clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Arrowhead Pride Premier: One more sleep until Super Bowl Sunday

To celebrate the Chiefs’ opportunity to go back-to-back, we’re making our final Super Bowl 58 preview issue available to all Chiefs fans.

To celebrate the Chiefs’ opportunity to bring home back-to-back Lombardi trophies, we’re making our final Super Bowl 58 preview issue available to all Chiefs fans. Sign up now for insider coverage from Pete Sweeney, in-depth analysis, and much more, and upon sign up you’ll receive access to all three of our Super Bowl preview issues from here on the ground in Las Vegas, Nev. Use the code PLAYOFFS30 to get 30 percent off your subscription after a week’s free trial.

By Pete Sweeney

The week in Las Vegas has flown by – and just like that, we have upon us the final “Red Friday” of the season. It is a bittersweet day, because while Sunday is the last time we’ll see Kansas City Chiefs football until September, the team is playing for a second consecutive Super Bowl championship – and its third in five seasons.

Having covered this team since 2014, it feels surreal to be covering this game. As we get ready this weekend to potentially embrace an undisputed dynasty, I’ve been thinking a lot about where it all started, a year before I arrived in Kansas City. Everything changed when Clark Hunt opted to hire Andy Reid in 2013, and names like John Dorsey and Alex Smith were critical in getting the franchise started on this path.

When Brett Veach took over after the drafting of Patrick Mahomes, everything changed again. And before us, we are witnessing the greatest start to an NFL career of all time. The San Francisco 49ers are a worthy foe, and in this final newsletter before Sunday, we’ll preview the keys necessary for a Chiefs victory.

Our film expert Jon Ledyard dives into the tape below, but before that, I have a thought on both sides of the ball before our final opponent spotlight.

Welcome to Super Bowl weekend, Chiefs fans. Let’s dive in:

I think Rashee Rice’s speedy development is a major reason the Chiefs found their way to the Super Bowl.

Offseason rumblings indicated that the Chiefs did what it could to bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster, which did not happen as he departed for the New England Patriots.

Available wide receivers priced themselves out of Kansas City, so the team leaned into the idea of Kadarius Toney as its No. 1 wide receiver. Beyond Toney, the Chiefs brass understood it would be counting on veteran Marquez Valdes-Scantling and the second season of Skyy Moore to provide outlets for Patrick Mahomes.

Veach tried to trade up for a receiver in the NFL Draft but was shut out, so the Chiefs waited until the second round to select a receiver. I’m not sure even Veach knew it at the time, but a legitimate argument could be made that the selection of Rashee Rice out of SMU with the No. 55 overall pick in the second round was the most important move of the offseason.

“I saw it click, and as soon as he got there, man,” said tight end Travis Kelce of Rice at the podium on Thursday. “He has a great feel to get open in the middle of the field – a physical guy, a confident guy. So with all that, Coach Reid and the offensive coaching staff obviously have slowly given them the responsibility to make the plays and to be that guy for us.

“And he just, he owned it, man. He owned it throughout the season, and it’s just been awesome to see him grow.”

And grow he did… rapidly, especially for a receiver in a Reid offense. Early in the year, offensive coordinator Matt Nagy likened Rice learning the offense to drinking out of a firehose. But as he progressed, the firehose was downgraded to a water fountain – and now, as the Chiefs play for the championship, he’s sipping from a straw.

Of all places, the rookie highlights his last trip to Las Vegas as his personal turning point. In their Week 12 game at Allegiant Stadium, the Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead on the Chiefs.

“We were down two touchdowns,” remembered Rice, who had three catches for 20 yards in the first half. “We came out during the second half, and we just kind of turned the whole game around.”

Rice would finish with eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. He – and the Chiefs – began to realize that production would work.

“It was probably three-quarters of the way through the season where I just kind of felt like, you know what? You could see Pat really trusting him with throws where he’s not the No. 1 guy in the progression, he’s going to him as No. 2 or No. 3 – or it’s a scramble, and he finds him,” said Nagy. “I think we collectively, as a staff, you want to get to a point to where, when you’re building plays and putting in the game plan, where you can start doing it around a few people.

“When you have four or five guys that you’re trying to do stuff around, it can be hard, and there’s not that consistency for the quarterback. You want to be able to get timing and trust, and so that timing and trust started happening around three-quarters of the way through the season, and it just kept going more and more and more, and you could see his targets go up.”

Rice saw 10 targets against the Raiders, beginning a stretch of five games in which he saw at least nine targets an outing. I asked Nagy how it all worked.

“We run a lot of 11 personnel,” he said. “Conceptually, we can move the parts. We can move them to certain areas, and we can make that Rashee if we want that to be Rashee. We can make it be MVS if we want it to be. I’m using this as an example, but let’s just say, generically, there are 50 plays on the call sheet. There’s way more.”

Nagy grinned, now with his teaching cap firmly on his head.

“But [for the purpose of this explanation], let’s just say there’s 50. And for the first half of the season, there were 15 plays that he had in there for him. And those 15 plays got called. Well, he maybe only got the ball six times out of 15. What we did is bumped up to maybe 35 out of 50.

Rice explained that Nagy was the key to his breakthrough and expanded role.

“He told me a lot of things – where he would want me on the field, certain routes that he wants me to run specifically for Pat for me to get open,” said Rice. “And then, obviously Coach Reid. He don’t really have to say too much for me. Him just being around and giving a look.”

The head coach gave him one of those looks on Wednesday in Las Vegas on the practice field.

“I had my hood on during practice, and I was about to take it off, and I see him, and it was like I felt him looking at me. Just his presence around makes everybody better.”

Rice ended the season leading all receivers with 938 yards, setting franchise rookie records for receptions (79) and touchdowns (7).

I think the Chiefs have a sound plan for defending the Monstaresque San Francisco offense.

I hope you have seen Space Jam, so you know what I mean. The 49ers are a four-headed Monstar, made up of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.

On Wednesday at the Super Bowl, I sought out Kansas City’s most significant defensive minds to find out how they possibly handle them all.

“They’ve got so many weapons,” said defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. “It’s like if you decide to take away one, they’re going to hurt you somewhere else. The minute you start doubling a threat, you’re going to weaken yourself somewhere else. We’ve really talked a lot about functioning as 11, as a full unit on every play – whether it’s a run play or pass play. I think this offense will expose you in the run game when you make a mistake, and they’ll expose you in the pass game when you are not functioning together and gelling like our defensive unit is supposed to. Whatever we call, everybody’s got to do their job, their one-11 to try to defend this offense.”

Safety Justin Reid, who ensures that everyone stays aligned in the back end, described the key to it all as eye control, something his position coach, Dave Merritt, often touches upon during his media sessions.

“[San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan] has motions, guys pulling, guys going every which way, but the rules of our defense will take you to the ball,” noted Reid, “and as long as you’re playing within the scheme of the defense, and you do it with energy, everything else is going to take care of itself, so, like I said, the biggest thing with those two characters specifically, because they’re so good at breaking tackles, is make sure when you have an opportunity to wrap them up, that you’re not just throwing your body in there, and they can just bounce off – that you’re using your arm to wrap him up and take him to the ground.”

McCaffrey led all running backs with 72 forced missed tackles, and Samuel led all receivers with 31, according to Pro Football Focus. When I talked with linebacker Nick Bolton, he explained that his focus is always play-call-dependent.

Bolton knows Shanahan’s affinity for using jet motion as eye candy, and the Chiefs need to be aware of that.

“You got to have your eyes in the right spot for the specific play call,” said Bolton. “Spags does a great job mixing up different looks, different schemes… we’ve got different looks, different personnels. Everybody’s going to have different eyes, different places, different plays, so [we] just have to [study] the game plan, know what we have to look at pre-snap.”

Spagnuolo believes that defeating the 49ers requires a marriage of additional direction while simplifying the looks at times.

“There is something to be said about keeping it simple when you have so many weapons because they’ll confuse you, make you make a mistake,” he said. “We do believe in putting offenses on the defensive a little bit, so we’ll have some calls where we might have to take a chance here or there and hope that we can create something or force them into a mistake.”

Then the defensive coordinator got real.

“They don’t make very many mistakes. I’m on my knees praying every morning that they somehow make a mistake because that will make our job a little bit easier.”

OPPONENT SPOTLIGHT: Wide receiver Deebo Samuel

In our Tuesday and Wednesday newsletters this week, we covered the Chiefs’ comments on San Francisco’s other star players of note, McCaffrey and defensive end Nick Bosa.

For our final Super Bowl preview, I asked the players about the challenge of Samuel.

“He’s dynamic,” said cornerback Trent McDuffie. “He lines up all across the field. He’s one of those receivers who goes in the backfield and gets a handoff, which I love to see. If I was a receiver, I would love to go back there at running back. Also, just one of those dudes, when he has the ball in his hands, he can make something happen – and when you play somebody like that, that, each and every down, you can’t take it off, you know it’s going to be a long and physical game.”

McDuffie added that the Chiefs had to face elite receivers this year, and that should help. He specifically mentioned Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson, Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams and Cincinnati Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase.

“He’s built very thick on his legs,” added Reid of Samuel. “He runs hard and tough. He’s able to run jet sweeps and run plays out of the backfield. When he really was doing his thing two years ago, when he really came onto the scene, everybody wanted their own version of Deebo Samuel. We tried different guys at doing that in Houston to try to have our own Deebo Samuel, but you can’t recreate what that guy does.”

Bolton called Samuel a one-cut guy, someone he too will need to be aware of, considering how often Shanahan uses him as a rusher. Samuel concluded the season with nearly 900 receiving yards, but he also had 225 yards on the ground.

“He does a great job of getting the ball in space, as a runner and blocking screens,” said Bolton, “in the backfield, sweeps, toss plays, all that. They use the skill set to their advantage.”

Reid concluded by acknowledging Samuel’s physicality, noting the Chiefs will have to match that fire with fire.

“You can’t be afraid to go in there and tackle him,” he said. “Lucky for us, we have corners who love contact, and it’s going to be exciting for the opportunity to try to cut him in half.”

Film preview: Chiefs defense must limit San Francisco’s big plays

By Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is an NFL analyst who has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL Draft. He currently hosts the Audibles & Analytics podcast on Substack, where he also covers the NFL and NFL Draft.

When the Chiefs and 49ers meet in this year’s Super Bowl, it will be the second matchup between the two teams in five years. But when they met back in 2019, it was a different 49ers offense. The Chiefs banked on impacting Jimmy Garoppolo in ways that 2024 has shown you cannot impact Brock Purdy. Well, not yet anyway.

The 49ers offense is a unit that, hypothetically, is nearly without weakness. Or, at least a weakness you can scheme for. Yes, Purdy has a 3.5 percent turnover-worthy play rate, the seventh-highest in the NFL among 25 qualifying quarterbacks this season. But turnovers tend to be more random occurrences than schemed accomplishments for a defense.

Now, Purdy’s turnover-worthy play percentage swells to 5.5 percent when he’s under pressure, which is sixth-highest in the league. But he’s been outstanding against the blitz, due to Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme and Purdy’s ability to create out of structure. We know Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnulo loves to send pressure, but Purdy is one of PFF’s highest-graded quarterbacks against the blitz this season. It’s also when he creates the most high degree of difficulty plays, with a league-leading 7.7 percent big-time throw rate against the blitz.

So how do you solve San Francisco’s offense? You probably don’t. But maybe you can slow them down and mute their effectiveness by limiting their big-play potential down the field. That’s the big difference between this 49ers offense and the failed playoff offenses of San Francisco’s past – the vertical passing game. This season, just four teams created more 20+ air yard pass plays than the 49ers, and zero quarterbacks could top Purdy’s adjusted completion percentage numbers on such throws.

This brings us to our first major question for the Chiefs in this game - how do they match the 49ers personnel and where does the 11th defender line up? San Francisco will probably play more 21 and 22 personnel than the Chiefs have seen this season. Against 21 personnel (2 running backs, one tight end), will the Chiefs put three linebackers on the field? Four down defensive linemen? Kansas City’s linebackers are solid in coverage, but they have limitations that could get exposed against the 49ers’ skill position athleticism, especially after the catch.

If the Chiefs do opt to play with a true 4-3 against 21 and 22, will they play nickel much at all? The 49ers play out of 11 personnel (three wide receivers) as little as any team in the league except Atlanta. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are one of the heaviest nickel and dime teams in the NFL this season, and their best opponent expected points added (EPA) averages have come when Kansas City has 5-6 defensive backs on the field. Against the 49ers’ heavier personnel groupings, will Kansas City be comfortable stopping the run and defending play-action passes without as much speed on the field? The beauty of San Francisco’s offense is that Christian McCaffrey, Kyle Jusczyk and George Kittle can mash in the run game, and then turn around and create mismatches against heavier defensive personnel in the pass game.

It’s a quandary for Kansas City, but their defense has been dominant all season, and much of what they give up against the run is by choice. The Chiefs play 2-high safeties at one of the highest rates in the NFL, and play less Cover 3 than any defense in the league. They won’t hesitate to buzz a safety into the box post-snap, but I think they’ll be comfortable seeing what the 49ers run game does early in the contest before changing their desired coverage shells. It’s a lot harder to beat a team without splash plays through the air than it is without solid gains on the ground. I think Kansas City will do everything they can to keep San Francisco underneath in the passing game, where many of Purdy’s interceptions have occurred.

In that same vein, watch the Chiefs rotating safeties post-snap, trying to force Purdy into a mistake. Kansas City will likely have a couple robber coverages throughout the game, buzzing a safety into the short-intermediate area of the middle of the field, where nine of Purdy’s 12 interceptions and 12 of his 17 turnover-worthy passes have occurred this season. If there is an area of the field where he’ll throw blindly to at times, it’s 10-19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage between the numbers.

The Chiefs defense will have to play one of their best games to stymie a resilient and multidimensional 49ers offense, but it’s been the top unit on Kansas City’s team this season. The group with more inconsistencies and more questions all year long has been the Chiefs offense, which will square off with a similarly up-and-down 49ers defense.

Like the 49ers, Kansas City will undoubtedly hope to run the ball like they’ve run it at their best points this season. But they’ll need improved consistency. The Chiefs are just 21st in the NFL in rush success rate this season, despite a few high-end performances. They are capable of running the ball well, but are 25th in the league in rush attempts this season. Unlike San Francisco, the ways in which the Chiefs win offensively have been much more narrow this season.

Thanks to Patrick Mahomes’ brilliance, however, they’ve continued to find enough offense to reach the Super Bowl again. Mahomes, along with impressive playoff performances from Travis Kelce and even Rashee Rice, have the Chiefs passing attack looking much healthier in the postseason. Kansas City goes deep almost as infrequently as any team in the NFL, rarely attempting passes over 20 air yards from the line of scrimmage. But Mahomes and Andy Reid have still picked teams apart in the short-intermediate ranges, where Mahomes has been marvelous in the postseason.

Kansas City’s pass game staples this season have been improvised plays vs middle field zone with Mahomes and Kelce, and extensive screen game and Rashee Rice horizontal patterns to create YAC. Obviously there is more to it, but it’s amazing how much of their offense is generated in one of those three ways. This season, only Tua Tagovailoa had a higher percentage of his pass attempts go to screens than Mahomes. However, with how rarely San Francisco blitzes and how often they play zone coverage and fly to the football, the Chiefs’ screen execution will need to be better than ever on Sunday.

So where can Kansas City attack San Francisco? Well, there is some advantage to knowing what you are getting offensively when you line up against Steve Wilks’ crew. Yes, there is the occasional disguised coverage, but you are typically getting way more zone than man, lots of Cover 3 and Cover 4 to keep the ball in front of them and fearsome, but usually fairly straightforward 4-man rush packages. Of course, the 49ers have excellent players at all levels of their defense which makes them difficult to attack, but schematically you can often enter feeling good about how your game plan should work, at least on paper.

The Chiefs should be able to work the ball underneath at will, and even create some run-after-catch situations. That’s where Rice can thrive, and where the 49ers have struggled. Their defense has given up the ninth-most yards after catch this season, largely due to how they line up. The 49ers are rarely going to load the box and they are going to rely on their tackling to prevent short catches from turning into chunk plays. Kansas City has been content to play that way all season, earning the vast majority of their touchdowns by way of long, methodical drives.

The key for the Chiefs will be not making mistakes that put them behind the sticks. Having one of the best quarterbacks all-time at avoiding sacks should help. Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave will have significant advantages up front against a Chiefs offensive line that will likely be without Joe Thuney. But Mahomes’ ability to escape pressure and make plays with his arm and his legs is such a game-changer. Kansas City will need that magic to show up on Sunday to have a chance.

One small final sidenote. In a game where containing Mahomes in the pocket is going to be critical for the 49ers, watch out for Nick Bosa’s balance. He’s a great player, but if there is one thing Bosa struggles with, it’s overextending himself on rushes with minimal chance of a sack. The Ohio State product can lose his balance as a result, opening up escape lanes for opposing quarterbacks. Mahomes won’t miss those opportunities to get out of structure, and when he does he usually makes the defense pay.

On paper, most of the matchups in this game favor San Francisco. Even the injury report favors the 49ers, with Thuney, safety Bryan Cook and edge rusher Charles Omenihu unlikely to suit up. But Kansas City has the best player in the game, and might have the better full coaching staff by a hair. They will need Andy Reid to find advantages for them with his management of the game. That’s been a weakness of Kyle Shanahan’s this season, and it’s actually become a strength of Reid’s. Per Sumer Sports’ Win Probability Added Over Expected metric this season, Reid ranks third while Shanahan sits in 19th place.

If Reid can be aggressive in fourth down and goal-to-go situations and Kansas City can continue to limit their turnovers and mistakes in the playoffs, they’ll give themselves a chance at the upset. The 49ers have more talent across the roster, but the Chiefs are the group you trust more to be themselves on this stage. After all, it’s Brock Purdy, who has been up-and-down in the playoffs to say the least, who has to take on the best defense in the league in order to emerge victorious on Sunday.

Kansas City will need some Mahomes magic, but that’s been the whole story of this season, hasn’t it?


Video from Vegas: Chiefs players discuss those who impacted them

On the final day of media in Las Vegas, we spoke to a handful of Chiefs players about those coaches in their lives who helped inspire them all the way to Super Bowl LVIII.

DID YOU KNOW?: Make that Playoff “Pop”

It’s fair to say running back Isiah Pacheco loves postseason football. The second-year back has 76 scrimmage yards in each of his six career playoff games, as well as a rushing touchdown in the last four. On Sunday, he’s expected to become the first running back since Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett (1977-78) to start Super Bowls in each of his first two seasons.

As it turns out, Pacheco and the 49ers’ starting quarterback were selected just 11 picks apart in the 2022 NFL Draft. Only one will leave Las Vegas with a ring Sunday night.

It's Game Time.

It's time for a title defense in Chiefs Kingdom. Sign up for Arrowhead Pride Premier and we’ll deliver 3 newsletters leading up to the Super Bowl packed with exclusive coverage and analysis from Las Vegas you won’t find anywhere else. For a limited time, use the code SUPERBOWL30 to save 30% plus a free trial