Can the 49ers Secondary Shut Down the Chiefs Passing Game?

How do you defend the Chiefs Offense? They have more speed at wide receiver than any team in the NFL. They have one of the best tight ends in the game. They have a head coach who is masterful at stretching defenses in every direction, putting defenders in conflict, and dictating matchups. Their quarterback makes you defend every square inch of the field and their offensive line gives him the time to do so. The outcome of the Super Bowl will ride on how much the 49ers can slow down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Offense, because stopping them altogether doesn’t seem to be realistic.

We know the 49ers like to play a read-and-react style of coverage. They don’t use a ton of disguise, but instead, they predominantly play single-high variations (cover-3, man free, etc.) with some quarters coverage mixed in.

We also know that Andy Reid loves breaking down these coverages with 3-level stretch concepts, like he did in their 2018 Week 3 matchup. Below, you can see an example.

Watch how the play-action and flat route held the underneath defenders and the outside vertical route knocked the top off the coverage, creating a huge void for Travis Kelce at the intermediate level.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

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Given Reid’s ability to break down zone coverages and dictate matchups with the multiple talented receivers at his disposal, anticipate the 49ers mixing in a little more man-free coverage than they normally play. Being more physical at the line of scrimmage wouldn’t be a bad idea either. If you remember back to last year’s AFC Championship Game, the Patriots had lots of success in the first half playing man coverage and jamming receivers at the line. This threw off the timing of Kansas City’s passing game and gave New England’s pass rush time to get to Mahomes.

Whatever the 49ers do, they cannot waste a single defender on the field. If they play man-free with a hole defender providing help in the middle, that defender can’t just drop into space and cover no one. He needs to actually provide help. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised.

Just look at the below play from the AFC Divisional Round. The Texans were playing man-free coverage here. Keep your eyes on the hole defender (circled).

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Watch how he looked to be providing inside help initially, but then dropped into space and ended up covering no one.

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If your help defenders aren’t going to provide help, might as well just use them to rush the passer.

For another example of wasting defenders, take a look at Mahomes’ amazing 27-yard touchdown run in the AFC Championship Game. The Titans double-teamed both Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. They also rushed 3 and used a defender to spy Mahomes.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Here the wasted defender was the spy, who was taken out of the pass rush. As a result, Mahomes had the time to let his receivers’ routes carry their cover-defenders downfield. He also had the space to outrun the pass rush and the spy.

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As we mentioned earlier, the 49ers are not a defense that plays completely different schemes based on the opponent. They likely won’t play with true double-teams on both Kelce and Hill until the Chiefs get close to the goal line, if at all. We’re more likely to see their usual approach of cover-3/cover-4, robber, man free, and the occasional timely disguise, similar to the below play from the Divisional Round.

The 49ers had shown the Vikings man-free robber coverage on 3rd down earlier in this game. Here, they were showing a similar look pre-snap, with the 2 deep safeties looking like they were ready to move into man-free robber position.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Only this time, the safeties both spun out to a 2-deep look. This was 2-man (2 deep safeties with man coverage underneath).

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

To the bottom of the screen, you can see that all 49ers defenders were using a “trail” technique, getting in between their receivers and the quarterback while playing to their safety help over the top. This is a dead giveaway of 2-man. On the other side of the formation, however, Richard Sherman did not trail his receiver.

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Screen Shot Courtesy of Gamepass

Instead, Sherman played on top of his receiver. It looked like Kirk Cousins thought he would stay on top. However, Sherman knew he could be aggressive and jump the route because of his safety help.

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That’s a great subtle disguise by a savvy veteran. It’s also good timing on the play-call by Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh.

Given how well Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Offense have played during the postseason, it’s tough to foresee the 49ers shutting them down. San Francisco’s secondary is very good, but a lot of their success this season has been based on their ability to sit on routes knowing the quarterback won’t have a ton of time to throw due to the pass rush.

The 49ers’ front-4 has been outstanding in 2019. They will need to be a disruptive force for 60 minutes against the Chiefs, or it could be a long night for their secondary.

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