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What to expect when the 49ers have the ball: The narrative on Jimmy G changes, while Mostert runs wild

The story of the Super Bowl will be San Francisco’s offense

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Believe it or not, the San Francisco 49ers have an offense, and the Kansas City Chiefs have a defense. Both have proven to be quite good. There are a handful of intriguing matchups on this side of the ball but starts with the play-callers. Kyle Shanahan and Steve Spagnulo have a history. The two have faced each other six times over the past decade, with Shanahan’s team winning five of those matchups. In those games, Shanahan’s offenses averaged 24 points a game while throwing for 8.7 yards per attempt and rushing for 4.3 yards per carry. From the coaching advantage to the players, this side of the ball will be why the 49ers are victorious.

Stay away from stupidity

All season talking heads will reference PFF grades. These last two weeks, all we’ve heard is how Jimmy Garoppolo can’t throw the ball. Since San Francisco acquired Emmanuel Sanders, Garoppolo is PFF’s eighth-highest graded quarterback. On the season, the 49ers had the eighth-best passing offense while facing the tenth toughest schedule. What matters most his the type of defense Garoppolo is playing. The Chiefs run Cover-3 more than any other coverage and are in zone 60% of the time.

This is a defense Garoppolo thrives against, specifically on early downs. Jimmy G is averaging 11.4 yards per attempt with a 65% success rate against Cover-3 on early downs this season. “Jimmy will need to throw the ball on third down to win.” No problem. The Chiefs will likely use Cover-1 on third and reasonable. Per Warren Sharp’s Super Bowl guide, of the 27 quarterbacks that had at least 20 third-down pass attempts against Cover-1 this year, Jimmy G ranked No. 1 in conversion rate at 76% and was fourth in yards per attempt at 8.4. The 49ers passing game is not their biggest advantage on this side of the ball, which is scary if you’re a Kansas City fan.

Milking the middle of the field

The Chiefs cornerbacks aren’t big in name, but they’re a competent bunch. Both Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland do a good job of not giving up yards. Kansas City is third in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers and seventh at taking away No. 2 receivers, holding both under a combined 90 yards a game on average. The Chiefs as a defense rank third at defending passes outside of the numbers. That’s never been the part of the field where Shanahan attacks. It’s always over the middle, which is perfect for this year. The Chiefs defense ranks 20th at stopping passes between the numbers, and they drop to 30th on early downs.

Let’s add in some context on play-action and the Chiefs. If you look at their season numbers, the Chiefs allowed the fourth-fewest yards on play-action according to Football Outsiders at 6.2 yards per play. For as much talk about the 49ers first-half schedule, the Chiefs didn’t play a team in the second half of the season that ran play-action over the league average rate of 24%. That’s bad coaching, no matter how you slice it. Not until the AFC Championship did the Titans run play-action over the league average rate, which is 24%. The Titans ran play-action on 31% of their plays. Here were Ryan Tannehill’s splits, per Sharp Football’s Super Bowl guide:

With play-action: 67% success, 9.9 yards per attempt, 1:0 TD:INT, 136 rating, 0% sack rate

W/O play action: 42% success, 6.2 YPA, 1:0 TD:INT, 85rating, 13.6% sack rate

That’s a significant difference. Because the Chiefs came back from a ten-point deficit, you’re probably thinking the Titans didn’t have success running play-action in the second half. Nope. Tennesee went away from it. The Titans ran eight of nine play-action passes from under center in the first half. This is the Deebo Samuel special:

On those eight play-action passes under center in the first half, the Titans had an 88% success rate, and Tannehill averaged 13.5 yards per attempt with a perfect passer rating. Without play-action, in the fist, half Tannehill’s numbers went down to a 29% success rate and a lowly two yards per attempt. The Titans threw the ball 18 times in the second half, and only three of those were play-action, and one was a play-action pass from under center. That pass went for 15 yards. You are lying to yourself if you think Shanahan will go away from what’s working. The reason we have discussed the lack of passing from this offense so much the past couple of weeks is because Shanahan is smarter than us. San Francisco has been able to run the ball, so he isn’t going away from it. The 49ers offense threw it all over the place in December because nobody could stop them.

The reason I’m referencing play-action so much is that’s what Shanahan does. The Niners used play-action 31% of the time this season, which was second in the NFL. They’re second in the NFL in success rate from play-action passes from under center, and it’s not as if that number is so high because there aren’t many attempts. San Francisco had the third most attempts using play-action under center. It’s the foundation of Shanahan’s offense.

The 49ers can milk the middle of the field in the passing game. The offense picked on Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez in the run game. They’ll be able to do the same against Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens on play-action passes. No. 53 will force Shanahan to stick with the pass on early downs.

He gets caught in no man’s land early and often. Watch the 49ers linebackers. They don’t have their eyes stuck in the backfield with no regard to what’s happening around them like that.

Cherry on top

The final point on the 49ers passing game is their use of pre-snap motion and how effective it is. The 49ers used pre-snap motion on 70% of their offensive plays during the regular season, which is 30% above the league average. We’ve talked about how motion puts defenses in a pickle, and that came to fruition during the AFC Championship. Both plays above have pre-snap motion. Here was Tannehill’s first-half passing splits with and without motion:

Passing with PSM: 73% success, 10.1 YPA, 139 rating

Passing w/o PSM: 20% success rate, 1.8 YPA, 39.6 rating

Much like play-action, the Chiefs didn’t run into teams that use motion much in the second half of the season. League average is 40%, and only three teams ran motion above average against the Chiefs since Week 8. Which segues into why I believe San Francisco wins this game.

It’s about the motion in the ocean

The 49ers running game is both sophisticated and simple simultaneously. The motion gets defenders out of position, which makes it easier for the 49ers linemen to use whoever their blocking’s momentum against them. That opens up rushing lanes for the Niner’s running backs, and it’s off to the races. I keep referencing the AFC Championship because if the Titans had a clue, they’d be playing the 49ers. Tennessee had an 82% success rate on runs using motion during the first half. They averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Without motion, that number dipped to 43% and 2.4 yards per carry.

The Chiefs rushing success rate was a whopping 59% when teams motioned, which is 32nd in the NFL. They gave up 5.3 yards per carry, compared to 4.5 without motion. You’ll never guess which team in the NFL uses the motion on runs. That same team does whatever the heck they want when a fullback is in the game, too. Shanahan has talked about how having a fullback helps control what the defense does. When the 49ers are in 21 personnel, San Francisco has a laughable 58% success rate and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Come on, man. Here is how the Chiefs fared this season against the same:

21 personnel runs with motion: 66% success, 6.4 YPC

21 personnel runs without motion : 35% success, 3.9 YPC

There’s no reason to think the 49ers won’t continue to dominate on the ground. Outside zone will be the reason Emmanuel Sanders was right about Raheem Mostert being the Super Bowl MVP:

The biggest misconception is that the Chiefs slowed Derrick Henry down. From my point of view, Henry misread multiple blocks and left a lot of yards on the field. Mostert doesn’t have those issues. He’s patient and will let the hole develop; then, you see his burst to take off. The athleticism of the Niners offensive line will make a difference as well. Ben Garland has been playing his tail off, especially in space. The Chiefs linebackers aren’t particularly fast, so there won’t be issues for the offensive line getting to the second level.

There is plenty of reason to feel good about the 49ers rushing attack against Kansas City. The Chiefs played the easiest rushing schedule over the final two months of the season. They didn’t stop the Texans or the Titans ground game. Quick scores from the Chiefs exposed the AFC south teams and they abandoned the ground game. As bizarre as it sounds, the Lions back in September are a good measure for the Chiefs. Why? I thought you’d never ask. That’s the only team the Chiefs faced was top-10 in both rushing out of 21 personnel and success rate. Detroit ran it 18 times out of 21 personnel and averaged 6.4 yards per carry on 18 attempts.

I’m not cherrypicking. That’s the first wide zone carry with a fullback. It could be another one of those games where the 49ers are “this close” to breaking one every carry for a quarter.

Where to worry?

This isn’t mean to be a fluff piece. The Chiefs have good players. I believe Tyrann Mathieu is the third-best player in this game from an impact standpoint. It’s the other side of the ball where many would have you believe the Chiefs will win, but I don’t see it this way. If the Chiefs are going to win this game, it’ll be because they controlled the line of scrimmage. Chris Jones is capable of going full “Aaron Donald” for a game. He’s a pain in the you know what, and a lot of times there’s nothing you can do about it.

I imagine Shanahan and company are going into this game confident because the numbers and the film say the 49ers will have to move the ball as they please on Sunday. Like San Francisco’s defense, a lot of their sack damage comes on third downs. The 49ers must continue to win on early downs and stay out of obvious passing downs where the Chiefs defense had the second highest-sack rate on third downs. Unlike the 49ers, the Chiefs pass rush benefits more from their secondary. Honey Badger is bouncing around and disguising what he is doing. Third and obvious means Spagnulo can get into exotic looks like this that make the quarterback think he’s getting pressure when in reality, it’s Cover 2.

Good luck finding a better pre-snap disguise than that. That causes quarterbacks to hold the ball, and, generally, that means bad things are on the horizon for a quarterback. Sacks and turnovers should be at the top of every “Key to Victory” article for Kansas City. The Chiefs were tenth in the NFL at opponent third-down conversion percentage but were three percentage points away from third. This is an excellent team on third down. They can cover as a team. There aren’t mental busts on the backend. They have a star in Mathieu. Those “Pschyo fronts” where only one or two defensive linemen have their hand on the ground—while five other defenders are standing up and you can’t tell who is coming—confuse the quarterback in coverage and the offensive linemen in pass protection. That leads to free rushers:

Me saying the pass rush benefits from designs, and the secondary is more of a compliment to the former. The front four of the Chiefs can create plenty of chaos themselves.

The most significant turnaround to me for the 49ers has been the emergence of their pass protection. Joe Staley has returned to form, and the offensive line deserves more credit. The line will need to be every bit as good as they’ve been over the past month. On the season, they’re giving up a sack on third downs right around league average. Garoppolo not throwing is the Chief’s best chance, actually. His numbers are better than Mahomes under pressure. Jimmy G has a 75% adjusted completion rate and the fourth-highest passer rating at 97.2. Sacks and sack-fumbles should be Shanahan’s only concern. If Garoppolo throws it, it’s good news for the offense. Only Dak Prescott converted more third and longs this season than Jimmy G. Quarterback that converted the most throws between 3rd & 3 and 3rd & 7? Jimmy Garoppolo, five percentage points better than Mahomes. For a league that values third down, it’s interesting how No. 10’s name doesn’t come up. He’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the league by all measures on the most critical down. It’s as if the bullets start flying, Garoppolo blacks out stops over-thinking, and just lets it fly. That’s when he’s at his best.

You can avoid all of this by staying out of third and long, which the 49ers have done a great job of as of late.

Red zone

We can’t talk about the Super Bowl without talking about the red zone. Shanahan will be able to get from 20 to 20 relatively easy. It’s a good matchup for San Francisco. As high-flying as the Chiefs are talked about, no passing offense in the last four years produced more explosive gains at a better rate than this year’s 49ers. You read that correctly. NFL average is 9%, according to Sharp Football’s guide, and San Francisco had a gain of 20+ 13% of the time this year. Shanahan is a calculated assassin. He’s taking shots on early downs to loosen up the defense so that he can open up the running game. Once he has your attention on the ground, there’s a shot play to this guy named George Kittle. The middle of the defense parts like the red sea, and Deebo takes an RPO slant 30 yards. I wonder how it feels to be on the opposite end of this. It can’t be fun.

The Chiefs are strong in the red zone on the perimeter, just like they are between the 20s. If they were strong over the middle, I wouldn’t feel nearly as confident in the Niner’s chances. Opponents have scored a touchdown on six of 18 attempts in the red zone to a tight end. San Francisco’s success rate is well above average at 60% when targeting an inline tight end because of you know who. Don’t be surprised if Kittle scores in the red zone on a screen pass. Kyle Juszczyk could play a big role, as well. Tight end types are open against the Chiefs defense. That position has been targeted the most, and Kansas City is allowing over ten yards a reception.

As for the run game, the dynamic offense that Mike McDaniel has designed is why he’ll be an offensive coordinator sooner than later. The goal for the 49ers offense should be death by 1,000 cuts. The Chiefs have the fourth and third-worst red zone success rates in the second and third quarters. Wear down the Chiefs, make them use their depth, and make them tackle. I’ll end with this. Derrick Henry looked exhausted. He looked like a 250-pound man that had just carried the ball three games in a row and was pressing to make a play. Mostert could be running for a living if he wanted to. Mostert had 29 carries two weeks ago, but 12 the week before and didn’t play the week before that. Mr. Olympic trial-fast has fresh legs against a team that struggles to stop specifically what the Niners do well.

There will be no shortage of points.