Super Bowl LIV brings together the two most exciting teams in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. Much of the pre-game talk has focused on the clash between the Chiefs’ historically explosive offense and the 49ers’ historically effective defense.
If you had switched on the television, or scrolled through social media, much of the “expert” opinion has already written the 49ers’ obituary. That is clearly premature.
Whilst the Chiefs’ offense is explosive; it is not unstoppable. Furthermore, (though it won’t be considered here), the 49ers’ offense appears to match up extremely favourably with the Chiefs’ defense. With their rushing capabilities, the 49ers may look to dominate the contest with a time of possession-based approach akin to that which the Patriots took in last season’s AFC Championship game. Patriots had possession for 44 minutes, which the Chiefs had possession for just 21 minutes.
The focus of this piece will nevertheless be on the 49ers’ defense and its matchup with the Chiefs’ offense. Looking back at the Chiefs’ clashes with the Chargers, Patriots, and Titans, I located some strategies which those teams used to combat the Chiefs’ offense that the 49ers’ defense has used this season.
What makes the Chiefs’ offense so dangerous, and what are they best at?
First, however, what makes the Chiefs’ offense such a threat? Mahomes’ otherworldly arm talent and useful mobility forces defenses to have to defend the whole field, at times for 5, 6, or 7 seconds. That in itself is incredibly difficult to do.
Furthermore, his receiving options are immensely dangerous, with game-breaking speed and electric open-field ability. With all that talent and an excellent offensive Head Coach in Andy Reid, it’s hardly surprising the Chiefs have the third-best offense in football per Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA metric.
When attempting to limit such an offense, the key is often simplicity. That simplicity starts with understanding what they do best and seeking to force them away from that.
Whoever’s data you use (PFF is used here), it is clear that Mahomes is at his most effective over the middle of the field. He is also better throwing to his right than to his left (perhaps because he has a habit of rolling out of the pocket to his right, more on that later). Nonetheless, it is Mahomes’ ability over the middle of the field, which is most striking.
The route charts of his two favourite targets are also noteworthy. Both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill do a lot of work over the middle of the field. Deep crossers are the offense’s most effective way of gaining chunk yardage, often paired with a shallower crossing route underneath.
Reid accentuates the effectiveness of this approach by lining up his receiving options to attack the middle of the field. Kelce has 71% of his snaps infield, whilst Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman have close to 50% of their snaps infield. Those numbers do not include when the receivers are the outermost receiver but lined up in tight splits either. By utilising 1x3 formations (with Kelce as the 1 receiver), Reid also gets two wide receivers inside against slower players. The Chiefs offense is predicated on dominating the middle of the field.
In order to limit the Chiefs’ offense; therefore, it is absolutely critical that the defense focuses on limiting their strength, taking away crossing routes across the middle of the field. Easier said than done? Of course. But it has been done by less talented defenses than the 49ers whilst the 49ers have been incredibly effective at taking away such routes this season.
The Los Angeles Chargers
Robert Saleh and Gus Bradley, the Chargers’ DC, go way back. They worked together in Seattle, starting in 2011 when Saleh joined as a defensive quality control coach. He would follow Bradley to Jacksonville before he became the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.
Bradley was one of the few defensive co-ordinators who slowed the Chiefs offense down, and I’m certain that Saleh will be on the phone to his former colleague to discuss an approach to the Chiefs. Bradley slowed them down by successfully taking away the middle of the field.
The above images demonstrate superbly well how the Chargers shut down Mahomes and his favourite targets over the middle of the field. The Chiefs were incredibly ineffective over the middle compared to their normal levels and were forced into lower percentage throws outside, where the defense is advantaged by having the sideline as an extra defender.
How did the Chargers do it? The Chargers played 97% zone coverage and 88% single high coverages. The vast majority of their coverages were variants of cover 3.
The strength of cover 3 is its balance. You have ample protection in intermediate areas as well as deep. In theory, it forces offenses to throw short & look for YAC. If faced with three or four vertical routes, the match Cover 3 that has spread throughout the NFL essentially becomes quarters.
The main variants the Chargers used were Cover 3 Sky (also called Cover 6), Cover 3 weak buzz (also called Cover 6 buzz), and Cover 6 skate.
Cover 3 sky is the most widely used 4 under 3 over zone coverage in the NFL. The cornerbacks and a safety play the three deep zones. In 4-3 defenses, underneath, the seam-flats are normally played by the other safety and the nickel corner/SAM linebacker, whilst the hooks are played by the MIKE & WILL linebacker. Teams will (and the 49ers have this season), had the strong safety play one seam-flat whereas the WILL linebacker plays the opposite side. That is a variant that will be worth watching for in the Super Bowl.
Cover 3 weak buzz is a subtle variation of cover 3 sky. Instead of being a seam-flat defender, the weak side safety is the weak hook defender. The WILL linebacker plays the seam-flat.
Cover 6 skate is another variation, played against 3x1/1x3 receiver sets. Like cover 3 weak buzz, the weak safety normally plays as the weak hook defender. On the single receiver side, the defenders are playing man coverage, however.
The most important aspect of Cover 3 weak buzz and Cover 6 skate is the identity of the weak hook player. As above, that player is a safety, not a linebacker. This is crucial because it’s this player who has the responsibility of matching crossing routes coming from the other side of the field, normally from the innermost receiver.
Utilising a safety in this role has several benefits:
- There is a physical advantage. A safety is normally faster than a linebacker, so is simply better equipped physically to deal with a wide receiver running across the field.
- There is a leverage/vision advantage. The safety typically starts deeper than a linebacker would when playing this coverage. Resultantly, he does not have to look back to locate crossing routes going behind him (which are the most dangerous), he can see them coming all the way and position himself to cut them off/intercept them.
- There is a schematic advantage. There are actually two aspects to this. They are both intrinsically linked to the safety being able to line up deeper. The first aspect is that the defense has essentially 4, instead of 3 levels. It is a concept in soccer to have plenty of lines of defense, it makes it harder to dissect a defense. The same theory works in football, it is harder to find open windows between the respective levels of the defense.
Additionally, these coverages can be run out of a two-high shell. This is particularly relevant to the 49ers, who often rotate out of two high shells into these coverages, or rotate out of a structure that suggests Cover 6 buzz/skate but is instead quarters. The disguise can throw off a quarterback, slowing their decision-making process and enabling the pass rush to apply pressure, or can directly lead to an interception caused by misdiagnosing the coverage.
By using this combination of coverages, the Chargers shut down the middle of the field for the Chiefs’ offense. They were able to cover and/or bracket deep over routes, sit on quick routes due to quick diagnosis & handle the levels concepts over the middle that the Chiefs favour, due to their hook defenders playing at different levels.
Here the Chargers are playing cover 3 weak buzz. The over route from Hill is run straight at the safety playing the weak hook whilst Kelce’s route underneath it is picked up by the strong hook. Great move from the TE, but the defense has to make that tackle having forced Mahomes to check down.
Once again playing Cover 3 weak buzz, the Chargers handle Kelce’s over route with the safeties bracketing it. Hill’s drag route underneath runs straight into Derwin James. Mahomes is forced to check down.
Excellent Cover 6 skate. Watkins’ over route is bracketed by the hook players. Down the bottom of the screen, the corner (in man coverage) jumps Kelce’s sit route & almost gets the interception. If the 49ers ran this coverage to this look, Sherman would be on Kelce, which seems like a great match-up for the 49ers.
The Chargers blanket the quick game in cover 3 weak buzz. Up top, the corner and safety read curl-flats extremely quickly, whilst the near-side seam-flats defender & hook take away the quick hitch.
Can the 49ers do this?
The 49ers have been using these coverages all season. They used them heavily in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, who like to run similar formations to the Chiefs (notably 1x3).
Once again, the 49ers came up against a quarterback who is excellent over the middle of the field in Aaron Rodgers and a receiver whose coach utilises him heavily on deep over routes in Davante Adams.
Against the Packers, the 49ers utilised cover 3 variants heavily in the first half whilst the game was a contest, in order to take away the middle of the field. Cover 3 sky and cover 3 weak buzz were used repeatedly.
Emmanuel Moseley’s interception came with the 49ers utilising cover 3 weak buzz. Jaquiski Tartt drops down to take Davante Adams running the crossing route. Moseley does a superb job mid-pointing the vertical routes of 1 & 2, before recognising hitch-seam & falling off the hitch to pick it off. Great work by Fred Warner to sink into the throwing lane & K’waun Williams to take away the hitch.
This sack came with the 49ers playing Cover 3 weak buzz. Tartt reads Rodgers’ drop & the route distribution and takes away the Jimmy Graham slant Rodgers wanted. This was all the pass rush needed to hit home on the quick drop.
The 49ers are quite capable of playing these coverages and have done so successfully all season. Their linebackers are extremely effective at “roboting” (the technique employed by the hook player to rob crossers behind them), so the 49ers will feel reasonably comfortable using Cover 3 sky.
Furthermore, their safeties are extremely interchangeable. Both are capable of playing as an underneath defender or the deep centre field player, so the 49ers can disguise their coverages readily.
This disguise aspect will be extremely important and adds a layer to the 49ers coverages that the Chiefs rarely saw against the Chargers. The Chargers were extremely vanilla and predictable, though the Chiefs still had issues beating them because the Chargers were so well-coached.
The 49ers, meanwhile, use disguise readily every week. They use Cover 3 sky, Cover 3 weak buzz, Cover 3 strong buzz, Cover 6 skate, Cover 1, Cover 1 dog, and quarters variants most of the time (as well as using several five-man rush, 3 under, 3 over zone pressures). Many of these coverages look incredibly similar pre-snap.
The 49ers’ Cover 3 variants and their quarters variants all look similar before the snap. Route combinations that may trouble Cover 3 sky or Cover 3 weak buzz (such as double posts from the number 2 & 3 receivers) would be covered comfortably in quarters. The 49ers use Cover 3 strong buzz looks to give quarterbacks man vs. zone diagnosis issues, whilst it also easily flexes into quarters post-snap. Jimmie Ward gives the 49ers the ability to give quarterbacks further man vs. zone diagnosis issues due to his ability to cover wide receivers in the slot, and he has been used accordingly this season to good effect.
Only last season, the Patriots relied on Cover 3 weak buzz and quarters working in tandem due to their easy disguise-ability and interchangeability to shut down an offense that was reliant on deep crossers for chunk yardage.
All the 49ers’ disguises can slow Mahomes’ decision-making processes (which aren’t the swiftest in the face of coverage variations) and give their pass rush extra time to hit home. Provided they are disciplined in their rush lanes (which the Chargers decidedly were not), they will certainly get opportunities to hit Mahomes.
The Patriots’ and Titans’ approaches and what the 49ers could learn from them
These two teams took somewhat different approaches to the Chargers. The Patriots diverged noticeably, but their approach was interesting. Nevertheless, they too sought to take away the deep over routes the Chiefs thrive on.
Early on, the Patriots attempted to use Cover 2 zone defense and Cover 1 in tandem. In the first half, the Patriots ran Cover 2 zone on almost half their defensive plays. Cover 2 was initially effective, with the hole player taking away deep over routes. It was particularly effective when combined with a man-zone disguise (such as having Stephon Gilmore inside). However, Reid adjusted well in the second quarter, which forced Patriots away from this approach. The 49ers haven’t run cover 2 zone this season; if they did in the Super Bowl, it would be a real surprise. It could be used as a surprise change-up occasionally.
Cover 1 was an incredibly brave, cat-on-cat approach from the Patriots, with Belichick trusting his cats to better the Chiefs’ cats. It had some mixed results, owing to its inevitable boom and bust nature against the Chiefs’ weapons, but it was surprisingly effective.
In the second half, when Belichick dropped Cover 2 zone, going to single-high coverages 89% of the time (75% of which were cover 1 or cover 1 blitzes), the Chiefs were limited to just 3 points. He also introduced some Cover 3 variants in the second half to good effect.
The Cover 1 rat is a coverage that the 49ers also run and have done so effectively this season. The benefit of the rat coverage the Patriots ran was the rat was aligned away from the 3 receiver side, ensuring that crossing routes ran towards him. The 49ers could also run a coverage with the linebacker as the low hole zone defender & a safety in man coverage - most likely Jimmie Ward on the number 3 receiver in the Chiefs 1x3 sets.
The other takeaway from the Patriots’ performance was their physicality. They were incredibly physical with the Chiefs receivers at the LOS. The defensive backs were handsy at the LOS whilst receivers aligned close to the LOS were often hit by EDGE rushers before they started their pass rush.
The Titans approach was a halfway house between the Chargers and the Patriots. They played more zone coverage than the Patriots, but more man coverage than the Chargers. They also blitzed more than both teams. The biggest issue the Titans had was their linebackers were simply not good enough or sound enough to deal with the Chiefs’ over routes, whilst some of their disguises also left them with exploitable holes in the defense.
Nevertheless, I did like the Titans’ willingness to blitz Mahomes occasionally, as well as some of their disguises.
To address the former first, some of the Titans’ disguises were incredibly creative & clearly slowed Mahomes’ processes. This bodes well for the 49ers.
Pre-snap, this play looks like cover 3 strong buzz. Byard is the strong hook defender. Instead, the Titans roll back into cover 2, with Byard as the hole player, the slot corner as a deep safety, and the linebacker as the strong hook. Byard took the over route whilst the Titans were able to bracket Hill as the number 2 receiver between a linebacker and the slot-corner-cum-deep safety. The 49ers could do a similar thing with quarters, perhaps even with the switch between slot-corner & safety. K’waun Williams has played as a deep safety on a few snaps (post-snap) this season.
The Titans also blitzed Mahomes occasionally and creatively. They were able to create favourable one on one matchups on the defensive line and also counter Mahomes’ tendency to roll right if the defensive coverage isn’t what he suspected. By sending a blitz off the Chiefs’ right edge, this limited Mahomes’ ability to do so. This latter point is important for the 49ers - don’t let Mahomes roll out to his right to extend plays.
With the Chiefs in 13 personnel, the Titans took the opportunity to blitz the quick, nub-side corner Logan Ryan off the Chiefs’ right edge. Not unsurprisingly, he was unaccounted for by the protection and got to Mahomes (unfortunately only forcing an incompletion instead of recording a sack). Nevertheless, the 49ers can copy this play.
When the 49ers are in their “Reno” adjustment to heavier, nub formations, the 49ers have the requisite positions to attempt the above corner blitz. Richard Sherman sacked Josh Rosen in 2018 on the exact play from Reno.
The Chiefs’ offense is a highly impressive unit. Nevertheless, the 49ers have the tools and plays on their play sheet to stop it. The Chargers’, Patriots’ and Titans’ approaches can all provide them with information on how to attack the Chiefs’ offense.
Combined with their talent level and abilities to disguise, there should be little doubt that the 49ers will be the Chief’s toughest test of the season. They match up better from a personnel, and schematic perspective than any team the Chiefs have faced, as far as taking away the middle of the field.
Their Cover 3 variants, Cover 1 variants, and quarters variants look extremely similar and are often identical pre-snap. Their pass rush is vicious. The 49ers’ linebackers are savvy and can run sideline to sideline & blanket the middle. Their cornerbacks have ball skills, speed, smarts. The safeties are interchangeable, intelligent missiles.
Furthermore, the 49ers’ brain trust has produced successful, varied, opponent specific game plans weekly. Whilst using the same set of plays, they have been able to identify favoured route combinations and call coverages to take them away. Whilst Andy Reid is one of the best offensive minds in the NFL, I expect the 49ers brain trust to have prepared numerous effective counters to his game plan. It will be a titanic battle, but the suggestions that the Chiefs will overawe the 49ers comfortably are likely wide of the mark.