The BIG game is this Sunday. The two best teams capping off America’s BIGGEST sport. Sure, there are other BIG games, like Western Conference Semifinal Game 7s, Pennant chases. Race car races. These are false prophets that shall be pulled by their hair to the top of the BIG temple, and there these heretics shall be sacrificed for their sacrilege. Those other BIG games aren’t actually the BIG game. See, this one, the Super Bowl, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, this is the real BIG game, the true BIG game, the only BIG game.
As a nation we will join hands, and by hands, I mean butt cheeks squished against one another on BIG cushions, placed on BIG couches, in front of BIG televisions. There will be BIG chips dipped into great BIG bean dips. BIG grills will kill disease, cook flesh, and turn vegetables into salty and slithery messes. Everything will be topped with BIG mountains of cheese, mountains so BIG, that Telescope peak, and Mt. Whitney, and Mt. Elbert, and Guadalupe peak, will be crumbled by rage and jealousy.
BIG bites and BIG flavor leads to thirsty mouths. Post beer pong same cup kisses are only so refreshing. BIG beers will be swallowed. Dark liquid sipped outside will send them shaking from that BIG bite. BIG shots taken in the kitchen. And for those of us that are sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions, there isn’t any wavering, these are absolutions. Green tea is in that cabinet. You can use the BIG pot on the stove. Kombucha can cure that BIG baptized by appetizers gut. I think, if I’m not mistaken, there’s some ginger beer in the back of the fridge from like a year ago you can have.
Together we’ll watch BIG hits, BIG catches, BIG throws, and BIG plays, and savor the BIG game. Of course, there will be those vile swarmy individuals, huddled together, who will yell things like, SPORTS, I love SPORTSBALL, GO TEAM, to ironically sing the chorus, and then carry on with their Game Of Thrones and diaper baby movie discussions. These cretins have their reasons. Yes, on the surface level, it’s all just a very expensive and galactic waste of time, a children’s game, no different than the sand box that looks like a turtle, but beneath that is the truth, a true measure of man’s resolution and determination takes place between those lines, because in a world of gray, there is rarely an accurate test that can measure the soul, but there, on that field, there is a winner, and a loser, actual black and white.
The commercials shall unite us all. And we should hate each and every one of these pestilent LOL epic things. The capitalists who already sold us the BIG flavor of sour cream and onion chips, will use marketing to get us to buy more BIG flavor sour cream and onion chips, and they’ll do this with absurdity stemming from early 2010s VINE videos, and try to make us cry, by using cancer as a vehicle to sell a vehicle.
These are a sideshow. A distraction from the BIG game. Those those of us who are earnest, and truthful, won’t care about halftime hip shaking, or Rick and Morty Pringles commercials, because our focus is only on the BIG game. Let those vile ones worry about the state of pop music, and empty summer movies, because we will be living in the now, because the BIG game is on, and the BIG game is the only thing that matters.
1. HOW TO CREATE A DEFENSE THAT DOESN’T FALL APART
The Kansas City Chiefs are 8-0 since losing to the Tennessee Titans in Patrick Mahomes’s first game back from a dislocated knee,. They’re averaging 31.6 points a game, including 86 points in two playoff wins, and have a point differential of +129. Opponents are strangled by a great pass defense, a refurbished run defense that does just enough, and most importantly, last season’s all time great offense is scoring touchdowns in the redzone again and is looking more and more like the best version of its self.
Up against it is the league’s best, or second best defense; it depends on how much weight you put into New Englad’s end of season struggles. San Francisco is second in pass defense DVOA, is first in net yards allowed per attempt, and eighth in points allowed. It’s the best defense Kansas City has faced since they scored 23 points in New England almost two months ago.
There are a few things the 49ers’ defense is excellent at. Creating a pass rush with only four rushers, defending the short passing attack, covering running backs and tight ends, and passing receivers off in coverage.
San Francisco primarily plays cover three. The field is split into thirds. A cornerback defending each sideline. One deep safety. Linebackers playing short hook zones. Four man rushes. You know it. We learned all about it watching Seattle dominate the 2010s with it.
This is the 49ers’ typical defense. It’s second and nine. The 49ers pull their strong safety Jaquiski Tartt (#29) into the box to turn a Nickle defense into a 4-3. Both outside corners take zone turns to split the field into thirds. The difference is the linebackers. They don’t wade in the shallow end of the pool. Tartt has the running back until he runs into the flat. Linebacker Fred Warner (#54) is the match defender who takes the crossing route. From there everyone adjusts into their hook zones. The four man rush is picked up. A long crossing route eventually opens up against Warner.
The key here is how long it takes for the receiver to get open. He has to run across the entirety of the field, and even then, it’s a glimpse of a window. A throw only an aging auteur like Aaron Rodgers can capture. Usually, their pass rush makes these type of throws impossible. The quarterback will shift his focus to the line of scrimmage, take a spoon to his eyes, and never see past the bloody mess.
This time the strong safety crashes hard on the dig, and is a bag of marbles scattered across the floor once the tight end takes off up field. Rodgers misses it. Third and nine, a band of behemoths bullrushes to raze Rodgers for the sack.
There are ways to attack this coverage. Double moves can get cornerbacks watching the quarterback to bite. The middle of the field can be schemed open. Teams can use trips formations to skew the numbers. overwhelm one side of the field, and pressure defenders to create open throws from there. These things take a while to develop, and the quick snap blur of text throws are rarely here.
The 49ers pass rush has been an absolute terror this postseason. Dee Ford has come back from a hamstring injury and is back on the field. Ford, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead can rush from every position on the line of scrimmage. Inside or out, it doesn’t matter. Robert Saleh can isolate matchups and attack a team’s weakest pass blockers.
Their front four has combined for 40 sacks, 73 quarterback hits, and 122 pressures this season. Bosa has 62 pressures on his own. This postseason they have 7 sacks and 10 quarterback hits. This doesn’t even include the little bit of juice they get from Solomon Thomas. They’ve been relentless. They’re everywhere.
Getting the ball out quick is the typical answer to deal with this. Make short, choppy, throws. This isn’t the answer. San Francisco’s defense is second in short pass DVOA and first in yards allowed per short pass attempt. The 49ers have rangy grass fed linebackers who can cover the entirety of the field.
It’s a perfect coverage scheme for the personnel the 49ers have. Their three linebackers: Warner, Kwon Alexander (#56), and Dre Greenlaw (#57) have the speed to play sideline to sideline and run around second level blocks in the box. Because of them, and Warner especially, the 49ers can entrust their linebackers to carry out impossible tasks like carrying the post in cover 3, and run with wide receivers across the field.
Against Green Bay, this trio was incredible covering the flats and stopping the Packers from feeding their running backs for easy completions. Play action is a cheat code. It usually works. It doesn’t when you try and find Marcedes Lewis in the flat against Kwon Alexander.
On one of the pivotal plays of the NFC Conference Championship game, the Packers tried to get to the line fast, and hit Aaron Jones in the flat against Drew Greenlaw (#57). This, of course, didn’t work.
San Francisco is also a great at defending screen passes. Their outside cornerbacks, because of their zone turns, are always locked on the quarterback. They work in unison with their linebackers; fast cars go real fast.
Throwing the ball to the sideline is difficult. Richard Sherman is a cover three ronin. Emmanuel Moseley plays the other sideline, and has been on the same level as Sherman. K’Waun Williams usually plays the slot. The seam and layer right above the linebackers are the best places to attack the 49ers, not the sideline.
The 49ers rarely give up easy throws as well. They have their coverage schemes locked down, and know when and how to pass receivers.
Moseley (#41) is the outside corner and Williams (#24) is the slot corner. Williams pounces on the curl. Mosesly, with his eyes on Rodgers, moves from the sideline to the vertical, and jumps on a throw behind the receiver. Rodgers misses, and he misses because the linebacker is distorting the front shoulder throwing lane.
All of these things are vital components of the Chiefs’ offense. They love the screen game, they love to throw to their running backs and tight end, they had previous problems protecting the interior of the pocket, but the key for them, is that they have the perfect player to attack any zone coverage—Tyreek Hill.
Even when Hill has ‘quiet’ games like the 3 catches on 4 targets he had against the Texans, he still sends ripples across the secondary. Houston placed Bradley Roby on him and kept a safety deep. Bracketed. He ran all over the place, drawing eyes and attention, and opening routes for others. This usually led to Travis Kelce in man coverage against Lonnie Johnson Jr. Kelce caught 10 passes for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in their 51 point firestorm. Hill is the key to their passing attack. He folds and wrinkles the defense, and leads their vertical passing attack.
Hill loves playing against zone coverage. He has the speed to run from zone to zone and draw attention from multiple defenders. The Broncos are playing cover three. Hill runs a corner from the deep middle, to the deep right third, and outruns each level of the zone coverage. Cheetahs aren’t livestock.
Hill is the in the slot in a trips left formation. He runs a curl that draws both the linebacker and the strong safety. This opens up a horizon underneath the deep middle patrolling free safety for Mecole Hardman to run his post into.
Tyreek can open things for others, but he also creates for himself. He can attack match coverage, by simply bouncing outside of the cross defender, Wesley Woodyard (#59), and turn a defense designed to pick up the slant into first and goal.
There are issues playing zone coverage against Kansas City. It shouldn’t be expected for San Francisco to do anything different. They don’t have the personnel. They’ve rarely played man coverage. And even then, man coverage ends up with matchups like Hill v. Logan Ryan in the slot. Big bone licking. Easy pickings.
Kansas City also loves to utilize wide receiver trips and bunch formations. They’ll create open space for short routes. Other times they’ll create one v. one matchups on the other side of the formation. Kansas City’s route combinations rip holes in the secondary’s fabric.
This Seattle touchdown nullified by a holding penalty is a prime example of how to do it against San Francisco. Trips left. The out forces the corner to bite, leaving a space behind him. The next defender is the far away deep middle safety. The linebacker runs trails off. A corner route fits perfectly into this empty space. The Chiefs will have to isolate defenders, pressure them to make decisions, and throw from there.
One of the keys to this game is going to be if the Chiefs’ offensive line can hold up. They blocked well against Houston and Tennessee in their path to the Superbowl. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus did a lot of nothing against Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher on the outside. Jurrell Casey and Daquan Jones went to war against Kansas City’s interior, and there, they were passed off, doubled, and collapsed. Time slows in the postseason when Patrick Mahomes drops back.
Neither of these teams have a pass rush close to San Francisco’s. Bosa can beat Fisher with long arms. Ford’s speed will give Schwartz trouble. Armstead and Buckner against Austin Reiter or Stefen Wisniewski is in the 49ers favor.
Teams all are nothing approach doesn’t work. They have to get pressure with their front four. Rushing three and filling the secondary with bodies or rushing five plus hasn’t phased Mahomes. He’s patient and leaves the pocket as a last measure when there’s no pass rush. He recognizes the blitz pre-snap and can run away from it. This isn’t the same grimacing caricature we saw in the middle of the season.
The 49ers rarely blitz. They’re 29th in blitz rate and clock in at 20.9%. When they do it’s devastating. Saleh is an artist at creating sacks and pressure. Their blitzes have oomf and meaning. If they can’t create pressure, Saleh will bring out the blitz to affect Mahomes, but even then, he’s turned blitzes into scrambles, and manufactured completions outside the structure of the offense. When they blitz they’ll need to cover their tracks before the snap.
Pressure will be the core of the 49ers’ pass defense. Changing the rhythm. Getting the ball out quick. Forcing it before the receiver is ready. Anything that creates discomfort and could lead to missed passes is vital. Every incompletion is a cause for celebration, picnics and coffee, and if that doesn’t happen, all you can do is pray for drops.
3. DON’T BELIEVE IT
The Kansas City Chiefs no longer have the worst run defense in football. It was only the 29th worst this season. Great job. It’s been even better this postseason. Carlos Hyde had 13 carries for 44 yards. Derrick Henry had 19 carries for 69 yards. 3.5 yards a carry against an opponent’s best running back is a dramatic improvement for this run defense.
Steve Spagnuolo has done this by stacking the box and preaching gap control from his revivalist tent. Henry saw a big box of 8+ run defenders on 36.84% of his runs, and he spent an average of 2.73 seconds behind the line of scrimmage. The edges were set. The Chiefs chased from the backside well. Henry was squeezed into the center of the Chiefs’ defense where a salivating defender was waiting.
Frank Clark (#55) sets the edge. Damien Wilson (#54) is in the ‘C’ gap, Anthony Hitchens (#53) is in the ‘B’ gap, and that great source of change, Mike Pennel (#64), is able to stay wide of Ben Jones (#60) and play the ‘A’ gap. Everything is filled for Henry. He has nowhere to go against this eight man box. Henry is forced to bend this run to the ‘B’ gap.
The 49ers rushing attack is a spaceship compared to the Titans F-350. San Francisco primarily runs outside zone, but they’ll run counter, power, trap, reverses, and designed cutbacks. The Titans are outside zone, inside zone, and the occasional toss. Art class for them is finger painting outside zone to the weakside. It’s arcane compared to San Francisco’s sleek future.
Stacking the box isn’t exactly the answer to limit the 49ers. The Packers did this. They broke out a 5-1 front with Z’Darius Smith (#55) over center Ben Garland (#63). They put a safety in the box. It worked at first. Garland is the soft spot, the speckle of neck the armor can’t protect. Green Bay placed Smith or Kenny Clark (#97) over him and limited the 49ers rushing attack at first.
Kyle Shanahan changed things up. They attacked from the ‘B’ gap out. Tosses and gap scheme plays shifted their runs away from the interior. They ran the ball 42 times for 285 yards and 4 touchdowns against Green Bay. The things Kansas City does, stacking the box, placing a linebacker in the ‘A’ gap pre-snap, and running slants against an outside zone heavy rushing attack isn’t going to solve every problem.
The 49ers are too diversified. They pulled out every run play imaginable to devour the Packers.
Quick toss left. Block the outside zone. George Kittle (#85) climbs to the linebacker after Smith cuts inside. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk (#44) then crunches Smith inside. Mike McGlinchey (#69) eats up Blake Martinez (#50). Raheem Mostert (#31) is an ankle caught in a trap away from scoring.
They ran counter with their right guard Chuck Person (#68) and jet sweep motion wide receiver Deebo Samuel (#19) leading the way. Isn’t that fancy?
They ran a sweep play with Kittle kicking out Smith, Juszchyk pulling up on the linebacker, and Mostert picking up a scandalous 34.
Light boxes are a sin against San Francisco. The desire to stop play action is there on passing downs, but they’ll run the ball successfully in any situation. Lean Cuisine boxes gets their excellent blocking wide receivers building fences and keeps the box free of clutter. 2nd and 9. Outside zone left. Seal the backside. Easy touchdown.
You can’t forget the sublime reverses, like this one, that sees Juszchyk fake a cut block, and flail over the cowardly safety in the open field.
They’ll also run it with Juszchyk faking the backside seal, then turning and running with the reverse to pick off defenders in the open field.
The 49ers bash teams with bad linebacker play. Reggie Ragland, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Ben Niemann are this. Kansas City will try and take pressure off them by playing three safeties. This will also help defend the play action pass, something they’re great at defending. If their defensive line can hold up, and Kansas City can play three safeties by subbing Wilson out for Daniel Sorensen, it will have a dramatic effect on this game. If they can’t, and Kansas City has to play three linebackers, it’s going to open up the play action game for Jimmy Garoppollo. Take a gulp of bong water. This may end up being the key to the BIG game.
Those years of damages haven’t healed. Scars are still purple. San Francisco should be able to run a variety of different plays to attack Kansas City’s front. It’s still a similar run defense to the one that allowed 176 rushing yards on 48 carries to the Patriots in 2018, and 202 yards on 31 carries to the Titans in 2017. Ball control. Keep away. That’s what ended the Chiefs’ seasons previously, and San Francisco will look to do the same thing the same way.
4. THE TIGHTEST ENDS
Choose your fighter. On the left side of the screen is George Kittle. He’s the best run blocking tight end in the league, and one of the best run blockers in the league. Period. He can make every block necessary in their outside zone attack. Kick out the wide nine. Reach the seven. Strong double team against the 4i. It’s all here. It starts with him.
He’s also a great receiver. He can run the seam. He can lose cornerbacks at the top of the route, and create easy throws for Jimmy G, something mandatory for the 49ers’ offense. Fake the dig, break to the out, is something he casually does against Shaquill Griffin.
He’s the last person in the world anyone would want to tackle.
The 49ers will motion him out to the slot, slowly chip linebackers out of the box, spread the defense, and use him to attack the short middle of the field.
On the right side of the screen is Travis Kelce (#87). He only led the Chiefs with 136 targets, 97 catches, 1,229 yards, and averaged 12.7 yards an a catch as a tight end. Kelce is great against zone coverage. He reads it. Toys with defenders. Shuttles and sits to make easy catches.
A safety always has to play deep middle against Kansas City. It’s the Hill effect. The linebacker plays the flat. Kelce reads and reacts from there.
With this size, he’s almost impossible to jam at the line of scrimmage. Stutter releases get him off the line cleanly. Linebackers can’t run with him. Cornerbacks are easily boxed out by him. Double doubles on the football field.
In trips formations, he can line up as the inside receiver, and take advantage of the space his teammates create for him.
As the sole receiver on one side of the formation, he loves vertical routes to create explosive plays. In these situations, holding and defensive pass interference penalties can end up being the the best outcome.
What he doesn’t do is block. This is Kelce blocking. It’s flat hands on the chest. It’s the last song at the end of the night. It’s an alcoholic backwoods lean to shelter. Eyes closed, wishing for the next play, when he can do cool things like catch the football.
My fighter is Kittle. He isn’t the eclectic pass catcher. He isn’t the primary first down creator for the 49ers’ offense. But he does it all. Unlike Kelce, he actually blocks, and he does more than block, he beats defenders into a puddle of goop, microwaved flesh becomes melted skin, bits of teeth and hair float around in it, some sort of gothic queso.
5. CLASH OF STYLES
These two offenses play entirely different games. The 49ers are about their brain twisting rush attack, play action, manufacturing easy throws, and limiting their quarterback as much as possible. This postseason they ran the ball 89 times for 471 yards, 5.29 yards a carry, and have 6 touchdowns and 25 first downs. Garoppolo has attempted 27 total passes. 27. He’s completed 17 of them and picked up 12 first downs. Part of this is the result of having a lead on 104 of their 145 offensive plays, but this season the 49ers have a run pass ratio of 498 (2nd) to 478 (29th).
The Chiefs are about their passing game. Just like it should be. The perfect offense for the Madden age and the elongating life span rule changes. They were second in pass offense DVOA at 43.7%, despite Matt Moore, despite ankle pain, despite touchdown rate regression. This postseason Patrick Mahomes has completed 46 of his 70 attempts for 615 yards, 8 touchdowns, 0 turnovers, taken 2 sacks that led to a total loss of 2 yards, and is averaging 8.8 yards an attempt. He’s the ring leader of a ruthless circus composed of Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins, Hill, and Kelce. The run game is just a way to attack light boxes. A knuckle curve. 48 attempts. 230 yards. That’s it.
The 49ers have the better overall team. Their pass rush is better. Their linebackers are better. Their pass defense is better. Their rushing attack is better. Their offensive line is better. What they don’t have is a passing attack in the same stratosphere as Kansas City’s. Patrick Mahomes is throwing the ball like he did last season, when they were an all time great offense. The Chiefs’ passing attack with Mahomes is averaging 3.51 more yards per play than the 49ers’ run game this postseason and 3.7 more this regular season. Passing the ball is more efficient then running the ball. Because of this, by default, the 49ers will be at a disadvantage despite their overall team talent advantage.
6. HUMMINGBIRDS AND OCOTILLO EVOLVED TOGETHER
We can enjoy things more, the more we know about them. Simply to be able to call the elements of beauty by their right names helps us to relive them. Intellectually to grasp an object is to possess it more securely. We take more pleasure in the stars if we know their names. We listen better to birds if we can distinguish them. We hear a symphony with deeper absorption if we know something of its harmonies.