The Kansas City Chiefs offense is currently the highest-scoring offense in the league, and is leading the league in points per drive. It has committed the fewest turnovers and is in the top 10 for yards gained.
In other words, through the first two games of the year, the offense has been special — exceptionally special — and the offense looks to continue that performance this week in the home opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
After last week’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I wrote about how impossible it will be to slow down — let alone stop — the Chiefs offensive attack. Certainly, the 49ers will try, so let’s examine how the Chiefs could defeat their efforts.
The 49ers defense has given up some points, but as some have pointed out, some of those points have been in garbage time — and the Vikings also scored on an interception return. But it’s also true that the offenses they have faced so far are nothing in comparison to the Chiefs offense they will see on Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions presented quality wide receivers to the 49ers defense, but none possess the speed or big play threat that Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and even Travis Kelce do this weekend.
Down in The Laboratory, we dialed up the film of the first two matchups for the 49ers and came away with a plan on how the Chiefs could dominate yet another defense.
The 49ers Defense
The 49ers play a lot of nickel personnel, with four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs — usually three CBs and two safeties. Given the addition of Reuben Foster to the defense — and their zone-heavy approach — they will most likely stick with that lineup as much as possible, which could open them up a little bit to the four wide/empty sets the Chiefs have sometimes employed.
The 49ers are another Cover 3 team — in the mold of Seattle — that prefers to keep three defenders deep and four defenders covering the underneath zones. They will mix it up by playing man coverage — with a single high safety behind them — more often than some other Seattle-based Cover 3 teams, but all of their cornerbacks look more comfortable playing the deep third rather than man-to-man.
They organize their Cover 3 pretty traditionally, with both CBs dropping to a deep third, while the free safety takes the middle of the field, the strong safety plays one of the middle hook zones, and the linebackers (or nickel CBs) take the outermost hook zones.
At the second level, Fred Warner has been an absolute stud for them, and now with the addition of Reuben Foster and Jaquiski Tarrt at strong safety, it makes their underneath coverage very fast and aggressive.
The 49ers rush is centered around DeForest Buckner — who has been amazing this year — but as long as offensive linemen play with patience and sound technique, it takes the 49ers pass rush a couple of seconds to hit home. They aren’t afraid to show blitz and bring it, but they typically stay in their base zone defense.
On the defensive line, the 49ers have strong, long defenders that occupy blockers and disengage well. It’s hard to win leverage across against their front four — which on most plays, makes it challenging to get blockers to the second level.
Without Foster up until this week, it’s been the Fred Warner show, and he’s raised some eyebrows. Both Foster and Warner are explosive, aggressive players that will commit to runs early based on what they are seeing. In addition, Tartt — and most of the 49ers secondary — are very good tacklers, which limits gains on the edges or the second level.
How the Chiefs win
The general plan against any Cover 3-heavy team doesn’t change a whole lot, and it’s a defense the Chiefs will likely see a lot this year as teams try to limit their vertical attack. But the investment in players deep on the field leaves only four defenders underneath to stop any form of zone-beater or crossing concept designed to get players in space.
The 49ers are in a unique position to actually defend the underneath area well with their general team speed, but the Chiefs can outmatch even Foster and Warner. When attacking vertically — which the Chiefs will certainly do — there are specific route combinations that do just that, as I outlined before the Falcons preseason game — specifically verticals and 7-9 concepts that ask deep third defenders to take on two or more receivers in their zone.
The Steelers came into the game vs KC planning to use the same general gameplan they had used vs them in the past; stop Kelce. First TD has 4 defenders keying on Kelce sitting down in the MOF & no one gets into position to defend Conley. Great job by Reid to attack tendencies. pic.twitter.com/lnYOEV6ad2— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 18, 2018
When running the football, this is a matchup that should favor the Chiefs outside zone-heavy approach. as it takes advantage of aggressive defenders — as long as the running back keeps their eyes up and looks for the correct gap. Mixing in more power and gap-blocking elements are still something to watch for because defensive lines are still slanting and crashing into the run strength of the Chiefs — but if there was ever a week to stick to their guns, this is it.
Looking ahead to the 49ers matchup, Ahkello Witherspoon is definitely "Waldo" of the secondary. Through two weeks he has been picked on routinely whether deep, intermediate, or underneath. He's been dealing w/ a lingering ankle injury but he got pulled in the 4th Q vs Det. pic.twitter.com/PlRmji4eft— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 21, 2018
49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been dealing with a lingering ankle injury that has perhaps played a role in his slow start to the season, but for whatever reason, he is target number one.
Even if his replacement Jimmie Ward steps onto the field, this will be the sure-fire week spot in the 49ers secondary, and whoever is playing, they’ll always be lined up at the RCB spot on the left side of the offense.
Witherspoon is typically late opening his hips when a receiver shows any indication of breaking their route early, and has difficulty moving his feet off the line when pressing. He’s looked better overall when bailing off the line of scrimmage — but even when he’s in position to make a play on the football, he has still surrendered catches.
If the Chiefs can identify man coverage pre-snap, Witherspoon should be the target over 75% of the time, as he has shown no ability to track a receiver across the field.
Test the deep waters
The nearly exclusive CF for the 49ers is Adrian Colbert who can definitely make some great plays but has a tendency to bite on routes as soon as QB flashes eyes their direction. Stafford wasn't able to connect but he was able to get Colbert moving the wrong way a few times on Sun pic.twitter.com/s41qdgC3gR— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 21, 2018
The 49ers play a defensive scheme designed to limit big plays over the top and force you to throw the ball underneath them so that they can swarm to the ball.
In theory, this works great — that is, for teams like the 49ers or Seahawks in their heyday — that can close on the ball quickly. The key is to avoid getting beat deep, and even outside of Witherspoon, this may not be as easy to do against the Chiefs.
Adrian Colbert — the center fielder — is very much like Ron Parker in that he is happy to jump routes to try to make a play. This often results in receivers sneaking in behind him, or failing to identify a receiver coming into his zone until it’s too late. Colbert’s eye discipline just isn’t great, and from what Mahomes has shown thus far, I would expect him to manipulate the him with ease.
Richard Sherman — the other safety — has looked very good this year. But he is an older defensive back coming off of a major injury, and still looks like a guy who has to get his hands on even adequately-fast players in order to stay with them.
In training camp — admittedly while Sherman was still working back from an injury — he was often beaten deep by his teammate Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin just happens to be the one guy in the NFL that may rival Tyreek Hill’s speed, so if the Chiefs can get that matchup — or even one with Sammy Watkins — they need to test it.
Slants, slants, and more slants
Another trend popping up through two weeks is the use of slants against the 49ers defense. Vs their traditional zone defense or man coverage, the Lions and Vikings (in particular) were able to connect on more than a couple slant. Chiefs fans already know how dangerous that can be pic.twitter.com/A8mFpCpL2N— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 21, 2018
Against Cover 3 — or even man coverage — when you know your receiver has the speed advantage, threatening vertically and then breaking into a slant is nearly impossible to defend.
This will be an advantage for the Chiefs all season. Defenders won’t be able to play these slants with the speed of the Chiefs receivers — and Mahomes’ arm — so the slants will be open often. In addition, the 49ers DBs aren’t the quickest in their transitions, and their hook defenders are often coming from near the tackle box, so there is usually plenty of space to hit these slants and pick up yardage.
Especially if the Chiefs work out of a bunch or empty sets that place unique stresses on a zone defense, hitting these slants will start to open up the intermediate throwing lanes — just as it happened in the game against the Chargers after Hill’s first receiving touchdown.
Run your runs
The 49ers run defense has been very solid through the first two weeks and now they are adding R. Foster back into the mix. The DL does a good job occupying blocks while the speedy LBs work to the ball. Mis-direction & OZ cutting back inside can take advantage of the aggressivness pic.twitter.com/B58kUQVQCa— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 21, 2018
We’ve long wished for the Chiefs to use more power and gap running styles, and they’ve flashed the ability to do so out of spread formations.
This particular game, however, is one in which their RPOs, outside zone, and counter running game may be the best choice. The 49ers defensive line is good at holding up to multiple blockers, which allows them to keep their fast second-level players clean and flowing to the football.
Getting the flow of the run play one direction before cutting back inside — or across the field — has had some success in limited attempts against them. Kareem Hunt should be reading his keys the entire run, but on every run, should definitely keep in mind that the 49ers defense is aggressive; their back side linebackers and safeties can get out of their run fits very quickly to make plays. The Bang aspect of outside zone should be open often, as well as counters and the back side passes of RPOs.
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves here, but the Chiefs offense may not always need a super-diverse game plan to take care of opposing defenses; the talent of the receivers and quarterback may prove to simply be too much for most defenses to handle — similar to the Green Bay Packers in the last decade.
With that said, Andy Reid is an offensive genius that will always have tricks up his sleeve to make the offense even more deadly, and make everything easier for his young QB.
The 49ers defense isn’t great — or terrible — but keeping things simple will go a long way in making the offense look fluid and easy while we await the next big play.