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49ers-Chiefs preview: Pass protection, running against the nickel, awful KC red zone D

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The San Francisco 49ers host the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. We take a deep dive into how the 49ers can beat the Chiefs. Injuries will not make this any easier, but the Chiefs have enough holes if the 49ers can figure out how to exploit them.

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to know what to expect from the Kansas City Chiefs after four weeks. Andy Reid’s squad has fallen to a Titans team that has since lost three games by an average of 22 points, played the Broncos to within a fourth-down conversion of overtime, struggled with the mediocre Dolphins for three quarters, and dismantled the Patriots on national television.

The San Francisco 49ers haven’t been quite as up and down, but are off to a strange start nonetheless. Quick starts and second-half collapses lead to a 1–2 start that had many asking questions about the state of a team coming off three NFC Championship appearances. A week later the Niners are back to .500, coming off an odd win against the Eagles in which they gave up three non-offensive touchdowns, but pulled out a win anyway on the coattails of dominate defensive performance. It was a game that could have easily gotten out of control for a team that had supposedly given up on its head coach.

When the two teams face on Sunday, much of the attention will surely focus on Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith. But while Phil Simms is ranting about the two former teammates, whether Harbaugh made the right decision, or whatever other nonsense fills his head, there are several other areas that should hold your focus come gametime.

Spread to Run

Injuries have been unkind to the Chiefs defense early in the season. Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and run-stopping defensive lineman Mike DeVito were both placed on IR with torn Achilles tendons. All-Pro safety Eric Berry has missed two games with a high-ankle sprain and remains questionable this week. While the absence of these players hasn’t caused the Chiefs defense to completely fall apart — they currently rank 19th in DVOA — there have, unsurprisingly, been some issues.

Teams have had a great deal of success running the ball against Kansas City’s sub-packages through four weeks. Aside from New England, who did absolutely nothing well in that game, teams have rushed for 301 yards on 43 carries (7.0 yards per carry) when Kansas City has gotten out of their base defense, per Football Outsiders game charting. Miami was especially effective with this attack, as Lamar Miller consistently gashed Kansas City’s nickel defense on his way to a 15-carry, 108-yard performance.

Here, the Chiefs front overplays the zone blocking action to the left, opening up the cutback lane for Miller. Derrick Johnson’s replacement, James-Michael Johnson (52), leaves his backside gap, allowing the offensive tackle to easily slide off the double team to seal him off. Dion Sims (80) does a nice job kicking out Justin Houston (50) with the slice block and the result is a 20-yard gain for the Dolphins.

Later in the game, Miami went back to the exact same blocking scheme — zone blocking to the left with the slice block from the tight end to pick-up the backside defensive end — for another big chunk of yardage. It’s difficult to tell if Tamba Hali (91) was working on a stunt back to the inside or if the movement across the formation from Charles Clay (42) caused him to move that direction, but his action allows former-Chiefs tackle Branden Albert (71) to easily seal the edge. Miller makes it nearly 20 yards downfield before the first Kansas City defender gets a hand on him, generating another big play for the Miami run game.

The Niners haven’t spread teams out in order to run the ball a ton this season, with the number of rushing attempts out of 11 personnel decreasing each week. It is an approach they’ve had success with, however, most notably in Week 1 against Dallas when they picked up 80 yards on 13 carries with three wide receivers on the field. Greg Roman would be wise to go back to that attack this week.

Picking up consistent yardage on first down will be a must this week. By DVOA, the Chiefs have been the league’s worst defense on first down, but have tightened things up significantly on third down. Kansas City’s opponents have converted just one-third of their third down attempts this season; only the defenses in Houston and Cincinnati have been better. Look for San Francisco to spread Kansas City’s defense out in order to run the ball on early downs, setting up manageable conversions for Kaepernick to keep drives going on third down.

Points Come From the Passing Game

Once in scoring range, San Francisco should look to attack a Kansas City pass defense that has been abhorrent in the red zone this season. Opponents have scored on exactly half of their passing attempts in the red zone when facing the Chiefs. It’s a small sample size — just 14 passes — and Peyton Manning is involved, but Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, and Jimmy Garoppolo (yes, in garbage time) have all found the end zone with red zone passing attempts this season.

At least partially due to the absences of Berry and Johnson, Kansas City has gone from one of the league’s best teams defending tight ends to one of its worst this season. With two of their best defenders out of the lineup, the Chiefs simply lack the personnel to match-up with big, physical pass targets down near the goal line. Breakdowns in coverage — even against Tennessee when Berry and Johnson were still playing — haven’t made things easier.

On this play late in the second quarter, the Titans get a high-low combination with tight end Delanie Walker (82) and running back Dexter McCluster (22) to the left of the formation. With four defenders to that side (including Johnson in the middle of the field), the Chiefs should be able to handle any route combination the Titans want to throw at them. Instead, three defenders react to the underneath route from McCluster, leaving space in the back of the end zone for Walker. Sean Smith (21) is playing with outside leverage, clearly expecting help to the inside, and is in no position to make a play on the ball. Walker makes a nice grab for an easy score.

The Chiefs opt for man coverage here against Manning and the Broncos. Kansas City reacts late to Jacob Tamme’s motion across the formation, creating confusion between Husain Abdullah (39) and Marcus Cooper (31) as to how to handle the bunch alignment. The communication breakdown leads to both players trying to press Andre Caldwell, which certainly doesn’t seem like a good idea. Manning finds the wide-open Tamme for the second of his three red zone touchdown passes on the day.

Kaepernick and the Niners passing offense has been up and down this season, but has generally been effective once they reach the red zone. Football Outsiders pegs them as the 9th-best red zone passing offense through four weeks and that’s with their best red-zone target, Vernon Davis, having played only 56.6 percent of snaps this season due to ankle and back injuries. Davis has yet to practice this week and his status for Sunday is still uncertain, but if he’s able to go, expect the tight end to be a big factor in the red zone.

Keeping Kaepernick Upright

If there’s one thing that Kansas City does very well, it’s getting after the quarterback. The Chiefs’ 12 sacks trail only Rex Ryan’s Jets on the season. Bookend edge rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali have combined for eight of those sacks, with the five from Houston tying him for the league lead. Combined with Dontari Poe on the interior, Houston and Hali have allowed the Chiefs to get consistent pressure without having to bring extra defenders.

Ryan Tannehill was sacked four times by Kansas City in Week 3. Here, Houston (50) and defensive tackle Allen Bailey (97) both get push on the right side of the offensive line, forcing Tannehill to move up in the pocket. With seven Chiefs defenders back in coverage, Tannehill has nowhere to go with the football and before he can escape, Houston and Poe (92) are able to peel off their blocks and pickup the sack. It’s not an overwhelming play from the Chiefs front four, but it shows how quickly they can close what initially appear to be open scramble lanes to come up with the sack.

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On this play we get an example of how dangerous Hali can be on the edge. Poe and Bailey both slant to the offense’s left, allowing Hali to work one-on-one with Patriots left tackle Nate Solder. Hali gets a great jump off the line and when Solder goes for his initial punch, Hali effortlessly swats his hands away. In just four steps, Hali is by Solder and on his way to a strip sack.

This Kansas City front presents a massive problem for a San Francisco offensive line that flat out isn’t good at protecting the passer. After finishing 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate last season, the state of the Niners offensive line has been bordering on disaster through four games in 2014. Only the Jaguars and Chiefs have been worse by Adjusted Sack Rate this season, and there’s nothing in the tape to paint a more optimistic outlook.

Part of what has made San Francisco’s offensive line so good over the last several seasons has been the incredible continuity they’ve had. The Niners kept the same starting five up front for the first three seasons under Harbaugh and were rarely forced to play with one of them out of the lineup.

With Daniel Kilgore replacing Jonathan Goodwin at center, that continuity was set to take a planned hit coming into the season. Though Goodwin was always thought of as the fifth-best player on the line and the most replaceable starter, the transition hasn’t gone well. Kilgore has been clear step down from the veteran. Pro Football Focus has only charged him with three hurries allowed on the season, but Kilgore is consistently getting pushed backed several yards into Kaepernick’s lap and has appeared to lack the strength required to hold off interior pass rushers.

Many of the sacks San Francisco has given up on the season has seemingly stemmed from communication breakdowns, with a pass rusher coming untouched while one or two offensive lineman stand around blocking no one. As the person responsible for calling the protections, Kilgore shoulders at least some of that blame. It doesn’t help his case that many of those free rushers are coming through the interior of the line.

Jonathan Martin’s struggles filling in for an injured Anthony Davis have been well documented and not unexpected. What has been most concerning has been the play of the other three players who are supposed to be among the best at their respective positions. Joe Staley has had one of the roughest four-game stretches of his career and hasn’t even shown the usual dominance he displays in the run game. Mike Iupati has continued last season’s inconsistency, mixing stellar performances such as the one he’s coming off of against the Eagles with bombs like the Cowboys game.

Since returning from his holdout, Alex Boone has arguably been San Francisco’s worst offensive lineman. Many of the aforementioned communication blunders seem to involve Boone. Other times he’s simply getting beat in one-on-one situations. And unlike Iupati, Boone hasn’t been able to offset his issues in pass protection with good work in the run game.

Considering the talent level, it’s not unreasonable to expect this unit to bounce back, especially once a healthy Anthony Davis can return to the fold. However, many of these issues are not all that new. And if they fail to correct themselves soon, it could hinder the development of a passing game that is trying to find its stride.

Prediciton: Chiefs (+6) over 49ERS