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49ers vs. Chiefs Roster Preview: The game within The Big Game

The 49ers and Chiefs rosters have some holdover from SB 54, but it’s the differences that may make the difference

Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers Media Availability Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

It’s the last dance and, therefore, the final installment of the Roster Matchup Previews for this season. Sometimes, the arrow pointed in the Niners’ direction; other times, it didn’t. But they made it this far. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have developed a robust level of player talent and a system that can compete with any in the league.

And no matter how the roster compares to the Chiefs, for one game, anything can happen. Let’s hope the arrow points to San Francisco just a little bit more on Sunday.

SF O SKILL (QB/WR) VS. KC SECONDARY

Advantage: SF

Holistically, Kansas City’s strength has been its pass defense. They were second in the regular season in opponent dropback success rate allowed and third in EPA/dropback. Similar to other top defenses, like Baltimore, the Chiefs deploy a versatile defensive system with simulated pressures, plenty of defensive back blitzes, and a variety of coverages. GM Brett Veach has drafted players who are smart and can be utilized in a number of ways to create confusion for opposing quarterbacks.

That’s particularly true for the cornerbacks. The ace in the group is 2023 all-pro slot corner Trent McDuffie. The former first-rounder led NFL defensive backs in total pressures in the regular season (16 - six more than the next closest DB). He was a menace as a nickel blitzer but was solid in coverage, too, posting a team-high PFF coverage grade. Besides McDuffie, the corner group is shaky, however.

L’Jarius Sneed has gotten his fair share of praise for big plays and was ninth in pass breakups. But he will get grabby in man coverage. His 17 penalties in coverage were the most in the league, five more than second place.

The opposite outside cornerback has been inconsistent, at best. McDuffie will start there when Kansas City is in base defense and move inside when they have lighter personnel. Jaylen Watson usually sees more playing time when McDuffie bumps in, but he split almost evenly with Joshua Williams against Baltimore and both players logged over 350 reps this year.

Neither has been a liability, but they aren’t much of difference makers, either. For as good as this unit has performed, the Chiefs defense hasn’t gotten their hands on the ball much this year - their eight interceptions is the third-lowest mark in the NFL.

The safety pairings are another mixed bag of defenders that are responsible for plenty of different alignments and assignments. There’s a good chance DC Steve Spagnuolo uses four of them throughout the game, starting with Mike Edwards and Justin Reid. Reid is another guy who can man the nickel position if McDuffie moves outside or plays down in the box.

He led the Chiefs in tackles this season and has also been an effective blitzer, recording three sacks in the regular season and another of Lamar Jackson in the AFCCG. Edwards took over for the injured Bryan Cook back in week 13 as the deep middle-of-the-field safety. He’s one of Kansas City’s lowest-graded defenders per PFF, but he played better as the year went on, with the highlight being his interception in the wild-card round.

SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs KC 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS

Advantage: SF

There are ways to attack the Chiefs’ defense if the linebackers are asked to do too much. Enter McCaffrey, Kittle, and Juszczyk. Kansas City has done an excellent job relying on their squad of linebackers to fill specific roles dependent on the weekly game plan. Drue Tranquill is the guy they trust in coverage the most, but is also a strong blitzer. Leo Chenal can play up on the line. Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. have been the starting inside duo for a few years and like to play downhill.

All of these guys allow less than 10.0 yards per reception in coverage. But they’ve also all allowed receptions on 74%+ of attempts in their primary responsibility. They try to keep routes and targets in front of them and then tackle well. That’s fine until you have to attempt tackling the Niners’ collection of YAC specialists.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the Chiefs’ defensive strengths are not against the run. In fact, the run defense is a complete liability. They were 28th in EPA/rush allowed. If the Kansas City Linebackers are going to be playing the run as heavily as expected to stop the San Francisco rushing attack, then the development of the passing game off of the success on the ground could produce a really special offensive performance.

SF O LINE vs KC D LINE

Advantage: KC

Defensive tackle Chris Jones was named second team All-Pro for the second time, and was voted to the pro bowl for the fifth straight season. He was second in the league in total pressures and tied for first in sacks among defensive tackles. Jones should not surprise anyone, and the San Francisco interior offensive line will have to bring their A game to keep up with him.

Outside of Jones, it’s a quiet group on the front line of the Kansas City defense. The unit ranks 20th in pass rush win rate and 32nd in run stop win rate (again, this is where the Niners can win the game). Former first-rounder George Karlaftis is still developing but showed this year he can be leaned on as a true edge rusher. He was second on the team in sacks (11) and pressures (64). Mike Danna is the other starting edge and enjoyed career highs in snaps, sacks, and pressures.

Three big injuries loom large in the trenches - one in the next section - and here first with the loss of former Niner Charles Omenihu for the Chiefs. Omenihu had been the primary rotational piece at edge, and now Kansas City will have to rely on rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah, who had less than 150 regular season pass rush opportunities, to substitute the starters.

Second is the injury to nose tackle Derrick Nnadi. Nnadi is a solid piece to the Chiefs’ front four and really allows guys like Chris Jones to get one-on-one opportunities as he takes on double teams. With him on the sideline, Mike Pennel and Tershawn Wharton have split time inside and may give the Niners’ offensive line the ability to focus more attention on Jones or move help over to Colton McKivitz.

KC O LINE vs SF D LINE

Advantage: SF

Nick Bosa wasn’t lying, the Chiefs offensive line does hold a lot. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor led the NFL in penalties. Left tackle Donovan Smith was tied for 11th among tackles. These are both new starters in 2023 and it took a while for the entire unit to settle in. Of course, having a quarterback that is incredibly gifted at not allowing pressures to turn into sacks will make most offensive lines seem better than they might really be. But the group in Kansas City did grade out well. They were first in Pass Block Win Rate (77%) and eighth in PFF pass block grade (71.0).

However, there are advantages to be won up front. Taking down Patrick Mahomes isn’t a small feat. The Chiefs gave up only the second-fewest sacks in 2023. It’s not only a product of an offensive system that has relied heavily on screens and short, quick games but also having a quarterback who manipulates pockets and rarely holds on to the ball longer than he should.

But winning up front can also mean that San Francisco has the chance to do what they couldn’t against Green Bay and Detroit in the playoffs - make their opponent one-dimensional. Kansas City is strong at pass blocking but isn’t as dominant in the run game. They ranked 20th in Run Block Win Rate (70%) and 18th in PFF run block grade (59.5). The Chiefs were 26th in rush success rate.

As mentioned, Taylor (48.6 PFF grade) and Smith (57.7) are the weak links. If San Francisco has any chance of putting together a dominant defensive performance on the biggest stage, it starts with Nick Bosa and co. beating the offensive line on the edge constantly.

It gets much harder on the interior, where all three Chiefs starters ranked in the top four of ESPN’s IOL pass block win rates. Center Creed Humphrey is the fourth-highest graded at the position (80.4). Right Guard Trey Smith (75.3) is the eighth-highest.

Left Guard Joe Thuney is ninth (74.9), but this is where things get interesting. According to Andy Reid, Thuney has a ‘slim chance’ to play this weekend due to a pectoral injury. It will be a massive downgrade if Thuney can’t go.

Nick Allegretti would fill in as he did against Baltimore two weeks ago. In that game, Allegretti finished with 52 pass block snaps and gave up one sack, three hurries, and four pressures. PFF gave him a concerning 41.6 run block grade for the game.

KC O COMBO vs SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS

Advantage: SF

I wish there were an easy answer to stop Travis Kelce. But his chemistry with Patrick Mahomes and his understanding of NFL coverages makes him difficult to shadow. Even when teams provide extra support in blanketing Kelce, he has found ways to get open or make the tough contested catch that Kansas City needs—his ‘down year’ in 2023 resulted in 93 catches, 984 yards, and five touchdowns.

In his three games this post-season, he has managed to haul in 27 receptions, three touchdowns, and at least 70 yards in each contest. So, pointing the arrow in San Francisco’s way is maybe wishful thinking.

But the 49ers once again have the leg up on the Chiefs when matching linebackers and safeties to running backs. Maybe Kelce finds ways to beat you, but Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw have faced tougher challenges from the Packers’ and Lions’ backfields. That said, Isiah Pacheco is a good football player. He runs hard and doesn’t go down easy.

That’s an issue for a San Francisco defense that has struggled this season with missed tackles. They will have to be at their best. The former seventh-round pick is averaging only 4.0 yards per carry this post-season, but Kansas City has fully trusted giving him the rock often. Pacheco had one game during the regular season with 20+ carries and has already logged two such outings in the playoffs.

The Chiefs are running more 13 and 12 personnel than in years past and have the fourth-highest rate in the league with the seventh-highest EPA/play when they line up with two tight ends. Noah Gray has become the primary benefactor, and the Niners will likely see plenty of Gray in sets where Kelce is lined up out wide.

Mahomes was the second-leading rusher on this team in the regular season, but there are times when Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be utilized, especially in the receiving game. Jerick McKinnon is still listed as a limited practice participant and will eat into Edwards-Helaire’s time in backup duty if he does end up going.

KC O SKILL vs. SF SECONDARY

Advantage: KC

It’s freaking Patrick Mahomes (with Andy Reid). Until proven otherwise, the arrow has to point their way. Even with the myriad of issues surrounding this team’s passing attack all season, Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl because they have a generational player at quarterback.

Buuuuuuut, this passing game does not strike fear in its opponents as in previous seasons. Mahomes threw a career high in interceptions, and they led the league in dropped passes. Then again, Mahomes, in the 2023 playoffs, has four touchdowns and no turnovers. And the receivers have come up big when called upon as of late.

It starts with rookie second-rounder Rashee Rice. Rice has been sensational stepping into the lead role for this passing game and is asked to do a lot, especially with the ball in his hands. He led the team in YAC and receiving touchdowns and was second behind Kelce in every other statistical category. Rice carries a questionable tag right now due to ankle injuries, but signs point to him being on the field Sunday.

Outside of Rice, there has been little to no production from the Kansas City receivers. No other wideout had more than 27 catches in the regular season. In their three playoff games, they’ve targeted all of their receivers, not named Rice, 20 combined times. Rice has 25 on his own.

Kelce has 27. The Chiefs don’t even try to hide the fact that they don’t trust their other receivers. Justin Watson did lead the team in yards per catch but barely hauled in 50% of his targets in the regular season.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling came up big in crucial close-out moments in the playoffs but is used primarily as a vertical, stretch-the-field decoy. Kadarius Toney is the only other guy worth mentioning, but his status is uncertain, with plenty of controversy swirling around his dependability this season. The Niners’ defense has to simply focus on Kelce and Rice. And somehow, figure out how to stop #15.