• The Chiefs need to put pressure on Brock Purdy: The 49ers signal-caller has earned a 90.9 passing grade from a clean pocket this season, tied for the sixth-best mark in the league. On pressured dropbacks, that grade falls to 56.9, which drops him to 12th.
• The 49ers need to step up against the screen game: The Kansas City Chiefs have run a league-high 132 screen passes this season. That high volume has led to the Chiefs leading the league in passing yards (713) and passing touchdowns (6) on screens.
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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes
With Super Bowl 58 just a day away, we’re going to look at one key to victory for both teams. While the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers are the cream of the crop in the NFL this season, they both have fatal flaws that can be exploited.
Kansas City Chiefs Key to Victory: Pass-Rush Makes Brock Purdy Uncomfortable
The 49ers are one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFL, as they boast a multitude of weapons on offense and a stifling defense. However, they have one flaw that could prove to be their undoing: Outside of Trent Williams, they have an offensive line that struggles in pass protection.
Excluding Williams, the highest pass-blocking grade on the 49ers’ starting offensive line belongs to Colton McKivitz at 57.3, who has allowed 55 pressures — including nine sacks — on 652 pass-blocking snaps. Also featured on this offensive line are Aaron Banks (53.9 pass-blocking grade), Jake Brendel (43.7), Spencer Burford (26.5) and Jon Feliciano (65.9), who will occasionally sub in at one of the guard spots.
Unfortunately for this 49ers unit, the Chiefs defensive coordinator is Steve Spagnuolo, who has a history of generating pressures in the Super Bowl — just ask Tom Brady and the 2007 New England Patriots.
Brady was constantly harassed by Spagnuolo’s pass rush in Super Bowl 42, which played a major role in the Giants’ upset win over the previously undefeated Patriots.
The Chiefs have done a fairly good job of generating pressure this season, with their 37.2% pressure rate good for 11th in the NFL. However, they have done an excellent job of turning those pressures into sacks, as their 8.0% sack rate leads the league ahead of Super Bowl 58.
Leading this pass rush is Chris Jones, who recorded 85 pressures and 15 sacks this year, culminating in a 90.0 pass-rush grade. Jones has recorded at least three pressures in every game this postseason, including a sack against the Dolphins in the wild-card round.
The Chiefs will be without Charles Omenihu, however. Omenihu suffered a torn ACL in the AFC championship game against the Ravens, though not before recording a strip-sack of Lamar Jackson that gave the Chiefs the ball with a short field early in the game. Omenihu had been having a solid season leading up to the injury, as he’d put up a 70.6 pass-rush grade to go along with 37 pressures and eight sacks.
As a result of Omenihu’s absence, a potential X-Factor for this Chiefs pass rush could be second-year man George Karlaftis, who has produced 14 sacks and 77 total pressures on the year.
Despite these impressive stats, Karlaftis boasts just a 64.7 pass-rush grade, as his 11.9% pass-rush win rate ranks 55th among 122 qualifying players at the position. Twenty-two of his 77 total pressures have been charted as either cleanup or pursuit pressures, with another 11 pressures being charted as unblocked, the sixth-most at his position.
If Karlaftis is going to have a major impact on this game, he’s going to have to do more than have a quarterback scramble into him.
Spagnuolo also likes to get creative with his pass rushes. A common way defensive playcallers like to manufacture pressure is with stunts (pass-rushers exchanging lanes), but the Chiefs ran stunts on just 15.6% of their pass rushes in 2023, by far the lowest rate in the league.
Instead, the Chiefs like to get their pressures by blitzing their corners, with 7.8% of the Chiefs’ pass rushes this season featuring a blitzing cornerback, by far the most in the league.
Leading this charge is cornerback Trent McDuffie, the Chiefs’ other first-round pick from the 2022 draft. McDuffie’s 90.8 pass-rush grade tied Seattle’s Devon Witherspoon for the best mark among corners, yet he produced seven more pressures. L’Jarius Sneed has also been a factor as a pass-rusher, as he has generated six pressures on just 18 pass-rush snaps.
The Chiefs’ pass rush will be crucial in stopping this vaunted 49ers offense, as giving Brock Purdy a clean pocket is a recipe for disaster.
The 49ers signal-caller has earned a 90.9 passing grade from a clean pocket this season, tied for the sixth-best mark in the league. On pressured dropbacks, that grade falls to 56.9, which drops him to 12th.
If the Chiefs hope to stifle this 49ers offense, making Purdy as uncomfortable as possible is going to be crucial.
San Francisco 49ers Key to Victory: Defending the Screen
A common stance among Brock Purdy’s detractors is that he gets by just by dumping off screens to very talented receiving options and letting them take care of business — but that’s only half-true.
The 49ers actually rank 18th in attempted screens this season, with 73. However, no team is better at running them, as they have generated a league-best 0.333 expected points added (EPA) per screen pass.
The team that actually relies on screens more than anybody? That would be the Kansas City Chiefs, who have run a league-high 132 screen passes this season. That high volume has led to the Chiefs leading the league in passing yards (713) and passing touchdowns (6) on screens.
Like the 49ers, the Chiefs have done a lot of damage in the screen game. The Chiefs rank sixth in EPA per play on screens (0.057) and are one of just nine teams to have generated a positive EPA on those plays. The team's 67.9 team receiving grade on screens trails only — you guessed it — the 49ers.
|Team receiving grade
Rookie sensation Rashee Rice has stood out in the screen game, as the second-round pick out of SMU has 27 catches on 28 screen targets for 187 yards, second to only Deebo Samuel at his position. Rice's 89.3 receiving grade on screens is the second-highest mark in the league entering Super Bowl weekend.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, they’ve been mediocre at defending the screen this season. Despite boasting a dominant defense in almost every facet, the 49ers rank just 21st in team defense grade at defending screens. Only the Bills and Rams fared worse among playoff teams.
This is largely due to their inability to tackle in open space. They lead the NFL with 28 missed tackles on screens, while their 22% missed tackle rate is the second-worst mark in the league.
If the 49ers hope to hoist their first Lombardi Trophy since the Steve Young-led 1994 squad, taking away the screen game and forcing Patrick Mahomes to target his wide receivers deep downfield could make all the difference.