They say football games typically come down to a handful of plays and Super Bowl LVIII was no different. In this week’s edition of The Overhang, I looked at four plays (we’ll call it four), and the players and coaches behind them, that swung the big moments in the big game.
Starting with, appropriately enough, how the San Francisco 49ers planned to defend a name that has been getting big headlines as of late, and the adjustments the Kansas City Chiefs made to open the game up.
All data via TruMedia and NextGenStats.
49ers' plan for Travis Kelce (and the Chiefs' adjustment)
Starting in the second quarter, when the Chiefs would isolate tight end Travis Kelce as a lone receiver, something they have loved to do for the last near-decade, the 49ers would align linebacker Fred Warner over Kelce in a pressed alignment:
This isn’t unusual; teams will use linebackers to play man coverage on tight ends in certain coverages like blitz looks. But the 49ers had an entire array of coverages where Warner was covering the isolated Kelce.
They ran two-man like in the screenshot above, which put Warner on Kelce at the line of scrimmage and a safety over the top for help and allows for man coverage on all of the other Chiefs receivers. They ran one-robber, which is what the 49ers were in when Mahomes threw an interception to start the second half (notice the pressed Warner and lingering safety):
— NFL (@NFL) February 12, 2024
They even ran zone variations, where Warner would show man coverage before playing as a flat defender in Cover 2. That's the typical role of a cornerback and not a linebacker, even one elite in coverage like Warner. It's another attempt to try and fool Mahomes into a mistake or any kind of hesitation.
The 49ers gameplan for when Travis Kelce was an isolated receiver was to put Fred Warner on him and vary up the coverage behind it.
2-Man, 1-Robber (including on the INT) and even Cover 2 with Warner in the flat. Then the Chiefs adjusted to set-up the game-tying FG. pic.twitter.com/RIpXebIsZA
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 13, 2024
The Chiefs started to figure out what the 49ers were up to, even wasting Noah Gray as the isolated receiver for a snap with Kelce off the field (and sure enough, Warner followed Gray). Kansas City started to motion to empty formations, which put Kelce in the slot and forced the 49ers to change out of their called looks and into more basic zone coverages, which Mahomes promptly diced up. Even the big catch-and-run to Kelce to set up the game-tying field goal was the Chiefs simply running Kelce on a crossing route away from Warner and the lurking safety, a nice, easy answer against a robber look.
It was an interesting twist, and one answer defenses have grabbed at in an attempt to slow down Kelce. The Chiefs saw it in their Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Lavonte David played the same role as Warner. The Chiefs had plenty of adjustments ready this time around (and a better offensive line), and Kelce finished with one catch in the first half and eight in the second half, which reflected those changes. Warner played physical with Kelce and like a superstar the entire evening, but like the 49ers efforts, it ended up just not being quite enough.
Trent McDuffie and the Chiefs' DBs go supernova
Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey were both primed to get heaps of chances with the football in the Super Bowl, the blitzing and two-high shells favored by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo leading to quick-hitters to the flats or over the middle and plenty of yards after catch opportunities for the explosive 49ers playmakers.
But a few things got in the way of that plan of attack. The Chiefs played the run tough, they constantly changed the picture on Brock Purdy and the 49ers' offensive line, and they disrupted the passing game with blitzes and aggressive defensive back play throughout the game. Kansas City was constantly physical with the 49ers' receivers on the outside, unleashing first-team All-Pro slot defender Trent McDuffie on Samuel in the slot and generally all over the field.
Unreal rep by Trent McDuffie vs. Deebo on a cheat motion. pic.twitter.com/utKoiMnWQI
— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) February 12, 2024
McDuffie, and the general Chiefs defensive game plan, were buzzing throughout the night. He had several plays on the ball and helped limit Samuel to just three catches on 11 targets on the night and overall held 49ers pass catchers to just two receptions and 7 total yards on six targets and 24 man coverage snaps. (Also quite funny that the Chiefs play that much man coverage, on nearly 9% more snaps than any other game this season.)
McDuffie’s talents also shined, just as it has all season, as a blitzer. This happened on one of the most important plays of the game, a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter coming out of the two-minute warning. The play also highlighted the exquisite game planning from Spagnuolo.
Writing more about this play, but watch the center Jake Brendel during the presnap process. pic.twitter.com/edmN9iNd17
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 12, 2024
The Chiefs came out with seven defensive backs on this play, the first time they had used this personnel grouping the entire game and only the third time this entire postseason, with the other two coming against the Miami Dolphins (an offense from the same Kyle Shanahan tree) in the wild-card round on a couple of fourth-down plays.
This two-defensive linemen, two-linebacker, seven-defensive back personnel grouping can create natural hesitance for offenses sorting out their protections. Even with the looser uniform number restrictions in today’s NFL, so many defensive backs on the field in similar numbers can cause consternation with a ticking time bomb, er clock, about to happen. The Xs on the chalkboard are not as easy to discern without the typical — or expected — number slots in the likely pass rushing locations. Niners center Jake Brendel, with the clock ticking down and having to wait until McCaffrey starts his motion, has to double-and-triple-check that his point (i.e. the place the offensive line is working their protection to) is going to the correct place.
When McCaffrey motions, it starts to unravel.
Watch Brendel in the pivot spot from one of the end-zone angles. When McCaffrey motions out, it keeps tight end George Kittle in the backfield as the sixth man in a six-man protection for the 49ers. And with protections, there are rules, because this is not 'Nam, Smokey.
Brendel first points to the right:
This means that the offensive line will be working the slide part of its protection (from the left guard to the right tackle) to the right side to (likely) No. 20 Justin Reid, blocking the “down” or “most dangerous” pass rushers in linebackers Nick Bolton (No. 32) and Willie Gay (No. 50), and defensive lineman Chris Jones (aligned to the far right), while also leaving left tackle Trent Williams in one-on-one protection with the last likely pass rusher in George Karlaftis (No. 56).
By rule (and this is a simplistic explanation), this means Kittle would then scan his eyes for any non-pointed off-ball defenders. Likely Reid or something from the field to the offense’s left.
But the Chiefs adjust, with Reid bumping out with McCaffrey. And Brendel changes his call:
Kittle appears to see that call, which I am assuming means the protection is now giving a “5-O” pass protection adjustment, now meaning the offensive line has the five most dangerous “down” pass rushers, which you can see Brendel point and communicate to the offensive line to include No. 27 Chamarri Conner (circled in yellow above):
It’s easier to watch unfold throughout the video in the embedded tweet, and I am attempting to reverse engineer a play design. But protection rules in the NFL do not waste bodies in pass protection if they can help it. It is best to allow the five offensive linemen to block the five most dangerous pass rushers and hopefully clear the backfield protector of his duties so he can release on a route. When Kittle ends up in the same direction as the right guard (backup Spencer Burford), it makes me think that something went askew. (And in case you’re wondering, Shanahan offenses don’t involve the quarterback in sorting out protections, for better or worse. So Purdy has no responsibilities or ability to clean things up for everyone presnap.)
Kittle is an incredible blocker from in-line positions, but sorting out exotic blitzes from Spagnuolo out of seven-DB personnel groupings isn’t exactly what he is paid to do. But if this was indeed a 5-O protection, then Kittle should be scanning his eyes for the most dangerous off-ball defender for protection. Since he did not likely see or hear the emphasis on Conner, Kittle’s eyes stay on Conner, who is technically off-ball at the snap, so Kittle then goes to do his job.
The Chiefs bring Conner and McDuffie from the slot on a blitz. Conner is technically taken care of by the offensive line’s call, so Kittle should be then scanning his eyes across the formation, following the field safety capping the blitzing McDuffie.
McDuffie ends up unblocked and in Purdy’s face in an instant, one of the Chiefs' nine unblocked pressures on blitzes Sunday. Purdy should have more time since the 49ers have enough blockers, and he could potentially hit Brandon Aiyuk in the slot as a “hot” answer; instead he has to navigate throwing around McDuffie, who disrupts the throwing lane and knocks the ball harmlessly to the ground and forces the 49ers to a field goal. It was one of the dozens of plays this Chiefs defensive backs room made throughout the game. (Just think of how many missed tackles and big gains after contact there were for the 49ers. Not many, right?)
McDuffie, Spagnuolo and the Chiefs' DBs have been stars throughout this entire season and key characters in this march to a championship. It’s so fitting that they are also the main characters in such a season-altering play.
Leo Chenal, Chris Jones and the rest of the funky bunch
Jones was unblockable the entire game, often blowing up the 49ers' plays before they got going. He finished with six pressures and several came in under 2.5 seconds.
Even though Jones wasn’t always finishing with a sack or a knockdown, those constant pressures moved Purdy off of his launch point and forced the 49ers to be slightly to severely off-time and off-kilter the entire evening.
In the run game, Chenal, a linebacker, and other defenders made it a grind for the 49ers' run game engine to get revved up. Chenal forced a fumble on the opening drive and was fantastic setting the edge on the outside for the entire game, sometimes George Kittle, one of the most foremost blocking tight ends in the NFL.
Chenal (and other Chiefs) working to force Deebo Samuel back inside pic.twitter.com/Td2JPMv6Jg
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 13, 2024
This strong play forced tons of the 49ers' outside runs to have to work inside earlier than expected or wanted. Chenal’s play stood out throughout the evening, along with other Chiefs defenders like journeyman lineman Mike Pennel, proud owner of 45 snaps this regular season.
The Leo Chenal-Mike Pennel bash brother duo making a mess of things in short yardage. pic.twitter.com/razZmttPrB
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 13, 2024
Pennel had several big plays in this game, and even got a one-on-one win against Trent Williams in an upset of Tyson-Douglas proportions, one of several nice moments from the big defensive tackle in his second stint with the Chiefs.
The stars and role players of all shapes and sizes stepped up for the Chiefs. Chenal worked with his teammates to funnel every single McCaffrey and Samuel run and it all started on drive one, having several huge moments at the biggest stage right away. But the Super Bowl victories come when players like Pennel have their biggest plays in quite some time.
Patrick Mahomes: Scootin’
Mahomes is a fantastic scrambler, one of the most effective in the NFL since he entered the league and something that he continued to excel at this season. But ever since Mahomes suffered an injury in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos while running a quarterback sneak, the Chiefs have been a bit hesitant to put their house magician in harm’s way if they could help to avoid it (which has led to a variety of hijinks from this Chiefs in short-yardage scenarios).
But for the first time since Week 15 of the 2022 season, the Chiefs used Mahomes on a designed run. Breaking a long-established tendency (over 20 games) until they found the opportune time to use Mahomes in the run game. The Super Bowl seems like a solid time to use anything in the bag of tricks (it is, after all, the last game of the season and you can’t hold anything back), but the Chiefs used the aggressiveness of 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa to their own advantage. Bosa is known to pin his ears back and scream down the line of scrimmage when run plays go away from him, taking advantage of his speed and excellent change-of-direction ability to somehow simultaneously be über-aggressive against the run but also attempt to recover to any changeups (like bootlegs or designed quarterback runs) that come his way.
In the third quarter, after Bosa got involved with several run plays from the backside early in the game, the Chiefs found a time to call a simple zone read run concept (meaning it’s a zone run play with Mahomes reading the defensive end) while tagging Gray on a flat route and Rashee Rice on a slant route.
When Bosa (circled red) crashes down to play the running back, Mahomes pulls the ball. And when safety Tashaun Gipson (circled yellow) runs with Gray on his flat route since the 49ers are in man coverage and is his man coverage assignment, the field opens up like the Red Sea for Mahomes to keep it for himself for a 22-yard gain:
Even though Mahomes runs the ball all the time, those are technically scrambles on designed passing plays. This was the Chiefs using Mahomes as a part of the true run game (or as true as an RPO can be), which likely left the 49ers (or Bosa) slacking a bit when the ball stayed on the ground.
Mahomes had another key run on fourth-and-1 in overtime, but that was on a called bootleg pass play where Mahomes tucked the ball and scrambled. But that’s me parsing with technicalities, because it still took advantage of Bosa’s tunnel vision and allowed the Chiefs to convert for a huge first down:
Turns out the Chiefs 4th & 1 play in OT was actually a naked and not a zone read or RPO. pic.twitter.com/zp9Zx1hGfR
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) February 12, 2024
They went on to win the Super Bowl later that drive. Mahomes and the Chiefs' play-calling on both sides of the ball — and key performers like Kelce, McDuffie and others — proved to be the most critical advantage when it counted.