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How the Chiefs’ offense can attack the 49ers’ defense

The San Francisco defense is made up of star players, but the unit has been exploitable this postseason.

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

In Super Bowl LVIII, the San Francisco 49ers' offense boasts the bulk of the superstars, even if the Kansas City Chiefs' have the bigger names on their side.

However, the 49ers' defense is also lined with some of the best at their position. Linebacker Fred Warner and cornerback Charvarius Ward earned All-Pro honors this season, while star defensive end Nick Bosa headlines a front with four first-round picks.

The group boasts playmaking at all three levels of the defense, presenting the Chiefs with a complex challenge on offense. I looked at some of the specific ways Kansas City can attack the San Francisco defense in the Super Bowl:

Accounting for Nick Bosa

Bosa will be the main focus for the Chiefs' blocking schemes on run or pass plays. He is a game-wrecker who has accumulated 31 sacks over the last two seasons. He was first-team All-Pro in 2022; in Week 7 of that season, the Chiefs and 49ers played in San Fransisco, winning by a score of 44-23.

During that game, the Chiefs' offense constantly accounted for Bosa, using extra blockers to help the offensive tackles and running plays away from his side.

On some crucial downs, the Chiefs went right after Bosa, looking to take advantage of his aggressiveness.

  • On third and short, the Chiefs don't block Bosa off the snap, showing a handoff directly at him. Then quickly, quarterback Patrick Mahomes pulls it and passes out to the flat, and running back Jerick McKinnon transitions to a chop block. The timing gives Bosa no chance to make a play.
  • Just outside the red zone, the Chiefs run a jet sweep to Bosa's side from under center. As Bosa fires out, expecting to engage blockers, he takes a split second to realize he was left unblocked, which was enough time for wide receiver Mecole Hardman to get around the edge.
  • On a pass down, Bosa works to get pressure on Mahomes, but the Chiefs call a screen to McKinnon, who initially set up to block him on the edge. Bosa's penetration was the key to this play popping for roughly 40 yards.

On this play, Bosa comes out aggressively, looking to win to the right tackle's outside shoulder, but that just favors the Chiefs' play call. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire hits inside his leverage and eventually finds the end zone.

Great disruptors like Bosa will make big plays, but the Chiefs must balance that out by finding opportunities to flip that aggression against him. Kansas City uses a similar strategy against Las Vegas Raiders' edge rusher Maxx Crosby.

Weaponizing the run game

In the postseason, the Chiefs have impressively tweaked the run game to be more impactful handoff to handoff. It starts with the play calls: fewer run-pass option plays and more designed runs that ask the offensive line to simply fire out and overpower someone.

The 49ers haven't handled that kind of rushing attack in these playoffs. The Detroit Lions totaled 182 yards and three touchdowns in the NFC Championship by going after San Francisco's run defense. Even though the 49ers were playing three linebackers to match the Lions' heavier personnel, Detroit constantly found success on the ground, using tight ends and wide receivers in the blocking scheme.

In the Divisional round, the Green Bay Packers didn't rack up as many rushing yards but allowed six yards a carry to running back Aaron Jones. On some of the Packers' best runs, Jones hit off tackle, following pulling blocks from linemen and strong blocks by skill-position players at the second level.

The Chiefs have shown some success getting running back Isiah Pacheco to the edge this postseason, using center Creed Humphrey or right guard Trey Smith as pullers. Against the Buffalo Bills, the Chiefs ran the ball outside the tackle eight times for 86 yards; all four of Kansas City's runs of 10 or more yards in Buffalo came off tackle.

Exploiting holes in zone coverage

On pass plays, the 49ers will primarily play four-man rushes and zone coverage behind it. That was a problem for the Chiefs' offense earlier this season when pass catchers failed to run disciplined routes and sit between zone defenders correctly. That has improved, but San Francisco will look to bring some of those struggles back to the surface.

That's why it will be important for the Chiefs' playcalling to feature lots of pre-snap motions and misdirection. This will be the best way to pry open windows for Mahomes to throw over the middle of the field because stud linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw have to account for the movements.

The more Kansas City can stretch them sideline to sideline, the more likely tight end Travis Kelce or wide receiver Rashee Rice can find room between the hashes.

Behind the linebackers, the 49ers have given up a handful of big plays to wide receivers this postseason — even if the ball wasn't caught. The defense's third cornerback is Ambry Thomas, who will play on the outside when San Francisco is in Nickel formations. Against the Packers, Thomas committed pass interference twice on deep throws, looking uncomfortable covering a vertical threat.

While wide receivers Justin Watson and Marquez Valdes-Scantling will look to capitalize on Thomas' potential struggles, the 49ers have 32-year-old Logan Ryan and 33-year-old Tashaun Gipson at safety.

Gipson is a playmaking veteran who has started two seasons, but Ryan is a fill-in for All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga, who tore his ACL in November. Ryan and rookie safety Ji'Ayir Brown have substituted, and both will have a tough test handling Kelce and the Chiefs' route concepts.

Watch for plenty of crossing patterns — and other routes that look like crossers initially. Mahomes will be looking to attack the player whose head is spinning the most.

It's Game Time.

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