The 49ers lost their second Super Bowl since 2013, their seventh overall appearance in the big game, by a final score of 31-20. It was their first double-digit loss this season in a game that by all appearances was very winnable for three and a half quarters until a series of unfortunate cascading events beginning at the 7:13 mark of the fourth quarter. In the end, the Chiefs roared back in the last half of the fourth quarter with three touchdowns on three drives.
In their previous playoff games, the Chiefs rallied late in the first half after falling behind to the Texans and Titans. Against the 49ers, they struggled to score (but not really move the ball) after the first quarter and were held scoreless for the next 33:53 of the game after a Harrison Butker field goal with 9:36 left in the first half. And it still was not enough to keep them from coming back to life late in the fourth.
Offensively, the 49ers rushed for 6.4 yards per carry and were gashing the Chiefs defense with a variety of run packages. In the first half, that average was around 7.7 yards per carry. In the fourth quarter, the 49ers resorted to passing as they found themselves behind the sticks and up against some late blitz and pressure packages the Chiefs adjusted with.
In the fourth quarter, they attempted three rushes for 12 yards. On at least one of the plays on the broadcast, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo can be heard yelling “CAN CAN,” the standard nomenclature for killing the play called and switching to another play that’s called with it in the huddle. On that play, Jimmy elected to “can” and checked into a pass play to theoretically beat the Chief’s pre-snap pressure.
On defense, they gave up a touchdown early and later a field goal before keeping the pressure on quarterback Patrick Mahomes and forcing him into two bad interceptions. The defense recorded 31 pressures (five sacks, four hits, and 22 hurries) and forced Mahomes to stick with largely short passes inside 10 yards. They predominantly played a disguised cover-3 buzz where they rotated their defenders toward the passing strength, and it largely worked...until it didn’t.
We’ll take a look at that coverage scheme a bit later, but for now, we’re going to focus on the offense and what went wrong with the passing game. And that responsibility rests largely on the shoulder of Garoppolo.
Garoppolo’s missed opportunities on 3rd down and more
This season, Garoppolo was the best quarterback in the NFL on 3rd down, converting 130 pass attempts on 3rd down in 65 first downs. And he did so in a lot of crucial situations as I wrote about here a few weeks ago. It seems that success should’ve carried over into the postseason, especially the Super Bowl. That was not the case on Sunday night, and it seemed like an unusually high success rate on 3rd down was not going to be sustainable.
In the Super Bowl, Garoppolo was 3-for-6 for 49 yards, and two converted first downs. One came at the end of the half and resulted in no points being added. The other came late in the third on a drive. The 49ers would later go up 20-10. On the surface, he performed as expected in line with his regular-season performance.
But the third downs that mattered the most began in the second half and in particular the fourth quarter, where he was 0-for-2 on throws that were much needed. Before that, Garoppolo missed an opportunity to keep a drive alive on their opening possession of the second half. With a chance to convert, they failed to pick up five yards on a possession they needed to get a touchdown on. They settled for a field goal.
The 49ers are in 11 personnel with both Kendrick Bourne and running back Tevin Coleman in the backfield running Shanahan’s “Buffalo” concept, a passing concept out of a 3x1 trips formation that looks to create a pick element to get the “now” slant open underneath the coverage. Coleman is running the slant underneath receiver Richie James, who attempts to pick cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
Garoppolo completes the pass but well short of the line to gain. However, it is not where he should’ve gone with the pass. As Garoppolo drops back to pass, he looks at the underneath hook zone defender, dropping out to the hash to Garoppolo’s right and moves the safety that way as well. Kittle is inside running a “thru” route over the middle between the hashes into the zone vacated by the linebackers and settles into the zone as Garoppolo looks back to the right for Coleman.
Settling for a field goal was less than ideal there, and the offense needed that first down and for Garoppolo to find Kittle in zone coverage between the linebackers.
When Garoppolo is on fire on 3rd down, it leads to good things. He shows patience, timing, accuracy, and good delivery to receivers in stride.
Here he hits Bourne in rhythm with nice accuracy and timing on a deep dig route across the middle. The play would set up the 49ers up inside the red zone where they would add ten more yards on a pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk and a one-yard touchdown run to Raheem Mostert. It would be the final points scored by the 49ers in the 2019-2020 campaign.
In the fourth quarter, the offense started to unravel, and they would punt twice, each time giving the ball back to the Chiefs, who would add touchdowns.
At the line of scrimmage, Garoppolo can be seen and heard killing the play to get into a pass play due to the pre-snap alignment of the Chiefs showing a potential blitz against a run. We can never know for sure if the play call was a run initially. Still, the Chiefs certainly expected it, and the tell is that Kendall Fuller is lined up inside and stacked behind linebacker Damien Wilson, suggesting Fuller is responsible for Kittle in man coverage while Wilson blitzes.
It was likely a run play to Kittle’s side, and there were three blockers to block four defenders. Garoppolo rightly checked out into the pass play. As he executes the play-action, receiver Deebo Samuel breaks inside on the drift route.
This is as a routine of a throw as Garoppolo has made his entire career: a quick throw over the middle from an unconventional platform in the face of pressure. Instead, the pass sails over Samuel, and they can’t connect.
It should be noted, however, that he would not have had time to look for the bubble screen, as has been mentioned around the web from various analysts.
On their second drive of the fourth quarter, the offense needed to put together a drive to eat up the clock, and before they could go into a 4-minute drill, they needed to move the chains at least once. The drive started out promising with a five-yard run on first down.
However, the clock stopped after Chris Jones batted a pass down on second down at the line scrimmage on a play that was arguably one of the most important in the game (more on that later).
The 49ers were running a variant of a run-pass option that they had similar success within the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Instead of looking to throw the swing, the Garoppolo executes a quick play fake to hold the linebackers in place toward the line of scrimmage as he looks to hit Kittle breaking inside on a “bluff” slant where Kittle fakes like he’s going to stalk block then cuts inside the defender. Instead, the pass was batted down.
On third down again, Shanahan called one of the staple plays in his offense called “arches.” Arches are a two route concept that is essentially two follow routes or shallow crossers. The first crosser takes an inside release, and the second crosser, the “arches” route, takes an outside release before cutting inside.
The Chiefs show that they are in man coverage when safety Tyrann Mathieu travels across the formation with Kittle’s motion to the bunch 3x1 to the right. The coverage moves to press-man against the #2 receiver and off-man coverage on the #1 and #3 receivers in the bunch.
The defenders communicate, presumably alerting one another that the outside corner takes the out-breaking route and the inside defender off the ball takes anything in or up the seam. Shanahan’s route concept here is designed specifically to counter this coverage. Kittle takes an outside release, forcing the defender with outside leverage to have to play him. Once he commits, Kittle cuts inside and is open over the middle.
But Garoppolo barely looks his way and instead locks on to his alert route by Kendrick Bourne. It’s not certain that Bourne ran the wrong route, but where Garoppolo places the pass, it seems that Bourne should’ve run the corner route.
However, that is less problematic than Garoppolo not seeing Kittle and anticipating him coming open on a route designed specifically to get him open. The all-22 shows that this is a big missed opportunity as Kittle likely would’ve gone for another huge gain.
On the ensuing Chiefs possession, they would take the lead after making quick work of the 49ers defense and go up 24-20, giving the 49ers another chance to take the lead back and possibly with the game with the drive starting with over two minutes left in the game.
The play call is one the 49ers have run a few times in the past with the most prominent examples coming against an earlier Spagnuolo defense in 2017 and the week 16 game against the Rams back in December. The concept is broadly called “Mills,” which is a two route concept that is an outside deep post route and an inside dig route or deep hitch.
Fans might remember this play from 2017. It was Shanahan's first win as a head coach and CJ Beathard was the starter. He chucked it deep to Marquise Goodwin. The defense was a Spagnuolo coached defense (now KC DC). Touchdown. pic.twitter.com/ke7si4BE1y— rich (@richjmadrid) February 12, 2020
The play is a great call against quarters coverage and has sentimental value to Shanahan, who called the play in 2017 against Spagnuolo’s New York Giants defense. The game was Shanahan’s first win as a head coach. Backup quarterback CJ Beathard threw a deep pass to receiver Marquise Goodwin down the middle on the deep post for 83 yards.
Fast forward to 2019. The play was called again in week 16, a pivotal play that kept the 49ers alive in contention for the #1 seed. Garoppolo hit Sanders for his second 3rd and long completion in a row on the game's final drive. pic.twitter.com/mLC33um1B8— rich (@richjmadrid) February 12, 2020
In Week 16, Garoppolo found Sanders for his second consecutive third-and-15-plus conversion on a drive the 49ers would eventually win the game on. A miscommunication in the Rams secondary got Sanders wide open on the deep post and got the 49ers within striking distance of a game-winning field goal.
In the Super Bowl, Shanahan came back to the play and got the look he wanted with the Chiefs in a 2-high coverage shell. The inside route is designed to draw the safety coverage against quarters or cover-2 with the post in behind it in the area vacated by the safety.
With the Chiefs in a 2-high coverage shell, the defense to the two-receiver side has a “cut” call on Sanders. In “cut,” one defender has inside, shallow leverage underneath, and the other bracket defender has outside leverage over the top. The safety is occupied by the deep dig route by Bourne, giving Sanders leverage since the deepest defender was to his outside in trail at this point as Sanders runs right by him.
The throw is one the 49ers reportedly practiced all week leading up to the game, and it’s a difficult one, but the pass sailed five yards over Sanders’ head into the end zone. Garoppolo needed to give Sanders a chance to make a play on the pass with both defenders a few steps behind.
At this point, Garoppolo should’ve come off Sanders and found Bourne over the middle at the line to gain. They were in a third-and-10 situation and should’ve prioritized keeping the drive alive versus going for the deep shot that ensured they only had one more chance. If that pass is anywhere near Sanders, the 49ers might have won their seventh Lombardi trophy.
Shanahan’s play-calling at the end of the half and 4th quarter
Shanahan took a lot of heat for his play-calling at the end of the first half and the end of the game for apparently abandoning the run. But was it deserved?
End of the first half
Late in the second quarter, the 49ers got the ball back with:59 left to play before halftime. For the analytics crowd, their win probability was 43.5%.
Had they taken a timeout on 4th down when there was over 1:30 to play in the second, their win probability was sitting at 45.5%. A decrease of two percent is negligible in my own opinion and the game did not hinge on using a timeout.
If we use the “Expected points added” model (EPA), taking a timeout and getting the ball with 1:38 remaining netted just 0.8 expected points, while the EPA fell to only 0.6 getting the ball back with 59 left. It wasn’t exactly a game-changer. Steven Ruiz at FTW USA Today has a much longer piece breaking down this portion.
If you’re inclined to disregard the analytics portion, as I sort of am, then what the win probabilities and the EPA say does not matter. They should’ve taken the timeout and made some attempts to drive the field and score some points. With the way they were able to move the ball on the Chiefs, this should not have been an issue, and they likely could’ve come away with at least a field goal. However, I think it had little effect on the game overall but certainly didn’t help.
Did Kyle Shanahan, “abandon the run?” Not exactly. The 49ers only ran 17 total plays in the fourth quarter, 13 passes to four runs. Seven of those passes came with less than two minutes left, leaving a ratio before that of six passes to four runs called. And it was more likely that there was an additional run call in there that Garoppolo checked out of due to the box numbers against the run called. Situationally, it made sense.
After the defense intercepted Mahomes for the second time, the 49ers would need to come out and sustain a long points scoring drive. After moving the sticks, they faced first down again and ran into a crowded box. On second down, Garoppolo checked out of a run against the Chiefs blitz. In the broadcast, you can hear him yelling “CAN CAN CAN,” which is a method for calling audibles in Shanahan’s offense. The second downplay is the play above to Samuel earlier in the article. The pass was incomplete and too high for Samuel to come down with.
On third down, the 49ers took a false start penalty, and on the ensuing 3rd-and-14, Garoppolo scrambled for three yards before punting. I would not pin this series on Shanahan. The next Chiefs possession had the infamous 3rd-and-15 play given up by the defense and saw the 49ers lead cut to 20-17. Shanahan said after the game that ultimately they “needed to get first downs and move the chains” and that if you “move the chains, then you will wind the clock” and “you’ve got to move the chains a little bit before you start running out the clock.”
In that case, the play calling makes sense. But on the second drive in the fourth quarter, the 49ers were not able to move the ball after a quick five-yard gain on first down. On 2nd-and-five after the first down run, below, you can see what the box looked like with eight defenders ready to sell out to stop the run (nine if you count the safety coming down to play the run if needed).
And those plays are also diagrammed above, the tipped pass on second down by Chris Jones, and the misfire by Garoppolo on third down. That certainly cannot be pinned on Shanahan.
The Chiefs took the lead after that, and there was no point running the ball to try to get back into it, at least not the way a team would while trying to ice the game. So in that regard, I do not think we can really pin this loss on Shanahan’s play-calling, but rather that blame more resides with Garoppolo and the offense not being able to execute the plays called. In the next article, we’ll look at why the defense and Robert Saleh also share at least some of the blame too.