If you’ve been soaking up all of the Super Bowl content possible during the past week, the discussion has gone as expected. One team has Patrick Mahomes. That team hasn’t struggled during the playoffs so that that team will win.
The Kansas City Chiefs undoubtedly have the decided edge at quarterback, but this is a team sport. We’ll discuss each team's decided advantages throughout the week. Today, we’ll start with the San Francisco 49ers biggest threat and tone-setter: Deebo Samuel.
The 49ers played and won a playoff game, with Deebo playing nine snaps. Nobody will confuse Samuel as a savvy, route-running receiver. That’s not how Kyle Shanahan got the most out of him this past season. Samuel had the 17th-lowest air yards per route run among all wide receivers.
But Samuel’s greatest asset is when the ball is in his hands. Against the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship, Samuel forced eight missed tackles on 11 touches. Deebo has a rare combination of speed and ferociousness at his position, making him one of the most challenging players in the NFL to tackle.
Let’s set the table for why the stage is set for Samuel to have a big game against the Chiefs and why he’s a sneaky candidate for Super Bowl MVP.
Running away from coverage
These are the two best teams in the NFL at gaining yards after the catch. Both defenses rank in the top eight at limiting yards after the catch over expectation. On paper, Kansas City has the edge. They force incompletions and make a tackle when they do allow a reception.
Then, you go through their schedule. In the AFC Championship game, they played a team whose best target was playing in his first game in over two months. The week prior, it was against an offense with one capable threat. The Chiefs faced a first-year offensive coordinator and an interim play-caller in both playoff games.
Let’s ignore Week 18 since the Chiefs didn’t play their starters. Here are the quarterbacks and offenses they’ve faced in the second half:
Aidan O’Connell (twice)
It wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row when it came to quarterbacks and weapons. To say the 49ers are a step up in class is an understatement. Even without Deebo for a game, the Niners’ offensive output during the playoffs was better than during the regular season.
The Chiefs’ defense can only be classified as good. They’ve earned it. But they are good...for the Chiefs. Kansas City plays man coverage with safety help at the second-highest rate in the NFL. They’ll play a combination of coverages, mixing in the zone with two high safeties.
Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed will likely follow Brandon Aiyuk. He follows the best receiver on every team. That leaves the door open for Samuel to shine. Sneed can’t cover everybody.
During the regular season, the Chiefs were 25th in schedule-adjusted efficiency at defending No. 2 wide receivers. They were fifth at defending No. 1 wideouts and second at defending slot receivers.
We know how the Chiefs are going to play the 49ers. It's hard not to be impressed when you filter how Deebo has fared against Kansas City’s most prominent coverage types.
Samuel had 35 receptions for 481 yards, with ten broken tackles and seven touchdowns. Sixteen of his 35 receptions went for first downs. To put Samuel’s broken tackle rate into perspective, he’s tied with Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with ten, but it took Chase 64 receptions to accomplish the same feat.
It’s also worth noting that the Chiefs’ strength butts heads with the Niners’ strong suit. San Francisco is a matchup nightmare for anybody because they have five eligible receivers who can hurt you. They’re incredibly potent at defeating man coverage.
Against 2-man coverage — the Chiefs’ go-to coverage — the 49ers led the league with a 63 percent success rate. But Shanahan called screen passes at the second-highest rate. What happens is he will use motion to change the angles and turn it into a foot race with Deebo. As you might imagine, it’s a race Samuel generally wins.
Shanahan tree success
Miami scored 14 points in Week 9 against the Chiefs. Using schedule-adjusted efficiency, they had the 10th-worst passing offense that week and the 9th-best rushing attack. Tua Tagovailoa struggled, so the success rate and EPA were below average.
But receivers were open, and seeing how the Chiefs failed to defend the middle of the field and how they overreacted to motion was telling. Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill had gains of 15+ on the first drive, but a penalty forced Miami into a 3rd & 15. Tua failed to connect with Tyreek Hill on the next drive on a deep shot. After a few punts in a row, when they were driving before the half, Tyreek fumbled in Chiefs territory.
Miami had the ball in Kansas City territory with a chance to tie the game with six minutes left, but penalties backed them up to a 3rd & 26. Penalties and poor quarterback play bailed the Chiefs’ defense out against a Mike McDaniel offense that found holes.
Waddle had one carry for 12 yards and three receptions for 42 yards. That’s the closest comp to Deebo, stylistically. I’ll go out on a limb and say Deebo is a bit more involved in the Super Bowl than Waddle was in Week 9.
They weren’t as fortunate against Green Bay. Jordan Love had his way. In Week 13, Love went 25 for 36 with 267 passing yards and three touchdowns. In this game, Matt LaFleur used Christian Watson in the Deebo role. Watson had two carries and seven receptions for 86 yards and two touchdowns.
Jet sweeps, motion, misdirection, and play-action were a prominent part of LaFleur’s attack. Green Bay stayed ahead of the chains, and the Chiefs couldn’t get off the field. Green Bay had the second-best passing offense and fourth-best rushing attack in Week 13 against the vaunted Chiefs defense.
Love had a 50 percent success rate, and the Packers were well above average in EPA, success rate, and first-down percentage that evening. Green Bay scored on five of its seven drives and had quadruple the EPA, a three percentage point better success rate, and an eight percentage point higher on first downs against the Chiefs than they did the 49ers a few weeks ago.
So, forgive me for thinking Deebo and the 49ers will move the ball.
Samuel shames Spags
Steve Spagnuolo is a brilliant defensive coordinator who blitzed at the fifth-highest rate this season. Kansas City allowed the third-lowest EPA per play when they brought an extra rusher.
Unfortunately, it’s another area where the 49ers offense excels. Brock Purdy carves up the blitz, and Deebo is a big reason why. In 21 targets, Samuel nearly added a point to the scoreboard every time he touched the ball.
Deebo catches the ball in man coverage, runs through an arm tackle, and turns an eight-yard gain into a 26-yard gain. So why the Chiefs will use their best coverage players on Aiyuk, Samuel could find himself matched up against a rookie safety or a seventh-round cornerback from 2022. And if it’s against zone coverage, we’re talking about Samuel facing a linebacker over the middle, where Kansas City was most vulnerable at the intermediate level.
Schematically, the last two teams that played similarly to how the Chiefs have all season were the Seahawks and Eagles. Deebo had 18 receptions for 344 yards and six touchdowns in that three-game stretch. Those were games where Shanahan and the offense wanted to make a statement, knowing they needed a win.
This is a Deebo game.