoir. But with rookie safety Ji’ayir Brown in for the injured Talanoa Hufanga and an aging Tashaun Gipson as the deep middle defender, the 49ers have liability in coverage that Mahomes can exploit—especially when a guy like Rice gets rumbling after the catch.
Rice won’t get any extra attention from the 49ers—they’re not the sort of team to bracket or cloud star receivers too much. And Rice also doesn’t really run the sorts of routes you want to get brackets on: deep posts, digs, go routes, deep comebacks. Rice’s menu consists of crossers, slants, and pivots—stuff that runs parallel to the line of scrimmage—as well as those maddening screens. To stop those, I want to play zone coverage, pass routes off, and tackle well. And in that zone coverage, players like Warner can shine, using their high football IQ to match the unique genius of Kelce as he looks for space between zones.
So, Who Will Win?
Solak: The Chiefs will win. The 49ers haven’t looked that great this postseason—they have clear defensive issues, and Purdy’s play has been up and down. I think that they’ll settle in after two weeks of prep, sure. And I also think that they’ll settle in because, well, they were one of the best teams in football for the vast majority of the year. But even at their best, the 49ers don’t match up well against the Chiefs, who run the ball with great physicality, tackle well in space, and blitz with reckless abandon. Kansas City is the better team, and it’s been here before. That’s my bet.
Chiefs 23, 49ers 16
Ruiz: I’m taking the team with Patrick Mahomes. On paper, both of these offenses have advantages, but one defense is led by one of the most creative play callers this league has ever seen, and the other is led by an inexperienced play caller (this is Wilks’s third season doing it at the NFL level) who’s running a value-brand version of DeMeco Ryans’s scheme. The Chiefs should be able to run the football, which will make Mahomes’s job easier on second and third down. Kelce has been unlocked once again, and Rice will offer him some protection from double-teams and extra attention. San Francisco’s offense should have no problem moving the ball, but Spagnuolo’s tricks will cause just enough disruption for Mahomes to close out the game like he always seems to do.
Chiefs 27, 49ers 20