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Chiefs vs. 49ers: How the Chiefs defense beats San Francisco

Where should the Chiefs be looking to try to stop the 49ers’ offense this week?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Saturday at Arrowhead Pride, so you know what that means: we’re leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers in the past and moving on to the Kansas City Chiefs’ matchup against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3!

This week, the Chiefs get to line up against a very innovative and dynamic offense that may not be as strong in the talent department as the previous two opponents, but they’re definitely capable of hanging points on any opponent due to their scheme and speed.

This week, like every week, I’ll be heading down to the Laboratory to take a look at what the opposition’s offense looks like, some matchups and tendencies that they like to exploit and what the Chiefs defense can do to try to stop them this Sunday.

The 49ers offense

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

A blockbuster trade brought quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco last year, and the 49ers paid him handsomely this offseason. Garoppolo is an accurate quarterback with a quick release that has grasped head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense well, putting up good numbers at the tail end of last year. While he hasn’t started with quite the same output this year, he’s very capable of putting up points and yards in a hurry against good defenses.

After losing running back Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL, the 49ers have relied on veteran Alfred Morris and second-year back (NFL rushing leader after Week 2) Matt Breida to lead the way. Morris offers a more “grinding” style of running, especially between the tackles, while Breida has been a change of pace back and pass catcher thus far this season. Breida, in particular, was able to find success last week against the Detroit Lions, showcasing his speed.

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is one of the bigger weapons on this offense, atypical of your normal fullback. He’s a rangy, athletic player that can be a matchup nightmare by offering the 49ers some personnel flexibility in their run and passing game.

At wide receiver, San Francisco is led by speedster Marquise Goodwin and route runner Pierre Garcon on the outside. Rookie Dante Pettis has showcased some big-play ability this year as well, averaging 32 yards per reception thus far in the 2018 season. All three players have the capability to break a game open and run away from the secondary when defenses are forced into bigger personnel.

At tight end, the 49ers have a steady presence in Garrett Celek, a good blocker and pass catcher, but arguably the most dynamic weapon on the offense is second-year player George Kittle. We’ll address Kittle below, but the offense does a good job getting him into space where he can use his speed and athleticism to rack up major yardage against linebackers and safeties.

The San Francisco offensive line is still trying to gel this season after adding rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey opposite stalwart left tackle Joe Staley. The interior of Weston Richburgh, Laken Tomlinson, and Mike Person is a decent group, but definitely a better matchup for the Chiefs than the previous two week’s interior OL.

How to defend

21 personnel

The 49ers love to trot out a running back, a fullback, a tight end, and two wide receivers in their offense, and the play above shows why. They’re able to utilize Juszczyk as an H-back in a counter run here with a jet sweep attached. Juszczyk is able to get well out in front of the play, springing Breida for a huge play on the first play of the game.

Conversely, the 49ers are able to motion Juszczyk out of the backfield and force a good coverage linebacker completely out of the box. When the sweep is faked and the San Francisco offensive line blocks down, the linebackers flow to the running back, leaving Kittle wide open on the slant. A better throw springs this for a big gain, and it’s set up by having a FB that can split out wide and command a quality coverage defender, leaving your “run-first” linebackers stressed in their underneath coverage.

Finally, the 49ers like to take advantage of bigger personnel on the field to stress the safeties and get open looks in the secondary. By lining up in 21 personnel, the defense is in their base personnel with a safety in the box opposite the tight end. This leaves three members of the secondary in coverage to the field, and San Francisco takes advantage of it.

The outside receiver runs a 9-route, clearing out the boundary corner. The slot receiver shows a post route, and the single high safety has to carry that post route in his Cover 1 responsibilities. However, after the safety commits, the slot receiver cuts back and runs an out route. With the cornerback in trail coverage, there are all kinds of space for Garoppolo to make the throw.

With the Chiefs likely shifting into their base 3-4 defense against 21 personnel, we’re likely to see lots of linebackers Reggie Ragland, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston in coverage to help try to stifle the 49ers passing attack. It’s not the ideal option from a pass rush standpoint, but that extra defender in coverage could help keep the San Francisco tight end, fullback, and running back in check, forcing third-and-longs.

George Kittle

Kittle is the engine that makes this offense tick. A Travis Kelce-esque tight end, Kittle is a poor matchup for almost anyone tasked with covering him. On top of that, the 49ers do an excellent job getting him into space through motion and drags across the backside of the offensive line post-snap.

As shown above, Kittle motions across the formation opposite the running back. The 49ers run a play action pass and leave the backside blitzer unblocked. Kittle comes across the formation and underneath the blitzer. The run action has sucked linebacker Eric Kendricks inside and Kittle is now wide open in the flat with room to run.

This time, out of a two tight end set, Kittle once again comes across the backside of the formation opposite of the run action. Everyone on the Vikings front seven bites on the fake and Kittle’s into the secondary with nobody remotely close to him. The Vikings have an exceedingly good defense that plays sound football, and they let Kittle find acres of space against them in Week 1.

Due to Kittle being used for wham and slice blocks in the run game, defenders will try to beat him to the gap to wreck the play when he’s moving against the flow of the blockers. Shanahan uses this to his advantage, springing Kittle in the flat. The Chiefs linebackers and safeties are going to have to keep track of Kittle at all times this week, a tough task for any defense, let alone one that has been gashed by passes to the flats in the first two weeks of the season.

Exotic pass rushes

While San Francisco’s offense (and Garoppolo, in particular), does a good job getting the ball out quickly, Garoppolo will panic with some of the more exotic pass rushes. The Vikings defense brought a few overload blitzes at Garoppolo, especially at McGlinchey. The one shown above was the most costly of the game.

The Vikings bring the edge rusher, off-ball linebacker, and the slot defender at the right side of the 49ers line. Garoppolo doesn’t see it coming and shift protection, and McGlinchey is left high and dry, trying to block three defenders. Garoppolo panics and rushes the throw off his back foot, straight to the cornerback who walks in for an easy pick-six.

The defense doesn’t have to send extra rushers to disrupt the San Francisco passing game. On this play, the Lions show a five-man rush, and the weak-side linebacker drops off to cover the running back. The strong-side linebacker engages the right guard and appears to drop into coverage. The right guard turns to find work and help the right tackle, and the linebacker shoots the B-gap, unblocked for a sack.

Simply by showing on tape a willingness to rush 3 (something the Chiefs have done with much frequency this year), the opposition was able to employ this tactic to bring an exotic rush by playing on their prior tendencies. Coupled with some overload blitzes, the Chiefs could employ an extra element outside of their normal rush tendencies this year to get home against an inferior line from the first two weeks.

The bottom line

The 49ers are a fast, dynamic team that exploits bigger defensive personnel well. That doesn’t bode well for the Chiefs, as the Chiefs linebackers and safeties have struggled in coverage thus far in 2018.

However, the talent level on the offensive side of the ball is a little lower than the stacked offenses the Chiefs defense has seen in recent weeks.

Shanahan is a fantastic offensive play-caller, though, and he’ll find a way to scheme guys open, especially if the Chiefs lean on their zone defense again this week. The 49ers can go up-tempo and force poor matchups with their personnel, and keep them on the field.

That said, if Bob Sutton and the Chiefs defense can keep their superior man defense on the field and bring some twists, stunts and delayed rushes, I truly believe that they can find success in rushing the passer and throwing Garoppolo off his game.

If the Chiefs play passive again this week, though, Shanahan and the 49ers offense will find the gaps and exploit the defense to the tune of big yardage and many points.

Let’s hope we get a little more of the Week 1 scheme from Sutton and some better execution in the first home game of the year to keep Arrowhead loud and crazy all the way through the fourth quarter.

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