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How the Chiefs offense beats the 49ers defense (part 2)

Heading into the Super Bowl, let’s see how the Chiefs have found success against Match 3 coverage shells like the 49ers use.

Kansas City Chiefs Practice Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

In part 1 of this article, we looked at the Match 3 scheme the San Francisco 49ers have been using as their main coverage leading up to the Super Bowl.

A variant of Cover 3, it’s not the only coverage the 49ers use — but right up through their two playoff games, it has been their most predominant one. In order for the Kansas City Chiefs to maintain their offensive success in the Super Bowl, they’ll have to have an answer for it; with the 49ers’ adjustments, Match 3 coverage can take away some routes the Chiefs love to use.

But not many teams have used Cover 3 as their main coverage against the Chiefs. After what they saw from the Chiefs in 2018, teams moved away from playing a single high safety against Kansas City. Teams like the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars — even the Tennessee Titans — played a fair bit of Cover 3 during the season. But against the Chiefs, they used it more as a change-up than their main coverage.

The one team that stood pat against the Chiefs was the Los Angeles Chargers. Leading up to the Super Bowl, much has been made about how the Chiefs — specifically Patrick Mahomes — struggled in two games against Los Angeles.

In the first game in Mexico City, the Chiefs were missing some key pieces — but were also trying to figure out how to attack Cover 3 successfully. Since then, the Chiefs offense has altered how they do business in the underneath areas of the field — and have had no issues producing against the Cover 3 scheme.

Even pointing to Mahomes’ pedestrian stat line against the Chargers in Week 17 is misleading. The team put up 31 points in that game, scoring on five of eight meaningful drives. Simply put, the first Chargers game helped shape how the Chiefs offense could find success against the Chargers the next time — and the 49ers on Sunday.

Let’s take a look at what they’ve done since then.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Take whats there

In the first Chargers game, the Chiefs struggled attacking underneath the deep zone coverage. They opted to throw swing pass after swing pass — and the Chargers read those like a book. But in meeting two and beyond, the Chiefs were often able to hit with stick and slant routes.

The Chargers were so focused on deep over routes that even against a 2x2 set, they had the crossfield hook defender looking to buzz underneath the slot receiver on an over route.

Shown here is an easy way to take advantage of that. The tight end’s delayed release allows the defender to gain depth; then the receiver just settles in underneath where the hook defender would be. With the hook defender now carrying a vertical route, space is created for a yards-after-catch opportunity — and with the Chiefs’ weapons, that is playing with fire.

Sprinkling in option routes — where the receiver reads the coverage to determine the route — work just the same.

In this play, as the running back comes out of the backfield, the weak Apex defender has to widen to defend the sideline. When the running back reads that leverage, he curls inside to the space left by the hook defender’s drop. If the number three receiver in the slot to the strong side flashes an over route, the hook defender would carry vertically even further, allowing more yards after the catch.

In the two games where they saw the most Cover 3 since Mexico City — against the Chargers and Titans — the Chiefs had four total scoring drives where no play went for more than 20 yards. As The Mentor would say, the Chiefs have figured out how to matriculate the ball down the field — even if they can’t hit their shot plays.

But the best part is that given the dynamic ability of Chiefs receivers, if there is space to be had, they can often find it after the catch.

Flood concepts

Here, a simple flood or follow concept equates to multiple open receiving options.

To the trips side, both slot receivers run a deep slant while the outside receiver runs a drag underneath. The number three wideout shows first, occupying the strong hook defender. The number three follows almost directly behind. But while the strong Apex tries to re-route him, he also has to drive on the drag underneath. After his break on the slant, the number two receiver opens up in the gap left between the hook and flat defenders.

On the other side, the shallow corner route takes the weak cornerback vertically while the Apex defender is working down from depth.

If the high hole defender is going to be a linebacker, the Apex defender will often wall off the outside wide receiver to protect against a quick in-break while the hook defender is vacating his zone. This makes the safety late coming down into the flat, allowing the running back to force a missed tackle and pick up extra yardage.

Flooding deep zones with vertical route combinations has long been Public Enemy Number 1 to Cover 3 teams.

In this play, the Chargers get caught in a trap coverage to the weak side — but if the safety and cornerback switch assignments, it probably doesn't affect the play. The biggest change here is that the Chiefs don’t send the number three wide receiver from the trips formation on an over route but instead send him vertically on a slice route.

This changes the trajectory of the hook defender who is buzzing deep — and makes a linebacker or a safety run from a less-advantageous position. The first and second wide receivers are running simple nine routes; it would be hard for the slot cornerback to tempo both routes and defend them. This draws the deep safety over the seam route, which opens up the slice route. If the safety instead defends the slice, the throw goes to the seam route.

On multiple vertical routes, it’s very important for Cover 3 corners to learn how to tempo the outside nine route and the seam route. 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman is very good at it; he’s one of the best of all time at playing two vertical routes simultaneously. But when the split is as drastic shown here, it becomes impossible. Furthermore, the speed of Mecole Hardman or Tyreek Hill make it harder to tempo two verticals at once.

4x1 glory

My favorite counter to the Cover 3 buzz weak side defense is to simply changing the running back’s alignment to the same side as the trips.

In order to have every receiver accounted for, the defense has to make a push call for the underneath defenders; they have to stretch out to cover what are now four receivers, leaving gaps to the middle of the field because the weak side hook defender still has responsibility for the deep hole.

Most notable on this play is how the Apex defender falls off the slot wheel route; there’s no one there to pick up the receiver.

The Chargers handled 4x1 better by having the weak side corner to play pure man-to-man against the wide receiver, allowing the weak side Apex to flow with the running back to the strong side.

The push call is still in effect, opening up space in the middle of the field for the spot route. While the number three receiver on the spot route is open, the Chiefs add another wrinkle, having the number two wideout follow the spot route by running a very deep over route. Thinking it’s his responsibility, the weak side hook defender drives on the spot route, allowing the over route to fall in behind him. Now the deep safety has to run with the over route — and has little to no chance of getting to the ball.

Isolation routes

Isolation routes are pretty straightforward; when one-on-one matchups present themselves, the Chiefs will have to take advantage of them.

These one-on-one matchups can also be found with running backs out of the backfield against safeties or nickel corners. Using Hill out of the backfield could force some extremely favorable matchups.

The bottom line

The 49ers would be smart to mix up their coverage shells, diving back into their early-season quarters looks — while also sprinkling in some man coverage looks from late in the season. They just can’t let the Chiefs sit back, get a read on their Cover 3 and begin to pick it apart.

The Chiefs took their lumps trying to figure out the Cover 3 scheme the Chargers gave them in Mexico City — but in the Week 17 Chargers game (and against the Titans in the playoffs) they showed ways they can attack it, adjusting their short game to take advantage of what’s open, while adding in some deep concepts to stay true to their form.

If the 49ers simply do what they do best — running their minimally-disguised Match 3 for the majority of the game — the Chiefs should be able to put up a lot of points.