KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs arrive at arguably their biggest stage on Sunday in 50 seasons. It is the goal every team talks about reaching, but the 2019 Chiefs made it, giving head coach Andy Reid his first trip to the Super Bowl in 15 years.
Reid's built an impressive coaching resume that includes 221 regular season wins, seven conference championship appearances, two different franchises to a Super Bowl and a coaching tree that few in the league can match.
Sunday is the day Andy Reid can cement his legacy for the Hall of Fame with a Lombardi trophy.
Kansas City will go up against a 49ers offense led by Kyle Shanahan that features a ton of the mid-90s Denver Broncos running game and play-action influence from his dad Mike Shanahan, and parts of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense that Kyle Shanahan used on a previous Super Bowl run.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh runs the cover three scheme from the Seattle Seahawks. He spent 2011-13 as a quality control coach in Seattle before joining Gus Bradley as the linebackers coach in Jacksonville until 2017. Saleh relies on the speed of his front four pass rush and zone coverage by the back end to get opponents off the field.
Only one team remains in the way of the Chiefs and their second Super Bowl championship in franchise history. Here are the keys to coming away with a franchise-changing victory:
1. Take away the edge and cutbacks
The Chiefs front seven will need to remain disciplined against the run. The 49ers like to run stretches, tosses, counters and take the cut-back lanes if a defense doesn't maintain its gap discipline.
The edge must be set with Frank Clark and Terrell Suggs to force the run game back inside to pursuit. Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida provide significant speed off tackle and on the cut-back runs. They are both capable of taking a run the distance with poor run fits.
Tevin Coleman has become more of their change-of-pace back that provides a physical presence. He has good speed with a nice blend of power. Kansas City will have to ignore the flash from the 49ers. They like to run ghost motions to hold the backside and create cut back lanes.
The Chiefs will likely have to accept their edge defenders making plays on the reverses and jet sweeps to remain sound in other portions of run defense.
2. Force Jimmy Garoppolo out of his comfort zone
The 49ers quarterback is comfortable when he has a clean pocket, the run game is working, he can run his play-action passes and throw from the hash to the numbers. Garoppolo likes to throw play-action passes with deep drops or on bootlegs.
He then likes to start blending in the screen passes. And finally, he likes to make throws from the numbers to the hashes ranging from seven to fifteen yards down the field.
Garoppolo wants the safe throws over the middle when his receivers have separation from a defender. It is where he has his best accuracy with a clean pocket. If rushers began to collapse the interior pocket on him or an edge rusher flashes by to his side, he begins to rush throws and become a very inaccurate quarterback.
Garoppolo really doesn't like zone coverages in the part of the field between the numbers and the hash marks. It forces him to wait for another window to open. He gets impatient, will lock on to the route, start tapping his feet to keep rhythm and force the pass.
The Chiefs have a chance to rattle him with a good rush and zone coverage over the middle of the field. The linebackers just can't bite on the play-action passes to give him those windows to throw over top of them.
3. Widen the ends and run at them
The 49ers are a defense that can be run on. Their linebackers are built for zone coverage and pass rush is built for speed to get up field. The defense makes themselves very susceptible to runs off the edge, draws, trap plays and counters.
The Chiefs offensive line can allow the ends to get up field and widen them out on the runs between the tackles. On the toss plays they just need to put additional defenders on the edge and wall it off. The best way to slow down a speed rush like the 49ers is to run at them early and force them to hesitate with screen passes.
The 49ers secondary also struggles to tackle in space if the Chiefs can make it to the third level. Defensive end Nick Bosa will command the most attention and might need to be chipped and doubled at times to wear him down.
4. Take advantage of their aggressiveness with misdirection
The 49ers defense is fast but they are also overly aggressive with their scheme. They want to beat the offensive player to the corner on run and screen passes.
The problem is they routinely make themselves susceptible to backside screens, bootlegs and play-action passes that cause them to lose their spacing in zone coverage. The Chiefs are a team from both a play-calling and speed perspective that can make them pay dearly for this miscalculation.
5. Flood the zone coverage
The 49ers will likely mix in some man coverage and give some new looks to force Patrick Mahomes to hold onto the football, but the overall key to this game will be flooding their zone coverages with speed and well-timed routes. The Chiefs have used their trips formation and also brought the back out into the flats to stretch teams' zone coverages against them. They also did it to give Travis Kelce one-on-one opportunities where teams dedicated two defenders to him.
Kansas City will need to stretch the 49ers zone coverage to create a lot of spacing issues that allow for holes over the middle early for Mahomes to get the ball out quick until the offensive line gets into a rhythm against the 49ers pass rush. Then they can start to move the pocket and push for some of their longer developing routes. The 49ers will likely want to take away the Chiefs deep passes and keep everything in front of their last three defenders.
The mismatch in favor of the Chiefs is the 49ers lack of speed in the secondary. Kansas City can take advantage of that along with their poor tackling in the open field.
6. Don't let special teams keep you from the title
The 49ers don't have the best coverage units on kick or punt returns, so there will be opportunities to return it the distance. Unfortunately most teams were called for holding penalties or blocks in the back.
Opponents left a lot of points on the board with these blunders. Richie James is the 49ers kick and punt returner. Kansas City must respect his speed and be right in their lanes or he will be making a house call on them in this game.
Make no mistake the 49ers have difference makers on the both sides of the ball. San Francisco can do damage with George Kittle, Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders on offense outside of their run game. Defensively, Nick Bosa sets the tempo for their pass rush. If the Chiefs can attack these points above they will put themselves in good position to hoist the Lombardi trophy on Sunday night.