Just One Thing – Analyzing Super Bowl LIV

Sunday, December 29 in Kansas City, Missouri was cloudy, quite chilly, and memorably beautiful.  It was Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season – the final regular weekend of football’s one hundredth season.

Earlier in the week, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid had decided to play his regulars and try to win the game.  There were reasons to consider the other path – resting his regulars before the playoffs began.  The Chiefs had long since locked up their division and were comfortably positioned to host a playoff game on WildCard Weekend.  They did have a chance to claim the second seed and a first round bye – but for that to happen the almost unthinkable would have to occur.  The woeful Miami Dolphins would have to go into Foxboro at the end of December and beat the defending champion Patriots.

An improbable enough scenario that Reid could be forgiven if he chose the path of safety.  As the fourth quarters of both games played out on that memorable Sunday afternoon, and it began to be apparent that both parts of this improbable scenario were playing out, an almost surreal euphoria settled over the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.  A promising postseason had suddenly become much more promising.

Getting a first round bye is a huge factor in gaining the Super Bowl.  It is inexpressibly sweeter when that bye is won at the expense of a bitter rival – the much-detested New England Patriots.  The final day of the recently concluded regular season was one of the sweetest days to be a Chiefs fan in about a half century.

Two Sunday’s later, all of the hope and euphoria lie crumbled on the Arrowhead Stadium floor.

Thanks to Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore the night before, the road to the Super Bowl now led through Kansas City – a fact that made the transpirings that Sunday afternoon all the more bitter.

Playing as though they had forgotten every fundamental of football, the Chiefs were quickly buried in an avalanche of mistakes.  Dropped passes, blown coverages, blocked punts, muffed punts, pre-snap penalties – the Chiefs committed all of the above.  The beneficiaries of all this ineptitude were the visiting Houston Texans, who gratefully lapped up every gift they were presented.

Five minutes into the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that increased the Texans’ lead to 24-0.  The silence in the stands was palpable.  In the long history of playoff disappointments endured by the Kansas City fandom, this one just might have been the most heart breaking.  So good for so much of the season, and now with the road to the Super Bowl paved before them, and to blow it all in the very first quarter – it was a bitter result indeed.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mecole Hardman returned the kick 58 yards to the Texan 42.  And that was all it took.

Just like that, the Kansas City Chiefs remembered that they were not the mistake-prone, bumbling offense that they had shown themselves to be for the first 20 minutes of this contest.  They remembered that they were one of football’s most potent offenses.  Two plays later, they were in the end zone (Damien Williams taking the touchdown pass off his hip), and the reverse route was on.

Beginning with that touchdown, the Chiefs would go on to score on eight straight possessions – earning touchdowns on the first seven of those possessions.  Down at one point 24-0, Kansas City would advance to the Championship Game on the strength of a 51-31 thrashing of the Texans.

For twenty minutes, Houston had played as nearly perfect a game as they could have hoped for.  Had they held onto that lead, they would then have inherited home field for the Championship Round.  But they made one mistake on special teams and let the genie out of the bottle.

But the Kansas City story was just beginning to be written.

The next week they again overcame a deficit (this time just 10 points) on their way to the 35-24 conquest of Tennessee that advanced them to the Super Bowl for the first time in a half century.

Once there, though, they found their mercurial offense virtually silenced – in particular, by the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers.  Over the 60 brutal minutes of Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes spent most of the evening running for his life. 

They played San Francisco to a 10-all tie through the first thirty minutes, but as the third quarter dissolved into the fourth quarter the relentless pressure began to get to Mahomes.  In the late third quarter and into the early fourth – even when he did have time to throw – Patrick’s accuracy began to suffer.

With 5:36 left in the third quarter, trailing 13-10 and facing a third-and-12, Mahomes couldn’t get enough loft on his throw over the deep middle, tossing the ball right into the waiting arms of San Fran’s Fred Warner.

San Francisco turned that interception into the touchdown that put them ahead 20-10.

With 1:10 left in the third, Sammy Watkins was breaking into an open window in the middle of the 49er zone, but Patrick skipped the throw in.

Early in the fourth quarter – still trailing by 10 – Mahomes drove KC to a third-and-six at the San Fran 23 yard line.  With still 12:05 left in the game, this drive represented their best chance (and maybe last best chance) to claw themselves back into the game.

Running out of the slot to the left, Tyreek Hill darted quickly into the open middle against nickel-corner K’Waun Williams.  With a good throw, it’s first-and-ten on the 15.  But, playing very fast at this point, Mahomes slung the ball well behind Hill.  Tyreek reached back to try to make a play on it, but only succeeded in deflecting the pass into the air, where Tarvarius Moore made the interception.

The next time the Chiefs got the ball, there were fewer than nine minutes left in the game.  With a first-and-ten on their own 29, Mahomes completed this pass to Hill, but the gain could have been much more than the 9 yards they got.  With room in front of Tyreek, Patrick threw the ball short – almost into the dirt in front of Hill’s feet, with Tyreek making an excellent diving catch.

A run from Williams picked up the first, and initiated the most telling sequence of Super Bowl LIV.

On first down, a false start from Laurent Duvernay-Tardif set KC back five yards to the KC 35.  Now with a first-and-fifteen, Hill settled into an opening in the zone in front of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  Charging hard, Moseley arrived at the same time as the football, successfully breaking up the pass.

Now it was second-and-fifteen.  Hill, lining up on the right side, threatened the 49er zone with a strong vertical stem, pushing Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt deeper and deeper.  When Tyreek put his foot in the turf and turned looking for the ball, he was on the San Fran 43-yard line with no defender within six yards of him.  Calling the game on FOX, Troy Aikman offered that this should have been Patrick’s easiest completion of the evening.  Instead, Mahomes (throwing with Solomon Thomas’ hand in his face) delivered well short again.  Hill came back for the pass and made a strong enough play on it that he was originally credited with a 16-yard reception that was easily overturned on review.

So, here was the Kansas City season.  Fourth quarter.  Just 7:13 left.  Trailing by ten points.  Facing a third-and-fifteen from deep in their own territory against the NFL’s third-most feared pass rush (rated on percentage of sacks).

To this point in the biggest game of his young career, the electric Pat Mahomes was clearly struggling.  He had completed just 4 of his last 11, and for the game to that point he was 19 of 32 (just 59.38%) for 181 yards (averaging just 5.66 yards per pass attempt, and just 9.53 per completion).  Only 8 of his 19 completions had earned first downs, and he had thrown no touchdown passes to offset his two interceptions.  His passer rating to that point of the game was a humbling 49.09 to go along with 3 sacks San Francisco had already rung up against him.

Things could scarcely have looked much worse at this point.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On third-and-fifteen, Mahomes lifted his eyes to find Hill all alone deep up the left sideline.  In spite of pressure from lineman DeForest Buckner (who was hitting Patrick as he was releasing the ball), Mahomes arched a strike into Hill’s waiting arms for a game-changing 44-yard gain.

And just like that, the Chiefs remembered again that they were one of football’s most prolific offenses.  Beginning with that completion, Patrick would complete 7 of his next 9 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Much like in the Houston game, KC went on to score touchdowns on their next three drives, flipping a 10-point deficit into an 11-point win, 31-20 (gamebook) (summary).

As with Houston, the San Francisco defense had played an exceptional game for 53 minutes.  But against Kansas City (who with the victory became the first team ever to come from 10 or more points behind to win three straight playoff games) any mistake could prove fatal.

In the almost three weeks since the official end of the season, this has been the lingering memory of this season’s playoffs.  In three post-season contests the Chiefs faced three quality defenses that each presented solid game plans that – for a time – were very well executed.  In all three games, at some point, the Kansas City juggernaut was on its heels and very vulnerable.

But if you were going to beat Kansas City this post-season, you needed to play mistake-free from opening kickoff to final gun.  It was a no-room-for-error tightrope that all these teams had to walk. At any point in the proceedings just one crucial play can flip the momentum.

And once the scoring starts, the Chiefs don’t need a lot of time to do big damage.  Against Houston, four of the seven touchdown drives took 2:03 of clock time or less.  Their three fourth-quarter touchdowns against San Francisco took 2:40, 2:26 and 0:13.

Super Bowl LIV Notebook:

Interceptions have always been something of a rarity in the Super Bowl – to a, perhaps, surprising degree.  When Jimmy Garoppolo’s desperation fourth quarter pass was intercepted, it marked the first time in Super Bowl history that both quarterbacks threw at least two interceptions.

For Patrick Mahomes, his 4.8% interception rate (2 interceptions in 42 tosses) was the highest for a winning quarterback in a Super Bowl since Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL (40) 21-10 over Seattle in spite of 2 interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger in just 21 passes (a 9.5% rate).

Garoppolo’s 2 interceptions came in 31 passes – a 6.5% rate. That is the highest rate for any Super Bowl quarterback since Rex Grossman had 7.1% of his passes intercepted in Super Bowl XLI – Chicago’s 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.  Rex threw 28 passes that day – 2 of them to Colts.

Garoppolo’s 219 passing yards were also the fewest by a Super Bowl losing quarterback since Grossman’s 165 yards against Indy.

The Chiefs finished with a surprising 129 rushing yards – a good chunk of those yards coming on Damien Williams’ clinching 38-yard touchdown burst.  As San Francisco ran for 141 yards, that made this the first Super Bowl since the before-referenced Pittsburgh-Seattle Super Bowl (number 40) in which both teams ran for at least 120 yards.  The Steelers ran for 181 that day, while the Seahawks pounded away for 137.

That run, by the way, pushed Williams to 104 for the game.  He becomes the first running back from a winning Super Bowl team to exceed 100 rushing yards since Dominic Rhodes piled up 113 rushing yards for the Colts against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI (41).

49er wide receiver Kendrick Bourne caught 2 passes on the evening for just 42 yards.  Those yards, though, made him San Francisco’s leading receiver in yardage for the game. You would have to go all the way back to Super Bowl XXXV (35) – Baltimore’s 34-7 demolition of the New York Giants – to find the last time that the losing Super Bowl team didn’t manage one receiver with at least 60 yards.  Ike Hilliard led the battered Giant receiving corps that day with 30 yards on 3 catches.

The Undercard

So much of the focus of Super Bowl LIV went to the matchup of the irresistible force (the KC offense) vs the immovable object (the SF defense), that the matchup between the 49er offense (second highest in scoring and fourth in yards) against the much-improved Chief defense became mostly overlooked.

Looking ahead, though, the significance of the 49er appearance in Super Bowl LIV cannot be overstated.  For the last couple of seasons, we have noted the rise of the Neanderthal offense in the NFL – a Neanderthal offense is one that seeks to run the ball more than it passes.  Unimaginable a few seasons ago, there are now several teams who identify as primarily running teams.  And now one of them – San Francisco – has advanced as far as the Super Bowl.

In their games leading up to the Super Bowl. The 49ers were at their Neanderthal best.  During the regular season, their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 yards per game were both the second best totals in the NFL.  They ran the ball 47 times in the Divisional Round against Minnesota, rolling up 186 yards.  Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw only 19 passes in that game.

Against the Packers in the Championship Game, they rolled up 285 rushing yards on 42 carries, while asking Garoppolo to throw just 8 times.

While logic would suggest that a similar approach – if effective – would go a long way towards keeping the KC offense on the sideline, apparently a run-heavy approach was never in the game plan.

On first down, of course, San Francisco employed a very Neanderthal approach.  The 49ers ran the ball 16 times on first down – 14 of those on first-and-ten.  This they did to excellent effect, rolling up 119 yards on those carries (8.5 yards per).

Off of that first-down running game, Garoppolo ran a devastatingly effective passing attack.  Throwing 12 times on first-and-ten, Jimmy completed 10 of those passes (83.33%) for 96 yards and a touchdown – a 127.78 rating.  As you might expect, the play-action pass was a featured part of the passing attack.  For the game, Jimmy was 12 for 15 (80.00%) on play-action for 123 yards (8.20 per attempt).  His lone touchdown pass came off of play-action, giving him a 123.06 rating for the game.

When he ran play-action on first-and-ten, he was 7-for-7 for 73 yards.  But all that changed on second down.

Against the Packers, San Fran ran the ball 12 times on second down for 101 yards (8.4 per), scoring 3 of their 4 rushing touchdowns on that down.  Against KC, they barely made the attempt.

On 16 second down plays, the 49ers ran just 4 times (for 12 yards).  They asked Jimmy to throw the ball 12 times on that down, with minimal results (6 completions for 66 yards).  Both of Garoppolo’s interceptions fell on second down – leaving him a rating of 27.08 on that down.

For all of that, though, Kansas City didn’t force many third-and-long situations.  San Francisco faced third down only 8 times all evening (converting 3)

Timely Defense

The game was, in fact, rather characteristic of how the Kansas City defense played down the stretch and into the playoffs.  They forced only one three-and-out, and throughout the contest they always seemed on the verge of yielding points.  San Francisco managed at least one first down in each of their first 7 possessions.  Two of those possessions consumed more than five minutes of clock time, and four of the seven ended in Chief territory – yielding two touchdowns, two field goals, one punt, one interception and a possession that ended with the end of the first half.

In many ways, the San Francisco offense clicked along according to plan – with one glaring exception.  San Fran had three consecutive possessions in the second half during which they held a lead.  They got the ball with 5:23 left in the third holding a 13-10 lead; their next possession came with 11:57 left in the fourth with a 20-10 lead; and shortly thereafter, still leading 20-17 with 6:13 left in the game they had another possession.

These possessions should have constituted the Neanderthal moment.  This is the game situation you strive for if you are that running team.  This was the time that San Fran needed to impose its will and take firm control of the game.  In those three drives, the 49ers ran 14 plays – 6 of them running plays that earned just 18 yards.  As they had done against Tennessee, the gritty Kansas City defense just did not allow the running game to take over.  They were disciplined in forcing Garoppolo to win the game with his arm.

And that would prove to be challenge enough.

All About the Pressure

As surprising as San Francisco’s decision to de-emphasize its running game was, Kansas City’s defensive response was equally puzzling.  Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs were a moderate blitzing team, adding extra rushers about 30% of the time.  Against a similar offense in Tennessee in the Championship Game, KC blitzed on just 9 of 34 passing attempts.

But against San Francisco they decided the answer would be the blitz.  And so they came.  They blitzed on San Fran’s first two passing plays (giving completions on both plays), and 10 times on the 49ers first 13 passes – including the last six in a row.

For the game, the Chiefs ended up blitzing 20 of Jimmy’s 33 drop backs (a surprising 60.6%).  And for 3 quarters the results couldn’t have been worse.

The 49ers’ offense is especially challenging to blitz.  The strength of their play-action attack was very effective in removing the pressure of the added rushers.  Typically, the line would react as though running a stretch play, with Garoppolo faking the hand-off and then rolling in the opposite direction of his line and – almost always – away from any trouble.  The first 14 times that the Chiefs blitzed, Garoppolo completed 12 of 14 for 131 yards and his touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk.

And then, as Kansas City began mounting its comeback, San Francisco stopped doing those things.  They still responded to the KC blitz with play-action, but it was a less-convincing “hint” of play-action with the line in pass blocking mode.  As the fourth quarter arrived, Jimmy stopped rolling out of the pocket and waited there for the pressure to arrive.  All of a sudden, instead of dictating to the Kansas City blitz, the 49ers stood still and let the KC defense dictate to them with a collection of delayed blitzes and overload blitzes that had Garoppolo throwing under heavy pressure for most of the last quarter.

After completing his first pass of the fourth quarter, Garoppolo’s numbers for the game read 18 for 21 (85.71%) for 195 yards (an average of 9.29 per attempted pass) with 1 touchdown and 1 interception – a rating of 101.39.  From that point on, Jimmy was only 2 for 10 for 24 yards and another interception – a 0.00 rating only because the rating system doesn’t allow for negative ratings.

When given a relatively clean pocket, Jimmy was 17 for 22 for 186 yards.  Under significant pressure – which didn’t happen on any consistent basis until that fourth quarter – Garoppolo was just 3 for 9 for 33 yards, an interception and a sack.  The last 6 times that KC blitzed, Garoppolo was 0-for-5 with the sack by Frank Clark on fourth-and-ten that pretty much closed things out.

Here again the KC defense continued their meme of rising to the occasion as they continued to play their best at the game’s most crucial moments.  But the deeper story is more complex than that.  Throughout the game, San Francisco ran plays and did things that worked.  And then they stopped doing them.

Receiver Deebo Samuel carried the ball on three rushing plays, gaining 32, 7, and 14 yards on those carries.  The last of those came on the third play of their first drive of the second half.  San Francisco never went back to it again.

Both coaching staffs have done an admirable job all season.  Under the pressure of the Super Bowl, though, I think out-thinking yourself becomes a very real danger.  San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan may have done that.

Andy Reid, I think, was guilty of that as well.

Unexpected is Not Always Best

After the 49ers toppled the Packers to earn the right to play in Super Bowl LIV, I made this observation about their defense:

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.  (Here is the full post.)

Noting that the 49er defensive line was the only part of the San Francisco defense that could cause real havoc with the Chief offense, I expected Reid and the offense to do some of those things against San Fran.  At the very least, I expected they would provide some help for their tackles (an occasional tight end, perhaps a chip from a running back).

But largely none of that happened.  The Chiefs did throw a couple of quick passes, but never really exploited the short openings in the zone.  Extra protection for Mahomes almost never happened.  Kansas City did run the ball with more than expected frequency and with good commitment, but not often enough to impact the pass rush.  And most surprisingly, they left their offensive tackles on an island against the San Francisco ends virtually the entire game – even though it was obvious before their first quarter was concluded that these were mismatches.

If asked to name the most dominant player of Super Bowl LIV, I would nominate San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa.  But he should have been.  The opposing coach practically invited him to be.

Against the Packers two weeks before, Bosa and fellow disruptive end Arik Armstead were frequently left alone against Packer tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.  But Bakhtiari and Bulaga are two of the top tackles in football, and they gave as good as they got against the 49er ends.

Kansas City’s tackle tandem of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz don’t rank with the pair in Green Bay.  They are a rather middling pair of tackles.  But Andy Reid’s game plan treated them as though they were as elite as the ends he would be asking them to block.  Even after it became apparent that they were in over their heads, Reid made no move to alleviate the situation.

Schwartz fared a bit better against Armstead – who sometimes moved inside to rush where the Chiefs could get a double-team on him.  But left tackle Fisher spent the game at Bosa’s mercy.  And Nicky almost took Kansas City’s crown away from them.

Coming mostly from Bosa, 25 of Mahomes’ 50 dropbacks came under heavy pressure.  I define this as pressure that either forces the quarterback to run for his life, or that has him being hit as he throws the ball (or within a step of being hit), or pressure that forces the quarterback to make another decision with the football (like throwing it away).  Patrick was just 7 of 17 with an interception and a 61.40 passer rating under this kind of pressure – to go with 4 sacks and 4 scrambles.  It was this consistent heat that held the explosive Kansas City offense to just 10 points up until the halfway point of the season’s last quarter.

Even after the Chiefs began their comeback, the pressure continued.  Five of Patrick’s last 10 passes – including the 44-yarder to Hill and the go ahead toss to Williams – came under this level of intense pressure.  At the end of the day, it came down to Mahomes making important throws under great duress.  That he was able to deliver a Super Bowl victory in a game where his line never, ever gained control of the line of scrimmage is just another indicator of how special Patrick is.

And how consistently exploitable the 49ers were in the secondary.  As I had previously noted, the 49er defense is elite at the defensive line level, but notably less spectacular after that.  If there was one player whose mistakes might be most responsible for San Francisco’s defeat, that player might be cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley’s Miscues

San Francisco’s only poor moment in the Divisional win over Minnesota was the 41-yard touchdown pass thrown from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs – a deep pass poorly played by then-starting cornerback K’Waun Williams.  That play led to Williams being shifted to nickel corner and prompted San Francisco to elevate Moseley’s to the right corner spot opposite Richard Sherman.

On Super Bowl Sunday, that decision came back to haunt them.

Throughout, Emmanuel was very solid in man coverage.  The problem, though, is that San Francisco is a predominate zone defense – they were in zone 54.8% of the time in Super Bowl LIV – and in zone, Moseley fights an almost irresistible urge to wander – a tendency that expressed itself in a few of the game’s most critical moments.

With 14:08 left in the first half, the Chiefs – already leading 7-3 – had a first-and-ten on their own 44 after an interception.  Tyreek Hill lined up opposite Moseley and started up-field on what seemed to be a vertical route.  But after about 15 yards, Tyreek began to bend his route toward the middle, and Emmanuel drifted with him.  That allowed Sammy Watkins to settle into the vacated area, where he pulled down a 28-yard pass.  That play set KC up inside the 49er 30-yard line, and led to the field goal that accounted for their last scoring of the first half.

It was also Kansas City’s only play of 20 or more yards in the entire first half – an erratic effort that saw them head into the locker room only 1-for-6 on third down, and having gained only 155 total yards.

San Fran dodged one on the first play of the fourth quarter.  It was Watkins this time who started wide but curled toward the middle of the field – taking Moseley with him.  This left Hill all alone up the sideline against safety Jimmie Ward (who thought he only had the short zone to that side).  It was the pass rush – this time from Dee Ford – that saved the day, not allowing Mahomes enough time to wait for Hill to clear and ultimately forcing an errant throw.

They weren’t so lucky about eight minutes later.  On third-and-fifteen, and the season trickling through Kansas City’s fingers, Moseley once again abandoned his deep responsibilities to follow Watkins over the middle – making possible the momentum-changing 44-yard toss to Hill, who had the entire sideline opened to him.

For the game, when throwing to his left (Moseley’s side) Mahomes was 9 for 12 (75%) for 133 yards (11.08 yards per attempt and 14.78 per completion) – a 110.76 passer rating.  It will be something for the 49ers to chew on over the offseason.

A Tale of Two Tight Ends

One of the intriguing pregame storylines were the two tight ends, each of whom led his respective team in both receptions and receiving yards. 

In his third season out of Iowa, San Francisco’s George Kittle earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth on the strength of an 85-catch, 1053-yard season – his second consecutive year with over 80 catches and more than one thousand yards.

With the emphasis on the run in the 49ers’ first two playoff games, George had fewer opportunities than usual, catching 3 passes against the Vikings for 16 yards.  He had just one catch against Green Bay for 19 yards.

On the other side of the field was Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.  In his seventh season out of Cincinnati, Kelce was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.  He followed up his 103 catches in 2018 with 97 more during the regular season, and completed his fourth consecutive thousand yard season – with his 1229 yards in 2019 ranking him fourth among all receivers in football.

Travis was one of the heroes of the comeback against Houston.  He caught 10 passes for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game.  He was held to 3 catches for 30 yards against Tennessee.

Interestingly, in that game, Travis saw almost exclusive coverage from defensive backs, as the Titans decided to defend more against his speed than his size.

This coverage concept followed both tight ends into their Super Bowl showdown.  Kittle saw a lot of safety Daniel Sorensen – and drew more frequent double coverage than Hill.  As for Kelce, almost every time he lined up as the lone receiver to either side he drew the attention of the cornerback on that side.  When he lined up to the offensive right side (Richard Sherman’s side), he would be subjected to a very physical press coverage.  Even if San Francisco would resort to zone coverage afterward, Sherman would still jam him at the line to disrupt his route.

This additional attention was very effective for both defenses, as neither end was particularly prominent in the passing game.  Kelce finished with 6 catches for 43 yards, and Kittle caught 4 for 36 yards.  During the regular season, Kittle had caught 27 passes on third down – 18 for first downs.  In the Super Bowl, George had no third down catches, and was targeted just once on that down.  Kelce didn’t even have a third down pass thrown his way.

The difference, though, was the offenses around them.  The extra coverage on Kittle didn’t seem to compromise Kansas City’s overall pass defense.  On the other hand, while the 49ers were extra-concerned with Kelce, Tyreek Hill was targeted 16 times, catching 9 of them for 105 yards.

On the Toughness of the Chiefs

After they pushed their way past Tennessee, I made note of the unexpected toughness of the flashy Kansas City offense.  That toughness was again on display in Super Bowl LIV.  We saw it from Mahomes, who took several big hits and bounced back up every time.

On the last Sunday of the NFL’s one-hundredth season, that toughness found its best expression in the Kansas City running game and emerging running back Damien Williams.

In his second season in Kansas City after four uninspiring seasons in Miami, Williams began the season as the “other” back behind LeSean McCoy.  After rushing for just 256 yards in all of 2018, Damien began 2019 in quiet fashion.  Six games into the season, Williams had just 48 carries for 100 yards even – 2.1 yards per rush.  Then, in a Week 7 win against Minnesota, Damien scorched the Viking defense for 125 yards on just 12 carries.

From that point forward – with the exception of three late season games missed with an injury – Williams began to surpass McCoy on the depth chart.  LeSean wasn’t even listed as active for the Super Bowl.

Williams averaged 6.3 yards a carry over his last 5 regular season games, and ended the season just ahead of McCoy, 498 yards to 465.

During Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City ran the ball 10 times with less than four yards to gain for a first down – once on first-and-one; five times on second-and-one, once on third-and-two, once on third-and-one, and twice on fourth-and-one.  They converted 9 of the 10, with Williams going 7-for-7 in those chances.

One of the memorable plays from the game was the colorful spin-o-rama play.  This was one of the fourth-and-one plays called for with 1:57 left in the first quarter.

The Chiefs lined up with two wide receivers (Watkins and Demarcus Robinson) joining Williams in the backfield.  Just before the snap, all four members of the offensive backfield executed a 360-degree turn.  It was a flashy move that served a sneaky purpose as it now aligned Williams directly behind the center, where he took a direct snap.

Damien would pick up the first down, but it wouldn’t be easy.  While he was still a yard in the backfield, Sheldon Day overpowered Fisher, grabbing Damien around his knees. As Day’s hands slid down to Williams’ ankles, it seemed certain that Damien would go down – possibly before gaining the first down.

But somehow he pulled his feet out of the snare, and, executing a second spin move on the same play, he twirled out of the grasp of Emmanuel Moseley. Then – with the goal line in sight – Damien lowered his shoulder and plowed through Jaquiski Tartt’s attempted tackle.  He was ultimately pulled down inches short of the goal line, having made the first down with plenty to spare.

Perhaps no single play encapsulates the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs better.  Underneath the eye-candy – unpinning the flash-and-dash – was an unexpected core toughness.  The physical toughness to convert short-yardage runs against an elite defensive line, combined with the mental and emotional toughness to overcome large deficits in three straight playoff games to bring home a championship.

And as for Williams, the man who scored the first touchdown in their comeback win against Houston ended up scoring the last two touchdowns of the season.  He heads into the offseason as, possibly, the least celebrated 100-yard rusher (he finished with 104) in Super Bowl history.

For Kansas City it may work out better that way.  Better, perhaps, that you remember the glitter and pay less attention to the grit.

America’s Neanderthal Moment

Oh, I don’t know.  Let’s begin with first down.

Two Sundays ago, the San Francisco 49ers ran 24 plays on first down.  San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw on only two of them.  Running 22 times on first down, the 9ers bludgeoned Green Bay for 134 yards – 6.1 yards a carry.  On a down where Green Bay knew they were going to run.

That, by the way, was just the first down yardage.  Across all of the NFL the average team ran for 112.9 yards per game.  The Packers ranked twenty-third in the league, surrendering 120.1 ground yards – per game.  In this game, San Francisco surpassed both of those totals on first down alone – on their way to a remarkable 285 rushing yards as San Francisco punched their ticket to Super Bowl LIV with a convincing 37-20 conquest of Green Bay (gamebook) (summary).

All of the running numbers for San Francisco were through the proverbial roof.  They ran 18 times when the Packers had 8 defenders “in the box.” They gained 120 yards on those carries (6.7 per) scoring a touchdown – they ran for four touchdowns that day.

Of the impressive statistics, this is the one that most stands out to me:

With 4:56 still left in the third quarter, San Fran faced a second-and-ten on the Green Bay 22-yard line.  Running back Raheem Mostert burst around left end nearly untouched for the touchdown that put the 49ers ahead 34-7, put their touchdown total to four for the game, and their yardage total to 304.

It was just their 36th offensive snap of the game.  Through the first three quarters, they had averaged 8.4 yards per play and a touchdown every 9 plays.  Of the 36 plays, this was the 29th run, bringing their rush yardage up to 264 – again through three quarters – an average of 9.1 yards per rush.

Back in the olden days of college football, you would see a powerhouse team – like, say, Oklahoma – line up against a lesser opponent (and the talent gap in college can sometimes be huge).  Since running the ball was king in college back in those days, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon to see the Oklahoma’s of the world rack up rushing totals of 200 – 300 yards on their overmatched opponents.

Two Sunday’s ago, San Francisco put an Oklahoma on Green Bay.

The Neanderthal Moment?

Toward the end of last season, I began documenting the rise of what I call Neanderthal football.  It was a handful of teams – led by Baltimore – that started returning to football’s roots.  These were teams that embraced the physicality of the running game.  I like the evocative term “Neanderthal” because it conveys the sense of the primordial – hearkening back to the days when the forward pass was considered sissified – almost an affront to the essential manhood necessary to compete in this arena.

The term also evokes a mindset.  If the new and exceedingly intricate passing games are like a room full of complex, high-tech electronic equipment, the Neanderthal is the caveman in the room with the club.  Paraphrasing Raven’s coach John Harbaugh after his team had battered New England, they decided to punch them in the mouth – seeing as no one had ever tried that.

Last year, two of the Neanderthal teams (Seattle and Baltimore) qualified for the playoffs.  This year’s tournament made room for two more (Tennessee and San Francisco – in addition to the Ravens and the Seahawks).  Two of the four made it to the Conference championship game, and now one – the 49ers – who averaged 144.1 yards per game on the ground, running 498 times during the regular season – will be representing not just the NFC, but a kind of new/old concept of football in the Super Bowl.  Both the attempts and the yardage totals were the second highest in football this season (behind only Baltimore).  Tomorrow all of America – casual fans included – will have their Neanderthal moment.

I, for one, applaud the rise of the Neanderthal.  This is not because I want to see a complete return to the olden days.  Rather, I welcome the stylistic diversity that Neanderthalism introduces into the sport.  Look at the fascinating contrast Super Bowl LIV will present between the Neanderthal 49ers and the high-flying pass-first offense of the Kansas City Chiefs engineered by one of the most electric young passers in the game today – Patrick Mahomes.

Clarification of Terms

In grouping these teams (Seattle, Baltimore, Tennessee and San Francisco) in the Neanderthal family, I am not claiming that their offenses are at all the same.  Only that they share a common emphasis on running the football.  All of the members of this phylum go about this process with their own unique style.  Seattle’s emphasis on the run has – as much as anything else – the goal of setting up the devastating play-action passing game of Russell Wilson.  Tennessee is, perhaps, the most old school of the teams.  Their offense revolves around pounding the opposing defense with enormous tailback Derrick Henry.  Baltimore’s running attack is speed-based.  Founded on the other-worldy running skills of its quarterback, Lamar Jackson, this is a running attack that defenses fear from the moment they see Baltimore pop up on the schedule.

Of all the Neanderthals, San Francisco is the most high tech and the cleverest.  More than the other Neanderthals, San Francisco optimizes all of its assets and schemes its way to big plays.  In particular, against Green Bay, they used misdirection in the running game to influence the defense in the same way that play-action opens up the passing game.  This was never more evident than in the two runs by wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

There is 7:18 left in the third quarter, the 49ers on their own 33 with a first-and-ten.  They are ahead 27-7 at this point.  Garoppolo extended the ball toward Mostert, and the entire defense reacted to presumed up-the-middle run.  But Jimmy play-faked the run just as he would on a play-action pass and tossed the ball instead to Samuel who was circling behind the play.  Deebo carried the ball around the left end that had been left open when Za’Darius Smith bit on the run fake.  That play gained 11 yards.

Two plays later and San Fran is on their own 46 with a second-and-eight.  It’s the exact same play, except this time Samuel is running left-to-right.  The edge was secured when wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders sealed Preston Smith inside, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk swept around the end, locked up with cornerback Tramon Williams and rode him off the field of play.  That run was good for 32 more yards.

Sanders, by the way, made no catches during the game (Garoppolo only threw the ball eight times) but made a couple of important blocks, including a bone-rattling hit on safety Darnell Savage during the first quarter.

This drive was pretty important as Green Bay had just scored.  The 49ers, now at the Packer 22, were in position to answer.  Two plays later Mostert was sweeping to the left.  When he was almost to the corner, he made the subtlest of moves – nothing more than one step really – indicating he was cutting the run back to the inside.  It was enough to pull safety Will Redman into Juszczyk’s path.  Immediately, Raheem bent the run back around the now-vacated corner and sprinted nearly untouched for the answering score.

Mostert, by the way, has sprinter speed and has blossomed this season, emerging from nowhere to become San Francisco’s leading rusher.  Through the season’s first eleven games, Raheem was lightly used.  In spite of the fact that he averaged 5.4 yards per carry, he averaged only 6.6 carries and 35.7 yards per game.  Beginning with the Baltimore game in Week 13, Mostert averaged 12.8 carries and 75.8 yards per game – averaging 5.9 yards per carry.  In this game he was the break-away back in the middle of all of the 49er ground success.  Raheem finished the contest with 29 carries for 220 yards and all 4 touchdowns.  He averaged 21.3 yards on his touchdown runs.

While the 49ers ran at will in every direction, given the difficulties that Tennessee had in getting around the corner on the Chiefs, it is worth noting that the edges were available to San Francisco all evening.  They ran 10 times around left end for 67 yards, 4 first downs, and 2 touchdowns.  They went around right end 7 times for 67 more yards.  Many times the 49ers took advantage of Za’Darius Smith.  One of the premier pass rushers in the league, Za’Darius found himself frequently beset by two of the more unique pieces in the 49ers’ toolkit – George Kittle, arguably the best run-blocking tight end in football, and Juszczyk, a rarely seen fullback.  In the era of the three-wide-receiver offense, the fullback has become almost a relic of football’s ancient past.  But the fullback in San Francisco, Kyle Juszczyk, was voted to the Pro Bowl in spite of the fact that he carried the ball only three times all year (for 7 yards) and caught just 20 passes.  He scored one touchdown this season.

But, he was on the field for 73% of the 49er offensive plays two Sunday’s ago, and was almost always at the point of attack for most of the 285 rushing yards that San Francisco racked up that evening.

The primary takeaway in all of this is that the Green Bay defense was unable to handle San Francisco in any way, shape or form.  Regardless of anything else, the Packers were probably going to lose this game.  They were just too dominated on the defensive side of the ball.

Not All Roses for San Fran

I say this because, from a 27-0 halftime deficit, the Packer offense made a game of things in the second half.  From the third quarter on, Green Bay roiled up 265 yards and 15 first downs.  Up until he threw a desperation pass for an interception with two minutes left in the game, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers had completed 21 of his prior 24 passes (87.5%) for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns – a 136.98 passer rating.  Green Bay scored three second half touchdowns.

Now, if you are a Pollyanna 49er fan, you have probably shrugged that off.  We were ahead by almost four touchdowns, the boys were just going through the motions, waiting for the clock to tick down.  It’s a comforting thought, but one not borne out by the game I saw.  Kyle Shanahan is far too good a coach to take anything for granted, and the 49er defense played their starters right up to the final play.

Moreover, a lot of the plays Green Bay was having success with in the second half were successful concepts in the first half as well.  But in a nightmarish first thirty minutes, the Packers couldn’t get out of their own way.

As I look over this game, I keep going back to the Packer’s fourth series, which began with 9:12 left in the second quarter.  In spite of the fact that they already trailed 17-0, Green Bay was bringing its running game to bear against San Francisco.

Rodgers caught San Fran in a blitz on first down and fired a 23-yard completion to Jake Kumerow.  Thereafter Aaron Jones ran the ball on four consecutive plays – stretch plays (mostly) where his offensive line provided him with cutback lanes that were comparable in width to those Mostert enjoyed for the other side.  On the first of those plays, tackle Brian Bulaga rode defensive end Solomon Thomas all the way across the formation from right-to-left leaving a gaping space to the right side.  That run gained 11 yards.  Then the Pack went to the left side as left tackle David Bakhtiari sealed Anthony Zettel to the inside while tight end Robert Tonyan pushed linebacker Kwon Alexander outside.  That run netted 7 more yards.

The next two runs came back to the right side.  Bulaga and another tight end, Marcedes Lewis drove end Nick Bosa inside while wide receiver Allen Lazard provided the cutback lane by taking Williams out of the play.  That run added 4 more yards.

Instead of another stretch play, Green Bay went off right guard old school fashion on the next play with a pair of double-team blocks.  Center Corey Linsley and guard Billy Turner collapsed tackle Sheldon Day one way while Bakhtiari and guard Elgton Jenkins doubled tackle DeForest Buckner the other way.  That run was good for five more yards.

There is still 5:45 left in the second and the Packers are 25 yards from making this a game again.

And then Rodgers fumbled the snap.

This began a series of three critical mistakes in a row for the Packer offense and special teams.  After San Francisco recovered the fumble, they added a field goal at the two-minute warning.  Then Tyler Ervin’s muff of the ensuing kickoff (which he recovered) left Green Bay starting from their own 8 with 1:51 left before halftime.  Three plays later, Rodgers badly missed Geronimo Allison with a pass that instead went directly into the arms of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  The 49ers turned that into a touchdown as well, and suddenly it was a 27-0 game.

When your defense is floundering, your offense and special teams just cannot afford to make unforced errors.  And Green Bay’s did just that at a critical juncture of the Championship Game.  The mistakes are, of course, a part of the game.  But they don’t negate the success that Green Bay was having before their errors changed the tenor of the contest.

Even more relevant was Green Bay’s second half comeback.  Down by four scores, they ran the ball very little (5 times after the intermission) and focused on the advantages they found in the passing game.  As Kansas City is a pass first team, the second half struggles that San Fran had against Green Bay are liable to be issues for them this coming Sunday as well.

San Francisco’s Defense

Seven games into the 2019 season, San Francisco sat at 7-0 and featured a defense that had allowed 7 touchdowns over the 7 games.  They were allowing just 95.7 rushing yards a game, and opposing quarterbacks were completing just 54.5% of their passes against them, tossing 10 interceptions against 5 touchdown passes.  The 49er pass rush piled up 27 sacks (almost 4 a game) and held these passers to a 58.0 rating.

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.

The upturn in offense through the rest of the season was notable.  Over the season’s final 9 weeks, 27 touchdowns were scored against San Fran’s defense.  The run defense allowed 125.8 yards a game and 4.5 yards per rush.  Meanwhile the sacks dwindled to 21 over those nine games (2.3 per) while the completion percentage against rose to 65.6%.  The 18 touchdown passes tossed against them were offset by only 2 interceptions.  Over the back end of the season, opposing passers finished with a rating of 98.8 against San Francisco.

Green Bay did all of those to some extent, but focused principally on quick zone-beating passes.  Frequently the ball was leaving Rodgers’ hand as soon as it reached him.

Green Bay made little attempt to move Aaron out of the pocket, as he stayed there for 38 of his 42 drop-backs.  And as to pressure, in spite of the fact that he suffered 3 sacks, Aaron only saw notable pressure on 10 of those drop-backs – just 24%.

Facing zone defenses 31 times, Rodgers was sacked twice, but completed 21 of 29 passes – most of them excruciatingly short.  Of his 39 passes, 24 were thrown less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 23 of those passes.   That includes 9-9 on screen passes for 48 yards and a touchdown – a 125.93 rating.  Playing under very similar circumstances, Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes went 14 for 18 against the Tennessee zone defenses.

Even more interesting, in the 11 plays when San Francisco switched to man coverage, Rodgers was 10 for 10 (with one sack) for 136 yards and a touchdown.

Predictions for Sunday

I strongly believe that San Fran will have profound difficulty matching up with Kansas City’s receivers – whether they play zone or man.  In the Divisional Round win against Minnesota, Emmanuel Moseley replaced the shaky K’Waun Williams at right cornerback.  But he was no match for Davante Adams, who enjoyed a 138 yard receiving day mostly as Moseley’s expense.  Moreover, Williams hasn’t disappeared from the scene.  He is now their third cornerback, playing the dangerous slot receivers.  K’Waun played 84% of San Francisco’s defensive snaps against Green Bay.

This secondary had enough difficulty with a Packer team that had only one reliable receiver (Adams).  How they will fare against KC’s stable of explosive receivers is a concern I would have if I were a 49er fan.

San Francisco’s under-regarded offense and Kansas City’s much improved defense are about a wash in this one.  Both will have their moments.  This game will come down to the irresistible force (the Chiefs’ offense) against the sometimes immovable object (the 49er defense).  And that battle will come down to the San Francisco defensive line.

If Kansas City can’t come up with an answer for Bosa and company, then Nicky and his friends will be kissing the trophy at the end of the game.  But if Andy Reid employs some of the same ideas that Green Bay used – or comes up with a few new wrinkles – and gives his playmakers a chance with the ball in their hands, then that will bode very well for the long-suffering fans in Kansas City, Missouri.

Prediction: Kansas City 37 – San Francisco 24.