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How the Chiefs can stop Christian McCaffrey

The 49ers’ All-Pro running back will provide Kansas City with a great challenge.

NFL: NFC Championship-Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It is rare in the modern game that elite running backs have a chance to make it to the Super Bowl. Since the 1990's Dallas Cowboys featured Emmit Smith. Very few have been able to play on the game's biggest stage.

This year, the Kansas City Chiefs will take on the San Fransisco 49ers in Super Bowl 58, where they will see the league-leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey.

The Chiefs will face the unique challenge that very few teams have had to deal with in the Super Bowl in the last 20 years: playing the league's best back.

Tackle breaking

McCaffrey is one of the game's elite players at breaking tackles, and he did so to find yards on plays when he should have been stopped. His combination of contact balance, vision and strength all played significant roles in him leading the league in yards after contact.

McCaffrey can easily run through arm tackles while still keeping his vision downfield and preparing to make the next move.

Breaking tackles in the run game helped him turn out a near-1,500-yard season running the ball, but it took him to another level in the passing game. He ended the season with 564 receiving yards (second for a running back in the NFL) and seven touchdowns. This gave him a 2,000-yard season overall, in addition to 21 touchdowns.

Many of these yards were due to his ability to shake free of the first contact.

Where McCaffrey can become particularly dangerous is out of the backfield when teams find themselves lined up on him with a man-to-man linebacker. This allows McCaffrey to put himself in space and force poor tackle attempts. Even when linebackers are closing in, they are asking for trouble if they don't try to tackle McCaffrey below the waist.

Explosion

Great contact balance and an ability to make quick cuts and break tackles made McCaffrey a good back, but his explosive speed put him over the top. During the regular season, he was third in the league in rush over 20-plus yards with nine and 40-plus yards with three (his longest being 72 yards).

So far in the postseason, McCaffrey hasn't ripped "the big one," but he has had explosive runs of 39 and 25 yards. He also caught one pass for 28. All it takes is one missed tackle, assignment, or bad call — and he could be off to the races.

Redzone menace

The 49ers were the league's most efficient offense in the red zone in 2023, scoring a touchdown on 68% of possessions. McCaffrey played a big role in this, scoring 13 of his 14 total touchdowns inside the 20-yard line.

The 49ers’ offensive line is good in goal-to-go situations. They use leverage and strength to create movement off of the ball. With blocks from players like George Kittle and following behind Kyle Juszcyk, McCaffrey has been nearly unstoppable in the red zone.

How to stop him

The Chiefs' defensive coordinator frequently talks about "block destruction" when describing how he wants his team to play the run. This very simple concept involves blowing up a running back's blocks and then attacking them once all running lanes are taken away.

The Chiefs are very good at playing team defense, and against an elite back, it will take a full team effort to stop him.

The block destruction will start up front with the defensive line.

The 49ers' offensive line is solid, but they can sometimes give up penetration into the backfield.

They run their classic mid-zone look with McCaffrey, but Jon Feliciano is moved off the spot by Devonte Wyatt. This penetration forces McCaffrey to cut back, but Wyatt is there to engulf the running back.

Setting the edge is also essential against the 49ers’ toss packages. The Chiefs faced similar looks in the Wild Card round when they were able to bottle up De'Von Achane and the Miami Dolphins. Spagnuolo's unit found a way to bottle up former Kyle Shanahan disciple Mike McDaniel, and this week, they will see the looks that McDanie's offense is based on.

Detroit found some early success stopping the run against McCaffrey.

Matching the 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends) with eight in the box, Detroit can set the edge against Juszyzck and Kittle, forcing McCaffrey to look for a cutback. The rest of the defense flowed hard, and they stuffed McCaffrey in the backfield.

Kittle and Juszyzck are the best in the business regarding blocking for their positions, so being able to beat them at the point of attack will be huge for the Chiefs.

Perhaps the most crucial thing the defense can do this week is rally to the ball when McCaffrey is running. San Francisco’s blocking scheme is elite, but even well-executed plays can be stopped with ferocious effort.

All-Pros Trent Williams and Juszczyk reach their men, and both have solid blocks. McCaffrey sees some green and makes his cut, but the Lions linebacking core was in hot pursuit of the toss and was able to work over their blocks to cut off McCaffrey and hold him to a small gain.

The Lions also have several other players end the play near the sideline, a blatant sign of respect for what McCaffrey can do in the open field. In a game of this magnitude against a player of this magnitude, there is no time to take a play off.

The bottom line

McCaffrey is the best the league has to offer, and on Sunday, the Chiefs' success will hinge on stopping him. The Chiefs' defense has not been good against the run this season, but Spagnuolo and his unit will have two weeks of preparation.

It won't be easy, but winning Super Bowls never is.

It's Game Time.

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