In our weekly Opponent Scout series, I break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect the matchup.
In Week 7, the Chiefs are traveling to the west coast for a bout with the San Francisco 49ers. It’s the first game between these two franchises since Super Bowl LIV.
Here’s what to know about the 49ers.
This season is the sixth for head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is once again starting Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback after initially going with Trey Lance; the second-year quarterback had a season-ending injury in Week 2. The 49ers are 3-3, coming off a 28-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
San Francisco is currently 19th in total points scored and 18th in total yards gained; they score on 29% of their offensive possessions — the NFL’s fifth-lowest rate. The 49ers run much more than they throw, averaging a middling 4.4 yards per carry. They are middle of the pack in converting third downs and red zone opportunities. They rank 15th in offensive DVOA.
On defense, San Francisco is allowing the league’s lowest yards per play rate (4.2); the Buffalo Bills are the only team that has allowed fewer points. The unit allows the lowest rate of yards per carry (3.3) and the fourth-lowest net passing yards per attempt (4.9). The 49ers have the NFL’s second-most sacks. In defensive DVOA, they rank third.
As it always has, the Shanahan offense revolves around a multiple-scheme rushing attack. San Francisco will hammer a defense with heavier personnel, running both zone and gap runs from under center.
Opposing defenses know this — and aren’t making it easy on the running game; lead rusher Jeff Wilson Jr. has faced eight-man boxes at the league’s third-highest rate among running backs.
Similar to what Buffalo did v KC, the 49ers can get in 21p and spread out -- trying to force defenses into their base sets (3 LBs) and pass against it— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 21, 2022
The difference is that FB Kyle Juszczyk is a legitimate receiving threat, and can split out or play from a TE alignment pic.twitter.com/fr53HVqKpD
This is why the 49ers will likely use a strategy similar to what the Bills did in Week 6: they’ll pass out of heavy personnel to take advantage of the defense’s three-linebacker set. Here, fullback Kyle Juszczyk will be a key player; his ability to be a weapon as a receiver allows San Francisco to succeed out of two-back formations.
Niners just want to get the ball in Deebo's hands, because he is electric in space and tough to bring down#Chiefs' open-field tackling will be challenged as much as it has by any individual player this year pic.twitter.com/y1ImN5pSLp— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 21, 2022
When the 49ers aren’t running in their traditional manner, they are trying to get the ball in wide receiver Deebo Samuel’s hands — whether that’s with a pass or a creative way to get him a rushing opportunity. Samuel’s ability to break tackles is why they want to get him in space.
But for the unit to be at its most effective, they’ll need their best offensive linemen to get back healthy. Left tackle Trent Williams hasn’t played since Week 3, and was limited in practice this week with his ankle injury. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey left the last game. He was limited in practice on Thursday after not practicing on Wednesday.
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers have been dominant — and that starts up front. The headliner is edge rusher Nick Bosa, who has been limited in practice this week with a groin injury. His six sacks lead the team — but without him, the unit can still produce pressure from a four-man rush.
49ers have four difference DEs with at least 3 sacks this year— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 21, 2022
They'll use a NASCAR type package to get 3 DEs on the field for a four-man rush, and have had lots of success with it. They're 2nd in NFL in sacks (23) pic.twitter.com/yrNpyuRCZ8
The 49ers have three other edge rushers who have earned at least three sacks this year: Charles Omenihu, Samson Ebukam and rookie Drake Jackson can all create pressure without the help of a blitz. When they are rushing only four, they’ll run plenty of games and stunts to manufacture rushing lanes. On third downs, they’ll also move an EDGE inside.
The front also contributes to the run defense being one of the NFL’s best — but linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw clean up behind them with impressive read-and-react skills. Both have played over 97% of the team’s snaps this year, indicating they rarely play from formations that only require one linebacker.
Fred Warner won't leave the field for SF, and neither will his partner at LB in Dre Greenlaw— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 21, 2022
Warner will make plays in all aspects, processing the play fast and reacting accordingly. It shows up on these blown up screen passes pic.twitter.com/dTiCAorTfU
Warner’s talent also shows up in pass coverage — as Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes knows from the interception he threw to him in Super Bowl LIV. This season, that has shown up a few times against screen passes that Warner has blown up before they have had a chance.
The secondary has playmakers too. In his first year as a starter, safety Talanoa Hufanga leads the team in interceptions — including a pick-6 that helped seal the Week 4 win over the Los Angeles Rams. He is also second on the team in tackles for loss (5). Former Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward has the league’s third-most defended passes (8) as well.
Unfortunately for San Francisco, many of the team’s defensive studs are on the injury report. Hufanga and Ward have not practiced this week with a concussion and groin injury, respectively. Starting defensive tackle Arik Armstead has not practiced, either — and hasn’t appeared in a game since Week 4. Ebukam and Jackson have also been limited this week.
The bottom line
The 49ers’ offense — especially now that Garoppolo is the once again the quarterback — looks like it always has: it uses a strong running game to open things up for their playmakers in space. This will test not only Kansas City’s run defense, but also the team’s open-field tackling.
On defense, San Francisco is one of the league’s few truly elite units; it’s just that it probably won’t be at full health for this game. Either way, the team has the defensive-line depth to continue wreaking havoc, helping to set up the secondary to make plays.