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Super Bowl LVIII scouting report: Who has the edge in Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers?

For the third year in a row (SB LVI, SB LVII), Next Gen Stats research & analytics maven Mike Band crunches the numbers on crucial matchups in the Super Bowl.

Who holds the advantage in six key areas of Super Bowl LVIII: Kansas City Chiefs or San Francisco 49ers? Check out the answers below.


Patrick Mahomes & Travis Kelce vs. 49ers' zone coverage

In recent seasons, the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs have pivoted from their earlier deep-ball dominance to a more nuanced passing game focused on shorter, more methodical throws. Between 2018 and 2021, Mahomes led all quarterbacks with 44 deep touchdown passes (20-plus air yards). Since 2022, he's thrown two (one in each season). In the absence of the vertical threat, Mahomes led all quarterbacks in completions (320) and touchdowns (19) on passes under 10 air yards in 2023. Fewer air yards = More YAC. No quarterback picked up more of his passing yards after the catch than Mahomes this season (63 percent). As defenses employ more split-safety coverages, the holes that open up in zone -- especially on plays that break down -- play to the strengths of Mahomes and his most reliable target, Travis Kelce.

Kelce's ability to find space and exploit zone coverage fuels the spectacular numbers he's posting at the age of 34. For the second consecutive season, Kelce led all tight ends with 767 receiving yards against zone coverage, while also topping the charts in expected points added when targeted (+27.3) and first downs converted (37) against zone. Kelce's importance is further magnified on extended plays, where he leads all pass catchers in receptions on dropbacks over four seconds (16). Rookie standout Rashee Rice has also emerged as a key contributor, particularly underneath and in the screen game. The second-round pick gained 186 receiving yards on wide receiver screens during the regular season, fifth-most by a receiver in a single season over the last five years.

The 49ers' defense, under Steve Wilks, will likely maintain a zone-heavy coverage plan, complemented by a formidable four-man pass rush. This strategy aims to limit vertical threats, YAC opportunities and Mahomes' scrambling ability. The effectiveness of this approach may hinge on Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw's ability to neutralize Kelce and control the middle of the field, while also keeping an eye on Mahomes in the backfield. Mahomes was responsible for 26 first downs on scramble runs during the regular season, tied with Lamar Jackson for most among quarterbacks. The biggest difference between this Sunday and the Chiefs' Super Bowl LVII win in Arizona one year ago? Mahomes won't be entering the game with a sprained ankle.


Nick Bosa vs. Jawaan Taylor

One of the most compelling matchups in Super Bowl LVIII comes in the trenches: 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa against Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor. Bosa, who lines up at the left edge position (against the offense's right) on 69.1 percent of snaps, is set to face Taylor, who has excelled in keeping Mahomes upright this season, especially on longer-developing plays. Taylor allowed the longest average time to pressure among all offensive tackles with at least 300 pass-blocking snaps this season (3.97 seconds, including playoffs).

Bosa needs 11 pressures in the Super Bowl to set the single-season NGS pressures record since 2018 (he currently stands at fourth with 104, including playoffs). He brought plenty of heat in Super Bowl LIV, creating nine pressures against Mahomes. Over 14 pass-rush matchups between Bosa and Taylor since 2019, Bosa generated three pressures and one sack -- a small sample size, sure, but a win for Bosa. The matchup ultimately will come down to Taylor's ability to use his 35 1/8-inch arms to offset Bosa's elite get-off. Bosa averaged the third-quickest get-off among pass rushers with 250 pass rushes this season (0.73 seconds).


Chiefs' running game vs. 49ers' run defense in short yardage

While the 49ers' ground game is predicated on runs outside the tackles, Isiah Pacheco and the Chiefs' rushing attack has been at its best inside the tackles and in short-yardage situations. The matchup against San Francisco's four-man front is one of the areas of this game that strongly favors Kansas City.

Pacheco has been among the most efficient running backs this season in creating yards after contact and finding success against stacked boxes. The second-year back out of Rutgers leads the league with 4.7 yards per carry against stacked boxes through the playoffs (among rushers with at least 30 carries). He also ranked fifth in yards after contact per carry (3.5) during the regular season (among rushers with at least 100 carries), with 77.1 percent of his total rushing yards coming after contact.

On the other side of the ball, San Francisco's defense allowed the highest conversion rate this season on runs with 1-to-2 yards to go (78.6%). Pacheco should have an easier time finding running lanes in these situations, as the 49ers have aligned in four-man fronts on a league-leading 73 percent of short-yardage plays this season, the only team over the 68 percent mark.

One way the Chiefs have found success against four-man fronts this season: using condensed formations, something they've done at a higher rate against defenses that primarily employ four-man fronts (SEE: the Bills, Dolphins and Jets, among others). The 49ers have struggled to defend the run against condensed formations, allowing the third-most yards per play (4.6, including the postseason), resulting in the league's lowest success rate against condensed runs (44.3 percent).



Brock Purdy & Co. vs. Chiefs' pass defense

The 49ers arguably boast the strongest offensive ensemble in the NFL, with standouts across the field in RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Deebo Samuel, WR Brandon Aiyuk, TE George Kittle, LT Trent Williams and FB Kyle Juszczyk. All play key roles in helping quarterback Brock Purdy sing. No matter how you evaluate Purdy's game, it is clear that the young quarterback has been given a significant advantage by playing in one of the league's most favorable setups.

That is not to say Purdy is a product of his environment. On the contrary, Purdy has emerged as one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks this season by elevating the 49ers' offense beyond the achievements of his predecessors, particularly through his agility in the pocket, quick processing skills and overall command of the offense. These qualities will be crucial against Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive defense.

Notably, Purdy has excelled against the blitz this season, finishing in the top two among quarterbacks in completion percentage (68.1, second), yards per attempt (10.1, first) and passing touchdowns (16, tied for first) through the NFC Championship Game. If Spagnuolo maintains his penchant for blitzing, as seen against Lamar Jackson in the AFC title bout, Purdy and Co. will have plenty of adjustments to make at the line of scrimmage. It is rare for Purdy to call only one play in the huddle; there's a check on nearly every call.

The key question is how Kansas City will fare against San Francisco's YAC-centric scheme. During the regular season, the Chiefs' defense allowed the second-fewest yards after catch over expected league-wide (+2). However, the unit's biggest test of this campaign will come on the game's biggest stage, as Samuel (+235) and Kittle (+192) led their respective positions in YAC over expected during the regular season. Aiyuk, who ranked 11th league-wide (+139) in the same metric, might encounter shadow coverage from L'Jarius Sneed. Only one receiver accumulated 50-plus receiving yards when shadowed by Sneed this season: Las Vegas Raiders star Davante Adams in Week 12.


Christian McCaffrey vs. Chiefs' run defense

The success of the 49ers' running game lies not solely in the individual talent of personnel or the ingenuity of the scheme, but in the seamless integration of both personnel and scheme. Christian McCaffrey deserves plenty of credit for winning the league's rushing title with 1,459 yards. He was also Next Gen Stats' regular-season leader in rushing yards over expected, (+349), rushing yards after contact (949) and runs of 10-plus yards (38). But by going deeper into McCaffrey's numbers, it is possible to unlock data-driven stories that highlight the importance of key blockers like Trent Williams, Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle, as well as how much Kyle Shanahan's versatile scheme elevates the unit to another level.

With Williams on the field this season, the 49ers averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 434 carries and gained 10-plus yards on 16.1 percent of runs. Without Williams, the offense averaged 3.2 yards per carry on 122 carries and gained 10-plus yards on 8.2 percent of runs. Furthermore, McCaffrey averaged 7.1 yards per carry on runs outside to the left during the regular season. When CMC runs to the same side as Kittle, he averages over a yard per carry more: 5.6 per attempt when running towards Kittle's side, compared to 4.5 when running away from the tight end. Juszczyk enables the offense to play 21 and 22 personnel (i.e., two-running back sets). In related news, McCaffrey gained 841 of his 1,459 rushing yards from 21 and 22 groupings. Shanahan utilizes shifts and motions from condensed formations to create leverage in his wide-zone-heavy scheme. 

McCaffrey's impact as a receiver is what puts him in another league at the running back position. No RB picked up more first downs on receptions during the regular season (31). The all-around playmaker was the only running back to play over 80 percent of team snaps from Weeks 1 through 17 (McCaffrey was inactive Week 18), with three games where he played 100 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps (while the rest of the NFL had one such game).

An area where the Chiefs' defense has struggled this season? The unit has allowed the most rushing yards after contact per carry (3.7) among any defense during the regular season. Kansas City MUST get McCaffrey to the turf, or the Niners could literally run away with this game.


Kyle Shanahan vs. Steve Spagnuolo

The strategic matchup between the 49ers' offense and Chiefs' defense -- units led by two of the most heralded minds in the league today -- could end up being the difference in the outcome of Super Bowl LVIII. In a lot of ways, the fundamentals of these two coaches' systems mirror each other; both disguise their play calls with versatile personnel and misdirection. The numbers suggest Kyle Shanahan is as good as any coach at creating explosive plays, while Steve Spagnuolo has built a secondary that limits them and excels at creating negative plays.

A key strategy to look out for will be how Spagnuolo chooses to counter the 49ers' personnel when Kyle Juszczyk is on the field. In Super Bowl LIV, the Chiefs matched heavier personnel groupings with base personnel (four defensive backs) on 25 of 30 plays. In their last matchup, when Kansas City beat San Francisco 44-23 in Week 7 of 2022, the Chiefs matched heavy personnel with base on just 15 of 30 plays. In both games, San Francisco took advantage of Kansas City in base personnel, averaging at least 7 yards per play. This season, the Chiefs have also struggled to defend the run out of base, but it's hard to take a linebacker off the field with the blocking prowess of Juszczyk and George Kittle.

Another crucial aspect to monitor: how Spagnuolo chooses to blitz Brock Purdy. The 49ers' dominant run game has forced defenses to align with five-man fronts at the highest rate this season, naturally leading to more five-man pass rushes (and taking away the disguise of a blitz). Purdy took full advantage, averaging a league-high 11.4 yards per attempt against blitzes with at least five defenders on the line of scrimmage. But he was less effective when the defense sent an unexpected pass rusher from the second level, dropping to 7.9 against blitzes from four-man fronts, ranking 12th in the NFL. The Chiefs send second-level defenders about as much as any other defense, helping them generate a league-high 73 unblocked pressures this season.

The winner of this matchup may very well be determined early in the game, as both coaches are at their best when they can play from ahead. The first four drives of the game will dictate the rest. If the 49ers can take an early lead, they should be able to continue to run the ball consistently and stay ahead of the chains. If the Chiefs force a negative game script, Spagnuolo's creative coverage rotations and exotic pressure packages will be unleashed to stall drives.



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