Super Bowl 54 Preview

Connor Easterday

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Super Bowl LIV is right around the corner. The San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will battle for the NFL Championship on Sunday, Feb. 2. The game will kick off at 6:30 pm ET at Hard Rock StIadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Will the 49ers be adding a sixth Lombardi trophy to their already stacked shelf or will the Chiefs be taking home the gold for the first time in 50 years? I’m here to help answer that question.

To make things a little simpler, I’ll be breaking this up into four sections: Chiefs offense, 49ers defense, 49ers offense, and Chiefs defense. Each section will go into deep detail about the specific topic, and we will conclude with my final thoughts on the Super Bowl winner. So let’s get right into it.

 

(Photo by: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Chiefs Offense
When you think of the Kansas City Chiefs, you don’t think of mud fights in the trenches, or a No Flight Zone, Legion of Boom-esq secondary. No, what you think about when you hear that the Kansas City Chiefs are playing, is Patrick Lavon Mahomes II. Ole’ Patty Mahomes is the best Quarterback in the league, and there’s no denying it. There isn’t any argument for Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees anymore. They represent the days of old. Or, in actuality, they represent a lack of arm power and mobility. Mahomes isn’t next up, he already is up. With an arm that reckons memories of Dan Marino and John Elway. Pinpoint accuracy that you can’t help but compare to the likes of Joe Montana and Aaron Rodgers. Mobility that is unforeseen with a quarterback of his stature. And an unwavering amount of football IQ, similar to Tom “Six Rings” Brady. Mahomes isn’t just the heart of this Kansas City offense, he’s the heart, blood, bones, and soul that make up this awe inspiring unit.

That takes us to Andy Reid, the mind of the team. Head Coach in this league for 20 consecutive years, for both the Philadelphia Eagles (1999-2012) and the Kansas City Chiefs (2013-present), you would think Reid was a Mike Holmgrem disciple, Bellichickian era, old school coach. But, boy would you be proven wrong. Heading one of the heaviest passing units in league history, Andy Reid is an innovator to put it the least. Alongside braintrust Offensive Coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, the duo lead an offensive that ranks top five in nearly every offensive category imaginable. However, on Sunday, they will be facing their hardest challenge yet. The 49ers are unquestionably the league’s best defense, and fully healthy at that. A sniper-brimmed secondary waiting for one slip-up, as their front-four march their way to Mahomes. Kansas City will face a goliath on Sunday. Just how will they take that monster down?

The Chiefs game plan is going to have to start on the ground. I know, I know. Why would an elite passing offense with Patrick Mahomes, focus on the run game to get going? Here’s why. Quiety, the Chiefs rushing attack has been lethal. Rushing for over 100 yards in their last four games. The 49ers’ defense is known for their front four. How better to wear out defensive linemen than bruising them with the run? The Chiefs love to use belly runs, which is basically a split back formation, where a tight end, fullback, or wide receiver, lines up at the wing position. That’s where they use Anthony Sherman or Travis Kelce. While the offensive line blocks in the opposite direction.

Guess what the 49ers struggles to defend. Belly plays. It’s one of their rare weaknesses. Establishing the run, while it may be a struggle early on, will open up the field, and set up play-action plays later. Expect the Chiefs to also implement some new tricks, as most teams do in the Super Bowl. We could see some power running, toss runs, and more. Also, remember that Andy Reid is one of the best window-dressing coaches in the league. He’ll show the defense a formation that looks familiar pre-snap, but when the quarterback gets the ball, its a completely different play.

Another thing I’d look for are screen passes. The Chiefs can throw downfield. We know that. They know that. The 49ers know that. But something we don’t see quite as often, is screen plays. Short, vertical passes to the receiver or running back, that sets them up for a big gain. The 49ers also have issues defending screens. They would also benefit from yet another way to slow down this ferocious defensive front. Screens are also where Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill will get involved. Two of the fastest players in the league.

All in all, the Chiefs offense is quite an army. They can chop you up with unique run plays, and obviously specialize in downfield throwing. How will the 49ers stop it? That’s what we’ll get to next.

 

(Photo by: Jeff Chiu/File)

49ers Defense
The San Francisco 49ers defense is a ferocious, blistering, bawling orchestra of sound technique and physical specimens. Enough said? I wish. But with the matchup they have to face, it’s a little more complicated than that. Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh is the conductor of this freight train. He’s the one who’s going to be gameplanning against the Chiefs offense.

What’s so interesting about Saleh’s defense, is the fact that they use the Seattle Cover 3 scheme. In layman’s terms, that means the 49ers drop seven players and rush four. However, that’s about as simplified as I can widdle the term down to. It’s really a multitude of intricacies. For example, the cornerbacks use a press-bail technique, which means they align in press, but will use a bail technique to sink before the snap (create a cushion versus the wide receiver). Also in the Seattle scheme, the strong safety tends to be a run defender while the free safety creates depth downfield, so that he can run downhill to attack the pass. Overall, the idea is to protect the back third of the field from deep passes, while relying on a stout defensive line to handle things in the trenches. The scheme works for the 49ers, as they have a defensive front that can rush the passer without blitzing, and their cornerbacks are mostly zone-reliant. However, the Seattle defense in recent years has been exploited in a multitude of ways. There are, what people call “Seattle-beaters”. But we won’t get into that here.

The question is, can the 49ers adjust to the Chiefs style of offense, and create the necessary matchups to, if not shut down, then limit them. Let’s look at defensive line matchups, first. Mitchell Schwartz, the Chiefs right tackle, has been a liability at times this year. Seen as an All-Pro player, Schwartz has struggled in pass protection numerous times. Thus, the 49ers would be mistaken to not have Nick Bosa on him every play. On the other side, would be Dee Ford matched up with Eric Fisher, the lesser of the two tackles. This makes sense, as Ford is more of a speed rusher, who could get to Mahomes even faster when matched up with Fisher. Bosa is the power rusher, who will be tasked with containing Mahomes, and keeping him in the pocket. While Ford will have to actually get to the quarterback more. Mahomes will then be forced to either step up in the pocket to avoid the rush, and fall right into Bosa’s hands, or scramble to extend the play where Ford awaits.

Coverage-wise, things get even trickier. The Chiefs have the best arsenal of weapons in the NFL. From Tyreek Hill to Travis Kelce, to Sammy Watkins to DeMarcus Robinson…wooh the Chiefs are dangerous. The 49ers Seattle Cover-3, is a zone defense. That means they rarely have their cornerbacks and safeties matched up one-on-one with a receiver. This usually is a good thing. Richard Sherman, the team’s number one corner, plays best with a cushion and space to attack. Opposite him, Emmanuel Moseley, another zone defender who can’t handle the wrath of somebody like Tyreek Hill by himself. Now here’s the caveat. Zone defenses tend to break versus elite quarterbacks and athletic weapons. Famously, guys like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have beaten up zones time and time again. Mahomes will be no exception. So don’t be surprised if you see Saleh throwing out some more man-to-man on late downs.

I’d also expect to see Saleh throw out some exotic blitzes. Another rarity in Cover-3. But with Mahomes’ ability to stretch the pocket and make plays on his feet, they could use the extra help.

 

(Photo by: John G. Mabanglo/Shutterstock)

49ers Offense
One word I’d use to describe Kyle Shanahan? Wizard, alien, football einstein. I know that’s four words…but he’s worth it. Shanhan is the second best coach in the league, and every game that goes by, it becomes harder to argue it. With good-not-great talent, he has turned this abysmal offense from 2018, into one of the best in the league.

All season, the 49ers have shown how dangerous their run game is. With a lethal three-back triumvirate, including Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida, the Niners can beat you in so many ways on the ground. Mostert, the 2nd-string guy, had a whopping 220 yard and four touchdowns rushing, against the Packers in the NFC Championship. It is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine the Chiefs thwarting that, despite bolstering an improved run-defense in the past month or two.

And, yes, the 49ers can have some funky box scores where quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will have only eight or nine pass attempts. But what works works. And if having the QB hand the ball off to the running back gets you 5-10 yards every time, why not do it almost every single down? And if the Chiefs do figure out a way to put a stop to the 49ers run game (unlikely), Garoppolo can and will make plays in the passing game. He has stepped up nearly every time Shanahan has tasked him with doing so. I could easily see All-Pro tight end, George Kittle, seeing a ridiculous amount of targets, as the 49ers attack the Chiefs weak linebacker core. Receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel are some gunners, and will be utilized too. Specifically, from the slot. Samuel runs like a missile in the open field, and will break some bones on his way down. He’s elite with space, and could be an underrated player going into Sunday’s match.

 

(Photo by: Ed Zurga/Associated Press)

Chiefs Defense
Last but not least…well, actually, yeah the least. But that’s okay, because we can’t have all of these groups be elite. Where’s the fun in that? To be fair, the Chiefs defense isn’t the slouch it used to be. Last season, this ranked as the worst unit in the game. And early on this year, it looked as if that pattern may continue. However, around the one-quarter mark, newly hired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo stepped things up. Since then, the secondary has been a formidable unit, and while the defense still struggles majorly in the run game, they haven’t seemed quiet as desperate the past few weeks.

This should be quick, because the keys here are simple. The Chiefs have game-wreckers. Chris Jones, coming off a calf injury, is one of the best interior defenders in the NFL. He will be the X-factor in this game. In the AFC Championship, versus the Titans, Spagnuolo decided to use Jones strictly on third downs in passing situations. It worked. But the 49ers are a different animal. If the Chiefs decide to hold Jones off the field, two downs at a time, they could be headed for doom. Thus, the health of the defensive tackle is quite possibly the most important thing to keep your eye on for the Chiefs defense.

Another special player on Kansas City’s defense, is safety Tyrann Mathieu. Because of the 49ers success in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field, Mathieu may have to match up with George Kittle or something to that extent. Him making plays in the shallow areas of the field will help the Chiefs immensely. He could also serve as an extra blitzer for a somewhat lacking pass rush.

Ultimately, the goal for the Chiefs defense should be to keep calm, read your keys, and react. Its a cliche, but they really do need to treat this like its any other game. Because if they don’t, blood-hungry Kyle Shanahan who happens to be a shark on the side, will sniff your fear and go for your neck.

 

Getty Images
(Photo by: Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Final Prediction
Time for procrastinating on picking a winner in this thing has come to an end. Let me just say, this game could truly go either way. It’s one of those rare Super Bowls where you feel like the two best teams actually made it. Fans love Cinderella stories, and underdogs. But personally, I hate them. Give us the best matchup possible. That’s exactly what this is.

The game seems destined to be a shootout. These are two very high scoring offenses that torch even the best of opponents. And who do I trust in a shootout? Patrick Mahomes, and the Chiefs versatile, score in a flash, chunk play offense. The 49ers are actually the perfect contrast to Kansas City’s finesse style of football. They’re a run-heavy, smashmouth, punch you in the nose team that wants to go for the kill. Coached by Kyle Shanhan, there is also an element of versatility and diversity on the ground and in the air.

Who do I trust late with the ball in their hands more; Patrick Mahomes or Jimmy Garoppolo? Mahomes, undoubtedly. Which offense can do more in less time? The Chiefs, easily. And who has the playmakers to take down any defense in their way? Kansas City, without question. HOWEVER, I can’t shake the feeling that the 49ers are destined to win this game.

Kyle Shanahan, Robert Saleh, and the rest of the 49ers coaching staff are…too put in lightly, freaks. They lock themselves in film rooms, and burn through tape day in and day out. They pull apart their opponents piece by piece, and reconstruct it until they’ve mastered the craft. In some cases, over studying fails you. Last year, Rams head coach Sean McVay admitted to being too invested in watching Patriots film, that when one thing didn’t go exactly the way he gameplanned for it to go, there was no way to adjust. I don’t see that happening to the 49ers this year. In fact, I see the other way around. Andy Reid is a master at his craft. I am not doubting that. But this Chiefs offense, as good as it may be, has hole. There are ways to disrupt it, and that shows up on film. Namely, against the Patriots last season in the AFC Championship. Robert Saleh is going to memorize that film inside and out. In fact, there are some tendencies that last years’ Patriots defense and this years’ 49ers defense have in common.

And with all caveats aside, the 49ers boast the league’s best running attack. While the Chiefs defense fails in that department. As simple as it may sound, that matters. The Chiefs can also be undisciplined at times, while the 49ers are one of the most sound teams in the NFL. Lastly, this game is going to serve as redemption for Kyle Shanahan, who was the Offensive Coordinator in Atlanta for that 28-3 Super Bowl disaster.

And hey, you know the old saying: defense wins championships.

Score Prediction: 34-30 49ers