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Chiefs-49ers 5 questions with the enemy: Will Kyle Shanahan stick to the run?

We welcome Niners Nation for answers to five questions about San Francisco before Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup.

NFC Championship - Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

On Sunday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, San Francisco is favored to win. We welcome staff writer Ryan Bainbridge of Niners Nation — our sister SBNation site covering the 49ers — for Five Questions with the Enemy.

1) What’s the mood among 49ers’ fans? I’d think it is a mix of excitement and revenge. How much influence does Super Bowl LIV have over this?

Excited, anxious and confident — but that comes in waves between a mix of worry and nausea. I wouldn’t point to revenge as a top feeling heading into this game. Although the opponents are the same as Super Bowl LIV, the teams are quite a bit different four years later.

Obviously for San Francisco, there’s been a huge reinvention of the offense with Brock Purdy, Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey as new centerpieces that are heads above the previous starters from the 2019 team. The Chiefs don’t have the receiving threats from that year, either. So it feels like a totally different ball game.

As much as we would like to exorcise the demons of that game (the late missed pass to Sanders, for example), I think most of the Niners’ faithful are focused more on feelings of hopefulness for a specific group of players who have worked hard to get back here after last year’s NFC Champonship debacle.

2) Adding running back Christian McCaffrey has been compared to Thanos adding the final Infinity Stone. How much of a difference has he made?

CMC has given the 49ers’ offense much more than we could have hoped he would.

To all of us, he is really the best running back in the game. He can run between the tackles and he’s incredibly shifty. He breaks tackles, has great vision and can catch. So yeah... he can just do it all.

And what it really comes down to is that McCaffrey provides solutions when the answers aren’t right. When a play goes awry, he is a phenomenal outlet. In both the running game and in the receiving game, we’ve seen that they can rely on him to make something out of nothing. He has truly been as dependable as any running back I have watched in my time as a 49ers fan — and that includes a fan favorite: Frank Gore.

3) Defensively, the 49ers are slightly worse off than they were against Patrick Mahomes last time around. How will the 49ers game plan for him?

This is an interesting question, because not only is the 49ers’ defense different than it was four years ago, so is the Chiefs’ passing game.

San Francisco defensive coordinator Steve Wilks now takes a much more conservative approach to coverage. They don’t play man coverage as much as the Saleh/Ryans variation. The focus is not letting receivers get behind the secondary while playing a variety of coverages with significant communication and hand-offs. Wilks has also had to dial up different pressure looks more than previous coordinators, which can be tied to the lack of production from the front four and his coaching history.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City aerial attack (and Mahomes) isn’t as vertical. It isn’t dependent on long dropbacks or focused on winning outside. While I think defending Mahomes is impossible (duh), this version of the Kansas City offense may have a few chinks in its armor. The offensive tackles are vulnerable — but even if he gets pressured, it’s not like Mahomes takes sacks. San Francisco would love to take Kelce out of the equation with constant double coverage — but even then, that duo always finds ways to make plays.

So the game plan will have to be focused on playing their style of bend-don’t-break defense. It requires everyone on the unit to avoid looking for the big plays all the time. From there, you just hope the offense can’t consistently get to their answers quickly enough. The defense will also have to find ways to get more pressure than they have throughout the playoffs — perhaps by installing more five down linemen fronts like they did earlier in the season.

4) If the 49ers find themselves with a lead or a tight game, will Kyle Shanahan finally stick to the run?

We certainly hope so!

I think both the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens could probably have been playing on Sunday if they had stuck to their identities in the second half of their conference championship games.

Shanahan has more trust in his running back than ever before, so I definitely feel like he could redeem his past mistakes by leaning on CMC all day. But Shanahan also has more trust in his quarterback than ever before, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept it in the hands of the player who got the team to this point.

I think that either way, it’s about staying true to what you have been as a team all year — and why there is a level of confidence in this offense’s ability to keep a balance between running and passing.

5) The 49ers are slight favorites. Do you think this is fair? How do you see this game playing out?

I don’t know if the betting line is fair or unfair. I just think we must understand that gambling markets are heavily influenced by crowdthink — which tends to use analytics as context.

So having the 49ers as slight favorites doesn’t seem outrageous, considering that they had one of the top-10 highest DVOA ratings (which go back to 1981) ever recorded. (Although Baltimore did, too).

But ultimately, this is a very strong matchup. Relatively speaking, the Chiefs’ offense has had a down year — and so has the 49ers’ defense. The inverse is true for the Kansas City defense and the San Francisco offense. These teams match up very well and it should make for an interesting game. I’m going to lock in my prediction of the 49ers winning their sixth Lombardi and covering the two-point spread.

Be sure to check out the answers I gave to their questions by clicking here.

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