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TONY’S TAKE – A PREVIEW OF SUPER BOWL LVIII

by Tony Fiorello

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 5: San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan talks to Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid during Opening Night at Allegiant Stadium on February 5, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Lauren Leigh Bacho/Getty Images)


Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming championship game and the teams involved, and what each squad might do to emerge victorious.


The 58th edition of the NFL’s biggest game will take place at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada as the San Francisco 49ers will face the Kansas City Chiefs. Here’s what you should know:

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 25: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates with Christian McCaffrey #23 of the San Francisco 49ers during an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at Levi's Stadium on December 25, 2023 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)


49ERS’ OFFENSE DEADLY

Like his father Mike, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is very creative in its ability to attack matchups. It utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs and he has rode this approach to four conference championship game appearances and a pair of NFC titles.


The 49ers’ philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline on “stretch” runs that encourages its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are All-Pro Trent Williams (one of the NFL’s most agile left tackles who excels at getting out on the perimeter on screens), Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Jon Feliciano, Colton McKivitz and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.


While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use gap schemes such as traps, sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).


The reason why the 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time while taking advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and creating more vanilla coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”


In years past these concepts by the Bay were carried out by veterans like Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Matt Breida, but neither of these backs had the ability to affect defensive gameplans both on the ground and through the air. Enter former Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey, who four years ago became just the third back in NFL annals to have both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season (Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the others). Acquired at the 2022 trade deadline in exchange for draft pick compensation, the explosive McCaffrey – who led the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns this year – is arguably the most talented running back either Shanahan has had play in this scheme, and he and speedy backup Elijah Mitchell have wreaked havoc for the 49ers.


Before this season the guy handing the ball off to them was quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Yet he was rarely healthy or consistent, prompting Shanahan to draft the physically gifted but raw Trey Lance from North Dakota State in 2021. Lance, due to ineffective play, was surpassed on the depth chart by Brock Purdy.


A seventh-round pick last year out of Iowa State (and 2022’s “Mr. Irrelevant” aka the last selection of the draft), Purdy has been a revelation. While not possessing great physical traits, Purdy is mobile, accurate and understands how to manipulate defenders in pass coverage. He also processes coverages quickly and has good anticipation.


San Francisco’s weapons in the passing game are dangerous. Four-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle is one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Speedsters Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and are adept at picking up yards after the catch, especially on in-breaking routes. They also are liberally used by Shanahan in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities, and Samuel is a dangerous ball carrier on reverses and end-arounds. He will also sometimes line up at running back (backups Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud III sometimes get in on the action as well).


Similar to his predecessors, Shanahan will have his wide receivers, running backs and tight ends line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them additional space to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions (especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game) and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.


As per usual, San Francisco had good production in 2023. They finished the regular season second in total yards, fourth in passing, and third in rushing and scoring. Additionally, they were among the league’s best in allowing sacks (tied for sixth).

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 17: Nick Bosa #97 and Fred Warner #54 of the San Francisco 49ers run in action during a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)


SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE EVOLVING

When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco in 2017 he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Saleh and Bradley were among the original architects (along with Dan Quinn and Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three zone defensive scheme which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.


Saleh has since become the head honcho of the New York Jets and his protégé, DeMeco Ryans, also parlayed success running San Francisco’s defense into a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. Their successor is the well-traveled Steve Wilks, who has kept the 49ers’ system intact but has put his own spin on the team’s playbook. Their base coverage remains Cover Three – with deep zone coverage from the outside cornerbacks, one safety patrolling centerfield and another near the line of scrimmage – but they have mixed in more split safety concepts like Two, Four, Six and Two-Man Under to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns.


The prototype for Cover Three-style corners is to have length and an ability to excel in press coverage, so the 49ers have made sure that three corners on their roster (Charvarius Ward, Isaiah Oliver and Ambry Thomas) are at least 6’0”. Deommodore Lenoir is the starter opposite Ward, and Ward has become one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. Tashaun Gipson, Ji’Ayir Brown and the injured Talanoa Hufanga are the starters at safety.


The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Dre Greenlaw and one of the league’s best second-level defenders in the speedy Fred Warner. In front of them is one of the NFL’s best and deepest defensive lines made up of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, Javon Hargrave, Chase Young, Randy Gregory and the injured Clelin Ferrell.


Their linemen are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Wilks – like Saleh and Ryans before him – uses one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates any potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. Wilks will also have his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations and especially out of five-man tilted fronts.


The 49ers ended 2023 eighth in total yards given up, third against the run, 14th versus the pass and third in points allowed (not to mention tied for seventh in sacks and tied for fifth in takeaways).

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - JANUARY 13: (L-R) Isiah Pacheco #10, Travis Kelce #87 and Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs stand on the field before the AFC Wild Card Playoffs against the Miami Dolphins at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on January 13, 2024 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)


CHIEFS’ OFFENSE IS TYPICALLY DANGEROUS, BUT SLOWING A BIT

Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense has taken on many forms over the years. In Philadelphia his passing game with quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick was vertical-based to take advantage of their arm strength, conversely with Alex Smith it became conservative and horizontal.


Now with Patrick Mahomes under center it has returned to its downfield version. The system has also incorporated many college concepts in recent years and heavily relies on the design of the play to get people open. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Kansas City’s passing game is unique because it doesn’t depend on wide receivers winning one-on-one battles outside. The scheme relies on route combinations and creating opportunities for tight ends and running backs. This means the throws are more about timing than velocity.


“Reid features presnap motion, misdirection and multi-option reads. Those tactics put a defense on its heels by presenting the illusion of complexity, but they can transition into traditional concepts once the ball is snapped…. (they) aim to isolate specific defenders – often linebackers – present them with run/pass assignment conflicts and also get defenders flowing one way as the ball goes another.”


For years Kansas City employed wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who is perhaps the league’s fastest player and can line up anywhere – out wide, in the backfield and in the slot, where he is especially dangerous on post routes out of trips formations. Following a trade to the Miami Dolphins following the 2021 season, Reid and general manager Brett Veach decided to replace him by committee.


Although they don’t boast quite the same speed as Hill does, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman and Skyy Moore give the Chiefs a trio who can beat anyone vertically and all are used liberally in motion by Reid. Rookie Rashee Rice, Kadarius Toney, Justin Watson, Justyn Ross and Richie James have also gotten in on the action this year to varying degrees and Reid also likes to give his wideouts reduced splits along the line of scrimmage to use defenders’ leverage against them and present two-way go’s. However, they have struggled this year against man coverage and are dropping passes at the highest rate in the NFL.


Travis Kelce, one of the best talents at his position, is versatile and can align in different ways in the formation (especially as the lone receiver on the backside in bunch – otherwise known as the boundary ‘X’ receiver). Perhaps the most athletic tight end in football, he can beat most defensive backs and linebackers on many different routes, especially on corners, sticks and crossers and is excellent at creating yards after the catch.


Kelce set a record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,416 in 2020 and continues to remain his usual elite self after passing Jerry Rice for the most receptions in playoff history two weeks ago. Backups Noah Grey, Jody Fortson (out with an injury) and Blake Bell’s roles have expanded as Kansas City has incorporated more formations featuring multiple tight ends – a year ago they used multi-tight end packages on more than 40 percent of their snaps.


In 2020 the Chiefs invested at running back by selecting Clyde Edwards-Helaire from LSU in the first round, hoping to upgrade a position that previously relied on veterans Damien Williams and former Eagle and Bill LeSean McCoy. Edwards-Helaire, however, has been injured and ineffective for most of his career – leading to Isiah Pacheco taking over. The powerful Pacheco (a downhill, north-south type of runner) and Jerick McKinnon are adept at hurting teams not just on the ground but through the air as well, especially on screen passes, and McKinnon has turned into an effective red zone weapon.


Those backs and Mahomes operate behind an offensive line that has undergone many changes over the last few years. Injuries and underperformance have seen the Chiefs say goodbye to names like Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, Austin Reiter, Kelechi Osemele, Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie and hello to new faces like All-Pro Joe Thuney (out for Sunday with a pectoral injury), Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor. Smith and Taylor haven’t quite worked out so far – with the aging Smith being in and out of the lineup due to various ailments and Taylor underachieving, Reid has been using his tight ends and backs to help in pass protection more often (Taylor has taken more penalties than anyone in the NFL this season). Wanya Morris, who has filled in at tackle from time to time, has some physical traits (size, long arms) but is considered a project due to a lack of technique.


The widespread comparisons of Mahomes to Brett Favre aren’t unfounded, as the former possesses most of the latter’s attributes – a cannon for an arm, an uncanny ability to extend plays and good mobility and intelligence, plus a willingness to fit passes into tight windows. But he hasn’t always played the way his coaches want him to.


From time to time Mahomes shows too much unnecessary movement both in and outside the pocket due to anticipating pressure that isn’t there, sloppy footwork and not playing within the timing and structure of Reid’s attack. He also sometimes doesn’t take what defenses give him coverage-wise and forces plays down the field that don’t need to be.


When this happens, Reid usually gets Mahomes to settle down by incorporating more short and intermediate concepts like “smash” and “flood” – resulting in him being more decisive and his offense becoming more rhythm-based and less vertical. His mechanics also need touching up at times – especially by holding the ball higher so he can throw quicker and fixing his lower body base.


A year ago the Chiefs’ offense was their usual lethal selves, ending 2022 first in total yards, points scored and passing, but 20th in rushing. This year they’ve fallen off a bit – 15th in points (21.8, the lowest in the Mahomes era), ninth in total yards, sixth in passing and 19th in rushing are usually not bad numbers for anyone, but given Kansas City’s lofty standards they should be better. Mahomes has also thrown 203 straight postseason passes without an interception, a league record.

BALTIMORE, MD - JANUARY 28: Chris Jones #95 of the Kansas City Chiefs lines up during the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images)


KANSAS CITY’S DEFENSE PEAKING

From 2013 through 2018 the Chiefs’ defense was conducted by Bob Sutton, a former longtime assistant with the New York Jets. During the first three seasons Sutton applied his scheme in Kansas City the Chiefs had an upper-echelon unit, but between 2016-18 it took a nosedive – bottoming out in ’18 by finishing the regular season in the bottom-half of the league in nearly every statistical category.


Reid promptly replaced Sutton with one of his old assistants from Philadelphia in Steve Spagnuolo. “Spags”, a former head coach with the Rams and Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, implemented a 4-3 system characterized by cleverly disguised five-man overload blitzes, multiple coverages with press technique by the cornerbacks and safeties rotations before the snap. They also blitz at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL.


The biggest key to Kansas City’s defense used to be former Arizona Cardinal and Houston Texan Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is one of the most versatile back-end defenders in football, as evidenced by his many snaps at slot cornerback, box safety, nickel/dime linebacker, free safety and outside cornerback. His athleticism and intelligence were valuable to the Chiefs – so valuable to the point where he was mainly used as the team’s middle hole defender in Cover Two zone and not a linebacker. But Mathieu left in free agency for the New Orleans Saints a year ago along with fellow safety Daniel Sorenson, and in their place now are ex-Texan Justin Reid (who matches up well with tight ends) and Bryan Cook (who is out for Sunday and will be replaced by Mike Edwards).


The Chiefs also underwent a makeover at cornerback. Veterans Charvarius Ward, Mike Hughes, Rashad Fenton and DeAndre Baker are gone and L’Jarius Sneed is now joined by youngsters Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson. This group is mainly used by Spagnuolo in dime packages (they utilize it at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL) with Sneed and Watson on the outside and McDuffie blitzing from the slot.


The Chiefs’ defensive line is the most talented part of this unit. All-Pro Chris Jones is one of the best defensive linemen in the league and is their linchpin thanks to his combination of burst and hand usage off the line of scrimmage. Derrick Nnadi, Charles Omenihu (both out for Sunday), Mike Danna and George Karlaftis are the team’s other contributors in their front four and all are versatile. At linebacker Kansas City employs Nick Bolton – who is their best second-level defender – Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill. Bolton is smart and athletic, and Tranquill excels in zone coverage.


Over the last few years the results from Spags’ defense were uneven, ranging anywhere from great to good to mediocre in multiple categories. Although 18th against the run and 27th in takeaways, his defense this season has been sublime ranking second in points allowed (17.3, the lowest of any Reid-coached team since the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles), second in total yards given up, fourth against the pass and second in sacks. The Chiefs have also, with the help of a 17th regular season game, set a record for the most contests in a season allowing less than 28 points with 20 such games.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - FEBRUARY 5: The Vince Lombardi Trophy sits on the stage during Opening Night at Allegiant Stadium on February 5, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Lauren Leigh Bacho/Getty Images)


STATS AND MUSINGS

·         Reid will coach in his fifth Super Bowl, tied for the third-most appearances ever by a head coach with Tom Landry.

·         The Chiefs are in the Super Bowl for the sixth time going back to 1966 and for the fourth time in five years (the third-most appearances all-time). They’re just the third team to reach four Super Bowls in a five-year span, joining the Buffalo Bills (1990-93) and New England Patriots (2014, 2016-18).

·         The 49ers are in the Super Bowl for an eighth time, tied with the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys for the second-most appearances ever.

·         Both Joe Montana and Tom Brady won their third Super Bowls after beating the top-ranked scoring defense on the road in their respective conference title games. Mahomes, after defeating the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago, will try to do the same tonight.

·         Kyle Shanahan has the second-best winning percentage all-time for a coach in playoff history with a minimum of 10 games coached (8-3, .727) – behind just Vince Lombardi (9-1, .900).

·         Additionally, no coach in American professional sports has a higher winning percentage without a championship than Shanahan.

·         Should he emerge victorious tonight, Shanahan and his father Mike as the only father-son combination in American pro sports to each win a championship as a head coach.

·         No team has repeated as Super Bowl champions since the Patriots did so in 2003 and ’04. The Chiefs will try to become the eighth team all-time to do so.

·         San Francisco and Kansas City are the first teams to go against one another twice in a Super Bowl in a five-year span since the Patriots and New York Giants also did the deed between 2007-11. The other Super Bowl rematches belong to the Steelers and Cowboys (three times), 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals, Washington and Miami Dolphins, Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, Patriots and Rams, and Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.

·         It will also be the fourth Super Bowl rematch between coaches. Shanahan and Reid will join Chuck Noll and Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson and Marv Levy, and Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick as the only pairs to do so.

·         Spaguolo is the only coordinator to win a Super Bowl with multiple teams, having done so with the Chiefs and Giants.

·         According to OptaSTATS, Purdy’s second half performance two weeks ago in which he threw for 150-plus yards, ran for 45-plus yards, completed 80 percent of his passes, averaged 10 yards per rush and had no turnovers was a historic one – no NFL quarterback had done all of that in a single half in the regular season or postseason in the last 30 years.

·         The 49ers haven’t won a Super Bowl in 29 years and the Chiefs will attempt to win their third championship in five years. In an eerie coincidence, the 2014 World Series saw the Kansas City Royals trying to win their first title in 29 years (they would win it in 2015) and the San Francisco Giants won their third crown in five years.

·         According to ESPN, teams that travel west for a Super Bowl are 7-0 against teams that travel east for the game in the last 30 years. The Chiefs traveled west for this year’s edition, the 49ers to the east.

·         According to NFL historian Dan Daly, 18 of the last 28 Super Bowls have been won by head coaches with their second team. If Kansas City wins tonight, Reid will make it 19 of the last 29.

·         None of the head coaches in their first coaching job to win a Super Bowl since 1995 have won more than one ring, but four of the retread coaches have more than one (Mike Shanahan, Belichick, Coughlin and Reid).

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