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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play the 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII

Kansas City is looking to become the NFL’s first repeat champion in nearly two decades.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 2023 NFL season will end in historic fashion at Super Bowl LVIII, a matchup between the (14-6) Kansas City Chiefs and the (14-5) San Francisco 49ers. The championship game will happen in Las Vegas, Nevada, for the first time ever, at Allegiant Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Arrowhead Time.

For the third consecutive game this postseason, the Chiefs enter the weekend as betting underdogs: the 49ers are two-point favorites, per DraftKings Sportsbook. San Francisco’s talent has made them the class of the NFL this season, and the oddsmakers believe that outweighs the experience the Chiefs have.

That experience is exactly what should motivate Kansas City the most: a win would set the franchise apart as one of four in NFL history to create a dynasty: three championships within five or six seasons. The Chiefs would also be the first repeat champion in 19 years.

I have five things to watch in an epic title fight:

1. Disrupting the 49ers’ rhythm on offense

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

No offense was more efficient this season than the 49ers’ squad, posting league-high marks in yards per play (6.6), yards per pass attempt (9.3), and rushing success rate (47%).

The last statistic is key: San Francisco’s run game is constantly keeping the offense ahead of the sticks, leaning on running back and Offensive Player of the Year Christian McCaffrey to maximize zone-blocking schemes consistently. The 49ers will use heavy personnel to create movement on these handoffs, forcing the Chiefs’ defense to match with three linebackers in formation.

The Chiefs’ hampered defensive line puts even more emphasis on the Chiefs’ linebackers. Along with safeties, these positions need to play with urgency and gap discipline, plugging all possible paths to open space. The side effect from that level of commitment is effective play action, widening throwing windows downfield.

That puts a lot of responsibility on cornerbacks L’Jarius Sneed, Trent McDuffie, and the entire Chiefs’ secondary to single-cover the 49ers’ playmakers. The group will push the line with physical coverage, trying to limit explosive catch-and-runs.

2. The Chiefs’ offense in attack mode

AFC Championship - Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

A big factor in the Chiefs’ playoff run has been the offensive line setting a tone up front. The playcalling has asked for more physicality from the linemen and other blockers, which sets up running back Isiah Pacheco to be the relentless battering ram he is.

That is exactly how the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions attacked the 49ers in the previous two playoff games. The San Francisco defense is more finesse than physical, especially up the middle: the defensive tackles penetrate a pocket better than they hold the line, while linebacker Fred Warner is more dangerous in space than he is in tight quarters.

Even with left guard Joe Thuney ruled out, the Chiefs’ interior offensive line thrives off a downhill run play. Then the switch-up would be to attack the perimeter of the defense with tight ends and pulling linemen. The 49ers have been run over both between the tackles and on toss sweeps this postseason.

3. Swarming Brock Purdy

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs can’t bank on forcing the 49ers into obvious passing situations often. When it does get to plays like third-and-long, it’s essential that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and the Chiefs’ defense don’t waste a chance to heat up quarterback Brock Purdy.

For one, defensive tackle Chris Jones should rarely, if at all, rush from the edge in these situations: I believe caving the pocket from the front is vital to affecting Purdy’s vision downfield. I don’t see a reason to match up Jones with All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams consistently.

Instead, the Chiefs need to make Williams continually work by throwing speed rushes and end-tackle stunts at him, with athletic rushers like Mike Danna and rookie Felix Anudike-Uzomah.

It may not lead to penetration, but it frees up the Chiefs’ best rushers to attack the lesser blockers in the 49ers’ pass protection. It’s also vital for that wasted edge rusher to track Purdy if he tries to escape the pressure from the right side.

4. A decisive, clean Patrick Mahomes

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

I find it remarkable that Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes has gone six straight postseason games without throwing an interception; that stands alone as the longest streak in NFL history. The 49ers will provide quite the challenge to get to seven.

San Francisco will present a heavy dose of zone coverage, something the Chiefs’ pass game struggled to make plays against for much of this season. Down the stretch, the ascension of rookie wide receiver Rashee Rice has been a huge part of Mahomes finding a newfound rhythm against zone coverage and taking attention away from tight end Travis Kelce.

To pry throwing windows open against the 49ers’ aggressive zone coverage, the Chiefs will need to constantly use pre-snap motions, misdirections, and play fakes to make defenders slow to their responsibilities.

Even then, Mahomes will need to be careful testing the closing speed of Warner and his running mate linebacker Dre Greenlaw. When they do discourage him, look for quick checkdowns. Scramble mode is less likely to work against zone and this athletic 49ers’ front seven.

5. Sure tackling

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Chiefs’ defense has built a reputation for flying to the ball and taking the runner down with some emphasis. Safety Justin Reid leads by example, headlining a unit of physical coverage players that do not shy away from contact.

That attitude is required to defend the 49ers’ playmakers: McCaffrey, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and even fullback Kyle Juszczyk are all handfuls to get to the ground. That’s especially true once these players have a head of steam from a schemed-open touch.

All of Kansas City’s off-ball defenders have to harness a relentless mindset for the entire game. Missed tackles will happen, but the high effort from pursuing teammates can limit the damage.

It's Game Time.

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